The Weimar Republic, a pivotal era that's more than the 'Berlin Babylon' clichés

While the Weimar Republic is often summarized as a period of "dancing on a volcano" ahead of the Nazi era, cultural historian Sabina Becker tells DW why the period should be revisited for its rich cinema and culture.

DW: You would like to see a re-evaluation of culture in the Weimar Republic era, the interwar period between Germany's defeat in World War I in 1918 and Hitler's rise to power in 1933. What does that mean?

Sabina Becker: Various historians have long urged to go beyond assessing the Weimar Republic as linked to 1933 and the Nazis, that second mega disaster in German 20th century history. The Weimar Republic should be given the opportunity to be seen as an era of its own, without losing sight of its failure. But the Weimar Republic and its culture really should not just be interpreted with an eye on 1933 and the inevitable transfer of power to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.

Has cultural innovation in the Weimar Republic been swept under the carpet?

The following metaphor has long played a major role in descriptions of cultural developments in the Weimar Republic, namely that the era was a "dance on the volcano" — the ground seething, unstable and in no state to enable any form of cultural innovation.

I think we need to put into perspective this imagery that has been floating around in the debate about the culture of the Weimar Republic. Only then will we be able to perceive and describe artistic and cultural developments in the 1920s not just under the motto "life and culture in a crisis," but see the innovative accomplishments of the era as well.

What about film in the Weimar Republic: What were the new aspects it added to culture?

Unlike literature, film was seen as a medium that allowed a degree of democratization in the reception of culture. Film presents itself as an open medium, as culture for the masses.

Just look at the numbers of moviegoers in the 1920s. In 1926, German cinemas recorded 332 million visitors; at the end of the decade, they recorded more than 2 million visitors every day. The figures show a trend, they show opportunities the medium film offered in the 1920s. We need to discuss how the film industry worked with this, whether it managed to keep people interested. But clearly, it got people into the movie theaters.

Sabina Becker, an expert on the culture and literature of the Weimar Republic

In those years, film underwent aesthetic developments. What were the most important milestones?

Expressionist film was leading beginning in the early days of the Weimar Republic, after 1920 and in connection with the dominance of the silent film. Back then, important films like Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which uses a strong expressionist cinematic language, closed-in spaces, pointed angles only and few realistic outdoor shots — a groundbreaking example.

Directors also aimed for a more authentic manner of portrayal in film.

Georg Wilhelm Pabst's 1925 film The Joyless Street and Walter Ruttmann's 1927 Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis are good examples in silent film, as are the sound films Berlin-Alexanderplatz by Phil Jutzi as well as Fritz Lang's M – A City Searches for a Murderer.

The latter took a documentary-style, matter-of-fact approach, showing the killer's urban surroundings, and the methods the police employ, including fingerprinting and graphology. It's a new phase in the history of film.

Filmszene Die freudlose Gasse

One of the first films of the "New Objectivity" movement: Joyless Street by G.W. Pabst

The series "Babylon Berlin" is set in the Weimar Republic era. Does the film use clichés?

It does, it evokes the simmering volcano, the entire horror story, equating the dance on a volcano with the metropolis, Berlin. It shows the traumas the hero and other figures bear as a result of WWI, and of course it introduces the motif of criminal structures in a big city.

What volcano this is supposed to be, what might have triggered it, all that remains up in the air. That is the first thing that comes to my mind as a constraint on the cultural and political possibilities of the Weimar Republic, certainly the social potential. As far as I am concerned, the image is a constraint.

What was Weimar? In the series, it was not much more than a volcano that led to 1933. I would have wished for more.

Sabina Becker teaches Modern German Literature at Albert Ludwigs University in Freiburg. The professor, regarded as a leading expert on Weimar Republic culture, just published a comprehensive study  entitled "Experiment Weimar — a cultural history of Germany 1918 – 1933."

Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

Christian Schad, 'Boys in Love'

The exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt collects images from some of the most important issues of the Weimar era. Among the political debates that took place during that time was one regarding Article 175, a law dating back to 1871 which forbade homosexuality. A grassroots campaign from 1919 to 1929 sought to abolish the law and very nearly succeeded.

Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

Otto Dix, 'Woman with Mink and Veil'

After WWI, Berlin grew to be the world’s third largest city and quickly gained a reputation for nightlife and hedonism that attracted people from around the globe — including prostitutes, injured war veterans and those looking to make an easy buck. The contrast of Ku'damm's fur-clad matrons with the poverty of the tenement houses of the eastern districts was a common theme in the art of the time.

Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

The expressionism of Otto Dix

Otto Dix used simple materials to capture Weimar Berlin’s depravity. The World War I veteran vacillated between sketches like that shown above, "Pimp and Girl," and disturbing recollections of wartime frontlines. The contrast served as criticism of the country’s inability to adequately grapple with its war past.

Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

The extravagance of the Ku'damm

Comprising 190 works of art by 62 different artists, the exhibition showcases the contrasts of the Weimar Era in its selection. This sketch by Dodo (born Dörte Clara Wolff), "Box Logic," was created for the satire magazine "Ulk" in 1929 to highlight the lives of the wealthy who continued their extravagant lifestyles as anti-Semitism and economic depression severely shifted the mood in Berlin.

Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

'Margot' by Rudolf Schlichter

Irmgard Keun's novel, "The Artificial Silk Girl," brought Weimar Berlin to life from the female perspective. Struggling to make ends meet while hopping between parties and prostituting herself while wrapped in a stolen fur, the narrator comments on her fellow women, noting: "There are clubs where women sit wearing stiff collars and ties, who are frightfully proud of being perverse."

Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

'Self-Portrait with Son,' 1933

Granted suffrage in Germany on November 12, 1918, women were emancipated as never before. That liberality was felt in many aspects of society, as women took on professional jobs and political debates on contraception, marital rights and prostitution. Artists like Kate Diehn-Bitt captured the New Woman in their works of social realism: urban, independent, self-confident, androgynous in appearance.

Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

Jeanne Mammen captured Berlin in transition

A central fixture in Berlin's art scene was artist Jeanne Mammen, Berlin-born but raised in France before she returned to the German capital during World War I. Her sharp eye captured the city and its citizens in a time of great transition. In paintings like the 1926 watercolor "Ash Wednesday," Mammen captured the era's hedonism and bore witness to the liberality and excesses of the period.

Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

Political tension: 'Weimar Carnival'

In "Berlin Alexan­der­platz," Alfred Döblin wrote of a vibrant capital city in upheaval as he documents the life of Franz Biberkopf. In it, and in paintings like that by Horst Naumann above, the rise of anti-Semitism, militarism and National Socialism came into full view. As Döblin wrote: "He has seen the para­mil­i­tary troopers, the young men, and their leader, too, that is some­thing."

Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

Georg Scholz, 'Café (Swastika Knight)'

"Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic" seeks to make clear just how the foundation for societal and economic advancements that we might take for granted today were laid during what many recall fondly, though not altogether accurately, as a decade of decadence. The exhibition runs through February 25, 2018 at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt.