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Feature: The Usual

Sebastian Preuss

Always the gentleman, Rudolf van der Lak personally greets everyone who enters his bar, often with a handshake, an English phrase—“Welcome to this beautiful land” or “Life is wonderful”—punctuated by laughter, and a toast of vodka. Although his energy belies his age, van der Lak, at 84, is certainly the oldest barkeeper in Berlin, perhaps in Germany. More than just the bartender, Rudi, as the regulars call him, is the cofounder and owner of the establishment, and he also operates the art gallery that houses it, Galerie Bremer, which, like the bar, has thrived for decades and is at least as famous.

For 50 years, van der Lak has been welcoming guests, and in all of that time, nothing about the room has changed. This is a rarity in Berlin, a city that throughout its history has shown little regard for tradition. Just as a snake regularly sheds its old skin and replaces it with a new one, Berlin has transformed its cityscape again and again through the ages—often out of necessity—with existing architectural styles being replaced by new ones. Indeed, not a single hotel survived the war unscathed; even for a restaurant or bar with an original interior, one must search long and hard. Today, with the designs of the Fifties and Sixties experiencing a revival, and young people willing to pay high prices for furniture and design objects of the time, hardly a room from that period remains intact.

Yet when one enters the gallery on Fasanenplatz, everything appears just as it did on March 3, 1955, when the doors to Anja Bremer’s and Rudolf van der Lak’s art oasis first opened. As one would expect to find in a gallery, pictures hang from the walls of two predominantly white rooms, but there is nothing to direct attention to the back room, no signs to lure guests across the gallery and into van der Lak’s enchanting universe.

Often, those entering for the first time are taken aback by the interior, pausing at the door as if they were on the threshold of a time capsule. Light emanating from the old wine bottles serving as candleholders shimmers against the dark green walls. Simple wood benches and precarious black tables and chairs in the style of the Fifties line the walls. The benches hold pillows that, like the green walls, the benches, the chairs, and the tables, have been here since the opening. “They are made from the most durable awning material imaginable,” van der Lak proclaims proudly. Wall lamps made of copperplate provide additional subdued lighting, and in the corner of the room is a heating oven from the turn of the last century.

The centerpiece is the bar itself, jutting asymmetrically into the room, its gold trim suggesting a hint of luxury and its black finish revealing its age. Gliding his fingers along the bar’s ridges, van der Lak scoffs at the suggestion that it needs to be refinished. Wine bottles are stored in a sculpture made of discarded industrial sheet metal that is suspended above the bar. The wine holder, the club, the entire gallery is the work of famed architect Hans Scharoun. Today, architecture fans and art students alike make regular pilgrimages to Galerie Bremer, though it is inexplicably absent from Scharoun’s catalog of works. Historical preservationists also have taken notice, and now the building is officially protected.

In addition to van der Lak himself, one of the few surviving witnesses to the club’s early period is 75-year-old Siegfried Kühl, a friend of Rudi’s for 50 years who continues to work as an artist, building enormous sculpture assemblies in his old factory in one of Berlin’s northern districts. Kühl vividly remembers how Berlin lay in ruins at the end of World War II, how people starved and froze to death, and how no one then could imagine that the city would ever function normally again. Even six months after the war, many streets had yet to be cleared of rubble, forcing the then 16-year-old Kühl to carry or push his bicycle more often than he was able to ride it.

At that time, he had left high school early and been accepted at the newly reopened Academy of Arts, many of whose instructors had been persecuted by the Nazis as “degenerates.” In the spring of 1946, the French military administration arranged an exhibition in a ruined palace of the kind of art that had been forbidden in Germany for the previous 12 years. “I will never forget how the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec and de Chirico hung on the fire-damaged walls,” says Kühl, who stood in line with thousands of culture-starved survivors of the war to see modern sculptures from Rodin, Maillol, Arp, and Lipchitz displayed in Berlin’s old Zeughaus. “During these months, we art students learned that there were galleries opening again in Berlin,” he recalls. “The first I visited was Anja Bremer’s.”

At the time, Bremer was 45 years old and had already lived an adventurous life. She grew up in East Prussia, ran away to be part of the excitement of Berlin in the 1920s, and took classes so she could work in a bank. She later spent several years in the United States, where she worked as a hotel maid and did odd jobs on Wall Street. Upon returning to Berlin, she settled in the city’s southwest section, in a neighborhood that was home to a number of progressive artists and intellectuals, many of whom had been forced into exile after the Nazis’ rise to power.

There, in her small apartment, Bremer opened her first gallery in 1946. There was a shortage of everything at the time, so the guests brought the coal to heat the rooms, and the dinner to celebrate the opening consisted of American canned potato soup and Russian vodka. The works on display that night, none of which were for sale, were some of the most important of their time, by Max Beckmann, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Oskar Kokoschka, and Emil Nolde, all artists whom the Nazis had banned.

Bremer’s and the other few galleries that opened amid Berlin’s postwar ruins were not intended to be successful business ventures; rather, they were attempts to revive a culture, building on the once-suppressed tradition of modernism. Bremer also showed Berlin’s younger artists, who tended toward Expressionism or surrealism or who displayed influences by the abstract work popular in Paris and New York. Werner Gilles, Bernhard Heiliger, Werner Heldt, and Heinz Trökes were among the artists whose works Bremer showcased.

“Anja was very frank and direct with artists,” remembers Kühl, who exhibited several times in Bremer’s gallery. “She always selected the works herself and wouldn’t let anyone tell her otherwise. And she always paid the artists promptly and correctly.” This was in 1948, when the East-West political conflict was escalating. The Soviets had erected a blockade of West Berlin, and for months, an American airlift provided the city with food and other supplies. Only someone as tenacious as Anja Bremer would have been capable of keeping a gallery in business under such conditions.

 

Rudolf van der Lak, who was born and grew up in what was then Dutch Guiana and is today Suriname, was then living in Amsterdam, where his brother owned a restaurant. When he went to Berlin in 1952, at age 32, he intended to stay for only a year. Then he fell in love with Anja Bremer and never left.

They met at a club in West Berlin’s Quartier Bohème, where van der Lak worked as a bartender and occasionally as a singer. “He had a voice like Satchmo’s,” says Kühl. Cocteau and Jean Marais were among the regulars, as were other stars of the reborn German cinema. A wild-eyed Klaus Kinski, wearing a torn sweater, once jumped on the piano and performed the recitals for which he later became famous in his tours across Europe. “Klaus was a friend,” says van der Lak, “but once I had to really throw him out for pawing on one of the ladies.”

Bremer never liked the crowd at the club, but out of love for her Rudi, she did not allow it to trouble her. Rumors abounded in Berlin about the tall, handsome, dark-skinned man and the stately woman, 20 years his elder, with her signature bobbed hairstyle. Today, van der Lak still is appalled at the open and subtle forms of racism they encountered. “When we arrived at a reception, you can’t imagine the wide-eyed looks we got,” he says. “And I was always the best-dressed man. My family was always elegant.

Rudi and Anja moved into the center of the city’s social life in 1955, when they opened their new gallery and bar. “At first I didn’t like the rooms,” remembers van der Lak. “There was a carpentry shop here before. Even the architect was skeptical, so Anja fired him and turned to Scharoun for help.”

The interior by noted Berlin architect Hans Scharoun is a quintessential Expressionist design. It is all the more remarkable for having been unaltered for half a century.

At the time, Hans Scharoun was the star of Berlin’s architecture scene. His major works, the Philharmonie and the Staatsbibliothek, striking for their innovation in room design and their humanly scaled dimensions, had made him a West Berlin celebrity. When Scharoun first viewed the old workshop on Fasanenplatz he exclaimed, “Anja, it’s fantastic! We’ll put the gallery in the front and have a bar at the back.”

She had her doubts but allowed herself to be persuaded by her architect and her companion, who would manage the bar. However, Scharoun’s idea to perforate the walls and install portholes, as he had done at the Philharmonie, was rejected. “I need walls for the paintings,” said Bremer.
West Berlin’s artists loved the new bar. Actors from the Schiller Theater visited after their performances. Politicians and other famous people also frequented Galerie Bremer’s back room, among them Samuel Beckett, Harry Belafonte, Cab Calloway, Hildegard Knef, James Stewart, Maximilian Schell, and Romy Schneider. “Otto Hahn, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry, was one of the nicest,” recalls van der Lak. “Shortly before he passed away, he said good-bye to Anja. Many people came for a final visit.”

The front rooms of Galerie Bremer have exhibited works by some of Europe's most imported postwar artists. Berliln's young abstractionists and surrealists were highlights of the early years.

While van der Lak was busy serving Berliners the city’s first Beck’s beer with vodka or his famous planter’s punch, Bremer was occupied with the business of running the gallery. “The bar was the meeting point,” explains Kühl. “Many guests just came right through into the bar without looking at the paintings. Anja always subtly directed their attention to the artworks.” Bremer could be very friendly and charming, but when her obstinacy got the best of her, she could offend even the most desired guests. And never did she let another woman get too close to her Rudi. “She was a volcano,” says van der Lak.

Anja Bremer died in 1985, just three years after she and Rudi finally had married. Even at the funeral, van der Lak remembers, some guests whispered that he would not be able to run the gallery by himself. “They thought I was just her kept barkeeper,” he says, “but I’m Rudolf van der Lak, and they still couldn’t hold a candle to me.” Today, 20 years later, he still stands behind the bar every night, supported now by one of his three young associates. He insists on running the gallery alone, without assistance from anyone.

Galerie Bremer’s heyday has passed, as the center of cultural and business life has shifted to the city’s old center in the former East Berlin. Nevertheless, anyone who has had the pleasure of listening to van der Lak’s storytelling comes back time and time again. And as with his first bartending job in Berlin, he still tolerates no pawing of his female guests. “A woman can come here alone anytime,” says van der Lak, “and I’ll make sure she’s never bothered or harassed.” One customer at the bar has appreciated Rudi’s precept for the last 48 years, as she proudly announces. A couple on the other side of the room first visited the bar as students in 1957. They now live in southern Germany, but whenever they visit Berlin, they always make it a point to stop by and say hello, and Rudi is always there to welcome them. “This is not the type of place for posers to come show off,” he says. “I’m the only star here.

 

 

Galerie Bremer, +49.30.881.4908

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