Misdirected in ‘Berlin’: A Bar Interlude in Melbourne
August 17, 2011
The website of the Melbourne bar ‘Berlin’ is swish in the way a website is after a good bit of cyber jigging. A tinker
here and there, and one gets the glossy sense that we might be seeing ‘quality’. It features the coat of arms of the
German capital, a bear on his legs, paws outstretched, tongue poking out. Click the image, and one is transported into
the swish and the fabulous, the historical and the delectable. The language is a play on the Cold War city – a city that
featured a lethal and vicious barrier that ran like a blood stain through it for decades.
From its creation in August 1961, courtesy of the First Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party, Walter Ulbricht, the
Berlin Wall took the lives of 136 people, stimulated some of the world’s finest wall art, and inspired a generation of
Cold War novelists. Twice, American presidents appeared at the front of the Brandenburg Gate on the Western side to
demand its extinction from the face of politics. At several stages of the Cold War, Berlin became the central point of
dispute between the Soviet Union and the United States that might have precipitated a nuclear conflict.
With such heavy historical weight, the journey is already laden with interest. First, in typical Melbourne fashion, one
has to find the side lane as if looking for a seedy, low market brothel. One then has to be ‘buzzed’ into the Western
part of the bar (‘West Berlin’). Instructions are given at the door: Have your papers ready. Then, the bar tender
directs you to small tables Snow White’s seven dwarves would have adored. Unfortunately, not quite being in that minute
category, my colleague and myself are left squatting as if in need of a good bowel exercise.
The décor, at first glance, is hardly West Berlin. In truth, it would have been East Berlin, Stasi and Communist Party
style. The false chandeliers look rather becoming, and the only thing missing here is Berliner Cola, a drink that was a
fabulous substitute for the all conquering American juggernaut. The music is viciously loud and a conversation killer,
the audience dull and unresponsive to the environment.
The beer list, displayed on a menu card resembles a chewed plane ticket. It seems plausible, until you realise that it
looks like the beer list of many non-German establishments in Melbourne. Given that Melbourne’s drink prices are keeping
pace with those of Northern Europe, the tap water starts to look inviting.
The more one starts gazing at the place, the more misplaced it seems. (Any museum, by definition is misplaced, but if
so, one might at least have the decency to be accurate in the historical detail.) In fact, one does not need to spend
long before realising that we are witnessing a sham, a joke of a bar whose members have decided to package a little bit
of history and call it something else. Who needs to consult books and records now that Wikipedia washes and cleanses all
before it? The people who are in the bar have never seen the divide, nor could they care.
One enters the ‘Eastern’ section of the city in room two, and there are a few signs that have been scribbled and painted
at home – ‘You are leaving the American sector’ and so forth. Done in the proper scope and print, these would be
menacing. Guests should be terrorised in a place like this to feel at home. The Russian is almost accurate. But then, my
colleague asks the dull waiter whose lights have long gone out. ‘Why are there Nazi flags and symbols in this room?’
There is an awkward moment, a few seconds for the light switch to be turned up in the cerebrum cortex. ‘It is still
Berlin.’ That East Berlin was itself the bulwark against what their officials termed ‘fascist aggression’, is evidently
not something that registers.
The short answer is that, no, this room is not ‘Berlin’, and no, it is not ‘East Berlin’ in the sense of being communist
East Berlin. As Soviet tanks were encircling the city in the spring of 1945, the city was distinctly not communist, and
East Germany’s future officials were incubating well away from the front. The irony is lost on the bar tender. ‘And what
of the music? Perhaps the East German national anthem might go down well with a few drinks?’ At that point, it was time
to empty our pockets and leave.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.