On the cusp of the new year, Berlin finds itself in a strange place, with the whole year seemingly dominated by this painful, conflicted moment in the cultural sphere. However, it’s important to remember the glimmers of light.
Protests, readings, great food and, lest we forget, a BVG-themed musical… let’s take a look back at the some of the cultural highlights.
Duncan Ballantyne-Way – Art editor
Under the new leadership of Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, the Haus Der Kulturen an die Welt underwent a stunning transformation this summer with a three-day extravaganza of concerts and events. It felt like a new spirit was sweeping through Berlin and with his 17 strong curatorial team and embrace of inclusivity, was this a template for how Berlin’s famously slow-moving cultural institutions could be run in future?
Gerhard Richter’s gift of 100 works to the Neue Nationalgalerie was ruined by a cramped, rushed exhibition that, like a bore at a Christmas office party, will drone on interminably right the way through to 2026! Upstairs, Berlin’s prestigious art space was dominated by the excellent Isa Genzkin exhibition and Monica Bonvicini’s architectural installation, I do You, which despite its big ambitions, never quite had the impact she would have liked. The museum’s program of performances has been excellent, most notably the one-off concert by Patti Smith and Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece that took place during an immensely busy and enjoyable Berlin Art Week.
It’s been gratifying to see so many young(ish) Berlin artists suddenly receive institutional and critical recognition. Recently the long-term Berlin resident, Jesse Darling, was awarded the UK’s prestigious Turner Prize for his delirious installation about UK society falling apart at the seams. Julius von Bismarck had his first solo exhibition in a Berlin institution. Focusing on the colonial shadow cast by his problematic relative, Otto von Bismarck, the show included two incredible (semi)-collapsing toy sculptures. The only surprise was the perfunctory and marginalised position the Berlinische Galerie gave him.
The Berlin-based artist Margaret Raspe got to enjoy a late-career resurgence before her death earlier this year. Anyone who saw her show at Haus am Waldsee over the summer would have been fascinated and charmed by the inventiveness of her early film and sculptural work. Another standout show from a Berlin artist was Lin May Saeed’s The Snow Falls Slowly in Paradise at the Georg Kolbe Museum. Before her tragically early death at 50 just a month before the show opened, she was surely about to enjoy a significant career boost. With director Krist Gruijthuijsen moving on this year from his role as director of KW Institute of Contemporary Art, it’s worth mentioning two quite superb shows: Martin Wong’s Malicious Mischief and Michel Majerus’ Early Works.
Sanders Isaac Bernstein – Stage editor
Every live, staged performance, as Sasha Waltz recently reminded me, is unique. So is every year, including 2023, to which we now bid adieu. Rather than a traditional “Best of,” for this chaotic year, my first as a theatre critic for Exberliner, I remember the moments and productions that reminded me how live an art theatre is—existing always on the knife’s edge of chaos.
I don’t know exactly how it’ll feel to see Sardanapal today, but in its first performances in April, it had an electric energy—a fizzing brilliance—that emerges only from the verge of disaster. Problems in productions were revealed when the actor Benny Claessens left the production, posting on Instagram that “arguing with stupid people is like playing chess with a pigeon. It doesn’t matter how good you play, the pigeon will knock over all the pieces, shit on the board, and act as if it won.” In the production, not everything was perfectly in sync, but the whole thing, propelled by the conviction that Byron was the first rock star—and louche Sardanapal, his avatar—had an undeniable charisma that its raw edges (including director Fabian Hinrichs, emergency substitute, stalking the stage with the script in hand) fittingly amplified..
The thrill of unpredictability was found in other productions this year such as the opening monologue of Theresa Thomasberger’s Mannerphantasien, where what appeared to be an introduction about fascism as a constant possibility, turned out to be part of the main drama. Or when spectators walked out of the seemingly endlessly repeating Hamlet from Anhaltisches Theater Dessau at Theatertreffen—you could very much feel that “time” was “out of joint.” Or, indeed, when Amy Stebbins’s terrific Schöner Wohnen at Neuköllner Oper, which crowded the audience nearly into the dystopian living space where each flush of the toilet incurred an extra cost, forced the spectators to sing along and actively engage with the conditions of living under late capitalism in Berlin.
A similar kind of electric current also animated Oliver Frljić’s moving Mass for Yugoslavia, where live urination and sputum-swapping alternated with moments of miming, singing, and dancing—an associative cinema about the disastrous breakup of Yugoslavia beginning with a wedding and ending in a deleted scene. Similarly, Claudia Bossard’s Baracke combined verbal and visual refractory leaps, creating a glorious, if chaotic, splendour. But that frisson was even there in moments of more formally conservative but technically excellent pieces—like when Misha Karia’s baritone gave voice to the loss of Michele’s child in Il Trittico or in Joachim Meyerhoff’s shapeshifting as the wounded, wrathful, oblivious, and pathetic protagonist of The Vernon Subutex 1. As 2023 ends, may 2024 offer us more such moments where chaos, rather than overwhelm us, exists as the stuff of this marvellous live art.
Dan Cole – Music editor
Top 5 Albums of 2023
Plattenbau – Net Prophet
It’s been a hard year to get an apartment. And why is that? Because capitalism sucks. That’s the message behind the new album by the anarcho-anti-capitalist post-punk band Plattenbau. Their latest new-wave-punk record is a riotous slab of energy that borders the sounds of Molchat Doma and New Order. Guitars, noise, and synths combine to thrash out the soundtrack to the band’s dictum, proliferating the dismays of our current new world order. Yes, thanks to capitalism we all now yearn for Plattenbau.
Dasha Rush – Contemplating
It’s been way too long since Dasha Rush released any music. No matter how long she leaves you waiting, you always know that something great will arrive. This contemplative and introspective record is deep in story-telling through its sweeping, ambient landscapes, and cathartic sound-design. Like falling into a dream, the album is rich in warm motifs and ethereal, sonic textures. Creating truly unique and masterful ambient records is no easy task, yet the Berlin-based producer has excelled in the format, creating something for you to think about for years to come.
Fotokiller – Eerie Nostalgia
It’s definitely been a year for nostalgia, and Fotokiller are a prime example of that. Fronted by Fatigue’s guitar player Sofy, the band’s debut is an homage to the late 80s post-punk movement, drenched in lo-fi, shoegazey vibes and washed-out guitars. Sofy’s restrained and yet haunting vocals hook the listener, crafting affectionate tones over the darker atmospheres created by the band’s instrumentalists. With catchy hits ‘Stop The World’, and album-opener ‘Echoes’ — songs that could easily have been released on 4AD thirty years ago — the band show that they have a depth of musical nuance.
Kaleo Sansaa – CHII
Finally a hip-hop album that isn’t just retreading the standard trap tropes and auto-tune styles that most modern artists are re-hashing. Creating an experimental sound that uses both Afropop and dark trap, Kaleo has created a lively and impassioned hip-hop album rooted in her family’s Zambian origin. CHII is hypnotic, at times weird, and slaps at every turn. Honest, inspirational, and pure, CHII is the sound of someone doing something new and true to the heart.
Session Victim – low key, low pressure
There are house producers, and then there are real house producers. Of course, this Berlin duo fall into the latter, engaging their tech wizardry to craft an organic, rich and soulful sound. For those who’ve seen them live, riffing on the bass guitar and slamming away at a mix of synths and drum machines, you know that these guys have some real talent. Their latest album highlights their live dexterity, translating into a mix of soul, funk, and house grooves, like the kind that came out of Chicago twenty years ago.
Louise East – Podcast editor
Berlin’s English language podcasting scene lit up in January when the first episode of Cannabis Cowboys, an eight-part investigative journalism series from Deutsche Welle got rolling. Detailing the genesis and exodus of a Berlin-based start-up which promised a 100 per cent return – all you had to do was buy a virtual (and as it turned out, non-existent) medical cannabis plant – the podcast offered all the twists and turns of a true crime series, without the dead bodies.
Also new in 2023 were two likeable podcast series; Not Here to F*** Spiders and Feel Good in Berlin, both of which adopt a free-wheeling interview format. Berlin-based Aussie comedian, Elena Gabrielle hosts the former, asking her guests for their low-key gripes and grievances. Feel Good in Berlin‘s host, Dinara Kerey, is a Kazakhstan-born actress and stand-up comedian and judging by the handful of episodes of her podcast which have landed to date, she’s also a natural-born interviewer.
Pot Luck Food Talks celebrated its first anniversary with a live sandwich-making audio recording at Berlin Podfest in October 2023; over the course of a year, chefs and hosts Erich Eichstetter and Phil Walther found an easy rapport and a seemingly bottomless pot of food-related topics. Everyone is Moving to Berlin also found its feet in 2023 with some great, pragmatic episodes on housing applications and what to do if you lose your passport, alongside more light-hearted advice on, for example, how not to date a murderer.
Finally, 2023 was the year we said auf Wiedersehen und vielen Dank to the invaluable Berlin Briefing podcast which went on hiatus in August after six years of summarising Berlin’s news in English. So long Abby Ross Menacher and Albert Menacher: we’re gonna be a lot more ignorant without you.
Wanda Sachs – Associate editor
My year got off to a sobering yet unnecessarily drunken start. A poorly-planned New Year’s Eve ended at about 10 past midnight with a half-finished Kranz of Kölsch beers at Ständige Vertretung and a burning pile of rubbish that I staggered past on my way home. The upside of all this was that it could only get better from here – and thankfully it did.
The easiest highlight of the year was Atonal at Kraftwerk. Squelching and screeching and generally living up to its name, the festival wound its way through a week of experimental dance and music performances that were equal parts stimulating and disconcerting. One particularly excruciating act included words flashing on a screen accompanied by loud bangs, an experience so uncomfortable I gave up halfway through for fear of brainwashing. Meanwhile, Florentina Holzinger’s aerial performance prompted warning signs plastered at the entrance. On the weekend, the festival duly rewarded its tortured visitors with a club night at Kraftwerk, Tresor and Ohm.
2023 was the year I delved into Berlin’s underground music, and Neukölln’s Loophole was the venue I came back to most. Behind a door that turns out to be surprisingly difficult to locate awaits a wonderful world of fake flowers, cigarette smoke, squeaking floorboards, cheap beer, giant papier-mâché sculptures and an erratic roster of live acts that are (almost) always worth the bother.
I also enjoyed a few Friday nights at Zum Starken August in Prenzlauer Berg, a bar that looks like a mix of circus tent and Cher’s club in Burlesque – not just because the art of undressing is a firm staple here, but also because of the bar’s speakeasy vibes. The weekly burlesque shows with interludes from the comedy compere hit the sweet spot between sexy and funny and make this bar the perfect place for a date. (Plus, Wen Cheng is right next door.)
This October, I went to the Critical Mass bike protest for the first time. I was hesitant for the better part of the year because I’m an avid pedestrian and hadn’t ridden a bike for three years. Two persuasive colleagues later, I found myself on a Nextbike one evening, joyfully pedalling away like I’d never done anything else, surrounded by naked inline skaters wrapped in fairy lights and DJs crouching in bike trailers providing the soundtrack to pissing off self-righteous car drivers.
Jane Silver – Food editor
Food trends in 2023
Let’s face it: purse strings are tighter, expense accounts are less generous and the idea of dropping three digits and four hours on anything but the most incredible meal of your life is less attractive than ever. So it’s not surprising that Michelin and Michelin-adjacent restaurants suffered this year. If they didn’t close entirely (farewell Lode & Stijn, AV and The NoName), they languished on weekdays. To fill seats and attract a fresh batch of clientele, they had to think cheap…er. From Nobelhart & Schmutzig’s schnitzel Wednesdays to Horvath’s “quick and dirty” four-course menu and Restaurant Richard’s makeover as a bistro, those who stripped down survived.
German pub grub
Of course, nobody stripped down better than the team behind locavore wine bar Otto. The hottest opening of the year was their new effort Trio, a German-Austrian gastropub that won eaters over with nothing more (or less) than superbly executed, reasonably priced classics like goulash and Königsberger Klopse. Pair that with Ei, the back-to-basics biergarten and (soon) sit-down restaurant in a historic building in Plänterwald, and it’s clear that alte deutsche Küche is the new neue deutsche Küche.
On the fast food front, copycat entrepreneurs all over town took note of the queues outside Goldies Smashburger and started griddling their own paper-thin patties. It’s a no-brainer, really: you can attract the TikTok crowd *and* charge the same price for half the beef.
What else did the social media hive mind salivate over this year? Croissants were everywhere, whether wheel- or cube-shaped or dazzlingly layered (Canal, which recently pivoted from eclairs to laminated pastry, is the new spot to beat). And trend-chasers still can’t resist anything Japanese, as witnessed by the perpetually empty shelves at the new Japan Plaza supermarket on Alexanderplatz.
Conflict on a platter
As the Israel-Hamas war tore a rift through the Berlin cultural scene, the gastro industry stayed out of the fray. That went triple for the slew of flashy “Levantine fusion” concepts opened by established Israeli hospitality groups this year: Amigo Cohen, Mirari, The Pink Room, the unfortunately named Mored. Pretty much the only place that dared mention the elephant in the room was, by necessity, Kanaan, the Prenzlauer Berg hummus shop co-owned by an Israeli and a Palestinian. As civilian casualties continue to mount, the duo has made headlines for collecting donations for the cooperative movement Standing Together and calling for “peace” (without mentioning the word “ceasefire”). Not exactly revolutionary, but we’ll take what we can get.
Alexander Wells – Books editor
This year has been an impressive one for Berlin’s international books scene. The ILB now has exciting new leadership, while the post-lockdown return of live events has continued apace at venues like Hopscotch, Lettrétage (temporarily housed by ACUD), and the Literaturhaus Berlin—and, for a time, the Exberliner-Dussmann series. English-language readers have had the privilege of reading such fine new releases as Sharon Dodua Otoo’s history-spanning novel Ada’s Realm (trans. Jon Cho-Polizzi), Uljana Wolf’s fetching debut kochanie, today I bought bread (trans. Greg Nissan), and Donna Stonecipher’s brilliant prose poems collected in The History of Nostalgia.
One particular highlight was the appearance of a clutch of intelligent books about Communist East Germany and its aftermath by authors as wide-ranging as Jenny Erpenbeck, Thomas Brussig, Brigitte Reimann, and the newly-minted Büchner Prize winner, Lutz Seiler. Berlin-based translators, too, have continued to bring fine international literature into the English-language domain—Lucy Jones’s rendering of Siblings by Brigitte Reimann generated a bona fide international publishing event, with critics and readers all over the anglosphere taking time to consider the work of a half-forgotten Communist literary wunderkind.
Above anything else, however, the greatest achievement of Berlin’s books scene this year may be the courageous, diverse, multilingual outpouring of support for the cancelled Palestinian author Adania Shibli, as epitomized by a solidarity reading at Hopscotch held in Arabic, English, and German. As long as authors like Shibli are unfairly marginalized – and as long as Arabic-speaking Berlin, home to a literary diaspora no less vibrant or interesting than the anglophone one, is demonized and degraded in the national press – then it remains difficult to celebrate anything at all. Literary Berlin has flourished over the decades because, among other reasons, it has offered a (relatively) safe haven and speaking room to people with a plurality of backgrounds, experiences of life, and points of view. An atmosphere of inequality and fear does not serve anyone at all – and certainly not readers.
Ruth Weissmann – Assistant editor
The BVG Musical. Turns out that infrastructure propaganda goes down pretty easily. The BVG continues to operate less like a publicly-funded transit agency and more like Coca-Cola or Oreo – in the case of this stunt, producing a musical that would be very comfortable a block down from Broadway, and in fact snagging several artists from such productions as Wicked and Hamilton.
Featuring an aggressively cheery tram named Tramara looking for love on rollerskates, rapper cameos, Berliner Schnauze jokes, half pipes as set decoration, and an anthropomorphic whip in the BVG lost and found, it was full of pathos, musically impressive, and deeply fun. It was a spectacle, and a little spectacle never hurt anyone – though between the musical numbers, one might wonder how else this money could have been spent.
Other things I liked: The Kite Festival (Is that culture? Big green space, giant hay bales, thousands of colourful aircraft, giant animals taking to the sky, wind interference, picnic opportunities, fun for all ages that smacks of simpler times); Antikmeile (We spent four hours poring over tables of items on the spectrum between junk and artefact, looking for art and furniture and little bits of history.
There was also great Jamaican chicken in the food truck portion of the blocked-off Charlottenburg street. We left with a wicker magazine rack and some brass opera glasses.); Lauren Groff at the American Academy (worth the train ride out to Wannsee, she read from her then-unpublished novel The Vaster Wilds and there was wine); and Miss Read: The Art Book Fair at H.K.W. (lots of creative and niche publications you wouldn’t find elsewhere, fun art, local Berlin literary vibe).