The Awkward Altbau – Urban Structures and Dreams of the Future in Konrad Wolf’s ‘Solo Sunny’ (1980)

by Luise Mörke

The destruction of a building: more important than the brief moment of the blast are the hours leading up to the detonation. Markings are made and cables attached, turning the house into a doomed body rippled with explosive arteries. The eventual ignition happens in the lower third of the structure, as if the ground was pulled away underneath the framework. A brief eternity of stasis follows, the illusion of intactness is maintained for the blink of an eye. Walls, windows and roof seem to float weightlessly until the upper stories crumble, pick up speed, scatter into a grey cloud of rubble. A growling noise hits the ear drums with a polite delay. Now there is a sky where once was stone, a gaping hole that points into an uncertain future. What can take root here, where the traces of the past have been eradicated?

The cloud of rubble from a nearby detonation gathers momentum as Sunny arrives at her lover Ralph’s apartment, situated just across the S-Bahn tracks on Kopenhagener Straße in Prenzlauer Berg. She enters, apparently indifferent to the spectacle of the explosion, and puts a bag of groceries on the kitchen table: pickled cucumbers, a melon, canned sausages from the GDR’s largest meat production facility in Eberswalde.1 The blast enters the reality of the apartment only in the form of a light tremble that moves the scotch in an unopened bottle of ‘Teacher’s Whiskey’. Earlier in the film, a newspaper clipping pinned to the wall of Ralph’s kitchen points to another moment of destruction: the cartoon titled “Kugel, ein Schloß ruinierend” (“Wrecking Ball destroying a Palace”) by the Austrian artist Paul Flora, published in the Western German newspaper Die Zeit. The similarity between Flora’s drawing and the situation outside inserts into the film a subtly ironic commentary: destruction endures even as its targets change – this time around, a housing block must make way for an uncertain future.

Ralph’s place is a labyrinth filled to the rim with books. Because his reading habit has long outgrown the space, he has been forced to give up, perhaps happily, more conventional uses of the space. His bed, simply a mattress placed on an old door, is barely large enough for one and crammed into a corner between stacks of books and a record player. The absence of a dining table leaves the window sill as the most convenient place for a meal, spots on the wall mark the places where pictures used to hang, a painted heart on the door remains as a trace left by a previous tenant. In this apartment, life happens in the awkward nooks that remain unoccupied by stacks of reading material and haphazardly placed shelves. There is an impermanence to his arrangement, an instability rooted in the absence of clearly allotted spatial functions. Despite the temporary appearance of everything, it seems that Ralph has lived here for a while and is bound to the place by the sheer weight of his books. He is not actually on the move, but rather unwilling or unable to arrive.

The Altbau is home to a heterogeneous blend of artists, young couples, old people, families

When Konrad Wolf made Solo Sunny in 1980, he chose Prenzlauer Berg as the setting for the story centered around a struggling singer in her late twenties. The neighborhood provides more than a mere background to the film. Its 19th century apartment blocks, centered around bleak courtyards, provide the social structure in which Sunny’s life unfolds and against which she rebels.2 They are contrasted by two alternative surroundings: the provincial small towns where Sunny and the entertainment ensemble stage their program to meager success, and the Plattenbau settlement into which Sunny’s friend Christine has just moved. Konrad Wolf portrays Prenzlauer Berg as home to a heterogeneous blend of artists, old people, young couples and families. Their lives cross in the stairway or the backyard. Bearing curiosity, hostility or sheer boredom, the looks they cast from one side of the building to another create an invisible crisscrossing grid oa incident.

Today, Prenzlauer Berg is known as one of Berlin’s most thoroughly gentrified areas. On a sunny day in fall, hundreds of people walk up and down Rykestraße like 19th century flaneurs. There is a melancholic side to this scene of pleasant idleness. An afternoon in Prenzlauer Berg nourishes nostalgia, even for someone born too late into the 20th century to have witnessed the changes. It is easy to picture what these very streets must have looked like decades ago, when less affluent inhabitants lived behind the crumbling stucco façades and this part of the city was known as the East’s gathering spot for artists and dissidents, described by GDR author Daniela Dahn in her 1987 book Prenzlauer Berg Tour as “urban mountain people, […] workers, students, artists, leftwing intellectuals.”3 Unlike in neighboring Friedrichshain, where post-war modernization efforts have altered the cityscape so that the intimacy of Altbau areas now alternates with expansive high rises and parking lots, the old buildings in Prenzlauer Berg have largely remained in place, creating a seemingly harmonious ensemble – a marked contrast to many other parts of the city. Coming from Berlin-Mitte and walking up Veteranenstraße towards Zionskirchplatz, the difference makes itself felt most pointedly. Here, one crosses an urban threshold, where the wider roads of the city center are replaced by narrower cobblestone streets. Restaurant tables line the sidewalks and window displays invite potential customers to scour the shops for small somethings. The quarter’s reputation is built on this particular feeling of leisurely comfort and urban intimacy, spruced up with just enough bygone bohème to justify sky high rent prices.

A pauper’s room on Spreestraße 6, Berlin, ca. 1910, 12,9 x 17,9 cm,
Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, Inv.-Nr.: F 52/2975
Source: https://www.dhm.de/lemo/bestand/objekt/g0000006_2.

To stand a chance in the global market of urban imaginations, a city’s promises have to manifest themselves in architectural form: a quaint rooftop apartment overlooking Paris, a historical Brooklyn brownstone, a smartly designed tiny house in Tokyo. Altbau apartments bestow their charm on Berlin and are selling above market price. High ceilings, hardwood floors and Stuck have become especially desirable assets on the housing market and define an Altbau in the common use of the word.4 Buildings that usually fall into this category date to the late 19th and early 20th century, when the country was still an empire. During the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first attempt at democracy, the city focused its construction activities on large housing estates under the aegis of chief city planner Martin Wagner. Far from romanticization, the older buildings in working class areas were known as “Mietskasernen,” rental barracks, in which the living conditions deteriorated progressively as one moved from the front house to the courtyards in the back.5 Photographs taken at the turn of the century in the city’s poorest quarters show dark, damp rooms, crowded with belongings, laundry and people. This version of reality is a far cry from Walter Benjamin’s tender description of his childhood home as it appears in Berlin Childhood around 1900. His words graze on the plushness of his family’s apartment and convey the velvety languor of a morning in the loggia: “Before this place fell prey to oblivion, art had occasionally undertaken to transfigure it. Now a hanging lamp, now a bronze, now a china vase would steal into its confines. And although these antiquities rarely did the place much honor, they suited its own antique character. The Pompeian red that ran in a wide band along its wall was the appointed background of the hours that piled up in such seclusion. Time grew old in those shadowy little rooms which looked out on the courtyards.”6 A nostalgic melancholy drives his account, the paradoxical longing of a Marxist writer for the bourgeois comfort of the place which shaped his earliest memories. By way of their contrasting natures, Benjamin’s descriptions and the photograph above reveal the social division of the city at the turn of the century: some enjoyed the company of bronzes, chinese vases and antiquities while others dwelled between moldy walls and chamber pots. Such was the situation at the time when today’s Altbau apartments were built. The housing market today still draws on the luxuriousness that is the object of Benjamin’s nostalgia while turning a blind eye to the social inequity that is part and parcel of its presence.

The architecture of the Altbau buildings latently retains the vast social differences that characterised the late 19th and 20th century. Instead of proposing solutions to increase the accessibility of healthy living conditions, most houses from the late 19th century were structured according to an internal hierarchy. The Beletage was visibly distinguished even from the outside, souterrain and rooftop apartments were reserved for servants and the less affluent.7 Features like this would later lead city planners and architects in the GDR to condemn the Altbau as a remnant of pre-socialist times, embodying economic differences and individualisation, and represent large, industrially built apartment complexes as socially just alternatives.8

               Harald Hauswald, Backyard Party, Oderberger Straße, 1985,
http://www.harald-hauswald.de/englisch/seiten/50jahre/hinterhof.html.

Today, seemingly conflicting ideals are attached to the Altbau apartment: on the one hand, it embodies wealth and spacious grandeur, apparent in the richly decorated hallways that await visitors behind the heavy doors lining the streets of Charlottenburg or the upscale parts of Schöneberg. On the other, renting or buying an Altbau continues to have a taste of the bohemian, the appeal of finding a cheap fixer-upper whose charm can be reawakened with just enough patience and handwork. In Berlin, stories of such lucky finds circulate as urban fairytales and shape the nostalgic imagination of a landscape in which an existence outside the capitalist real estate market was still possible. The Altbau has become a generic, city-wide label, that carries the contradictory promise of both bourgeois comfort and creative urban underground – two meanings which in Berlin have fused nowhere more than in Prenzlauer Berg, ridiculed by journalists as “Bobocity” and the capital of “Bionade Biedermeier.”9 A reason for the emergence of this particular scene in Prenzlauer Berg is the conflicting signifying potential of late 19th and early 20th century architecture, which makes up a higher percentage of Prenzlauer Berg’s total architecture than it does in any other neighborhood of Berlin:10 on the one hand, the Altbau is an architectural expression of individual wealth and the values of 19th century capitalism. On the other, it is tightly connected to the city’s postwar history, when these buildings were neglected on both sides of the Wall and in their run-down states provided homes for squatters in the West and so-called “Schwarzwohner” – the housing equivalent to fare dodging on public transit – in the East. In the GDR, newly constructed housing projects that more adequately represented socialist values, such as the Ernst-Thälmann-Park in Prenzlauer Berg, were strongly favored over the investment in areas with high percentages of Altbau buildings, which, as a consequence of their neglect, became havens of countercultural and creative activity. Prenzlauer Berg’s popularity today feeds on the quarter’s nonconformist past, and photos such as Harald Hauswald’s documentation of a party at the Hirschhof, a cultural initiative on Oderberger Straße founded by a group of residents in the early 1980s, nourish the imagination of freedom flourishing in the gaps left by the city grid, amongst urban ruins. All the while, façades are spruced up to fit the image of bourgeois opulence as described by Walter Benjamin. 

“Breakfast is not included,” Sunny informs a nameless lover as he wakes up in her apartment.

Solo Sunny is a document of a time before the fall of the Wall and before the pieces of history scattered in houses and backyards went up for sale on the real estate market. As such, the film presents a version of the life an Altbau offers that diverges from today’s imaginary: the housing complex in which Sunny’s small apartment occupies the top floor is memorable not for its grandeur or free-spirited appeal, but rather for the crumbling grey façade and often unfriendly interactions between the inhabitants. Sunny, whose wardrobe and makeup winds through the film like a trace of color, is met with skeptical looks and overt hostility by her elderly neighbor Frau Pfeiffer, and at one point is even summoned to the police for her allegedly inappropriate lifestyle: “loud music, male companions, pigeons in the closet.” Like Ralph’s curious way of living between bookshelves and oversized items of furniture, Sunny’s belongings are arranged in equally unorthodox fashion. The shower is in the kitchen, her bed occupies the middle of the room. Right next to it stands a round table, not quite large enough for dining, but perfect for drinking. A low-hanging lamp hovers somewhere between the two – how many times has she hit her head on this thing? Candleholders, a telephone, pictures and dried flowers are strewn around the room, brightly colored music posters and a kitschy, oversized print of a sunset contrast the conservative beige wallpaper. Below the kitchen window a hole in the wall offers more than a glimpse of the courtyard; it is likely the passageway for the aforementioned pigeons. Activities are not compartmentalized into different spaces, the lines between sleeping, eating, showering and cooking are thin. Built-in-kitchen, shelf unit, cupboards, all these proud markers of a stable, successful life in postwar Germany are missing. Instead, everything seems makeshift, in flux, precarious. Nothing in this apartment is quite where and how it should be. This, in fact, continues to be an Altbau reality, at least at the lower end of the price range, where formerly large apartments have often been split into two or three smaller units, making for clumsy floor plans, windowless rooms and tiny bathrooms. Contemporary life and historic spatial arrangements grate against each other. Bound up in this tension is the charm of these places, whose snakelike bathrooms and corner nooks can enchant with playful indeterminacy as well as repel, given their utter lack of practicality.11 

In Solo Sunny, the Altbau with its anachronistic social structures and spatial conditions gives form to the awkwardness of the protagonist’s life. “To be awkward is to be left alone inside a vale of experimentation, left with nothing more than deeply wrought tributaries of desire,” Mary Cappello writes.12 Sunny, struggling in her relationships and artistic identity, is too old to brush these worries off as growing pains which accompany a youthful adventure. Wasn’t she supposed to have it figured out as the turn of the decade looms?  “I’m 34 now, I can’t keep playing around,” her friend Christine says as the two scrub the floors of the latter’s apartment in a newly-built Plattenbau, courtesy of her employer. Wolf contrasts the drive through Prenzlauer Berg, where cars, trams and the overground subway rumble past dense rows of old façades, with the arrival at Christine’s new home. Dirt paths announce the wide roads of the future, soon to be frequented by thousands of people who will mold their lives into conveniently laid out and prefabricated apartment blocks.13 They promise modern comforts – garbage chutes, electric heating, fire alarm sprinklers – and a life designed to fit. Any sources of spatial or social awkwardness have been eradicated, experimentation is limited to lining the hallway with a photo wallpaper, promising lushness. One could see the conventionality of this environment as stifling, but one could also think of it as a place of repose, where misplaced lamp shields no longer pose daily obstacles and one can presume to have eluded the real threat of solitude inside the vale of experimentation once and for all. 

Three years after the film was made, the design and architecture magazine form + zweck described Prenzlauer Berg in a special issue on urban reconstruction and modernisation as follows: 

“There is a profound lack of cultural institutions. [...] The neglect of renovations of roofs and façades throughout the decades has led to an impression of poverty in this neighborhood, which is marked by many structural damages. [...] To live here is seen by many as an unpleasant transitional state.”14

“An unpleasant transitional state” – isn’t that a fitting description of awkwardness? Sunny certainly lives a life in transit, constantly moving between jobs, places and relationships. The “structural damages” that surround her go deeper than the neighborhood’s façades. What’s crumbling are various fantasies of how a life worth living should be: Christine’s factory job pays the rent for a comfortable apartment, but tethers her to a normativity from which Sunny tries to escape, culminating in desperation and a halfhearted suicide attempt – no life seems worth living, at least for a moment. Harry, one of Sunny’s lovers, is eager to institutionalise their relationship in order to add private accomplishment to the commercial success he has already achieved. The philosopher Ralph, by contrast, does not believe in romantic exclusivity nor the allure of a steady future. He has rerouted his path towards death, the topic of his philosophical dissertation: “By dying, one becomes a disruption,” he informs Sunny after the two have taken a walk at the graveyard on Pappelallee.

Solo Sunny stews in the impasse of its protagonist, who has let go of more conventional life fantasies but clings to living itself, despite not knowing how to go forward. Her “being treads water; mainly it does not drown,” as Lauren Berlant has described this state.15 Her book Cruel Optimism theorizes the desire for objects, habits, relationships that promise happiness but are actually obstacles to the individual’s flourishing, a dilemma which the author sees as a consequence of the fraying belief that “society will reliably provide opportunities for individuals to carve out relations of reciprocity.”16 While Berlant argues that the condition she describes is historically specific to liberal capitalism, Konrad Wolf’s film shows how this predicament can appear in a very different sociopolitical context, namely that of the last decade of the GDR: Sunny is attached to the individualism of stage performance and a desire for stardom, but both of these goals possibly deepen her discomfort and unhappiness. When does her deviance from social conformity bring about freedom, when does it propel self-enclosing alienation? 

Possibly to stick to the rules of the censorship game, the final frame in which Sunny smiles while watching her new band play reasserts the kind of optimism that Berlant would deem “cruel.” Betterment seems imminent. Deceptively so, because nothing has actually changed, Sunny is still bound to a dream of stage success that – even if fulfilled – remains lonely, alienated at its core. The minutes of the film that lead up to this conclusion suggest a more daring approach to the impasse: to inhabit the awkwardness rather than to pacify oneself with the illusion that the realization of a desire will resolve it. In recognizing the present as fundamentally awkward and uncomfortable, it becomes possible to ask what kind of structural change would be necessary in order to make this condition of awkwardness endurable, maybe even create a truly good life for everyone. What can take root here? The answer to this question can take unruly forms. With palaces destroyed and the Altbau left to rot, formerly empty apartments provide homes to those who are figuring out their own versions of what a desirable life can be. 


Notes

1. The Schlacht- und Verarbeitungskombinat Eberswalde was founded in 1977 and continues to exist under a different name today. In its heyday, the Kombinat employed 3000 workers; yearly meat production reached circa one billion marks in value. More than 2000 apartments and 200 single family homes had to be built to house the newly arrived employees, 60% of whom were women. They enjoyed access to a hospital, restaurant, sports facilities and other recreational offers. (cf. Helmut Koch, “VEB Schlacht- und Verarbeitungskombinat Eberswalde/Britz (SVKE),” accessed February 14th, 2021, wirtschaftsgeschichte-eberswalde.de.) The overwhelming largeness of the Kombinat and the benefits it offered employees remind one of the factory in which Sunny used to work. Her desire to quit the stifling uniformity of this environment and the ensuing lack of security become central to the film.

2. For an overview of Prenzlauer Berg’s history, architectural and otherwise, cf. “Prenzlauer Berg,” Berliner Chronik, accessed February 14th, 2021, https://www.chronik-berlin.de/bezirke/Prenzlauer-Berg/index.html#:~:text=Prenzlauer%20Berg%20ist%20ein%20Ortsteil,ein%20eigenst%C3%A4ndiger%20Bezirk%20bis%201990.

3.  Daniela Dahn, Prenzlauer Berg Tour (Halle: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1987), 5. Translation by the author. Dahn’s book was published to great acclaim and success in the GDR and remains an important document for tracing the image-making of Prenzlauer Berg as the hotspot of East Berlin’s “underground” scene. A significant article by the urban planner and architecture critic Wolfgang Kil described the quarter as a “niche,” but already historicized its particular character, which the author, writing three years after the fall of the wall, feared was vanishing (cf. Wolfgang Kil, “Prenzlauer Berg – Aufstieg und Fall einer Nische,” in: Hans G. Helms, ed., Die Stadt als Gabentisch (Leipzig: Reclam, 1992), 508-520). 

4. According to the city’s Mietspiegel, an Altbau is defined as a building that was built before 1949 (cf. Forschung Beratung für Wohnen, Immobilien und Umwelt GmbH, Methodenbericht Berliner Mietspiegel 2019 (Hamburg 2020), https://www.stadtentwicklung.berlin.de/wohnen/mietspiegel/de/download/Mietspiegel2019_Berlin_Ergebnisbericht.pdf).

5. An account of the destruction of the former Mietskasernen in the early 1960s and their reputation is given in Johann Friedrich Geist’s and Klaus Kürver’s thoroughly researched book Das Berliner Mietshaus 1945-1989 (München: Prestel Verlag, 1989), 530-538.

6. Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood around 1900, translated by Howard Eiland (Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press, 2006), 41.

7. Andreas Gestrich describes the increasing differentiation between the different social spheres that occupied one single house in Geschichte der Familie im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Munich: Oldenbourg Verlag, 2013), 21.

8. Compare the following extract from a document quoted in Geist’s and Kürver’s Das Berliner Mietshaus 1945-1989, which can be read as discrediting the intimate structure of Altbau houses, often centered around a courtyard: “The tendency to treat each block as a building of its own, eg. through the schematic emphasis of its center, is not in accord with socialist urbanism. The orderliness (Planmäßigkeit) as a typical characteristic of a socialist order demands to be reflected also in architectural design.” (pp. 386-387, translation by the author). The disregard for Gründerzeit architecture in the GDR is also mentioned in Hartmut Häußermann et al., Stadterneuerung in der Berliner Republik. Modernisierung in Berlin Prenzlauer-Berg (Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien, 2002), p. 11.

9. cf. Henning Sußebach, “Bionade-Biedermeier,” ZEITmagazin Leben, November 8, 2007, and Guillaume Paoli, “Willkommen in Bobocity,” Berliner Stadtzeitung Steinschlag, No. 6, 2007, http://www.scheinschlag.de/archiv/aktuell/dateien/texte/05.html.

10. 67% of the houses in Prenzlauer Berg were built before 1918, according to Häußermann et al., Stadterneuerung in der Berliner Republik, p. 67.

11. I thank Tobias Rosen for this sentence and the substantial help in the clarification of my argument. 

12. Mary Cappello, Awkward. A Detour (New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2007), 218.

13. Life in these apartment blocks is portrayed in another outstanding DEFA film, Hermann Zschoche’s Insel der Schwäne (1983).

14. Herbert Pohl and Wolf-Dietrich Werner, “Analysen und Vorstellungen,” form + zweck 15, no. 1 (1983), 12. Translation by the author.

15. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 10.

16.  ibid., 3.


Luise Mörke lives in Berlin and is currently a graduate student in art history at Humboldt University. As a teenager, she once provocatively declared that she liked movies more than books. Today she tries to speak less absolutely, but still spends a lot of her time watching, writing and thinking about film. Updates on current writing and other projects can usually be found on Instagram @luise_moerke.

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