Burlesque dancer Anja Pavlova unhooks her spangled brassiere, tosses it aside and turns to face the cheering crowd. In the steaming hot Hoochie Koo club, the temperature shifts up a couple of extra degrees.
A pair of feather fans hide her nearly naked breasts as she continues her dance. Eventually, even these are cast aside as, with a smile on her face, the act reaches its big reveal.
It’s a typical night in Berlin, a place where, says Pavlova, anything goes.
As the summer sun sets over the city, it certainly seems that way. The crowds pack into nightclubs like uber-cool Berghain or the bondage and erotica-themed KitKatClub to sweat and grind to some of the planet’s hottest techno music.
Anja Pavlova performs a burlesque dance in Berlin.
Long after dawn the next morning, they’ll scatter through the streets, either rolling into bed to get some rest until the next party starts, or powering on through until night descends once more.
This is no new phenomenon.
Burlesque dancers were disrobing on stages here back in the 1920s and ’30s as part of a scene that inspired the musical “Cabaret.” The city’s dusk-til-dawn hedonists have always found somewhere to do their thing, no matter what that thing is.
Aside from the dark days when a wall divided the city between the communist East and capitalist West — and, of course, the darker days of Nazi rule — laid back Berlin has always been a city that knows how to enjoy itself.
It has also long enjoyed a double life. While the city revels in its countercultural cred, Berlin also has a deeply square side. It serves as the capital of the most powerful economy in Europe — a federal bureaucracy with a reputation for stability and a passion for risk adversity.
This coexistence is what makes Berlin such an intriguing city to visit, but how does it sustain such a split identity?
Can its bohemian nature survive as hipsterization drives up living costs? And will it weather Germany’s wider existential crisis over the record number of migrants and asylum seekers who now call the country, and Berlin in particular, home?
To understand how Berlin has evolved — and how it continues to reinvent itself in the face of repeated crisis — involves diving into its very turbulent history, and meeting the folks who now embody its diverse and irrepressible spirit.
“Berlin is not Germany,” says Esra Rotthoff, a photographer who, as a child of a Turkish mother and German father, is about as Berlin as anyone can get. “It’s always been different from the rest of Germany.”
Unlike other Germans, she says, Berliners typically shy away from materialistic pursuits.
Rotthoff should know. She’s an artistic collaborator with the Maxim Gorki Theater, a downtown playhouse named after a Soviet author that’s known for political productions. The theater’s walls are adorned with the deadpan faces of actors photographed by Rotthoff.
“It’s more about what you bring to the city in terms of concepts maybe as an artist, or in terms of ideas,” she says. “That’s my feeling. That’s the general culture… maybe.”
But also because, she says, for all her experiences, Berlin is her hometown and its people once did their best to spare her a terrible fate.
“I had a different feeling for Germany because I met Germans who did something that was very, very much forbidden,” she says. “It could have cost their head. And this was also part of my decision to come back to Berlin, because I met some good people.
“And now again, I met wonderful people whom I’m very happy to reach out to because they are grateful [that I] do what I do, to come back. And because they say, ‘Here you do belong too.’”
Bourgeois and bohemian
One consequence of Friedlander’s return to Berlin is the recent decision to make her an honorary citizen of the city in recognition for her work. She gleefully points out that she’s survived considerably longer than previous recipients of the title.
“Hitler, Goering and Goebbels were also honorary citizen,” she says. “And today a Jewish woman gets to be an honorary citizen.”
She adds: “I still love Berlin and I wish I would be a little younger to be more able to take part of all the things.”
Those things may or may not include Anja Pavlova’s burlesque performance at the Hoochie Koo, a regular night staged in Berlin’s Roadrunner Rock & Motor Club.
Pavlova, a Russian who moved to Berlin in 2017 to tap into the city’s exotic cabaret scene, speaks eloquently about how the different sides of the city manage to live alongside each other.
In the former West Berlin, “you have these bourgeois German grandmothers in their furs and pearls,” Pavlova tells CNN. And 20 minutes away by train in the former East, “moms at the playground with the tattoos on their necks and dreadlocks … on their phones and drinking beer in broad daylight while their kids play around naked.”
“They just coexist. They just happen. And they don’t really influence each other, and that I find the most charming thing about Berlin.”
Can that coexistence, that winning blend of bourgeois and bohemian — that sense of openness — survive as the city continues to gentrify, prices rise and the world moves on?
“Even in the last year I can feel that the pace is picking up, there’s more business,” Pavlova laments. “But it’s still the city where anything goes.”