You might not think that the capital of Germany would have anything in common with the city of angels. And yet, the histories of Berlin and Los Angeles are intertwined in remarkable ways. From their beginnings as small, provincial villages to their current status as important centers of culture and technology, Berlin and Los Angeles are united by more than their sister city partnership.
From Backwaters to Boomtowns
In the mid-nineteenth century, neither Berlin nor Los Angeles were towns of any great size or consequence. Berlin, then the capital of Prussia, was eclipsed in size as well as political and economic importance by Munich and Hamburg, and in cultural significance by Weimar and Dresden. Los Angeles was a small Mexican village until 1848 when it became part of the United States. Over the course of the next few decades, however, both cities boomed. From 1871, when it became the capital of Germany, to the end of World War I in 1918, Berlin’s population grew by 150%, from 800,000 to four million. The inhabitants of Los Angeles numbered a mere 5,000 in 1870, but had risen to half a million by 1920, and 1.2 million by 1930. An author of a 1915 city guidebook noted L.A.’s breakneck pace of development, writing of an “air charged with fevered reports of ‘deals,’ crops, ‘gushers,’ bank clearings, and building permits.”(1)
The speed with which Berlin and Los Angeles grew from backwaters to major urban centers shaped perceptions of both cities within their respective countries. Critics decried what they saw as unregulated growth and construction, caused by speculation and profit-mongering and resulting in cityscapes as unattractive as they were unplanned. Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe memorably described Los Angeles as a “a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style.”(2) German politician Walther Rathenau, in his ironically titled book The Most Beautiful City in the World, complained that Berlin’s buildings were such a jumble, it was “as if a dentist made a splendid pair of dentures, proud that each individual tooth featured its own character, style, and color.”(3) Berlin and Los Angeles were said to be cities without history or cultural roots. But what some saw as deficiency, others saw as opportunity: a place without history was a place where you could reinvent yourself, where you could write your own history.
Capitals of Modernity
The engines of Berlin’s and Los Angeles’s growth were industries of modernization, such as real estate development, railways, energy, and aerospace. This, in large part, resulted in both cities being closely associated with modernity in their home countries. “The image of the incredible movement of people, light, and traffic that your eyes behold,” read a 1911 guidebook titled Berlin for Insiders, “that is Berlin!”(4)
Of all industries that contributed to Berlin’s and Los Angeles’s modern reputations, the film industry was—and remains, particularly in the case of Los Angeles—the most famous. The first film screening is said to have taken place in Berlin at the Wintergarden theater in 1895; only about a decade later, the Universum Film company, known as UfA, was founded. This is the studio that produced such influential and groundbreaking films as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (dir. Robert Weine, 1920) and Metropolis (dir. Fritz Lang, 1927). UfA established an innovative, expressionist style of filmmaking, characterized by melodramatic stories, inventive cinematography, and experimental set design.
Beginning in the 1920s, many of UfA’s leading directors, stars, cinematographers, editors, and other personnel were already relocating to Hollywood, a movement that accelerated soon after the Nazis came to power in 1933 and enacted waves of legislation that barred Jewish professionals from working in Germany. It was during this time that Hollywood became the world capital of film, ushering in a golden age that would last through the next decade.
Expatriates who had worked in Berlin for the German film industry, including directors Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder and cinematographer Karl Freund, found a home in the U.S., playing key roles in shaping American filmmaking in the subsequent years—solidifying the connections between the cities’ industries for years to come. In films like Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), and Key Largo (dir., John Huston, 1948), which featured cinematography by Freund, the expressionist style of filmmaking pioneered at UfA was used in making gritty crime dramas, often set in Los Angeles. In this way, filmmakers from Berlin played a key role in establishing the classic American genre of film noir.
In addition to their association with the modern phenomenon of film, Berlin and Los Angeles also boasted cityscapes that were designed specifically with the modern lifestyle in mind. Erich Mendelsohn’s shopping and office building Columbushaus (1928–32) on Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, featured a streamlined façade designed to be viewed from a passing car. The Lovell Health House (1929), located in the L.A. neighborhood of Los Feliz, was designed by Austrian architect Richard Neutra for the physician and naturopath Philip Lovell. The house included sunbathing areas, sleeping porches, and open-air exercise rooms, all intended to increase residents’ exposure to Southern California’s climate and its therapeutic effects.
After the War
For both cities, the postwar was a period of growth and, for Berlin, rebirth, as each entered a new era in its history. Civic leaders in Los Angeles and Berlin drew on the cities’ modernist pedigrees when fashioning urban landscapes for the postwar era.
In West Berlin, the effort to rebuild the city from the ashes of war led to the construction of many of the city’s most famous modernist landmarks, including the high-rises of the Hansa district that were built as part of the 1957 International Building Exhibition or “Interbau”; the reconstructed Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church, featuring a new chapel and bell tower (Egon Eiermann, 1959–63); and the Europa-Center (Helmut Hentrich and Hubert Petschnigg, 1963–65). But it was Hans Scharoun’s Berlin Philharmonic (1960–63), and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s New National Gallery (1965–68), that would form the core of a cultural forum that continues to serve as a center of arts and culture for the city today.
Architecture and urban development in postwar Los Angeles was likewise shaped by social, political, and economic shifts. Newly affluent and mobile, people moved in increasing numbers to the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys, vacating the central districts of Los Angeles. These increasingly empty downtown districts became the focus of urban renewal efforts in the 1950s and 1960s. Bunker Hill, an appropriately named area with a complicated history, is one such district. Sadly, from 1959 to 1964, most of the historic Victorian homes on Bunker Hill were bulldozed; at the time, no one could have predicted that these homes would ultimately be replaced by buildings that would shape Los Angeles’s iconic landscape, including the headquarters of L.A.’s Department of Water and Power (A. C. Martin and Associates, 1963–65), Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (Walton Beckett and Associates, 1960–64), the Bonaventure Hotel (John C. Portman, 1974–76), and Walt Disney Concert Hall (Frank Gehry, 1988–2003).
Shifts in the urban landscape of Los Angeles were precipitated in part by changes in the city’s demographics, reshaped by the steady stream of immigrants escaping war-torn Europe—Germany in particular. Some of these new residents, such as novelist Alfred Döblin, author of Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), would stay only a few years. Others—such as conductor Otto Klemperer, who was named Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1933—would put down roots in Los Angeles, ultimately becoming the city’s cultural leaders. Decades later, the influence of these émigrés from Berlin continues to be felt.
One Berlin émigré, film editor Rudi Fehr, sought to strengthen the ties between the two cities and in particular to recognize the cultural and cinematic exchange between Berlin and Los Angeles. In 1967, Fehr, editor of such film classics as Key Largo (1948) and Dial M for Murder (1954) met for dinner at the legendary Chasen’s with film producer and fellow Berliner Hello Weber. Together, Weber and Fehr discussed a proposal to establish a sister-city partnership between the two cities. Armed with their plan, Fehr and actor Francis Lederer approached then-Mayor Sam Yorty with the idea, and shortly after, on June 26, 1967, Berlin became Los Angeles’s sixth Sister City. The establishment of the Berlin-L.A. partnership was marked by events in both cities. In Berlin, Mayor Yorty and Berlin Mayor Heinrich Albertz signed the official agreement at a celebration that took place during the 1967 Berlin Film Festival. In Los Angeles, a ceremony was held to mark the occasion, at which attendees were given whimsical cans of “Berlin Air (Berliner Luft).”
Over the subsequent decades, the LA-Berlin Sister City Committee has overseen numerous events in celebration and commemoration of significant moments in each city’s history and of significant moments of exchange between the two—from Mayor Tom Bradley bringing a Dixieland Jazz Band, 120 Angelenos, 2 Fisher weasels, and the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra to Berlin to celebrate the city’s 750th birthday, to embedding a chunk of the Berlin Wall in the base of the sign for the commemoratively named Berlin Forest in Griffith Park. The Partnership has facilitated new exchanges between Berlin and Los Angeles, as much as it has highlighted extant ones.
Berlin and L.A. are vibrantly and enduringly joined through their shared histories as boomtowns, by the intertwined communities, and by their tremendous contributions to history of both film and architecture. It is these connections that the Getty Research Institute celebrates in its exhibition Berlin/LA: Space for Music (April 25–July 30, 2017).
Erhard Bahr, Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008)
Mark Bould, Film Noir: From Berlin to Sin City (New York: WallFlower Press, 2005)
Mike Davis, “Sunshine or Noir,” in City of Quartz (New York: Verso, 1990)
Skirball Cultural Center, Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933–1950, October 23, 2014–March 1, 2015
Anton Wagner’s photographs of Los Angeles, taken 1932–33 for his book Los Angeles: Werden, Leben und Gestalt der Zweimillionen Stadt in Südkalifornien (Los Angeles: The Development, Life and Form of the Southern California Metropolis), published 1935
1. Ruth Kedzie Wood, The Tourist’s California (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1915), 292.
2. Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister (1949; repr., New York: Vintage Books, 1988), 184.
3. Walther Rathenau, Die schönste Stadt der Welt (1902; repr. Berlin: Philo Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, 2002), 45.
4. Anonymous, Berlin für Kenner, c. 1911, quoted in Die Berliner Moderne: 1885–1914, Jürgen Schutte and Peter Sprengel, eds. (Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun., 1987), 97.