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In Zille’s footsteps across Berlin

© visitBerlin, Foto: Günter Steffen

Berlin has many familiar faces that have shaped the city’s history and artist Heinrich Zille is one of them. But who was Heinrich Zille and why he is so special for the history of Berlin? Questions that are reason enough for me to go in search of clues and learn more about the artist. Although almost 90 years have passed since his death, Heinrich Zille is still omnipresent in Berlin.

My hunt starts in Berlin’s Charlottenburg district at Sophie-Charlotten-Straße 88, the house where Zille lived for many years before dying in 1929. Today, a plaque commemorates the former tenant. By the way, Zille wasn’t born in Berlin, as some might think, but instead near Dresden in 1858.

Just a few streets away from his former home, I find myself on Zillestraße. But Zille, the 80th person to be singled out as an honorary citizen of Berlin, not only has a street named after him, but also an entire housing estate and two primary schools. There’s even a restaurant in Charlottenburg that is named after him: the Zillemarkt on Bleibtreustraße offers home-style cooking and an ambience that Zille would have felt comfortable in.

I take public transport then to Heinrich Zille Park, in Berlin’s Mitte district, next to one of the two Zille schools. It’s not exactly a place of peace and quiet, given that 90% of the park is a playground. But I do find another clue about Zille in another park in Mitte: a memorial to Zille in Köllnischer Park next to the Märkisches Museum dating from 1965.

The Märkisches Museum is, of course, devoted to the history of Berlin and so Zille is relevant here. On 1 March 2016, an event entitled “The Unknown Zille” will be offered here and will certainly be worth a visit to learn more about the man.

Today, however, I’m on my way to the Zille Museum, not far away in the Nikolaiviertel. The small, quaint museum is clearly a labour of love and displays many of Zille’s works as well as a video about Zille’s life. I learn much about Zille’s work here: what sets Zille’s drawings and photographs apart is the way that he put his observations and experience into all his works. Zille was not actively seeking the unusual; he was merely documenting the everyday life on the streets of Berlin. Nothing is as well reflected in his drawings as the lower classes of the time who lived a life in the big city without the glitz and glamour so often associated with the capital. Zille’s milieu was the working-class neighbourhoods where the people excluded from fine society lived their lives, the places no one wanted to see. Zille, however, did not look away, but instead recorded what he saw in his drawings, leaving behind an authentic glimpse into the life in Berlin a hundred years ago.

But the museum in the Nikolaiviertel not only commemorates the city’s great master: he also left some personal traces here, too. Right next door are the Zille Destille and the Zillestube, two restaurants offering typical Berlin specialities. I also discover another memorial to Zille, this time dating from 2008, but this is just not any memorial, it’s a talking statue. What makes this so unusual is that there is a QR code that passers-by can scan with their smartphones to hear exciting stories about Zille’s life. The only livelier way to experience Zille is probably at the Theater im Nikolaiviertel, offering “Zille sein Milljöh”, a musical tour of Zille’s Berlin in local dialect. Köpenick, by the way, has yet another theatre that specialises in Zille, the Zille Stubentheater, which is coincidentally the smallest theatre in Berlin. Thus my hunt for clues about Zille is over for now. I am surprised by how much I discovered about Heinrich Zille in Berlin and look forward to going on my next hunt. I wonder for whom? ... Written by Fiona Bonke