Wherever he went during his 1937 trip through Germany – and Berlin in particular- the Norwegian engineer Thomas Neumann always kept his Leica camera ready. He knew the city quite well: he lived and worked here from 1928 until 1933. Now, happy to be back, he sauntered through central Berlin, taking photos of the swastika-filled cityscape.
Only few of his photographs are free from visible Nazi symbols – which in itself reflects the atmosphere in the city pretty accurately. This is one of them. The scene captured by Neumann at the Zeughaus (today the seat of the German Historic Museum) on the corner of Unter den Linden and the street Hinter dem Gießhaus, is stunningly peaceful and dynamic at the same time. The colours are beautifully understated but clear. And the fruit vendor’s cart loaded with bananas and oranges invites the passers-by to “Eat more fruit” to “stay healthy”. Ironically Germany had already entered the most unhealthy period in its own and the world’s history, but the people in this picture as well as nearly everyone around them were still happily unaware of the approaching end of their world.
For his Leica Thomas Neumann chose a fairly new product offered by a German manufacturer, the Agfacolor Neu film first released one the market a year before. Until 1932 Agfacolor products were sold under the name Agfa, a company established – you guessed it – in Berlin. But that is not the only “small revelation” concerning Agfa (between 1873 and 1897 it was still known under its original name, Aktien-Gesellschaft für Anilin-Fabrikation – later replaced by its acronym). Established by two entrepreneurs whose paths crossed in the Berlin university chemistry lab, Carl Martius and Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. From the Mendelssohn-Bartholdys – the descendants of the philosopher and great promotor of the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment), Moses Mendelssohn, who arrived in Berlin as an impoverished teenager on foot and was refused entry at the southernmost city gate known as Hallesches Tor (at the time Jews were banned from using any other city gates but the northern Rosenthaler Tor).
Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was not only Moses’ great-grandson. His father was none other than Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, musician and composer enjoying world fame and undying devotion of many fans until this day. After Felix’s early death at 38, followed by that of his beloved wife, Cécile Sophie Jeanrenaud (she sadly died of tuberculosis at 35), Paul – born and bred Leipziger – lived in Berlin at his uncle’s house in Französische Straße. His passion for chemistry was at the root of the future world-famous brand.
That passion also helped Thomas Neumann capture this incredible, cinematic moment in Berlin’s life in the spring of 1937. Without Agfacolor neu film (soon to become the favourite for big Hollywood productions such as Gone With The Wind – many of you might have noticed the resemblance already), the photos made by the Norwegian engineer might have lacked that gentle breath of life.
You can learn more about the history of Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, of Agfa and their breakthrough products (one of which is the longest used photography material in history) reading my Tagesspiegel column “Aus der Zeit” – as always, about everything you never even knew you wanted to know about Berlin. The text about Agfa (in German) is available here: Farbfilm ab 1893: Mit der Berliner Agfa zum scharfen Bild (tagesspiegel.de)