Interview – ExBerliner 2

We Berliners are unruly

Interview with Nadja Vancauwenberghe


Yoram Roth, the cultural entrepreneur and son of the late real estate billionaire Rafael Roth, bought Clärchens Ballhaus last July. He says the Corona crisis hasn’t affected his plans for the beloved Mitte institution. (Photo by Michael O’Ryan)

Mr Roth, we last talked only seven weeks ago, and it feels as if it was a different age and civilisation. Back then the rent freeze was on everyone’s mind, and I was interviewing you because you’d become the talk of the town for buying one of Berlin’s most beloved institutions: Clärchens Ballhaus. Less than two months down the road, people are much more concerned with Covid-19 than gentrification, and no one is thinking about schwoof-dancing in a Weimar-time ballroom. So, what’s going on with Clärchens? 

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In a way, Clärchens is unaffected because we were not open yet, so we’re not losing any money. On the contrary, we can use this time to prepare for the interim opening that we’ve planned. Meanwhile, I have to make the big plans for the renovations. I have to get the permits from the city and I have to talk to the building companies and so on.

So you think that by June, things will have come back to normal, and Berliners will be able to enjoy Clärchens’ lovely Biergarten?

I don’t know, of course, what will be permitted. I think the government has a very good idea of how they will handle de-confinement and the path back to normal life, but they won’t tell us because they know the minute they tell us, we will all start complaining. So they’re probably going to re-open retail first, but they’re not gonna allow clubs and dance halls and stuff like that to open right away. We don’t know yet who carries the infection and we don’t know who carries it asymptomatically and we don’t have a vaccine, we don’t have a cure. So I think they’re still going to push for social distancing.

There might also be a lasting psychological effect – people not wanting to congregate in confined environments like clubs or a dance hall…

I am always surprised by how far some things carry psychologically – and also by how little they carry psychologically. I think that’s an age question. The 25-year-olds will go back out, they’ll wanna go clubbing, they’ll wanna be amongst people and they feel indestructible. I think people my age, over 50, will be a little bit more careful.

Your main business is Fotografiska, a chain of photography museums in Estonia, New York and Stockholm. They must be all shut down by now. How have you been handling that? 

It’s hard. We were running very successfully, but we had to take interim action. We had to shut down in Stockholm. We had to shut down in Tallinn. And we had to shut down in New York. And when you end up having to let people go in the US, you know there’s no healthcare for them, no guarantee they’ll keep their home if they can’t pay their rent, etc. In Europe, if you don’t pay the rent they don’t throw you out. The US is a much harsher place. As a European, I try to do everything I can to help but it’s really tough. We tried to be smart about how we preserve cash in the company without hurting the people too much. It’s been hard for us, but we will reopen as soon as we are allowed. And we have some pretty exciting expansion plans I can’t say so much about about at this stage, but there’s definitely a life after Corona for Fotografiska. Expand

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(Re-)Construction work ahead: Yoram Roth in front of Clärchens Ballhaus. (Photo from private collection.)

With a foot in both Europe and the US, you have a good comparative overview of how the Corona crisis has been handled in different countries. What do you think about the Berlin response for example?

I’m very proud of what Berlin has done. I think the immediate response of supporting the creative community and small independent operators has been very, very good. I’m also happy to hear that the clubs are getting some support, because nightlife is a key driver for the city. What I do worry about little bit are these mid-sized companies. Friends of mine have great restaurants with 20, 30, or 40 employees. No one has come to help them. Hopefully they will.

Do you think Berlin is a city where we spoil creatives and tend to forget about small and mid-size companies? Do you think for example that the IBB aid plan was missing a bit of ‘constructive discrimination’ –  between the people who are hit by Corona and need support, and people who aren’t and don’t, but just went for ‘free money’?

There was no time for that. It’s emergency help and the city does not have the resources now to look at tax returns and check backgrounds and so on. They have to run a real audit afterwards and I hope those who asked for money are aware that they will be checked afterwards and I hope they have the money to pay it back, because to take advantage of the city in a moment of need is not cool. I know there is some kind of gamesmanship of how to get the most money out of the government as possible, but that’s not the solidarity spirit.

Social distancing has meant new lifestyles and working habits. People do more and more stuff remotely, from yoga lessons to professional meetings, and Zoom has become part of our everyday vocabulary. We ‘zoom’ the way we ‘google’. Do you think there will be a lasting impact?

I run an international company so I can’t always be in the same room as my people and I’ve been using Zoom for several years now. Fifty years ago people couldn’t imagine having a meeting over telephone. Now we do it through Zoom. That’s fine. I think it’s okay to bring that into our vocabulary and our array of tools we have available to us. But people are people and I think a lot of it will go back to the way it was. 

So you don’t think people will just go back to their good old analogue lives after that?

I think people people will use Zoom a little bit more. I think people are learning that it’s actually kind of interesting as a step in between. I think if we were having this conversation while having some sort of eye contact over the computer, it’d force a different kind of attention. It’s somewhere in between being in a room together and a phone call and I think it’s a really powerful tool.

Okay, next time, we’ll ‘zoom’ to make sure you’re more focused!

Right now I’m very focused, standing with my headphones on my balcony looking out onto a park full of people who are definitely not keeping their distance.Expand

Quarantine, Berlin style

Confinement Berlin style? Blame the Germans’ devotion to frische Luft. “The idea is that if you’re outside getting fresh air you can only become healthier, you can’t become sick…”

That’s confinement Berlin style. There are rules, but we’re still allowed out and people do take full advantage of the sunny spring days. It seems that Berliners are using the freedom they still have up to the rule-breaking point… Police have been pretty lenient too. What’s your take on Berlin’s relaxed quarantine?

Look, I think Berlin did a smart thing. There is two aspects that drive the decision. One is historical. We had a wall around us and many of us were stuck behind the iron curtain in a police state. I think it’s a Berlin instinct, not so much the Germans but Berliners, not to be told what to do.

But I also think the Berlin government was smart to pass rules that are enforceable. If they were to pass a harsher law and say you are confined to your buildings, what would they do? Start arresting people? So I think they were smart to say we’re gonna focus on responsibility and self-discipline and tell people to please stay inside. To treat us like grown-ups by giving us the information and rely on us to adopt the right behaviour. 

So looking onto your park out there in Charlottenburg, do you think Berliners are ‘behaving’?

Unfortunately a lot of people are pretty reckless with that. Here you can blame the German relationship to the concept of ‘frische Luft’! The idea is that if you’re outside getting fresh air you can only become healthier, you can’t become sick. And if you keep enough distance and there is a nice breeze that’s probably true. But if you’re walking along a small path and there are hundreds of joggers who are building up a big sweat and shedding viruses at an alarming rate, you know… 

And it’s Easter weekend and the government is already warning everyone against recklessness…

If you ask me, the next two days will be the most dangerous time, the two days that could hurt us. Traditionally everybody goes outside for Easter. Everyone’s gonna take the S-Bahn out to Potsdam. If people aren’t smart, I think we’ll have another three to four weeks of quarantine and another thousand of infected people and maybe more deaths. I’m a little pessimistic about it, I’m afraid.

What’s been your own Corona routine like so far? I know you go jogging. Are you careful? Wearing a mask?

I wear a mask when I go to the supermarket, yeah. I don’t wear a mask outside. The mask won’t protect you, but it will protect others from you, in case you cough or sneeze. So I try to stay away from people, but in a supermarket I cover up. We’ve got people working there, keeping these stores open for us, and I see very few people respecting that.

There’s a shortage of masks right now, and many Berliners have taken to sewing their own. Where did you get yours?

For now I don’t have anything cool or fancy – just disposable ones. But I did order a sewing machine and I’ve been going through old shirts and jackets to find good fabric I can use. So it’ll be another week or two until I make my own masks, but I will and I’ll also make some for other people – share them with whoever needs them!

You’re also a major player in the local publishing industry with Go City Media and two city magazines in Berlin. Springer and die Zeit, and all other major publishers have already put their people on Kurzarbeitergeld. How has Corona rocked your boat?

Most of us are working from home. With tip and Zitty we’ve been focusing on our digital presence and crisis has actually made us grow. We’ve really had a chance to refocus and think about how we help our community. I’m actually upbeat about what we’re doing with tip. We’ve just started with a guide, district by district, of which restaurants are open, which supermarkets are open… That kind of stuff. Like you at Exberliner, we focus on the kind of resources that the community needs now. We have great writers and journalists and they’re used to writing 12,000 word pieces and it’s like “dude, no one is gonna read that right now, okay? We have other stories to tell.” So it’s been great to get everybody focussed on that and it’s really pulled the team together.Expand

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A rare moment of pause in between work, jogging, cooking and, now, sewing DIY masks. (Photo by Michael O’Ryan)

It’s interesting because what you’re describing here is exactly what’s been happening with us at EXB. It’s also something you can observe with restaurants creating their own DIY delivery, or cultural institutions reinventing their platforms – myriad digital ways to deliver their art film or music or dance to audiences. Corona has forced people to think outside their ‘comfort box’. Do you believe that moments of hardship are also opportunities?

It depends on the leadership and on the opportunity at hand. Look, there are companies that are dysfunctional and that under these circumstances completely fall apart. There are companies that pull together. It’s no different than families. Some pull together, others, well… I’m glad I’m not stuck in the living room with them after three weeks of quarantine!

Do you think that anything good might come out of all this?

I’m sure five years from now we’ll look back and say, ‘hey. this happened, but honestly I could have done without this.’ Some people are losing business that they developed. I think people are afraid. I think there is personal tragedy. There is business tragedy. It’s a double crisis. Yes, we have a healthcare crisis. We also really have an economic crisis. This is not easy. This will not just go back to the way things were. A lot of galleries, art fairs, nightclubs, restaurants, smaller service providers. They’re getting hurt. I don’t think they will recover from this.

The pandemic took us by surprise. Who would have foreseen one month ago that a virus would have us confined to our homes with lockdown rules ruining our economy! Should governments have prepared better?

One of the great human achievements in society is the idea that we have governments whose job it is to look out for stuff like that. It can’t be every individual’s job to prepare for a virus. I lived in L.A. and there everyone has to have an earthquake kit. If the earthquake hits, you need water, diapers, bandaids, batteries, etc. There is that much personal responsibility. But you can’t have a virus kit. We have to have a government that is prepared for these things. You and I didn’t know about a virus coming, but there are people who have warned us for years that this could happen and it’s only a matter of time until it does happen. Including big names like Bill Gates. In general I’m relatively proud of the way the Germans have handled this. But unfortunately we live in a world of two leading economies, the Chinese and the Americans. The Chinese handled it their way and the Americans are fumbling it as hard as possible and they’re dragging us down with them.

Are you worried about the post-Corona time?

Of course. It’s gonna be a long time before we get tourists back. And Berlin culture, Berlin nightlife, they live very much off tourists. Take the clubs.

We need the tourists to come back. I mean, if they let us open! I’m concerned that they’ll tier it in terms of how essential we are and they’ll say “theatres and cinemas and nightclubs, you guys open last”.

Meanwhile, I’m very worried about Europe. Now is the moment where everybody has to step up, because we have to strengthen Europe, but if we get back to this conversation where a bunch of people are gonna say “well the Spanish and the Italians, it’s their own fault and we shouldn’t have to help them cover their cost,” that’s gonna destroy us. So I do worry about that because this can lead to a rise of nationalism. All in all we should be prepared for much higher taxes, because all this money that’s being spent has to come back from somewhere. I’m concerned about inflation and yeah, you know, the powerful will become more powerful. Amazon and Google and Facebook, they’re the winners here. I think the key is personal responsibility, as usual. If there’s something you want, take the extra step and see if buy locally rather than just ordering it from Amazon.

Especially when you live in a place where bookshops have been exempted from lockdown rules! Beautiful isn’t it? To live in a city where, besides the strictly necessary, they kept flower shops and bookstores open…

I think that’s only Berlin, I don’t know if that’s the rest of Germany. But flower shops in Germany have always had an exemption. They are also allowed to be open on Sundays in Berlin. You need them to go visit your grandmother!

But now you can’t visit your grandmother anymore, they still are open! 

I know! But the tradition has been that flower shops have been considered essential. I love that. Look, there is Berlin and there is Germany. We Berliners are totally undisciplined and unruly anyway. If they have to quarantine us for an extra three weeks, ugh, I’m gonna hate it, but fine. But we need the rest of Germany to go back to work as quickly as possible. I want the good Germans to go back to the factory and go back to manufacturing and doing what they do so well. We meanwhile can sit here and exchange flowers and stream music to each other and help our local clubs….

Do you have quarantine tips?

I haven’t worked this hard in… I thought I was already working non-stop.

Every workaholic is meant to have a quarantine hobby. You’re a foodie, and a techno guy, you must have one!

I am a foodie. I love cooking. I do cook a lot. And yes, I’ve also been going back to what I used to do when I was in my early twenties: producing techno music with my old friend Chris Zippel. We co-founded the label D’Vision Records back in ’91. He’s produced Robbie Williams and the Pet Shop Boys back in the days, and is still around. So we exchange files and late at night we bounce things back and forth, so that’s been my retreat… producing old-school tech-house!