A tour of cabaret-era Berlin as populism rises

The rising interest in the Weimar Republic's hedonist lifestyle and sexual freedom that inspired authors like Christopher Isherwood comes at a time when many see worrying parallelisms in the surge of the far right.

It's a cold morning in Berlin. A small group of international students from Humboldt University have gathered a few steps away from the Nollendorfplatz underground station. They all listen carefully to a man quoting a book by heart. His words talk about this same city, but they depict a very different version of it — much poorer, probably wilder, the capital of a country that still had not embraced fascism.

Yet some parts of the story sound uncomfortably familiar.

First English voice of Berlin's underworld 

Brendan Nash, 54, a London-born Irish citizen, is reading an extract from one of the books Christopher Isherwood wrote about Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Isherwood's 1939 novel was described by George Orwell as 'brilliant sketches of a society in decay'

Isherwood moved to Berlin in 1929, at the age of 25. What he saw here, together with the people he met, inspired some of his best-known fiction works, as well as an important part of his autobiographical writing. His literary approach was that of an observer, a foreign witness of the time. "I am a camera," he wrote in Goodbye to Berlin.

In 1966, Broadway also gave birth to a musical adaption of Isherwhood's novel: Cabaret. The hit production depicting nightlife at the seedy Kit Kat Klub went on to inspire the 1972 Oscar-winning film starring Liza Minnelli (top picture). 

But the influence of Isherwood's Berlin writing goes far beyond Cabaret. "He was not the only person writing about Berlin in that period, but he was the only one in English. His work reached a much wider audience," Nash tells DW.

An era of experimentation

That audience was fascinated by the spirit of the German capital back then, or better said, by Isherwood's accounts of it. Berlin was not just another city in Europe. According to Joseph Pearson, a Canadian cultural historian living in Berlin, the Weimar Republic "was a time of anxiety, but also a time for hedonism, sexual liberties and artistic experimentation."

Weimar Berlin was indeed known to be a place that broke the social conventions of its epoch. Many women questioned gender roles and some of them defied patriarchal traditions by becoming economically independent from men. The cabaret environment also created room for sexual minorities to express themselves in a relatively freer way. Many gay and lesbian-targeted establishments opened and survived during those years, even though sexual intercourse between males was criminalized under Paragraph 175.

Before Nazism put an end to this oasis of modernity, Isherwood was seduced by this city and its creatures, which he immortalized in his books.

The Eldorado, now an organic supermarket, was one of the best-known queer establishments in Weimar Berlin

Golden Twenties re-enter pop culture

And now Nash is trying to keep that spirit alive with his tour around the Schöneberg neighborhood, which later became the LGBTI quarter of the city. One can say, however, that Weimar zeitgeist has never been so present.

In fact, public interest in Weimar Berlin is growing thanks to different cultural works set in the city during that politically turbulent and socially transgressive period.

Volker Kutscher's historical crime novels dealing with the Golden Twenties have become a literary success in Germany and have been translated into many foreign languages, including English and Spanish.

A popular TV series, Babylon Berlin, was later produced based on these works. Its two first seasons were picked up by Netflix, bringing Weimar into living rooms all over the world.

The Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn is also revisiting Weimar Republic cinema. Shown here: a still from Fritz Lang's Metropolis

Hedonism's dark side

Nevertheless, there was also a less glamorous, more dramatic side to Berlin in the 1920s. The fragility of the German democracy after World War I resulted in a political context where instability and violence became a new normality, leading to the well-known eventual rise of the Nazis.

Moreover, the economic conditions were terrible. Even Isherwood was aware of this: "He also writes about how the sexual liberation of the time was much more about people being unemployed and having nothing else to sell but their bodies," Pearson underlines. Prostitution, both homosexual and heterosexual, and often practiced by minors, is indeed another feature of the period.

What the Weimar Republic reveals about our era

But why is the Weimar Republic era so fascinating to contemporary eyes? Pearson, who's also an essayist on the past and present of the German capital, firmly believes "the story we tell about the past is more about who we are today." Anxiety, lack of expectations, fear about the future: "We share a lot of those feelings today. We wanna have fun, laugh all the time."

The idea of parallelisms between that stormy period and our days is gaining ground in public discussion. "Many things that are happening right now really remind us of the Weimar Republic," Pearson says. This historian mentions the question of far-right parties monopolizing the conversation through the media, as well as the division among left-wing forces. "Those who look different" are targeted while inequalities are growing. "But we cannot compare the situation to the kind of misery and desperation that we saw back then," he warns.

Martin Sabrow, a professor who heads the Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam, agrees. "The Weimar Republic had to deal with a lot of problems that we do not have today," he says, explaining that both the good economic situation and the robustness of the democratic institutions today prevents a comparison of both situations.

Pearson maintains, however, that cultural productions set in that period could help inform the public about what really happened during those years that preceded Nazism. For that, however, one must avoid "repackaging it as sexy." 

If Nash's tour about Isherwood's Berlin does depict it as a time of wild parties and cabaret shows, he also highlights how it was a constant struggle for survival. "Maybe the more people read Isherwood, the more they will become interested in what happened during the Weimar Republic and look for enlightening historical information," Pearson says. In his view, history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

Modernist cinema: Film in the Weimar Republic

Color was rare

The era was dominated by black-and-white film, and as a result, most exhibits at the "Modernist cinema. Film in the Weimar Republic" show are black, white, and shades of grey. Only the posters of famous films were in color at the time. The exhibition at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn runs from December 14, 2018 through March 24, 2019.

Modernist cinema: Film in the Weimar Republic

Film stars headed to Berlin

Weimar Republic cinema made Germany a center for filmmakers and actors, equal to none but Hollywood. Film stars from all over Europe flocked to Berlin — including Denmark's Asta Nielsen. In the 1927 silent drama "Tragedy of the Street," she played an aging prostitute in a story that focused on the fringes of society.

Modernist cinema: Film in the Weimar Republic

Time to experiment

Weimar Republic cinema was also groundbreaking — big city life inspired many artists and filmmakers to experiment. In 1926, Hans Richter created a pioneering experimental short film that mixed film, animation and photographs in a work he simply called "Film Study."

Modernist cinema: Film in the Weimar Republic

Gender roles put to test

Traditional ideas about gender roles started to unravel in the Weimar Republic, too, at least in artistic circles. Film stars including Marlene Dietrich and Elisabeth Bergner (photo) openly played with male/female cliches. The 1920s were groundbreaking in that regard, but after 1933, such liberal attitudes once again became taboo.

Modernist cinema: Film in the Weimar Republic

Children's films

Films focused on narratives from various social classes. The protagonists weren't always adults, but children, too. The children's adventure story "Emil and the Detectives" by Erich Kästner has been filmed several times since the book's release in 1929, but the first version was Gerhard Lamprecht's film of the same name in 1931. The photo shows the filmmaker on set with his young actors.

Modernist cinema: Film in the Weimar Republic

Faster and faster...

Automobiles, airplanes, bicycles, trains: New methods of transportation were changing the lifestyle of Europeans at the time. Italian Futurism artists were fascinated by locomotion. Cinema, too, was a medium that captured the new developments. The 1929 silent film "Rivals for the World Record" was one of the first movies about motor sports.

Modernist cinema: Film in the Weimar Republic

Untamed nature

Films about urban life and progress were created during the Weimar Republic, but various aspects of nature were also depicted on the silver screen. Director Arnold Fanck was a pioneer of the mountain film genre; his drama films featured particularly spectacular alpine footage.

Modernist cinema: Film in the Weimar Republic

People on Sunday

One of the most famous Weimar era films is "People on Sunday," a partly documentary movie by filmmakers who went on to become famous, including Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak and Fred Zinnemann. The film shows how several young people spend their leisure time in Berlin and at the lake Wannsee public beach.

Modernist cinema: Film in the Weimar Republic

Influential tool

The new medium film was powerful, politicians realized early on. The above 1920 photo shows Friedrich Ebert, President of the Weimar Republic, on the set of Ernst Lubitsch's film "Anna Boleyn" starring Henny Porten and Emil Jannings. More than a decade later, film was to become a powerful propaganda tool for the Nazis.

Modernist cinema: Film in the Weimar Republic

Opulent wardrobes

There is no doubt that German film in the Weimar Republic era came up with quite a few masterpieces that influenced directors all over the world — to this very day. Berlin's leading film studios were famous for the styles devised by their costume departments. The above photo shows three ladies in the Fritz Lang classic "Metropolis" from 1927.

Modernist cinema: Film in the Weimar Republic

Stark contrasts

Apart from the more epic "Metropolis" and "The Nibelungs," movies that used more expressionist means to tell their stories are still regarded as milestones of film history. Fritz Lang's 1931 masterpiece "M" for instance resorted to imagery that focused on contrasts.

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