Mime Over Chatter: Berlin’s Silent Answer to Drunk and Annoying Tourists
This year, one of Berlin's districts is testing out a different approach to obnoxious partiers: mimes.
All photos by Alexander Coggin.
When it comes to tourism, Berlin's got growing pains. Last summer, one of the enemies was rolling suitcases. The district mayor's proposed antidote? A code of conduct for the 12 million tourists who visit annually—including proper trash disposal and rubber wheels for all that baggage clattering over the German capital's charming cobblestone streets.
That didn't go over well, as numerous German publications ridiculed the idea while other Berliners took to social media to lambast it ("Justice for the rolling suitcase!" mocked David Hugendick in Zeit Magazin).
This year, one of Berlin's districts is testing out a different approach: mimes. White-faced, white-clad street performers will patrol some of the noisier party miles in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg and, with their wordless élan, campaign against noise and litter. The neighborhood the mimes are descending on, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, is especially in need of some peace and quiet. A 2014 poll by the tourism office found that every third person in the district feels bothered by visitors.
Berlin isn't the first city to use mimes for this purpose: Barcelona ran a program for 14 years, and Paris has dozens of civility-promoting mimes on the streets. Here, the pilot project—running on weekend nights through the middle of July—is the result of a study comparing how 21 different European cities handle party-hardy tourists. The project was a collaborative effort by the Visit Berlin tourism association, the Association of Hotels and Restaurants, and various club owners.
"We wanted to do this in a Berlin way," said Lutz Leichsenring, a spokesman with Berlin's Clubcommission, a nightlife network here. "We were looking for a charming, sympathetic, and above all performative way to raise people's awareness."
"Charming" was a big buzzword at the project launch last Friday. Dozens of journalists—from the Tagesspiegel, Berliner Zeitung, and local TV stations—had been summoned to an outdoor press conference. There was free beer and bagel sandwiches. Questions about costs were answered brusquely—at the press conference two months ago, it was already made clear the project runs about 100,000 euros.
Eventually the five mimes emerged, dancing to a tinny techno rendition of "Ode to Joy." Their faces were painted white, a bit of blue flair around their eyes or lips, different than the classic black-and-white look of Parisian mimes. Rather than bang on invisible glass cages, they pouted at imaginary boom boxes and yawned dramatically. When posed questions, the mimes answered with enthusiastic thumbs-ups.
We followed the mimes onto Friedrichshain's Simon-Dach Straße, a top destination for drunken balladeering and public disposal of bodily fluids. Several of the journalists, enjoying Germany's lack of open-container laws, brought their pilsners to-go. The mimes quickly descended on the restaurants' outdoor tables, where they pretended to steal cocktails and bottles of peppermint schnapps, dangled mini disco balls (real ones), and shone flashlights (also real) in faces. The mimes fluffed pillows—again, real, and pocket-sized—and snuggled against a stranger's shoulder. They hammed for the camera and appeared aghast at cigarette butts and gum wrappers on the sidewalk. Some diners were eager to return their hugs and high fives. Others had grimaces to match the mimes'.
When crowds gathered—and they quickly did, in part because of the TV cameras—a mediator hopped in to explain the project and dispense flyers. The project has five mimes and seven trained mediators (they speak a total of four languages), who'll normally head out in groups of four from 10 PM to 4 AM. On Friday, the response from passersby ranged from mild amusement to skepticism.
"For that night, it could have an influence," said Laura Treviño, a Mexican living in Friedrichshain. "It's friendly. But most of the people here are just tourists, and they're gone after a week."
We followed the cheers farther down the street, where a British bachelor party—the groom-to-be wore a body-hugging black mini dress—had tumbled out of a Hundertwasser-themed restaurant. Edward Day, who has lived in Berlin for two years, thought residents should realize noise is inevitable. "If you walk down Simon-Dach-Straße, you can see that every other place is a bar," he told me. "People should check out the area before they move in. It's like getting a house on a floodplain."
And, he added, "If people are drunk, they're not going to be reasonable."
According to project coordinator Malena Medam, "Totally drunk people are not our target audience."
"We won't go into conflict situations," she said. "That's not our purpose. Same goes for totally drunk people. They're no longer reachable and must be handled through other measures."
Which explains why the mimes tiptoed right past a group of belligerent guys in line at an ATM. Medam says success won't necessarily be measured by noise reduction. Instead, organizers will see how many flyers have been distributed, how many clicks the website has received, and how many Facebook likes they've racked up (current tally: 65).
"In one way it's about attracting an audience who wants to take photos and selfies with the mimes and talk about it," spokesman Leichsenring said over the phone. "The other thing is for the mimes to create a social pressure for the visitors to act appropriately."
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Sven Klaus sipped a beer outside a Späti, one of Berlin's ubiquitous late-night convenience stores. Klaus, a computer scientist, used to live in the area. "I understand the anger from people who lived here before the terror took off," he said. But, like Day, he had less sympathy for people who've moved to the neighborhood more recently. He is also unconvinced about the mimes' theatrics.
"I see that it's trying to get people's attention," Klaus said, "but I don't think it has any special connection to the neighborhood. It feels artificial and too highly organized. They shouldn't make such an event out of it."
The next evening, I returned to Simon-Dach-Straße. I spotted the mimes—just two tonight, joined by two mediators and Medam—outside a cafe. It was 2:15 AM, and they had already called a cab. A few partygoers continued to weave down the street, bottles in hand.
"The interactions tonight were deeper, more personal and more playful," Medam explained. "Lots of people had seen us in the news."
"It went well," one of the mimes agreed.
"You're speaking!" I said.
He nodded and gave a weary smile. "Quitting time," he said.
Rebecca Jacobson is a writer living in Berlin. Follow her on Twitter.
See more of Alexander's photos on his website here.