Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
“Small marble tables of the cafes in Friedrichstraße are in bloom with very red lips of girls who search for a partner in the way they can,” wrote Curt Moreck in his long-forgotten 1931 book Ein Führer durch Das Lasterhafte Berlin (A Guide through Depraved Berlin). By the 1920s Berlin’s main central north-south avenue, always associated with some degree of illicit carnal pleasures, with a bit of casual lewdness and with short-lived escape from tight social norms, became a hub of “ribaldry and deprivation”. The post-WWI collapse of German economy combined with an equally disastrous post-war social meltdown pushed Berlin even further into the realm of a Darwinian jungle: by the early 1920s, even more than ever, only the fittest could be sure to survive.
While most Berliners were focused on plain staying alive as well as keeping the heads of their children and relatives above the surface, others, less troubled with the daily combat for sheer survival, searched (and sometimes found) an opportunity to improve their status. Still another group, with all comforts and no cares in the world, spent their time as they always had: entertaining and being entertained.
However, all these people had one thing in common: for their own different reasons, they needed what Germans refer to as Ablenkung – distraction. Cafés and restaurants along Friedrichstraße as well as cheap basement bars in its side-streets suddenly became more than just places to have your coffee & cake or to down your Schnaps. They offered escape, wicked sanctuary from the equally wicked day. And “Moka Efti” – resurrected (in name if not in body) in the new TV series Berlin Babylon already presented in the UK – was the most popular among them.
Opened in 1929 on the corner of Friedrichstraße 59-60 and Leipziger Straße 102 it was named after a coffee brand sold in Berlin since 1926 by the company’s owner, Mr Giovanni Eftimiades. A mild-mannered Greek businessman with an Italian passport who arrived in Berlin via Constantinople and who quickly decided to shorten his surname to a more pithy and less linguistically challenging “Efti”, he spent his first three years selling coffee in a shop located right opposite his future “palace” – the 1889 Equitable Building built for the New York Life Insurance Company “Equitable” and later dubbed by Berliners “Equitable-Palast” (which explains why many sources stubbornly but not exactly correctly refer to the building as an “old palace”).
Herr Efti must have had his eye on the location on the other side of the street more or less from the start. Until the end of 1925 it was occupied by “Café Zielka”, which replaced the legendary “Café Kerkau” whose owner, Hugo Kerkau, was billiard World Champion. The latter fact explains why his café was equipped with an excellent billiard room and numerous billiard tables – inherited first by Herr Zielka and then by the “Moka Efti”. With the help of his English investors in April 1929 Giovanni Efti was finally able to buy the two-storey café: with 3,000 seats on nearly 3,000m² of space, an excellent orchestra, a small dance floor and a cup of coffee going at 25 Pfennig, it quickly began to attract bigger and bigger crowds. So big in fact, that on some days no fewer than 25,000 cups of steaming black mocca were rushed around on trays by graceful waiters and sipped at small marble tables in one of the several café rooms.
And when in 1930 “Moka Efti”’s ground and first floor were connected with an escalator, the visiting crowds got even larger: during the day many Berliners and tourists dropped by casually to see and try out the novelty, even if it meant disturbing the “sanctuary” of the paying guests.
In the evenings, like the rest of the city and certainly like the rest of Friedrichstraße, “Moka Efti” filled with an altogether different crowd, one whose dark eyelids were drooping under the weight of heavy mascara and their owner’s wish to appear mysterious and fatal. Whose dark lips cut through their faces like wounds and rarely opened in a smile other than to attract a potential customer. Although unlike in Tom Tykwer’s Babylon Berlin “Moka Efti” did not offer its guests a basement brothel with SM service, it is true that it was, indeed, a perfect “stock exchange” for Berlin prostitutes and their clients.
Both the former and the latter continued doing their business there even after Giovanni Efti had been forced to sell the place to Reform Kaffehaus Gesellschaft: the world economic crisis unleashed in the USA pushed German and Berlin economy into a new downward spin and money became too scarce not to treat it with outmost care. Also, his English investors decided to jump the ship. Things could not have been entirely hopeless for Herr Efti, though, as in the same year he moved his Etablissement to another address: Bellevuestraße 11 corner Viktoriastraße in the elegant central Berlin district of Tiergarten.
Since the new owners of his old location chose to keep the name “Moka Efti” in Friedrichstraße (the name was a guarantee of permanence of service and attracted both old and new customers), the new café – opened in the rooms of another famous old Berlin coffee bar and restaurant which did not survive the post-1929 tremors, “Café Schottenhaml” on Kemperplatz – became “Moka Efti am Tiergarten”. Placed at the back of Potsdamer Platz, one of the busiest plazas in Europe, and on the edge of the Tiergarten Park, it fared well in spite of the swing-music and swing-dancing ban introduced in Germany by the Nazis – a ban often ignored, just like the one on public presentation of “Jewish music” (even Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s work was affected).
In February 1934 “Moka Efti am Tiergarten” hosted the NSDAP’s big “birthday party”: the first anniversary of the Nazis’ coming into power (the menu included celeriac soup, roast pork and pear compote as a dessert). During the Second World War it kept serving coffee and cake as before and the dancing evenings, with some of the best dance orchestras of the time, were just as popular as ever. Until 1943 when the area around the Tiergarten was levelled during a series of heavy air-raids – a job finished by the Allies in April 1945. By the end of the war the memory of “Moka Efti am Tiergarten” slowly sunk into oblivion like a distant sound of an old gramophone. Today its site is nothing but an over-designed lawn within the bleak landscape of the new Postdamer Platz.
The Equitable Building is gone, too – its ruins must have been removed some time after the war even though a recently discovered photos shows that the main structure was more or less intact and the building itself far from a hopeless case.
As for Herr Giovanni Eftimiades who gave Berlin its legendary cafes and provided the writer Volker Kutscher with another wonderful 1920s/1930s Berlin detail to weave into the fabric of his excellent Berlin crime books featuring Kommissar Gereon Rath, he changed his first name to Jean and began to use his longer surname again before he published his first book Les Fleurs du Bagne (Prison Flowers). Jean Eftimiades left Berlin for Düsseldorf and Cologne where he ran a small publishing label.
Today the only still existing “Moka Efti” is the one erected in the Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam. The film is part of what is known as Neue Berliner Straße – a Berlin street replica created by the studios to film Volker Kutcher’s books.