In the Klapse

Every district in Berlin has its own mental institution, or Klapse as it´s called in in German slang. For six months, our writer visited his girlfriend at the Wilmersdorf branch. He gives us a unique peek behind the clinic´s walls.

Image for In the Klapse
Photo by Marie Yako

Every district in Berlin has its own mental institution, or Klapse as it’s called in in German slang. For six months, our writer visited his girlfriend at the Wilmersdorf branch. He gives us a unique peek behind the clinic’s walls and inside the heads of its inmates.

Jasmin spent her time in the smoking room, rolling cigarettes and talking with Uwe, who had a tattoo of a wolf on his arm, suffered from depression and said it was all too much like the film The Matrix; and Ilse, who had horror tattoos on her arms and legs and was also a depressive case, who’d tried to kill herself several times.

Everyone had their problems. Some more than others. Like Victoria, the Columbian who sometimes stripped naked in the dining room. Or the professor who walked around in the garden ranting about Stalin and sometimes waded into the pond in his socks, trying to catch frogs. “For my aquarium,” he said. Or Ljubica, the gypsy woman from Serbia, who only cried and screamed and babbled on in a language no one could understand.

Jasmin is my girlfriend. For three weeks now, I’ve been visiting her every day at the Friedrich von Bodelschwingh Klinik, a modern, functional building on Wilmersdorf’s Landhausstraße. Rose bushes flank the entrance. Inside is a garden, where patients sit smoking under parasols surrounding a small duck pond. The mood is relaxed, with none of the brooding or ominous feeling you might normally associate with such places.

She said she had problems sleeping. That was how it began. Gradually she got more and more manic. She would get up at four in the morning, fling open the windows and engage in some cleaning ritual. She had become increasingly dissatisfied and quick tempered. It was I who suggested she check in at the local clinic.

Every district in Berlin has one – a Klapse, as they say in German slang. Short for Klapsmühle. The nuthouse, loony bin, take your pick. Depending on the time of the year it becomes increasingly hard to find a bed. They say the clinics become fuller when the seasons change. Spring and autumn are the worst. But Jasmin got lucky.

One day there was a commotion in the ward. A new lady was escorted in by the police, screaming and shouting and making a racket in general. She was in her mid-sixties, barefoot,with close-cropped grey hair and missing front teeth, wearing a tie-dye dress, bangles and a string of pearls around her neck.

Contrary to what they were trying to say, she screamed, she had not tried to set fire to her own apartment. There were bastards and sons of bitches after her; she had proof! Later in the smoking room, after an initial period of thinking she was an evil spirit, Jasmin warmed up to her and learned her name was Elke, and she had worked as a stewardess for Pan Am in the 1970s and 1980s. This was her fourth or fifth time here at Landhausstraße. She had been in clinics all over the world, from LA to Kenya. Among other things she was an unrepentant kleptomaniac. The last time she was in the Klapse she stole a bundle of keys from the nurses’ station and threw them in the rubbish. She was a burglary specialist, she said. “At least in theory.”

Soon she grew to like it there at the clinic, was at ease there. She had a nice cell with full board, a one-room apartment with en-suite bathroom. She would send for cigarettes to be brought to her from the outside. Her brand was Prinz. Because she was awaiting her prince.

“Ha! Now I’m tired of waiting, maybe I should switch my brand, eh Jasmin?”

Image for In the Klapse
Photo by Marie Yako

In the smoking room, Elke sticks newspapers to the windows against radiation, lurches around barefoot and breaks things. Her pants are unbuttoned because she has such a bloated belly on account of the lithium she is taking. She uses a tie-dye scarf for a belt. One day she paints her forehead with red nail polish, her “war paint” she says.

“I’m a warrior,” she says. “Star Wars. Everyday Star Wars. If you see signs on me you better take care. But you don’t have to be afraid, Jasmin. Not you. I’m catching the enemies. Last night I caught one. Ilse, with the tattoos.”

So goes the story: Elke stole some sunglasses when a guy went to the toilet. Ilse was there, and when the owner returned and inquired as to their whereabouts Ilse immediately pointed her finger at Elke. The man then began to frisk Elke, until Ergül, the male nurse, came to her assistance. “You fucking bitch! You will never see the sun again!” Elke called out to Ilse.

“What do you have against Ilse?” says Jasmin “She’s evil,” says Elke. “Three times she tried to kill herself. Because she is unable to deal with life. She’s dead meat, totes Fleisch. Is afraid of life, of responsibility.”

“But she seems totally normal to me,” says Jasmin.

“Look. The devil can take human shape,” says Elke. “Ilse is the power of darkness. Ilse wants to take over the ward. Ilse with her red hair and horrible vampire and grim reaper tattoos.” Jasmin rolls Elke another cigarette.

When the weather is nice, I accompany Jasmin to the garden, where we walk around the duck pond and talk. Sometimes Elke joins us, and on one such occasion she tells Jasmin again about her encounter with Ilse.

“But why did you do it?” asks Jasmin. “Why did you steal the sunglasses? It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Listen. Why I do certain things? I can’t tell you. It’s intuitive.”

“But tell me, why did you want to burn your apartment down?” asks Jasmin.

“I didn’t. I was asleep. Someone came into my house,” says Elke.

“So, did the police check it out?”

“They grabbed my arm. ‘Out! Out! Out!’ They brought me here. And that’s why they don’t give me a lighter. Because they say that I am a fire bug. But why should I burn my flat? I have a beautiful flat. Niiiice and cosy. I just renovated it maybe two days before. Why should I burn it?”

Nearby, Ljubica, the Serbian woman, is rattling on in her nonsensical way. “…Hause. Odkaz. Hause. Operacija. Tabletten, und dann nach Hause. Kopfschmerzen. Stankovinach Hause. Lass uns geeeehen. Entlassen. Nach Hause. Nach Hause.”

Wo ist nach Hause?” Jasmin asks her, suddenly exasperated.



Zu meine Mama. Odkazzzz. Nach Haussse. Meine Musik.”

Elke looks at the woman, who appears to be in her mid-thirties. “How often have you been in the Klapse? Twenty, 30 times? Mama wants you here because you get up to shit at home. You only have crap in your head. Or coconuts. I don’t know. I can’t look into your head…Got a little bit fat, wa? You look good, but don’t you have another top? What you have is too small. Grey doesn’t suit you. You need something red or something blue or something green. Go to the lost-and-found and say, ‘Sister, I want something red. Or green.’”

Ljubica doesn’t seem to hear. She starts to sing.“Nach Haaaaauuuuuse. Nach Haaaauuuuuse. Meeeeiiiine Zigareeeetten. Kolleeeegen. Meeeeiiiiine Zigaretten nach Haaauuuuuse. Triiiiinken und dann Schlaff eeeeen.

And that’s the way it goes at the clinic in Landhausstraße. Day in and out. The dramas. The characters. The boredom. The fights and miniature wars. Jasmin says she doesn’t know what’s worse: inside the clinic or out. The people here drive her mad, give her no peace. But she has her routines, ergotherapy, walks, music, consultations with the doctors. Regular meals. She feels she is getting better. Day by day. Soon she will be able to meet the outside world again. It won’t be long.

The Friedrich von Bodelschwingh Klinik

Located on Landhausstraße, a quiet Wilmersdorf residential street, the Friedrich von Bodelschwingh Klinik is one of 12 local mental health clinics in Berlin. The clinic, which was opened in 2007, is open and inviting, with orange awnings and an inner courtyard complete with a garden and a duck pond.

A sojourn at the clinic is covered by state health insurance; in order to be admitted, patients need a referral from a doctor. In some cases where the patient is a danger to him- or herself or his or her surroundings, the district court will provide the referral.

The clinic has four wards, each occupying one floor: for psychiatric illnesses of the elderly, schizophrenics, depressives and people suffering from alcohol and drug addiction. Each ward has 25 beds in a mix of single- and double-occupancy rooms. In addition, there are three daytime divisions with a total of 52 spots. About 140 psychiatrists, psychologists, nursing staff and social workers work there, offering individual and group treatment as well as music, movement and dance therapy.