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It was like a cave. Today it does not exist. Grand Theatre in Berlin

The interiors of the Großes Schauspielhaus were an icon of the decadent Berlin of the 1920s. The “Cave” with its dangling stalactites was a unique example of German Expressionist architecture. The Grand Theatre was a place of technological and theatrical innovation. Built in 1919, the building lasted only a dozen years.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the area where the successor to the Grand Theatre, the Friedrichstadt-Palast, now stands was occupied by a timber depot. In 1867, the construction of a large market hall on Karlstrasse was completed. The investor assumed great success for the hall. After only a few months, it became apparent that such a large facility could not sustain trade. The hall was closed down and a circus was built in its place.

Circus empire

In principle, the hall building survived. The new buyer adapted the building for circus performances. The circus proved to be another failure. Franz Renz failed to attract sufficient audiences for his performances. At the end of the 19th century, another circus performer took over the venue. This time we are talking about Albert Schumann, a kind of ‘circus magnate’. For generations, his family had built up a circus empire spread across Germanic and Scandinavian countries.

Schumann’s circus also organised performances that became very popular. Theatre director Max Reinhardt was known for his great shows with naturalistic scenery and a circular stage. In time, Reinhardt bought the building from Schumann in order to create his own innovative theatre. Construction work was interrupted by the war and the interior was not opened until 1919.

The Arabian Cave

The Grand Theatre was very modern. The architect Hans Polzeig, one of the leading representatives of early modernism in Germany, designed a huge dome suspended above the auditorium. Hanging from the dome were equal rows of stalactite-like pillars. These are actually mucarnas, elements intended to resemble natural limestone formations such as stalactites. A lamp system was installed in the dome to achieve advanced lighting effects. Polzeig referred to Arabian ornamentation and reinterpreted Eastern motifs, giving them an architectural form. Rows of ‘stalactites’ stretched across the rest of the ceiling, and the columns supporting the ceiling resembled stalagmites. Interestingly, the theatre used various mechanical facilities, including a revolving stage.

Although the auditorium had no balconies, it still managed to increase the seating capacity. Such a measure was intended to enable the proletariat to buy cheaper seats away from the stage. The less well-off could also use the cafeteria. Elsewhere, there was a restaurant for more affluent audiences. The food outlets and the auditorium were connected by a foyer with streamlined columns. Expressionism, which was a trend between Art Nouveau and Modernism, drew inspiration from nature. Hence the cave motif. The streamlined shapes, on the other hand, are meant to refer to the dynamic forms in design and Art Nouveau that were gaining popularity at the time.

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Political theatre

The theatre was famous for the plays of Erwin Piscator, creating multimedia red revues. He often used films, light play, perspective manipulation and other modern techniques. Most of the productions were flashy, which sometimes involved a shallow message. Supported by patrons of the arts, Piscator created simplistic anti-capitalist, communist and revolutionary themes. The director was the author of the book Political Theatre.

Piscator fled the country before the war. At the time of his departure, the Grand Theatre was already called the ‘Theatre of the Nation’ and was run by the Nazis. The expressionist décor was considered ‘degenerate’ and associated with Berlin bohemia. By 1933, the theatre was a hangout for communist circles, often represented by Jews. It was this community that created Berlin’s decadent lifestyle. Under NSDAP administration, the dome was obscured and the ceiling simplified. The remaining stalactites were incorporated into simple columns. Bas-reliefs were added and the number of seats was increased. In this condition the theatre survived until the Allied bombing.


After the war, the building was rebuilt in a slightly altered form. The Friedrichstadt-Palast Theatre continued to operate in the new reality of the GDR. There was no longer a ‘cave’, but the nationalised institution was popular. In the 1980s, the deliberate lowering of the groundwater level caused the piles on which the theatre was set to rot. The facility was closed and demolished in 1988. Interestingly, the reasons for the demolition were kept secret, as the practice of lowering water levels also affected West Berlin. The city still faces the problem of insufficient renewable water from the ground to this day.

The Grand Theatre was a unique masterpiece of the 1920s; the Großes Schauspielhaus was an expression of hope for a better life after the tragedy of the First World War. To the misfortune of Berlin’s bohemians, hope was taken away by an even more destructive force.

Source: secret city travel

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