BERLIN — Low rents, cheap food and generous state support for the arts are the raw ingredients that have been luring creatives to Berlin.
Those advantages are helping to turn the city that survived Hitler and the Cold War into a pulsating 21st century hotspot for filmmakers, writers, thesps, artists, musicians and fashion designers from around the world.
With its broken past and chaotic present, Berlin is home to about 25,000 creatives, many of whom report they can survive quite comfortably with little income.
The city, which has been struggling to stay out of of bankruptcy because of its mountainous debt and lack of jobs, might be officially the poorest big city in Germany. But it also has its precious assets: low living costs, a head-spinning pace of change, a rich artsy infrastructure. It also boasts massive amounts of direct state support for creative arts that far exceeds the U.S., Britain and other major western nations.
“Berlin was a shock for me at first,” said Swiss-born director Dani Levy, who moved to West Berlin in 1980 and later became one of the founders of X-Filme Creative Pool, a leadingfilm producer.
“I fell in love instantly with the theater scene and way of life. It was an oasis for refugees — from the draft dodgers to the students and creatives. It was the only German city with a real buzz to it.”
The city of 3.4 million was devastated in WWII, split by the Berlin Wall and abandoned by most of the banks and industry. But those ravages have ironically helped to make Berlin amodern-day breeding ground for creatives.
“It’s an incredible city filled with creative and innovative people,” said Juergen Schau, who now runs his own Berlin production company. In 1998 Schau was topper at Columbia Tri-Star in Germany–and moved operations to Berlin from Munich.
The city boaststhree major (tuition-free) universities and 120,000 students plus a number of smaller film and theater schools, 17 legit theaters, 17 museums, 8 orchestras, 3 opera houses, hundreds of smaller art galleries – and the Berlinaleitself , now in its 57th year.
Its image as a hip place took off in 2001 when Klaus Wowereit became its mayor after outing himselfin spectacular fashion in the middle on an election campaign.
The epitome of Berlin’s tolerance, Wowereitis left-leaning and something of a national celeb. He has campaigned tirelessly for the arts, especially film, saying the industry jobs the city lost in the Cold War are gone forever and arguing the city’s future is culture.
A regular at the Berlinale, Wowereit had a small cameo role Levy’s 2005 hit “Alles auf Zucker” (Go For Zucker – An Unorthodox Comedy)
“Berlin may be poor but it’s sexy,” said Wowereit, who after winning re-election in September fired Culture Minister Thomas Flierl and took over the portfolio for himself.
His now famous “poor but sexy” line is a reference to Berlin falling 60 billion ($80 billion) euros into the red since unification in 1990, debt that exceeds the combined indebtedness of Ecuador, Peru and Guatamala.
But Berlin’s massive financial commitment to the arts has hardly been touched even though budget cuts have hit other areas hard. The city still devotes nearly 400 million euros, or 2% of its 20 billion euro expenditures, to the arts. The federal government also devotes over 1 billion each year to the arts nationwide.
A 2000 report by the National Endowment for the Arts calculated Germany spends $85 per person on arts (or $6.8 billion), compared to $6 in the U.S. ($1.1 billion).
It’s hardly surprising the new Berlin has featured as an unpaid extra in a growing number of films in recent years.A mélange of cultures with 500,000 foreigners from more than 200 countries living within its sprawling boundaries, the city is also home to dozens of foreign-language theater groups.
“There is something extra-territorial about Berlin,” said Mark Gisbourne, an art critic and historian who recently published a book “Kunst Station Berlin” portraying 19 Berlin artists. “I lived here for six months before I even realized that I was living in Germany.”
Gisbourne, who has taught at the Slade School of Fine Art, moved to Berlin in 2003. He said the city’s art scene now reminds him of what NewYork and London once felt like when they were more affordable.
“I’ve always seemed to live in cities that were broke, in New York in the early 70s, and London in the late 70s. Maybe a bankrupt city is good for the arts.”
Berlin think tank DIW said the number of creatives has grown steadily since the Berlin Wall fell. There are about 8,000 people in Berlin listing themselves as “creative artists” who live on unemployment benefits.
Another8,000 get by with day jobs whileonly about one third can support themselvessolelyfrom their arts income. The average annual income for all creatives is 18,000 Euros ($24,000). In Berlin, where apartments and studios can be found for a few hundred Euros per month, it’s enough to get by on.
“There’s just such a hell of a lot going on in Berlin,” said Alister Noon, 36, a poet from Britain who has lived in Berlin since 1993. “There’s no way to keep up with it all. There are loads of gigs, loads of readings. The English literature scene is thriving.”
Noon, who lives in a housing project with 25 housemates paying low rents based on a fraction of their income, said he also relies on income from translating jobs, organizing poetry readings, as well as editing a Berlin literature magazine, Border Crossings.
“It’s significantly cheaper and less stress-filled than, for example, London. Rents, food and beer are all cheap. If you’re engaged in creating some kind of art, living costs are an extremely important factor. If I lived in London I wouldn’t be able to spend as much time on my artistic activities. In Berlin it’s a lot easier to find the time to write and do your thing because you don’t have to worry about money.”
Gayle Tufts – an American writer, singer and comedian – moved to Berlin in 1991. She’s become a minor celebrity with her mockery of Germans and their language.
“When I tell my friends in New York about Berlin, their eyes pop open and say ‘Wow!’ Rents, studios, rehearsal rooms – it’s all affordable.”
German thesp Franka Potente, 32, went to Hollywood after her award-winning 1997 pic “Lola Rennt” and was featured alongside Matt Damon in “The Bourne Identity” in 2002. She eventually grew weary of the “shallowness” of Tinseltown and moved to Berlin in 2003.
“Berlin’s a city that never sleeps:You can see almost any film you want. Or you can go to the Love Parade or an inline skate night, where they close off a whole quarter for the event. It’s just an exciting place to be.”