There’s something about Berlin. It has history, drama, excitement and an indefinable vibe. I didn’t feel ‘at home’ there as I did in Munich, or as enraptured as I did in beautiful Cologne, but Berlin is just…unforgettable.
Having survived the Nazi regime and subsequent Allied bombing of WWII, then occupation and a cruel Cold War that divided the city into East and West and, in some cases, split families and friends asunder, re-unified Berlin has become a magnet for visitors from all over the world.
For my friends Yoly and Queenie and I, the ‘magnetic attraction’ was Greg Gorman’s previously unseen portrait of Michael Jackson on display at the Museum of Photography. The seated semi-nude portrait was taken by Gorman in 1987, and displays a beautiful young performer with a look of determined concentration on his face. At the same time, he seems so vulnerable.
I wondered if his expression represented some thoughts on Michael’s part that perhaps this portrait was not such a good idea. Or whether he was miles away in his mind, focused on some new project, whether a song, choreography or short film concept. Or perhaps his brow is just furrowed against the cold, being scantily clad (and considering how sensitive to cold he always was).
We could speculate endlessly; but regardless of the cause of his intense expression, the portrait is an evocative (as opposed to ‘erotic’) image.
I don’t know what sort of reception this portrait would have received had it been used back in the late 1980s. Gorman has speculated in media interviews that perhaps it was too revealing in terms of the way Michael was being presented in official images at the time. We can’t ask Michael, sadly, so we will probably never know.
The Museum of photography was within walking distance of our hotel. I made the excursion twice, once shortly after I arrived in Berlin, and again a couple of days later after Yoly and Queenie had joined me.
The route encompassed some other noteworthy locations, including the preserved ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church with its war-shattered carapace and restored mosaics; and the Berlin Zoo, the latter which Michael visited with Prince and Paris in 2002 when in the city to attend the Bambi Awards ceremony.
I didn’t go into the zoo on either occasion, but the path to the Tiergarten from the Museum of Photography provides glimpses through the perimeter fence into some of the animal enclosures.
The main attraction in the Tiergarten, apart from the glorious green vastness of it (larger than the whole of Monaco, one taxi driver told me) was the Michael Jackson memorial tree, a young tree bedecked with love tokens from fans from around the world. We added our own and those of friends and took copious photographs.
Our attention to the tree caused others to pause and look at the ornaments, cards and messages that decorated it. Yoly had a conversation with an American family whose young son (not with them) loves MJ and “knows all of his dance routines.”
Such happy encounters are one of the many rewards of being a global MJ pilgrim; you never know when or where they are going to happen. But, if our being there, adding our tributes on the tree (like many before us) prompted others to stop, talk and read the messages, then that is surely a positive thing for Michael’s legacy.
Facing the north-eastern corner of the Tiergarten is the Reichstag (1894), home of the German parliament. A lot of history has happened both inside and outside the Reichstag. The building we see today is largely a reconstruction of the pre-war edifice which was abandoned after a fire in 1933. It remained a ruin during the years Berlin was a divided city. In place of the cupola that originally topped the building is now a modern glass dome and a roof garden, both accessible to the public.
On 19 June 1988 Michael Jackson performed a concert on his Bad world tour on the grounds in front of the Reichstag. The choice of venue was deliberately strategic; the Berlin Wall still separated East and West Berlin. While 50,000 fans attended the open air show at the Reichstag, there were many on the other side of the Wall who gathered at the Brandenburg Gate to hear their idol.
Michael returned to Berlin for more concerts, but there was no longer any need to choose a venue with proximity to the infamous Wall. By then it had been torn down (Nov 1989) and Berlin – and Germany subsequently reunified. You can still see parts of the original Wall preserved in situ, or slabs of it covered in graffiti and mounted as works of folk art in and around the city, but especially in proximity to Checkpoint Charlie.
During my visit (May 2016) Berlin was enjoying a long weekend of cultural festivities, and Paiserplatz – the square east of the Brandenburg Gate – was full of people having a great time in this vibrant and exciting city. I visited Michael’s wax figure at Madame Tussauds and indulged in a light lunch at the famous Hotel Adlon, marvelling at the beautiful interior – completely rebuilt after the destruction of World War II.
Michael and his family stayed at the Adlon in 2002. This was where the so-called ‘baby dangling’ incident occurred when Michael attempted to show ‘Blanket’ to the fans calling to him from the plaza below his hotel suite.
I could have spent a lot more time in Berlin than my schedule allowed. One entire day was spent at Museum Island, home to five incredible museums. Three proved to be my limit before my feet gave out, with the Pergamon Museum being the undoubted star attraction, thanks to its reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate of Babylon and much, much more.
Given more time I would have returned to the island to see the remaining museums and perhaps paused to enjoy a coffee or lunch overlooking the surrounding River Spree.
But for now, my sightseeing and Michaeling was done, and it was time for the three of us to move on – by train to Dusseldorf on the banks of another river: the Rhine. And beyond it, Best in the Netherlands, and the next ‘must see’ site on our Michael Jackson-inspired odyssey.