Brigitte Helm (1906-1996)

The movie star was best known for her double role in Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Photo: dpa picture alliance / akg images
 Brigitte Helm never came to terms with her own fame.

Brigitte Helm became a star at 21, or maybe just 19. Biographers don’t agree on her year of birth. Her double role as Maria and a robot in Fritz Lang’s monumental silent film Metropolis in 1927, her very first role in fact, turned her into a symbol for the independence of women and for the future of civilisation.

The native Berliner was under contract with the Ufa film studio for 10 years. She performed mostly lead roles in 30 silent films and talkies. Her acting polarised German critics. Hymns of praise and scathing reviews followed every one of her movies. If critics did like her work, it was not unusual that she had to share the renown with a man, usually the director. If her performance was deemed poor, it was always ascribed to her lack of training as an actor. However, audiences and international critics saw things differently: she was adored in France and offers came flooding in from Hollywood.

Even if she was reduced to the femme fatale in many films against her will and radiated glamour from the covers of fashion magazines, Brigitte Schittenhelm, as she was actually called, had a modest appearance and a girlish charm in private. She pursued handicrafts between stints of film work. At the height of her fame, she is said to have told a film critic that she didn’t care about her career; she would prefer to get married, be a housewife and raise children.

In Metropolis, she embodied a saint who led a city into a better future, but she saw no future for herself in Germany - due to the Nazi regime but also due to personal difficulties. She had to serve a prison sentence following a car accident. In April 1935 she married Hugo Eduard Kunheim, a Jewish industrialist. The couple moved to Italy, then Sweden, and had four children. Brigitte Helm never acted again. Marcus Jürgens


Dorothea Bertram (1926-1993)

Fashion editor at Sibylle magazine

Photo: Nachlass Roger Melis/AdK Berlin
London? East Berlin! Dorothea Bertram 1960s.

It was as if the models in Sibylle, the leading East German fashion magazine, had come back to life. Gone were the stiff poses in high-necked outfits and sensible pumps. Suddenly, the women were rebellious beings, their gazes self-confident and their movements nonchalant. Hands thrust in the pockets of their trench coats, their hair blowing in the wind, they stood at street corners and in front of factories with smoke billowing from their chimneys.

Dorothea Bertram, who took over as fashion editor at Sibylle in 1961, was responsible for the new subversive attitude at the women’s magazine. She is still considered to be the most influential fashion editor in the East. Born in Berlin, she began her career by writing her thesis on fashion design at Weißensee Art Academy in which she compared Sibylle with western magazines like Elle and Vogue and concluded that East Germany had lost its way culturally. Sibylle's editor-in-chief Margot Pfannstiel hired the young graduate to bring the magazine up to international standards.

From that moment, she was responsible for Sibylle’s more open approach to style at a time when the country was sealing itself off from the world with the construction of the Berlin Wall. She worked with photographers like Arno Fischer, Günter Rössler and Elisabeth Menke and created fashion spreads that have stood the test of time. She used a photographic style that explored the profane as an artistic subject. She documented an imaginary world that remained a distant dream for most real East German women.

Dorothea Bertram left Sibylle in 1970 following the departure of Margot Pfannstiel and the subsequent restrictions on artistic freedom. That year, she married the photographer Roger Melis and took his surname. She later became the head of publicity at VHB Exquisit, East Germany’s luxury fashion chain. After that, she worked as an instructor, publicist and curator. Her most creative phase, however, was her time at Sibylle. With her vision of the independent woman - who came alive in her photospreads - she proved that the zeitgeist can’t be stopped, not even by politics. Sabine Röthig


Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (1928-2002)

Founder of the Gründerzeitmuseum

Photo: imago images / Raimund Müller
Charlotte von Mahlsdorf at her house in Berlin-Mahlsdorf.

She never needed a coming out, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf wrote in her 1995 autobiography. After all: “Everything was obvious.” Of course, it was always a danger “to walk around as a transvestite.” But, “with persistence and courage, you could get somewhere.”

She was born as Lothar Berfelde on 18 March 1928 in Mahlsdorf in the eastern part of Berlin. The young boy felt like a girl early on and one of his uncles showed some understanding. But the love of his life was the domestic culture of the Gründerzeit, the age of rapid industrial expansion in Berlin in the 19th century.

His relationship with his violent father was nothing less than life-threatening. In the spring of 1944, he told his son that “he would strike him dead like a mangy dog,” and then “shoot dead” his mother and two sisters. The boy sneaked up to his father’s bed at night - and killed him. An act of “preventive self-defence.”

Lothar was sentenced to four years in the prison for young offenders and was released shortly before the end of the war. Lothar became Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and made her living trading second-hand goods. The Gründerzeitmuseum emerged from her passion for old things. She opened it in Gutshaus Mahlsdorf on 1 August 1960. She placed “the highlight of my collection” in the cellar: the furnishings from a legendary bar in the Scheunenviertel in Mitte, Mulackritze.

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf became known beyond Berlin when she was awarded the German Federal Cross of Merit in 1992. She began to consider moving away after being attacked by neo-Nazis at a party in the Gutshaus a year earlier. In 1995, she closed the Gründerzeitmuseum and moved to Sweden two years later. The state of Berlin purchased the museum and an association reopened it. Today, it claims to preside over the most comprehensive collection of objects from the period of 1870 to 1900. Her entire life, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf fought for justice, tolerance and the acceptance of minorities.

“Without doing anything, I've become a kind of idol for the gays and lesbians,” she wrote in her autobiography. “It feels good to know that you've dedicated your life to something that gives others strength.”Michael Brettin


Louise Schröder (1887-1957)

Politician, mayor of Berlin

Photo: imago images / imagebroker
Louise Schroeder

Over the course of her life, she held numerous high posts that were normally available only to men. As a member of the Reichstag for the Social Democrats, she successfully advocated for the German maternity protection act, known as “Lex Schroeder”. Still today, Louise Schroeder remains Berlin's only female mayor.

From May 1947 to December 1948, Louise Schroeder was provisionally responsible for the fate of the city. The 60-year-old was made mayor because the SPD passed a vote of no confidence against mayor Otto Ostrowski, a member of the same party, due to collaboration with the communist Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist Unity Party of Germany). The Soviets then blocked another member of the SPD, Ernst Reuter, from succeeding Ostrowski in the post. Louise Schroeder did not force the issue. It was, she admitted, “a heavy burden that I’m not sure I should bear.”

Born in 1887, Schroeder was the eighth child of a poor family in Hamburg-Altona. Her father, a construction worker, instilled a love for the Social Democrats in his daughter. Her mother sold vegetables. Louise attended Mädchen-Mittelschule (middle school for girls), worked as a typist for an insurance company and continued her education during evening classes. As a young woman, the passionate, socially engaged politician dedicated herself to the cause of women’s rights.

In 1919, she was elected to the Weimarer Nationalversammlung (Weimar National Assembly) and founded the Arbeiterwohlfahrt (Workers’ Welfare Association, or AWO) the same year. Under the Nazis, she lost both her political office as well as her job as a social policy teacher. She kept her head above water financially by running a small bakery.

Both the currency reform and the Berlin blockade took place under her watch as mayor. She faced these challenges untiringly. Lucius D. Clay, the Military Governor of the American Occupation Zone from 1947 to 1949, valued her calm, “maternal” nature. Many saw her as the “mother of Berlin.” On April 2, 1957, her 70th birthday, Louise Schroeder became the first woman to be named an honorary citizen of Berlin. Anne-Kattrin Palmer


May Ayim (1960 - 1996)

Poet, educator, activist

Photo: Orlando Verlag Berlin
May Ayim

Sylvia Opitz was a girl from Münster with a harrowing story. In the 1960s, she found herself growing up in a rigid, unwelcoming society. Her dad was out of the picture, her mum too. Her foster mother tried to make a “model child” out of Sylvia by raising her according to strict rules. She was certain the little girl wouldn't make it otherwise. Sylvia’s biological father was from Ghana and she had dark skin. It was a fact brought to her attention over and over again during her short life.

As a young adult, Sylvia Opitz changed her name to May Ayim. She refused to let the racism and exclusion she has experienced destroy her. Instead, she used her talent for language to overcome the pain of discrimination.

Her essay “Afro-deutsch” (“Afro-German”) is one of her best-known pieces of writing. In it, she ridiculed white people’s well-meaning but racist comments. Things like: “You’re really lucky you were born here.” Or: “If you study really hard, you can help your people in Africa.”

Ayim studied education and psychology at the University of Regensburg, where her professor explained “there’s no racism in Germany” when she proposed doing her thesis on the history of Afro-Germans. She knew better and ended up writing it anyway in West Berlin. It ended up becoming a standard reference work and was later published as part of the collection Farbe bekennen (Showing Our Colours: Afro-German Women Speak Out).

The years flew by. Ayim published poems and found her audience. She was instrumental in establishing the Afro-German movement. She taught at the Alice-Salomon-Hochschule in Hellersdorf in eastern Berlin. In a way she ended up becoming a “model child”, but a very different one from what her foster mother had imagined: rebellious, emancipated, critical and aware.

Sadly, her days on Earth were numbered. Ayim began to experience bouts of depression in her early thirties and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. At the age of 36, in the summer of 1996, she took her own life.

In her final poem, she asked: “What should be my last thought?” Her answer was simple: “Thank you.”Frederik Bombosch

Find more portraits, stories and interviews celebrating the 100th anniversary of the creation of Greater Berlin in the autumn-winter 2020 issue of B HISTORY, Berliner Verlag's new history magazine.

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