Dan watched the Netflix flop to find out how our city’s future stacks up.
As a film, the recent Netflix thriller Mute is a derivative bore. But for those of us fretting over Berlin’s future, Duncan Jones’ sci-fi vision is a blast. As our city drifts toward neutered mediocrity, the director promises the Berlin of 2052 will be a souped-up version of the seedy 1970s playground inhabited by his dad, David Bowie.
Bowie moved to Schöneberg in 1976, seduced by Weimar Berlin’s 1920s decadence, and produced his signature album, Heroes. While Mute’s hero Leo Beiler (Alexander Skarsgård) searches the Berlin of tomorrow for his missing girlfriend, director Jones goes back and reconstructs the wild and crazy Cold War Berlin he glimpsed visiting his father as a kid.
In Mute’s alternate future, American soldiers still patrol the streets where insults like “commie” and “yankee” are bandied about, and everyone still uses deutschmarks – printed with Angela Merkel’s face. But the Berlin Wall is gone. A car chase through West Berlin ends at the East Berlin restaurant Ständige Vertretung, and Leo picnics next to the Brandenburg Gate, shown wedged between tall buildings. The best part of Jones’ alternate future: Berlin’s tight-assed city planners have learned to relax and love two current no-nos, neon signs and skyscrapers. In 30 years, Mitte will be a forest of glowing towers, like Dubai on the Spree.
The film doesn’t offer cameos by survivors of Bowie’s Berlin like Iggy Pop, Brian Eno or Romy Haag, but it gives screen time to three Cold War landmarks we’re lucky to still have around:
Mute’s hero Leo crosses paths with his nemesis Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) in a scene filmed at Kottbusser Tor, in today’s Kremanski cafe. It’s a ground level store-front in that sprawling mega-project, the Neues Kreuzberger Zentrum. Opened in 1974, the complex was aimed at upgrading/sanitising a seedy corner of then-West Berlin – with the unspoken goal of scaring away the growing immigrant population. It didn’t work. Today, 70 percent of its 300 flats are occupied by non-Germans. In April 2017, city-owned housing company Gewobag bought the complex, guaranteeing its survival as affordable housing into the 22nd century. But Mute literally takes the building to the next level, showing it doubled in height. Leo is seen traversing the project’s upper-level “street-in-the-sky”, a feature planned but never completed in the 1970s due to budget cuts.
While scouting futuristic Berlin locations, director Jones was psyched to stumble on Charlottenburg’s Internationales Congress Centrum (ICC). He described the late-1970s megastructure to entertainment website IGN: “It looks like a spaceship from Battlestar Galactica that’s just landed in the city… [and] on the inside it looks like a Kubrick set.” In Mute, the ICC’s lobby plays a mid- 21st-century shopping mall. In reality, the asbestos-filled building has been unused since 2014 and was threatened with demolition until Berlin’s Senat kicked in €200 million to save it last year. Its future function isn’t fixed, but they’ve singled out one option not on the table: shopping centre.
The seedy underbelly of Mute’s Berlin is a steamy, multi-level red light district. Signs for a fictional Rudi-Dutschke-Straße S-Bahn station place it blocks from Checkpoint Charlie, but it was actually shot inside a cavernous Cold War-era power plant. The Kraftwerk Mitte on Köpenicker Straße began generating East Berlin’s electricity in 1964. Shuttered in 1997, it’s been revived as a stunning event venue and home to the dance club Tresor.
Director Jones should have waited. Blocks from the real Checkpoint Charlie, a new building’s going up that’s destined to rank among the city’s futuristic megastructures. The Axel Springer Neubau, by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, will be a high-tech office block with gaps in its skin revealing a cave-like atrium. Set to open in 2020, it will be daring, quirky and a camera-ready backdrop for Berlin’s real-life sci-fi future.