Gustav Wunderwald, 1927, U-Bhf “Schönhauser Tor”

It is never easy to find your way within a vanished city. But then again, it is never boring to try to do so. Especially when such quest involves deciphering a beautiful painting. Like this 1927 work by a gifted artist, Gustav Wunderwald.

“Film-Palast Schönhauser Tor” was a popular cinema built in Hankestraße 1 in Berlin-Mitte. But the address most likely won’t help you find its former site – it vanished from the maps of the city just as the cinema disappeared from Berlin’s cityscape. In 1969 Hankestraße became the northern section of today’s Rosa-Luxemburg-Straße, which means that Gustav Wunderwald’s painting shows the place shortly before the street crosses with today’s Torstraße.

The location of the cinema on a 1928 aerial photo of Bülowplatz (now Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz).

The U-Bahn station in front of the cinema, opened in 1913, was the picture show’s namesake: after several re-naming campaigns (including “Bülowplatz”, the Third-Reich inspired “Horst-Wessel-Platz” and post-war “Liebknechtplatz” followed by “Luxemburgplatz”), station “Schönhauser Tor” on today’s Line U2 was eventually called “Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz”.

The cinema itself was known under several different names, too. When it opened in 1926 it commemorated the old, eighteenth-century city gate but by 1934 it had already been known as the “Hanke-Lichtspiele”, the “Gloria-Palast” and in the end as “Ton-Eck” (Sound-Corner). With seats for 600 and later around 500 guests, it offered pleasant and intime atmosphere while remaining modern and situated in a perfect mid-city location. Sadly, the latter became its downfall – the cinema did not survive the Second World War.

But what remains is this fine image of it, a sunny ghost captured by the painter who found joy in exploring the metropolis, providing us with pictures of it we would otherwise never get to know.

Bülowplatz (now Rosa-Luxemburg.Platz) with Oskar Kaufmann’s Volksbühne Theatre. The “Schönhauser Tor” cinema as well as the two buildings behind it visible in the top-right corner. (Image: AKG-Images, author NN, 1928).

The Lichtburg Cinema in Berlin-Gesundbrunnen in 1930 (image PD)

What looks like a symbol of cinematic call to arms was one of the nearly 400 Berlin cinemas on the city’s 1929 map. What made this one quite exceptional was the opulence and at the same time the austerity of its design.

The opulence of illumination was quite typical of that time and not only in Germany’s capital but Berlin clearly excelled: Europe-correspondent for the “New York Times”, Mildred Adams, described Berlin as “the best lighted city on Earth”. Fifteen vertical opal glass windows were screens for altogether 1,000 light bulbs which turned the cylindrical section of the building into a bright, almost floating structure. The ship searchlights on its top, where the glass roof terrace offered a wonderful view of the city, both during the day and at night, created a lighthouse effect that made the place stand out on yet another level.

The Lichtburg and the entrance to the U-Bahn station Gesundbrunnen (right) in 1935. Image via Heimatsmuseum Wedding.

Here in Gesundbrunnen – a very much working-class district – the “Lichtburg’s” architect, Rudolf Fränkel, created one of Berlin’s new Kinopaläste (literally “Cinema Palaces”), buildings which next to the screening rooms also housed restaurants, cafes, dance rooms and bowling alleys. They were real entertainment hubs, offering what we could call “a full experience” or “all-inclusive offer”: a film screening followed (or preceded) by a nice meal and/or a drink and a dance to round the evening off.

Fränkel’s design for both the cinema and the residential estate it complemented, Gartenstadt Atlantic (a fantastic instance of Berlin’s social housing projects of the 1920s, built between Behmstraße and Bellermannstraße), counts as one of the best examples of a movement in German architecture known as Neues Bauen (New Objectivity). Or rather would count, if the “Lichtburg” had not been demolished in 1970.

The Lichtburg as the Corso Cinema in the 1948 (photo by Abraham Pisarek via Deutsche Fotothek)

This listed-heritage building, which partly survived the Second World War and continued to serve as a cinema (the name was changed to the “Corso”), was only partly a victim of the Berlin Wall. Having lost most of its audience who crossed over for screenings from the neighbouring East Berlin, it closed down in 1962 and was later converted into West Berlin’s Senate Reserve site (until 1990 food and other other necessities, like toilet paper, were duly stored in West Berlin in case of another Berlin Blockade from the East). The old “Lichtburg” became home to tonnes of grains and thousands of tins.

Unfortunately, by 1970 its second Nemesis arrived – something that came to be known as Bauwirtschaftsfunktionalismus. Crudely speaking, it stands for the typical – not only in Germany – 1960s drive to demolish the old and replace it with the new because it is easier and cheaper and perhaps even more fun to build from the scratch (not to mention the construction boom and some seriously sunny days not only for the construction industry that followed). It is still quite incomprehensible why and how a listed-heritage building of this value could be torn down like this (one of many in both East and West Berlin) – a loss particularly painful today, when the city is trying to re-direct the (hopefully soon returning) crowds of tourists away from its centre.

The demolition of the “Lichtburg” in 1970. (Image via an excellent Berlin heritage maintenance organisation and tour service Berliner Unterwelten – who, by the way, have been badly hit by the consequences of the pandemic and rely on donations to survive the lockdown – details on their page).

For there is no way that anyone visiting Berlin would have missed the guiding lights this magnificent old building would have sent from afar. As it is, what remains are a sculpture commemorating the cinema (in Behmstraße 9), a plaque honouring both the architect, Rudolf Fränkel, and the cinema’s owner, publisher Karl Wolffsohn, and a shadow of the temple of light.

foto uit Spaarnestadarchief, tijdschrift Het leven kleiner
Image from a Dutch magazine “Het Leven” (via Spaarnestadt Archive).

Here is a typical Berlin Balkonia, little man’s and woman’s green paradise, in its rooftop edition: as a small garden and a chicken-pen.
This model example of self-sufficiency was necessary to survive dire food-shortages of the First World War – shortages which were particularly acute in the capital and led to long periods of starvation not only among the poorest. Many Berlin children did not survive those and if they did, they often suffered their consequences – mentally and health-wise – for the rest of their lives.
This idyllic image is a witness to a very bitter truth: that unless you were able to provide your own food yourself, your family was in danger. And that in 99% of the cases this responsibility had to be shouldered by women – whose children were at great risk.

Before the take-off: Berlin-Alexanderplatz, Line 5 (Direction: Hönow).

Alexanderplatz, a monumental plaza in Berlin-Mitte, is the second most popular spot in the city after Kudamm. Well over 350,000 people visit it every day: it is by all means one of the busiest public spaces in Berlin. What began in the 13th century as a hospital site outside a city gate (Oderberger Tor, later known as Königstor), gained weight when re-purposed as a city market: at first, used mainly for trading cattle, it had a regular wool market added to it in the second half of the 18th century.
What Berliners called Ochsenmarkt or Ochsenplatz (Oxen Market or Plaza), was also used by the military: like most other Berlin markets it doubled as an exercise site for the numerous local troops. That explains the site’s other name used at the time: Paradeplatz.

Future Alexanderplatz in 1804, one year before it was given its current name. The shape it had back then remained more or less unchanged for centuries.

In 1805 to honour Prussia’s big ally in the war against Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I, the plaza was christened “Alexanderplatz”. The Russian Tsar had just visited Berlin and King Friedrich Wilhelm III, Alexander’s lifelong friend, welcomed him with a lavish military parade organised just there. A couple of days after the event the plaza changed its name.
As for the street named after the same Russian ruler, Alexanderstraße, it retained its original, baroque-sounding monicker – An der Contrescarpe am Stelzenkrug (Contrescarpe was the outer edge of the moat surrounding Berlin/Cöln fortifications) – until 1819.
The 19th century was the golden era of Alexanderplatz: the Stadtbahnof Alexanderplatz, a large city- and long-haul-train railway station which opened in 1882, allowed more and more people to contribute to the quick development of the neighbourhood. Guests arriving from outside the city were thrilled to stay at one of the 185 rooms inside the “Grand Hotel Alexanderplatz” which welcomed its first guests less than a year later.
After the Zentralmarkthalle, a new Central Market Hall, designed by the ingenious Hermann Blankenstein, replaced the need for the weekly market am Alex, the plaza was redesigned and received a new, far more elegant visage. Hermann Mächtig, the City Garden Director who had just turned a sandy hill in Tempelhofer Vorstadt into a stunning city park – Viktoriapark in today’s Berlin-Kreuzberg – modernised Alexanderplatz and helped it gain world fame.
Soon afterwards it was discovered by great Berlin department stores: Tietz, Wertheim and Hahn all wanted to partake of its prominence and unbelievably lucrative central location. Tietz, who was the first to erect his store there, needed seven years to complete his Alexanderplatz empire. But when the first section of the Warenhaus Tietz opened in 1905 (the last one was inaugurated in 1911), its 250-metre long façade was the longest department store front in the world. And it provided attractive background for the real Queen of the Plaza: Berolina. Emil Hunderieser’s giant bronze beauty surveyed over Alexanderplatz from 1890 until 1942 – with several years of a year when the U-Bahn station under the plaza was being refurbished.

Alexanderplatz captured by Max Missmann in 1925.

The break Berolina had to take take from guarding her post lasted several years: Berolina was removed from her original spot in 1927 to carry out construction works for the extended U-Bahn station “Alexanderplatz” as well as the erection of Peter Behrens’s Alexanderhaus and Berolinahaus (both survived the war and are wonderful examples of modern pre-WWII Berlin architecture). In 1933 she returned to Alex, after the District Council of Treptow where she had been stored in the meantime refused to keep her at a storage near the S-Bahnhof “Treptower Park”. Placed in front of Behrens’ buildings she looked slightly overwhelmed and never recovered to her old glory.
In August 1942 she was removed from her plinth – which, too, had to move from in front of the Tietz Department Store to before the new Alexanderhaus), transported to Neukölln and quite certainly melted.

Alexanderplatz in 1934: Alexanderhaus to the left, Berolinahaus and Warenhaus Tietz (centre and right) and Berolina installed in front of the Alexanderhaus (image via Bundesarchiv).

After WWII, as an important part of East Berlin, Alexanderplatz underwent another significant metamorphosis: it was given a completely new face again. But that story is featured in the next post from the treasure trove of Berlin Companion.