It is intriguing, odd, and audacious for such a bourgeois Berlin coffeehouse to name itself after the great satirist of the bourgeoisie, George Grosz.
‘Would you like to see the menu?’ I’m asked, in the monumental hall of Haus Cumberland.
What is your daily special? A filet of Fat Cat in hooker sauce? Headless men in dinner jackets, with a Beilage of obese general? A heiß banker running from a burning building, cooled by corrupt minister sorbet? Frothy prostitute in a bed of fur stole, embracing swine head toupée. Then an upturned coffee cup on the brow of a bureaucrat to round things off? I’m, of course, thinking about Grosz’s caricatures in the style of the New Objectivity. But a hot chocolate would also be nice.
Haus Cumberland is certainly grand. Built in 1911 on Berlin’s most ritzy address, the Kurfürstendamm, the building has gone through many identities––among them: first apartment hotel, then Imperial procurement office for weaponry during the First World War, theater, Nazi financial office overseeing the stripping of assets from Jewish citizens in Berlin-Brandenburg, post-war cinema. Finally, investors conjured its most recent incarnation: luxury apartments and offices.
The café’s interior is exuberant Belle Époque, with plenty of Jugendstil detailing. Ceilings are 8 meters high, there are gold-leaf friezes of putti on the columns, marble floors, a barrelled ceiling with coffered detailing. It’s a capital space that would only exist as an old-world coffeehouse in a capital. It is undoubtably an impressive ensemble, the kind of venue where you might take visitors. A car with tinted windows waits out front, a bodyguard lurks by the door, and in the deepest dining room a visiting dignitary sips a glass of Sancerre.
And yet here there is something insecure, forced even. Grosz has been open just two years, since the building’s renovation, and the staff still look uncomfortable in their starched white uniforms. Hurried, they’re not smiling. The maitre-D looks the arrivals up and down and they are segregated to different sections of a slithering interior that makes you want to talk about Walter Benjamin. You are directed either to the most spacious restaurant in the back, the leisurely middle section fireside, the cramped tea tables facing the magnificent Art Nouveau bar, or near the door where the other stand-up voyeurs wait. A thumping soundtrack––think W-hotel 1999–disturbs the slumber of the winged cherubs. Although, the chintzy framed reproductions of Grosz’s painting near the fireplace seem hardly bothered.
Then there is the public: the Charlottenburg bourgeoisie, or provincials in the capital for the day, make me sense too (forgive yet another comparison) that I am in a Balzac novel––that frisson that makes one feel observed when one sips one’s coffee. Russian women in furs begin to purr. A youngster, with a Hitler Youth haircut, minds his family’s shopping bags. There’s the claustrophobia of old women in prim colours, the whispering of jewellery, the cross-table commentary. I look again to the Grosz reproductions, and try to make comparisons with the crowd, but feel too mean-spirited in the activity. Most of these people are probably quite nice.
I’m starting to rue that Grosz lacks the derivative Viennese, but tragic, elegance of Café Einstein. And that your enjoyment might be directly proportional to how great a capacity for self-irony you grant the place.
But let’s think about things differently for a moment. Yes, I am approaching the café the wrong way, not in the spirit of its name (that is, if we take this appropriation truly seriously).
What if I enjoyed my disgust, as much as the hot chocolate I’ve ordered?
The interior is clearly impressive, and the complementary feeling of disgust could actually be pleasurable and intriguing enough to make me come back if I’m in the neighbourhood.
The effect is precisely what the New Objectivity desired: to reject the romanticism of the idealised space, and to reduce it to the brute matter-of-fact, however distasteful.
The celebrated hot chocolate (7,50 EUR) arrives. The milk is in a silver teapot, warming over tea lights, the excellent quality chocolate accompanies in the form of two moist scoops. The problem is the assembly. Because they milk is too cold, the chocolate won’t melt, so one ends up sucking up sticky clumps of brown matter suspended in the lukewarm liquid. The activity is deliciously absurd as the concoction is loathsome.
No matter, at first glance it looks very elegant.