Munich in English - selected by independent Locals for Cosmopolitans, Newcomers and Residents - since 1989

back to overview

September 2003

Mall Tales

Stories of the old Mathäser

“Did you remember to mention the new Mathäser cinemas?” asked Becca, our intern, as we added the finishing touches to the summer 2003 issue of MUNICH FOUND, at the end of June. Damn, I thought, fishing around in my “ideas” file. Yes, I had read that the recently opened Mathäser complex on Bayerstrasse was showing films in English and that the information needed to go into the calendar. Well, there was just enough time to ring their press office and ask for details. As it turned out there was no response to our telephone messages, so the Mathäser cinemas have only now made it into our English Cinema section.

Mulling over this omission on the way home from the office, I remembered that my first article for MUNICH FOUND, in 1997, had been about the old Mathäser beer halls, which at the time were due for demolition to make way for the new shopping/office/cinema complex that opened in May this year. The article was in the Prince-Charles-preservation-must-be-preferred-to-experimentation-mode and lamented the demolition of a building that had a venerable history and was once the biggest beer hall in the world. The first Mass was served at this location in 1734, though at the time it was no more than a brewery with a restaurant attached. In 1884 one Georg Mathäser bought the company and expanded the premises so that, by 1914, seating capacity had reached 4,000 and the beer halls stretched along the Bayerstrasse from Stachus to Zweigstrasse and around the corner into Schlosserstrasse.

Throughout Germany’s history inns and beer halls have served as meeting places for political groups—it was no coincidence that Hitler’s attempted putsch of 1923 was launched in Munich’s Bürgerbräukeller—and in the years leading up to and during World War I the Mathäser was a popular watering hole for socialists and members of the USPD (Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany). In the fall of 1918, when it was clear that Germany had lost the war, anger over the toll in lives and the political apathy that had brought events to this turn boiled over and there were revolutionary uprisings across Germany. On November 7 Kurt Eisner, president of the Bavarian USPD, called for a Free State of Bavaria, from within the walls of the Mathäser. Though Eisner was murdered a few months later and his revolutionary republic collapsed—anti-revolutionaries wreaked havoc on the Mathäser buildings—the concept of a free Bavarian state has survived.

The beer halls continued to do business until 1997 and even enjoyed a major revival in the 1950s after post-World War II renovations had been carried out. But in the long term their popularity was in decline. The mass joviality to which this establishment catered no longer reflected the wishes of Munich residents and the onerous logistics involved in serving up to 7,000 guests at any one time must have been a managerial nightmare. For a while one hall was used for Saturday night salsa evenings. The Latin rhythms, the exotic clientele and seedy, run-down charm of the building made it feel more Cuban than Bavarian. Finally the whole complex was sold off to the Deutscher Herold insurance company for redevelopment.

Keen to see if this historical location had been done justice in its new guise, I visited the Mathäser last week with my son. In fairness new malls of this kind can appear rather squalid when only half the premises are let and the others look like cheaply wrapped gifts with the paper peeling away around the edges. Even taking this into account it was a dispiriting kind of place, unimaginatively laid out in concrete and glass. As Zooey and I stood in line to get tickets for a movie, a teenage girl directly in front of us, ground out her cigarette on the new, red carpet, with such a blatant and deliberate derision, that we felt we were watching a scene from a film. Perhaps the anonymous mall culture encourages this kind of small-scale flouting of public mores. And acts of agression and vandalism will become commonplace in such environments. It’s possible that Bavaria’s next revolution will be planned in a shopping center like the Mathäser, but it seems unlikely.

tell a friend