BERLIN — You come to this city with indelible images in mind:
Bertolt Brecht, in a smoky cafe, brooding about one of his early plays.
Lotte Lenya's haunting voice singing "Surabaya Johnny."
Film director Fritz Lang's creation of the stylized Art Deco "Metropolis."
Greta Garbo sweeping in an out of "Grand Hotel"--where she pleaded that timeless line, "I vant to be let alone."
Newsreels of Nazis . . . Hitler's Reichstag . . . troops marching through the Brandenburg Gate . . . concentration camps.
"The Berlin Stories" of Christopher Isherwood and his friends . . . Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey. The Kit Kat Klub!
Other images come flooding: John Kennedy declaring, "Ich bin ein Berliner." Fassbinder's "Berlin Alexanderplatz." Bauhaus design.
Checkpoint Charlie. The Wall--that absolute line where East slams into West.
I found myself in Berlin again, a couple of weeks ago. Just as years before, all the images came rushing back with a chill. They are intense enough just to ponder as your flight crosses East Germany toward Tegel Airport. But experiencing the city is even more awakening.
What I had forgotten over the years was the fervor of this 24-hour city and its residents. These people talk about theater and film with all the passion of a hot affair. You pay about $30 for a good theater ticket and $6 for a movie--at which you get to sit through something like 10 or 12 commercials before the movie begins. One audience I sat with got a big laugh after the final commercial--for Marlboros--was followed by the theater's standard plea: No smoking in the auditorium.
There were long lines to see Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor," Wim Wenders' "Das Himmel uber Berlin," ("The Sky Over Berlin"--a 1987 Cannes prize winner) and Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket," among others, playing the first-run movie palaces that line the Kurfurstendamm. Some of the cinemas even have shows that run until 4 a.m.
And then? What else? You find a place for dinner.
You can get caught up in this mind trip. You can lose yourself in a dream-like state, especially when one of your indelible images collides with reality.
It happened when I saw that a major production of the musical "Cabaret"--with all its wicked fun at the Kit Kat Klub and serious Nazi undertones--was playing . . . in Berlin. Would this be too much? Too close to home? A cliche? Would they soften the Nazi scenes? I had to see this show.
I sat there astonished by the directness of the staging, its sexuality, its blatant Nazi references. No innuendoes here. This was something for adults, much more so than the tame revival currently on Broadway (which Los Angeles saw last summer).
That it was all taking place in German, in the city where the story is set, intensified it all the more. Key roles were played by persons who could actually be real-life substitutes: Fraulein Schneider was played by veteran movie and stage actress (and German) Hildegarde Knef, probably the most authentic successor to Lenya; cabaret singer Sally Bowles was played by pop chanteuse Helen Schneider and the lascivious master of ceremonies was the most decadent I've seen--depicted by popular German stage star, Wolfgang Reichmann.
I got "chills" when the Nazi street toughs in the show started throwing rocks at the fruit market owned by a Jew. Then, in the Act I finale--staged with more force than any production I'd seen before--the cast let loose to sing the anthem, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me." It had the power of the enormous Act I finale to "Evita," complete with banners and fists. "Tomorrow belongs to me! Tomorrow belongs to me!"
At intermission I asked the English-speaking couple next to me what they as young Germans thought of seeing swastikas and show tunes combined. Were they as shaken as I had been? Yes, but not as much as I, they said. The show has been done before. To them, it was another entertainment, only partly a political statement.
To me, this "Cabaret" was fueled by the effect that Berlin can have on a visitor. Seeing my images come alive, it was as if I was dreaming. And for a while, I think I liked it. As the character Cliff in "Cabaret" sings: "Why should I wake up?"
Because everywhere there are new images of Berlin:
I realized most of the audience was born after the defeat of the Nazis. Many West Germans are not as tied to political ideologies as Americans. They are caught in the middle of the superpower struggle, and, perhaps, they are more open-minded--or skeptical--as a result. The West German culture and economy is thriving. BMWs and Mercedes are popular in the States. The dollar keeps falling and the mark keeps rising.
Who knows, tomorrow could belong to them.