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Silent Green: Crematorium turned cultural centre

Creative undertakers Bettina Ellerkamp and Jörg Heitmann purchased an old crematorium and transformed it into Silent Green.

Photo: Luka Godec

Amidst Wedding’s bustle, Silent Green is a haven that lives up to its name. The grassy courtyard surrounding the venue is a quiet oasis where friends gather, kids play and gallery visitors pause to enjoy homemade Eis from the Imbiss next door… Only the building’s towering, grey chimney alludes to its morbid history as Berlin’s oldest crematorium. Death looms large here. At one point, the venue’s founders, Bettina Ellerkamp and Jörg Heitmann, thought maybe even too large.

Heitmann recalls the persistent advice a friend offered them. “’You have to talk to a geomantic healer to check the energy of the place’,” he remembers. “We were reluctant, but he persuaded us to do it. The healer came and did her ‘work’,” which he emphasises with air quotes. “I thought, ‘Oh god, what do we do if she says it’s an ugly place?’, but she said, ‘This is a place of release, of empathy. Every kindergarten I have healed is more horrific than here’.”

I thought, ‘Oh god, what do we do if she says it’s an ugly place?’

The couple is sitting under a plastic umbrella adorned with hot pink Hawaiian grass outside the venue’s Mars kitchen and bar, just metres from the former crematorium’s neighbouring graveyard. Silent Green’s vibrancy clashes with its gloomy undertone. When the couple first discovered the disused crematorium, they believed the contrast offered character. Ellerkamp remembers thinking, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to give Berlin the cultural space that we would love to give. Let’s do it.”

The couple met in 1985, shortly after leaving their hometowns in North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony for Berlin. Once the Wall fell, the city became a blank canvas for artists. “It was a playground. There were no rules, no police – you could do whatever you wanted. I remember making a campfire in the middle of Potsdamer Platz because it was so empty,” Heitmann laughs.

In 1989, they were squatting at the headquarters of the pricey kitchenware company WMF on Leipziger Straße with a bunch of friends and had created an interdisciplinary art group called Botschaft e.V., cementing their roots in Berlin’s cultural landscape. “Those were wonderful times, but in the mid-1990s people wanted their houses back, so we all had to leave the squats. Back then you always had to find somewhere new. We dreamt of having a place that we could stay in,” says Ellerkamp.

Bettina Ellerkamp, Photo: Bernd Brundert / silent green

Still, without this diversion, Silent Green may never have existed. In 2012, when Heitmann was working as a property developer who specialised in renovating empty industrial buildings, the Senat was about to sell the old crematorium. Heitmann decided to buy it; a year later, he and Ellerkamp began renovations.

Silent Green is nestled just five minutes from S-Bahnhof Wedding off Nettlebeckplatz. It was originally built by the Berlin Association for Cremation in 1912, shortly after cremation was legalised in Prussia. “After we bought it, we were sitting on the grass outside and thinking about where we were. It’s silent, it’s green… Silent Green,” Heitmann explains. The name seemed to fit perfectly with the venue’s peaceful surroundings. The couple did also consider that Silent Green is a homophone of the 1973 film Soylent Green, a sci-fi flick set in a future New York, when they came up with the name.

After leaving the squat, the couple pursued their shared love of documentary and experimental film-making and worked as a documentary collective Dogfilm along with Merle Krögler, Philip Scheffner and Ed van Megen. “We wanted to make an adaptation of To Hell With the Ugly,” explains Heitmann. Ellerkamp jumps in to describe the plot. “The book is about cloning. What would happen if we killed all the bad people and cloned the good ones?” The couple secured permission to adapt the book from the director’s widow in 2001, but their dreams were dashed after they were denied the local film funding they needed. The television stations said: “Why don’t you stick with what you do best: documentary and experimental filmmaking.”

Jörg Heitmann, Photo: Bernd Brundert / silent green

Ellerkamp started teaching film in Babelsberg, but Heitmann was committed to find a way to finance their project. He purchased a former Soviet arsenal bunker buried in the Thuringian mountains with inheritance from his father. “The idea was that we’d sell it for millions and then we could make a sci-fi movie,” Heitmann recalls, admitting how outlandish the scheme seems now. Ellerkamp is eager to distance herself from the plan. “You say ‘we’,” she tells him. “But it wasn’t me – it was you and a business partner.”

Though she admits there was some method in his madness. She explains, “Jörg wanted to build a data storage plant after 9/11. The German government said they needed a safe place for data and it should be in a mountain.” But after signing the contract, Heitmann’s get-rich-quick plan began to crumble, along with his dreams of becoming Berlin’s next bohemian real estate developer. “It took nine years to develop the bunker, pay off the debts and sell it. I couldn’t make films anymore.”

We select things that people from all cultures and ages could like

For now, the venue stays firmly cemented in Wedding, a neighbourhood that Ellerkamp and Heitmann feel they have something to offer from their years of experience in Berlin’s cultural scene. “My first apartment was around the corner,” says Ellerkamp. “So when Jörg fell in love with the building, it was strange. When we first met we had spent a lot of time in this Kiez together.” Now they live on the outskirts of Berlin. “I hope Wedding doesn’t change,” Ellerkamp confesses. But they are also aware of the contradiction such a statement brings. “Of course, we are also the gentrifiers,” says Heitmann. “But we don’t want to create a gated community here,” adds Ellerkamp. “Families have picnics and birthday parties on the grass outside and it’s important to us that it’s open to everyone.”

Silent Green also rents studios to resident filmmakers, such as New Yorker Shelley Silver. Underneath the Mars kitchen and bar sit the archived works of the late German filmmaker Harun Farocki.

When planning the venue’s programme, the couple stick to a policy of openness. “We select things that people from all cultures and ages could like,” says Ellerkamp. The venue will host Pictoplasma, the illustration and animation character design festival this month. Ellerkamp is particularly excited for October’s Future Soundscapes, a festival that coins itself as an “audiovisual trip through time”, which is curated by the Silent Green team. The couple is determined to stay true to their experimental roots.