Imagining a new future for Berlin

The German capital has changed dramatically in the 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Julia Lipkins reports on a festival bringing together artists and urban planners this weekend hoping to share their visions for the city’s future.

Imagining a new future for Berlin
Photo: Julia Lipkins

Berlin has long an affordable cultural Petri dish, but encroaching gentrification and commercialization has rallied members of the city’s creative community for a three-day festival of art, performance and debate this weekend.

Save Berlin Fest 09 begins on Friday night in Wedding’s historic Stattbad – a 100-year-old bath house that served as a public swimming pool for decades before being turned into contemporary art space.

“Save Berlin is an ongoing project to save the soul of Berlin, the best of Berlin, which we feel is being lost slowly to commercialisation,” the event’s chief curator Dan Borden told The Local.

Click here for a photo gallery of Save Berlin Fest 09.

In contrast to the celebrations over the fall of Wall earlier this week, Borden wanted to create a forward-looking forum, one which would force Berlin’s creative communities to consider their role in the city’s future urban development.

“Many of the changes that people are rebelling against now, like O2 World (stadium) or the Alexa (shopping centre), these horrible things in the middle of the city, there were models, there were plans 10 years ago, these things are not new, but no one was paying attention until the things were half-built,” said Borden.

He teamed up with Nadja Vancauwenberghe, editor-in-chief of the English-language magazine Exberliner, to solicit the city residents for “alternative visions” of Berlin in the 21st century. They received a diverse array of submissions including a performance imagining cabaret in 2029, sexually-explicit paintings created by a former bio-chemist and a statue of Marlene Dietrich atop the city’s Teufelsberg summit made from World War II debris.

In addition to the art exhibition and performances, there will be a panel discussion on urban development policies in Berlin since 1989. Ares Kalandides, an expert on developing the creative industries, said Berlin still stands to gain economically by fostering the city’s cultural fecundity.

“Berlin’s opportunity is not so much in attracting businesses, but in enhancing the business that it already has,” said Kalandides. “Large corporations, if they move at all today, they do not move to Western Europe, they move to Eastern Europe or Asia. I think this is a very 1970s and 80s policy, trying to attract large investments.”

Borden hopes the festival will help to stave off the city’s impending “Disneyfication” and shake its creative community out of its seeming state of complacency.

“Berlin is a city, where every night thousands of great ideas are born and die in these cafes and bars,” he said, adding that the festival will seek to keep such ideas alive and propel them into the future.

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German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Walk around the German Alpine village of Oberammergau, and the chances are you'll run into Jesus or one of his 12 disciples.

German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Of the 5,500 people living there, 1,400 — aged from three months to 85 — are participating this year in the once-a-decade staging of an elaborate “Passion Play” depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Dating back to 1634, the tradition has persisted through four centuries of wars, religious turmoil and pandemics — including the most recent Covid-19 crisis which caused the show to be postponed by two years.

“I think we’re a bit stubborn,” says Frederic Mayet, 42, when asked how the village has managed to hold on to the tradition.

Mayet, who is playing Jesus for the second time this year, says the Passion Play has become a big part of the town’s identity.

Oberammergau Passion Plays

Posters for the 42nd Oberammergau Passion Play – which was originally scheduled to take place in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmth

The only prerequisite for taking part in the five-hour show, whether as an actor, chorister or backstage assistant, is that you were born in Oberammergau or have lived here for at least 20 years.

“I remember that we talked about it in kindergarten. I didn’t really know what it was about, but of course I wanted to take part,” says Cengiz Gorur, 22, who is playing Judas.

READ ALSO: REVEALED: The best events and festivals in Germany this July

‘Hidden talent’ 

The tradition, which dates back to the Thirty Years’ War, was born from a belief that staging the play would help keep the town safe from disease.

Legend has it that, after the first performance, the plague disappeared from the town.

In the picturesque Alpine village, Jesus and his disciples are everywhere — from paintings on the the facades of old houses to carved wooden figures in shop windows.

You also can’t help feeling that there is a higher-than-average quota of men with long hair and beards wandering the streets.

Religious figurines Oberammergau

Religious figurines adorn a shop window in Oberammergau. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

An intricate image of Jesus graces the stage of the open-air Passion Play theatre, where the latest edition of the show is being held from mid-May to October 2nd.

“What has always fascinated me is the quality of the relationship between all the participants, young and old. It’s a beautiful community, a sort of ‘Passion’ family,” says Walter Lang, 83.

He’s just sad that his wife, who died in February, will not be among the participants this year.

“My parents met at a Passion Play, and I also met my future wife at one,” says Andreas Rödl, village mayor and choir member.

Gorur, who has Turkish roots, was spotted in 2016 by Christian Stückl, the head of the Munich People’s Theatre who will direct the play for the fourth time this year.

“I didn’t really know what to do with my life. I probably would have ended up selling cars, the typical story,” he laughs.

Now, he’s due to start studying drama in Munich this autumn.

“I’ve discovered my hidden talent,” he says.

READ ALSO: Nine of the best day trips from Munich with the €9 ticket

Violence, poverty and sickness

Stückl “has done a lot for the reputation of the show, which he has revolutionised” over the past 40 years, according to Barbara Schuster, 35, a human resources manager who is playing Mary Magdalene.

“Going to the Passion Play used to be like going to mass. Now it’s a real theatrical show,” she says.

In the 1980s, Stückl cut all the parts of the text that accused the Jews of being responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, freeing the play from anti-Semitic connotations.

“Hitler had used the Passion Play for his propaganda,” Schuster points out.


Christian Stückl, the director of the Oberammergau Passion Play, holds a press conference announcing the cancellation of the play in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

The play’s themes of violence, poverty and sickness are reflected in today’s world through the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, say Mayet, the actor playing Jesus.

“Apparently we have the same problems as 2,000 years ago,” he says.

For 83-year-old Lang, who is playing a peasant this year, the “Hallelujah” after Christ has risen for the final time in October will be a particularly moving moment.

“Because we don’t know if we’ll be there again next time,” he says, his eyes filling with tears.

By Isabelle Le Page