How Berlin Became the Coolest City on the Planet

Berling Building 2011

"New York in the '80s." "London at the height of Britpop." "Paris in the '30s."

Berlin now.

If you believe the hype, and you really should, Berlin is the coolest city on the planet.

You can see it in the Metropolis futurism of Potsdamer Platz, home away from home for the red-carpet glitterati of Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and company. You see it in Mitte, the hipper-than-thou quarter for the upscale bohemian, where local fashion kings Lala, Kaviar Gauche and Michalsky float their flagships and where, at the Javier Peres gallery, James Franco will unveil the first European exhibition of his art work. You see it in the packed Berlin clubs -- the Berghain, Watergate, Cookies or Tresor -- meccas for the international techno crowd. You even see it in the ghetto chic of Kreuzberg and Neukolln, where the strong immigrant population holds out against the forces of gentrification and where real Berliners go to party.

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"When I set up my own label in 2006, I could have gone anywhere. I could have gone to London or Paris, but I consciously chose Berlin," says Michael Michalsky, the hottest of the rising troupe of Berlin fashion designers and the man Karl Lagerfeld already has crowned as his successor. "As a designer, I feel I'm a seismograph of society. And in Berlin, the future is being lived on the streets. This is where I find my inspiration."

Michalsky is a busy man. He recently presented his new fall/winter collection at Berlin's fashion week as part of an event that included the German premiere of Tron: Legacy. And he has just designed a new bar -- the Catwalk Bar in the Marriott on Potsdamer Platz -- where the barstools are named after supermodels and guests can sip vitamin cocktails while they look down on VIPs rushing to catch the next Berlin International Film Festival gala.

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This sort of cross-pollination between film and fashion, of music, high art and club culture, has been one of the keys to Berlin's rise on the hipster meter. Young creatives from throughout Europe and around the world have swarmed into the city where the underground rubs against haute couture, Hollywood and the avant-garde hang at the same clubs, and you can rent a spacious loft for the price of a closet in London.

In fact, Berlin is cheap -- that's part of the appeal. Soaring real estate prices have driven the starving artists out of downtown Paris, London and New York. But Berlin, with no real industry to speak of, has only the artists to rely on. Here, coolness is an economic survival strategy. As Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit puts it, coining the city's unofficial motto, "Berlin is poor -- but sexy."

"Berlin has made culture its primary industry," Berlin festival boss Dieter Kosslick says. "Music, film, art, fashion -- that's been the driving force, the creative industries. It's an extremely culture-rich, extremely international city."
Caterer K.P. Kofler is more blunt: "Berlin is everything Germany is not: spontaneous, exciting, open and cosmopolitan."

For the duration of the film festival, Kofler has erected a pop-up restaurant, Pret a Diner, on the site of the old East German state mint.

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"Try finding a place like this in Frankfurt or Munich," he says. "No one has eaten here before; it's completely virgin ground." He waves his arm around Pret a Diner. The mint's gray concrete has been left untouched. The tables, chairs and deco are secondhand, picked from flea markets around the city. "Berlin is still unfinished; that's what gives it its energy."

That energy -- the sense that Berlin, 20 years after German reunification, still isn't set in stone -- is the magnet that draws people in.

"Berlin's got an excellent mix of people, from the avant-garde filmmakers of the Berlin School to the Hollywood productions at Studio Babelsberg, from Til Schweiger to [new German production giant] UFA Cinema," says Wolfgang Braun, ex-head of Disney Germany and current boss of indie distributor Kinowelt. "At Kinowelt, we want to be the No. 1 indie in Germany, so Berlin is the place we've got to be."

Braun had no problem persuading Kinowelt parent StudioCanal to move the company's HQ to the German capital. Or to have the European premiere of its biggest film, the Johnny Depp-Angelina Jolie thriller The Tourist, on Potsdamer Platz. The crowds were huge, the media -- film critics aside -- ecstatic. The paparazzi were restrained and polite. In what other city but Berlin could Pitt stroll through unmolested, four kids in tow, as he did on the day of the Tourist gala?

But other cities have stars. Other cities have designers, chic labels and cool shops. What sets Berlin apart is its nightlife.

The story of Berlin's rise to the zenith of European club culture has been told before. During the early 1990s, East Berlin was an empty shell. After the fall of the Wall, the locals left, en masse, to the West, leaving row upon row of abandoned factories and concrete housing estates. Then, from the West came students and DJs -- would-be artists and characters with names like Till "103 Club" Harter, Heinz "Cookies" Gindullis or Dimitri "Tresor" Hegemann -- who saw an opportunity and opened illegal underground clubs in warehouses, cellars and desolate storefronts.

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"Back then there were no rules," Harter recalls. "You could just squat in a spot, set up a club and go."

Although he says he's not nostalgic, when Harter talks about Berlin during the early '90s, he can't suppress a wry smile.

"There was no Internet, no cell phones," he says. "There were barely any land lines in East Berlin back then; everything was word-of-mouth. Everyone in the scene knew everyone else."

Berlin's club culture was DIY and spontaneous. Clubs would pop up, become the "in" place and disappear during the course of a few months. Others, like Cookies, made a virtue out of transience, shifting from location to location and open only midweek for the hard-core clubbers.

"It was just at the moment when a generation was switching from rock 'n' roll to electronic music, to dance music," Harter says. "DJs came to Berlin because there were so many great spots to perform in. And because it was so cheap to live here, they stayed and made it their home. It was just the right place at the right time. It all came together in Berlin."

Two decades later, Harter is still here, and spots like his Bar Tausend in Mitte -- where Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Stiller hung out during the 2010 Berlin fest -- are still shaping the scene.

Harter worries that the hype around Berlin could ruin the vibe. "Hype is always dangerous," he says. But so far, this city hasn't lost its mojo. There's still no curfew in Berlin, and you can still open a bar "with an idea and a couple hundred Euros," Harter says. Twentysomething clubbers still hop budget flights to Schoenefeld Airport for a 72-hour pilgrimage to the techno temples of Berghain, the Watergate and Tresor. The illegal scene still thrives in the rougher Neukolln district, where they celebrate Sparkasse parties: taking over an ATM enclosure and clubbing till the cops come.

Berlin has cleaned up a bit during the past 20 years. You can dine at a Michelin-starred restaurant, hit Friedrichtstrasse for your pret-a-porter accessories or spoil yourself at Soho House's Cowshed Spa. But it's by keeping it street that Berlin has kept its edge.

"Berlin's underground culture, that's the appeal -- that's why the stars want to come here, and that's why people keep coming back," says Christoph Fisser, co-head of Studio Babelsberg, whose recent guests included Liam Neeson and January Jones in Unknown and Quentin Tarantino and the Inglourious Basterds crew.

"London might still have the class, if you're looking for that," he says. "But for the underground, Berlin still beats them all."