The Adlon, Berlin’s “Grand Hotel”


From a historical perspective, Hotel Adlon in Berlin is one of the most glamorous purpose-built hotels in Germany. Certainly, there are numerous Schlosses and villas turned hotels, or part-time residences, for affluent clients throughout the country. However, very few can compete with the Adlon’s dramatic, or shall we say cinematic, history.

Since its founding in 1907, the hotel has embodied standards of luxury in mythic proportions. In its early years, the Adlon was host to Emperor Wilhem II, the Tsar of Russia, the Maharajah of Patiala, as well as such historic figures as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Marlene Dietrich and Charlie Chaplin. However, perhaps the most famous star who put the Adlon on the international cultural map was the Swedish film actress Greta Garbo.

Talking pictures’ most famous performer spoke the most celebrated line in the history of cinema in a film that was entirely staged at the Adlon. It was Garbo’s character, Russian ballerina Grusinskaya, in Grand Hotel (1932) who uttered the words, “I want to be alone.” Set in a place fit for Emperors, Tsars, kings, maharajas and maharanis with a supporting cast that included the father of Hollywood royalty, John Barrymore (1882-1942), the film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, in 1933.

During the following seventy years, Grand Hotel’s theatrical and cinematic spin-offs have included: Week-End at the Waldorf (1945), Plaza Suite (1968), The Out-of-Towners (1970 & 1990), California Suite (set in The Beverly Hills Hotel, 1976), London Suite (1996) and a short documentary about the making of Grand Hotel entitled Checking Out: Grand Hotel (2004). However, none of these variations on the Grand Hotel (1932) has held the importance of the original blockbuster which in 2007, was selected for inclusion and preservation by the United States National Film Registry (the Library of Congress).

A little more than two decades later, Hungarian-born filmmaker Josef von Báky made Hotel Adlon (1955) which starred French actress Nelly Borgeaud, best known for her work with François Truffaut (Mississippi Mermaid, 1969). The story begins at the time of the Adlon’s construction in 1907 and moves through the institution’s glamorous era, in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The film is an adaptation of the autobiography of the American Hedda Adlon. Born Hedda Burger, she married Louis Adlon (1907-1941), the son of the Hotel’s founder, and later its proprietor, in 1922

Cinema’s fascination with the Adlon(s) has continued with the oeuvre of German filmmaker Percy Adlon (b. 1935), the great grand-son of Lorenz Adlon (1849-1921), the Hotel’s founder, who is a prominent film and television director, screenwriter and producer. He is best know for the 1987 cult classic Bagdad Cafe (Out of Rosenheim) which, somewhat ironically, is set in a truck-stop motel in the Mojave Desert. Baghdad Cafe was later adapted as a musical for the stage (1993-96).

The year prior to the new Hotel Adlon’s (re)inauguration, in 1997, Percy directed a made for TV movie called The Glamorous World of the Adlon Hotel. The film is set just after the end of WWII, at the time of the Adlon’s destruction. The film tells the story of Louis Adlon Jr (the director’s grandfather and the son of the Hotel’s founder) who travels back to Berlin as a newspaper reporter working for William Randolph Hearst where he is on a mission to uncover the whereabouts of Nazi leaders. Upon finding the Adlon in the midst of smoke and fire, Louis is overwhelmed by memories of his childhood that are beautifully illustrated with old photographs and silent films that feature Richard Tauber, Josephine Baker, Thomas Mann, Charlie Chaplin and Marlene Dietrich.

Earlier this year, the Adlon served as the backdrop for Liam Neeson’s latest action thriller Unknown Identity. Premiered at the Berlinale 2011, the film also stars Diane Kruger and January Jones. For convenience of filming – and blowing up a few cars outside the Hotel – a replica of the Hotel’s main lobby was recreated in the Marlene Dietrich Hall at the Babelsberg Studios.

Hotel Adlon has also its share of a wide range of rather special musical moments to remember – British experimental rock band Henry Cow’s 1974 Upon Entering the Hotel Adlon – and ones to forget – Michael Jackson holding his newborn baby out of his suite window at the Adlon, in 2002.

However, the Adlon has also been witness to much grief and tragedy. Beginning in 1933, the rise of the Third Reich changed the face of Germany – indeed, the world – the Hotel began to lose its international, especially American, clientele. During the Second World War, the Adlon even served as a field hospital, for a short period of time until it was almost completely destroyed by Allied bombings, at the beginning of May 1945. This period in the institution’s history is dramatically fictionalized by Scottish writer Philip Kerrs in his thriller novel If the Dead Rise Not, 2010 (Die Adlonverschwörung or The Adlon Conspiracy, 2009).

For the following four decades, Unter den Linden was home to a lone standing wing of the Adlon until it was demolished in 1984 to make room for a new (re)construction. As with numerous other cultural and historical institutions and structures throughout Germany, Hotel Adlon was rebuilt in its entirety, and (re)inaugurated in 1997.

My stay at the Adlon, earlier this year, fueled my imaginative love of history and cinema… while fulfilling that irrepressible taste for all things epicurean. The visit also incited my curiosity for Berlin’s history as embodied in one of the city’s most iconic institutions.

The Adlon is now operated by the luxury hotel group Kempinski Hotels.