Photo by Sigrid Malmgren
It takes just under an hour on the regional train from Alexanderplatz to reach the sprawling 60-building complex of Beelitz Heilstätten. Once one of Germany’s largest sanatoriums for consumptives, it is now a ghost town, overwhelming in both scale and disrepair. Felled trees block the roads leading onto the site, where crumbling balconies and overgrown tunnel shafts seem haunted by its past as a convalescent home for such patients as Adolf Hitler and Erich Honecker.
By day, all is eerily quiet, but empty bottles, rubbish and the stubs of burnt-down tea candles are reminders that the greying hospital has not been entirely abandoned. The site has become an unlikely mecca for everyone from Satanists and neo-Nazis to lovers on romantic weekend getaways, from urban explorers and architecture buffs to esoterists and all-night ravers.
Built in 1898 and designed by architect Heino Schmieden, Beelitz was Kaiser Wilhelm II’s response to skyrocketing tuberculosis rates brought on by urbanisation. A 600-bed complex equipped with the latest technologies, it allowed patients to revel in country air and undergo the primitive surgery that was standard in the pre-antibiotic age.
The patient pavilion, which included terraced balconies used for ‘air-bath’ treatments, was divided into four quadrants: the women and men were housed on the west and east ends, respectively; while the north-south axis divided the contagious, quarantined patients from the others. In 1908, the site was expanded to accommodate 1200 beds, and the hospital became a city unto itself, with its own post office, restaurant, nursery, bakery, butcher shop and stables, as well as two kitchens and two laundry houses.
During WWI, the hospital was forced to open its doors wider to casualties flooding back from the Western Front. Around 17,500 were treated at Beelitz between 1914 and 1918, not least the future Führer, whose leg was wounded during the Battle of the Somme.
But Hitler was only the first dictator to sojourn in the Brandenburg forest. Beelitz was occupied in 1945 by the Soviet army and remained a Russian military hospital until 1995. It was thus the perfect retreat for Erich and Margot Honecker, who checked into Beelitz in December 1990, as the GDR collapsed around them. The disgraced head of state was suffering from liver cancer and received treatment here before dying three years later in Chile.
Successive attempts to privatise the sanatorium in the late 1990s ended in bankruptcy for investors, leaving only one part of the complex restored as a clinic for neurological patients. The rest has been left to rot, a process accelerated by looters and nostalgic collectors.
Yet Beelitz has been the theatre of darker deeds than mere vandalism, setting the scene for a vicious murder. In 2008, photographer and sadist Michael K. brought young model Anja P. to the site for a photo shoot in its abandoned operating theatre. He then lured her to a small apartment available on the edge of the campus (the former Pförtnerhaus – gatehouse), beat her to death with a frying pan and had intercourse with her corpse. Today, a ‘Frei’ sign informs passers-by that the gatehouse is vacant and available to rent.
In the chaotic interim between the fall of the Wall and German Reunification, a serial killer known as Die Bestie von Beelitz (The Beast of Beelitz) began to terrorise local women connected to the sanatorium, using pink lingerie to strangle or gag them and then laying the negligee across their corpses. Later identified as Wolfgang Schmidt, he was eventually apprehended and sentenced to 15 years and detention in a psychiatric ward.
While this grisly past may deter some, Michael Wetzlaugk, one of a handful of permanent residents, remains stoical. The Berlin architect bought and converted one of the sanatorium’s outbuildings to live there with his family. He points out to his reinforced, heavy-glass windows and talks of his collection of exotic, ethnic weapons, adding that he and his son are accomplished martial artists. “We could handle about eight people together and win,” he says.
Beelitz’ macabre grandeur has made it popular with the local film industry, and everything from S&M porn to expensive Babelsberg productions like Roman Polanski’s The Pianist have been shot here. But the place is most popular on the amateur end of the spectrum; Youtube is filled with drone-soundtracked videos of its abandoned sick wards and surgical rooms.
The flow of weekend trespassers seem never to dry up… More and more curious (dubbed ‘adventurers’ by the locals) are drawn to the moribund hospital, as online pictures and word of mouth spreads quickly over social networks. Just as the 200-hectare plot can not be fenced off, 70 years of turmoil can’t be confined to the rotting carcass of a deserted sanatorium.