Joanna Greaves discovers Factories, Friedhöfe and Films in Berlin’s ‘White Lake’ neighbourhood
The first time my partner and I visited the Weißer See, one drizzly February afternoon, it was a slightly forlorn experience. The trees that circle the lake were bare, and the terrace of the lake’s Cafe Milchhäuschen was deserted, its tables and chairs in winter storage. The only people around were joggers and dog walkers.
Since that first exploration to the lake and back though, Weißensee has become a favourite destination for our urban rambles, not least because of the many surprises it has up its sleeve. Established as the village of Wittense in the 13th Century, and greatly developed and expanded in the late 1800s, Weißensee has been at times attractive and well-heeled, at others a faded backwater; today it often has the feel of a separate town rather than a suburb of the Hauptstadt.
There are no hipster hangouts here, no paleo restaurants or third wave coffee shops. And whilst a kilometre or so away in Prenzlauer Berg, olive oil boutiques and artisanal pasta shops persuade locals to part with their cash, retail outlets in this part of the city are of a far more prosaic nature, with a notable few exceptions like the record shop on Gustav Adolf Strasse whose windows are full of Duran Duran and Depeche Mode albums, and the little shop in Langhansstrasse that sells only preserves.
Approaching from the gentrified streets of northern Prenzlauer Berg, the first point of interest is Caligariplatz, a miniscule square at the district’s south-westerly tip that’s sharpened to a point at the junction of Prenzlauer Promenade, Gustav Adolf Strasse and Heinersdorferstrasse.
It would be easy to pass the square by without a second glance, but an information panel here details the area’s erstwhile importance as the ‘Hollywood’ of Europe. In the early years of the Twentieth Century, the major German film studios were located in the neighbourhood, their most famous product being the silent horror classic Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. Screen legend Marlene Dietrich debuted here in the 1923 melodrama Tragödie der Liebe.
Sadly, almost nothing persists of this legacy nowadays aside from The Delphi on nearby Gustav-Adolf Strasse, whose blank, dilapidated facade reveals almost nothing of its days as a popular silent movie theatre, nor its atmospheric interior, which is opened to the public occasionally for special events while it awaits redevelopment funding. In fact, the only relic from that golden Weimar era is the Kino Toni up on Antonplatz, which still shows films today.
That said, there is still a cinema on Caligariplatz, in the shape of the looming, yellow-painted Brotfabrik (a former bread factory), which serves today as a local cultural centre. As well as screening films, mostly arthouse and alternative, it also puts on theatre productions, hosts regular exhibitions and has a pleasant little bar too.
A wander around the streets to the east of Caligariplatz – an area of car workshops, ‘Friedhöfe’ and former factories – yields more unexpected finds, such as the Kunsthalle on Hamburger Platz. Run by a prestigious art college, the Kunsthalle, which has the outward appearance of a community centre on a council estate, also hosts exhibitions and film screenings.
Across from the Kunsthalle is the large, leafy Georgen-Parochial-Friedhof III, where many former Weißensee worthies and victims of World War II have been laid to rest. Behind it are allotments and a community garden and, a little further along, on Gustav-Adolf Strasse, is a striking complex of five apartment houses grouped around sculpture-filled gardens.
The project of sculptor Sergej Dott, each brightly-coloured house is decorated according to a particular theme from fish and rabbits to birds and butterflies. East of the cemetery, on Pistoriusstrasse, are more sculptures – this time in the form of the nude statues belonging to the Shri Wadim Shakti Tempel, which also contains an art gallery.
Pistoriusstrasse is one of half a dozen streets that converge on Mirbachplatz, a small square, one side of which is taken up with the Cafe Neue Liebe Mirbach (formerly Café Mirbach). In summer the café’s terrace, which overlooks the Bethanienturm, the church tower on the square’s central island, is a hive of activity as locals gather for a beer, Kaffee und Kuchen or more substantial German fare.
The Bethanienturm, built at the turn of the 20th Century to accommodate the area’s growing population, suffered severe damage during World War II with only the handsome 65-meter tower (and original bells) escaping. The structure was sold to a Berlin architect in 2007 but it seems nothing has yet been decided about its future incarnation.
East of here lies the bustling Berliner Allee, the area’s main artery and the heart of the original village. At the junction with Liebermannstrasse, a modest plaque marks the location of the Filmstadt Weißensee, and around the corner is the pocket-sized Joe May Platz, named after the director and film pioneer whose studios once stood here.
Number 185 Berliner Allee is the lakeside house in which dramatist Bertolt Brecht and his wife Helene Weigel lived between 1949 and 1953. The house, like the row of abandoned shops alongside it, is rather run down; only the inscription ‘Brecht Haus Weissensee’ above the entrance gives any indication as to its illustrious one-time occupants.
Following the traffic-heavy road south, past Buschallee and its colourful Bruno Taut houses, comes one of district’s best-known sites, the Jüdischer Friedhof. The largest of its kind in Europe, it hosts some 115,000 graves over a 40-acre site, including those of painter Lesser Ury and murdered resistance fighter Herbert Baum.
Although the cemetery sustained some war damage, it was left largely untouched by the Nazis. Occasional services were carried out right up until 1944, and it remained in service for East Germany’s small community of Jews during the GDR years. Today, memorials commemorate victims of both World War I and the Holocaust.
Although nothing is produced in Weißensee any more, industrial architecture abounds. Brick-built, with soaring chimneys and sometimes tiled à la the Hackesche Höfe, many former factory complexes have been repurposed as residential premises while others stand empty, waiting perhaps for developers to give them a new lease of life.
Domestic architecture in this part of the city covers a diverse spectrum: a curious medley of factory conversions, DDR-era apartment blocks, Altbau tenements and individual villas, often all side-by-side. Rents are still slightly lower than in the ‘trendier’ neighbourhoods (with the exception of the quickly-gentrifying Komponistenviertel near the cemetery), but many buildings, both residential and commercial, whose ‘potential’ might be exploited elsewhere in the city remain derelict.
It’s not like Weißensee is a secret; it’s the eponymous location for a major German TV series for a start. Nor is it off the beaten track, sitting practically on top of Prenzlauer Berg and well served by a number of bus and tram routes. It is, however, rewarding territory for keen-eyed urban explorers with something of interest to be found in practically every street.
And if you visit in summer, you’ll find the banks of the Weißer See alive with families, stoners and elderly sun-worshippers alike enjoying the peaceful sparkle of the waters and the shade of the leafy chestnut trees; absorbing the scene from the sunny terrace of the Milchhäuschen, while sipping on a beer or coffee, is well worth the visit alone.