Dunja Medakovic channels Sven Regner’s famous novel to explore her East Kreuzberg neighbourhood…
It’s been twenty years since Sven Regener published his debut novel Herr Lehmann (Berlin Blues in the English translation), about a barman facing his 30th birthday and growing pressure to do something “more” with his life in Berlin at the tail end of the eighties. The laugh-out-loud book, a phenomenon so rare in the German literary landscape, was an instant success. It sold a million and a half copies, was followed by a film version and two prequel novels, and remains a staple of the Berlin oeuvre.
Reading Herr Lehmann a decade ago as a fresh-faced resident of Kreuzberg, the neighbourhood where the majority of the novel takes place, I was struck by how much the book didn’t want me to like it. Like Kreuzberg itself, Herr Lehmann, armed with bundles of sarcasm and oozing resignation, hates on newcomers, the police, bar owners, parents calling at 10am, people having breakfast, swimming pool goers, Star Wars, anything popular, anyone sensible, sober or reliable, anywhere other than Kreuzberg and additionally whatever’s on the agenda in that particular moment.
But no matter how much it mistreats them, a certain kind of person, maybe a person very much like Herr Lehmann himself, has always felt Kreuzberg’s incredible pull, ultimately personifying the mantra Kreuzberg bleibt unhöflich (“Kreuzberg stays rude”) and prescribing to its arm aber sexy (“poor but sexy”) kind of magic.
And in Herr Lehmann’s time the neighbourhood surely was “arm”. After the Second World War, Kreuzberg was one of the city’s poorest areas, due to regulated and cheap housing that made it attractive to immigrants, students and artists. In 1961, the Wall sprung up on three sides around Kreuzberg’s area SO36, which over time became known for riots and squats and as the centre of the German counterculture. Many of the young residents of Kreuzberg were also evading the West German national conscription, which in West Berlin was possible to do with impunity. Herr Lehmann too faces accusations of this kind:
“”I’ve lived here since 1980,”‘ she mimicked. ‘Do you get a medal for it, or something? Types like you only come here to get out of doing their national service.’
‘I didn’t come here to get out of the national service.’
‘I see. Great.’
‘I wasn’t that smart.’
He might have had his time in the army, but that didn’t teach Herr Lehmann any discipline. We meet our “not so smart” protagonist very late one night in Lausitzer Platz, a little square across from the Görlitzer UBahn station, where he ends up having a couple of rounds of whiskey with a dog. The quaint square enveloping a church hasn’t changed much since 1989, but a hundred years before it had accompanied the vast Görlitzer train station. It is difficult to imagine the station in today’s Görlitzer park, known for the Mayday riots and weed deals, although some traces of its tracks still remain.
North of Görlitzer park and Lausitzer Platz lies another iconic part of the SO36, the Markthalle 9. It is one of the few market halls that survived from the 19th century: here vendors sell fresh and organic products to happy Kreuzbergers—at least the ones that can afford to buy them. In fact, for years the residents of the neighbourhood have feuded with the market hall owners about that old enemy, die Gentrifizierung, that the Markthalle came to represent. Of course, Herr Lehmann also sees something that threatens to ruin the Markthalle, a type that many will recognize today:
“It ought to be the duty and moral obligation of all restaurant owners or managers (…) to keep their establishments free from breakfasters, because breakfasters are the most intolerable people on earth, Herr Lehmann thought as he continued to stand near the entrance like a spare prick at a wedding, refusing to budge an inch because he didn’t want give the breakfasters, who occupied the whole place, the satisfaction of driving him, of all people, out of the Markthalle.”
Here Lehmann is silently raging at the hipsters in his boss’s restaurant at the Markthalle, but it was actually Herr Lehmann that gave the Weltrestaurant that had later opened there its 15 minutes of fame – the film version of the novel was shot there in 2002. Or rather, in another extension of the Herr Lehmann lore, it was recreated and shot in a film studio in Brandenburg. Despite the fame, Weltrestaurant has since closed, and the one in its place today no longer serves the famous roast pork, a staple of the German lunch, or breakfast, if you’re brave.
“If it’s okay for these imbeciles to breakfast till five in the afternoon, it must also be okay to order roast pork at eleven in the morning.”
The beautiful girl was unimpressed. “I’d prefer to put it the other way round,” she said. (…)
“If the world is teeming with assholes who breakfast till five in the afternoon,” she said, “why should we need any desperate characters who order roast pork at eleven in the morning?”
It is because of that beautiful girl that Herr Lehmann ends up in the legendary Prinzenbad, despite his aversion to the gaiety of an outdoor swimming pool. The lido was built in 1951 in Prinzenstrasse, and remains one of the most beloved local summer hang-outs: for five euros anyone can buy the right to fight for space here with a carton of fries in one hand and an ice cream in another. Or a couple of beers in both. No need to worry, Kreuzberg will judge you regardless.
“And by ‘everyone’ Herr Lehmann meant everyone. People were running on all sides, half-naked people of all ages and either sex stomped through the footbath or stood in it, puffing and blowing under a cold shower. Pensioners shuffled past, Turkish youths yelled and guffawed as they belted each other with wet towels, little children hugged empty plastic bottles and stumbled along unwrapping ices on sticks, and the changing areas left and right of Herr Lehmann disgorged or swallowed up interminable streams of jostling figures…”
Herr Lehmann is most notably a love letter to Berlin’s Kneipe culture, a tradition of slowly languishing at a bar that offers cheap beer, smoky darkness and a promise it won’t close its doors on you, no matter how late. The bar where Herr Lehmann works, the Einfall, modelled after the bar Madonna on Wienerstrasse, only closes when the bar next door, the Abfall, takes over.
One other briefly mentioned bar is Slawinchen on Schönleinstrasse.
“All he saw, once his eyes became accustomed to the prevailing gloom, were a few forlorn figures, old age pensioners and other idlers, who sat scattered around the big room staring into bottles of Schultheiss beer, which the Goldener Anker sold for only two marks, a form of dumping rendered acceptable, in Herr Lehmann’s opinion, by its infinitely dreary atmosphere.”
Slawinchen’s doors could only be closed by a global pandemic: until 2020, it had been open non-stop for more than thirty years. Even before the virus started closing the city, local bars were struggling in Germany—the prices were slowly rising, smoking was banned, and one could no longer waste away the whole day on unemployment benefits alone—Kreuzberg, however, seemed to be their last bastion. Today, however, there’s new hope on the horizon, and the smell of cheap beer and tobacco is spilling out into the streets again.
Although by the late eighties Kreuzbergers might have gotten used to the Wall snaking around the neighbourhood (Herr Lehmann and his friends certainly have), the reality hit when they needed to cross it. Ambushed by his parents, Herr Lehmann finds himself tasked with exactly that, and more—he has to cross while carrying (read: smuggling) 500 marks to an aunt he’s never heard of.
Despite the popularity of Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing for military personnel and tourists travelling on foot, Herr Lehmann chooses to cross at the lesser known checkpoint at the Friedrichstrasse S-Bahn station. A crossing for visitors travelling by train, it was located deeper in East Berlin and its pavilion today houses a memorial site known as The Palace of Tears, a reference to all the tearful farewells that occurred there between families, friends and loved ones separated by the iniquitous east-west barrier.
“He walked on. The official stayed where he was and said nothing. When Herr Lehmann looked back he was still standing thre, staring after him. He waved, but the man didn’t respond. He simply stood there, watching him go. Poor devil, Herr Lehmann thought as he descended the stairs to the subway.”
Herr Lehmann might have botched the whole smuggling operation, with hilarious results, but he got off easy. He was, after all, a West Berliner. And no matter how run down, cynical, rude or outright hostile Kreuzberg can get, Herr Lehmann and I are lucky to live here, free to rage and bark in the safety of our own arbitrary border. But don’t be afraid though…come a little closer…we won’t actually bite…