ne of the movies that tickled my imagination since I was a kid is Metropolis, the masterpiece by Fritz Lang. It is a movie that shaped a whole era of films and generations of directors. For its cultural relevance, the film has been inscribed on the Memory of the World Register in 2001. With its touch of expressionism and visual power, Metropolis is Weimar art at its best.
The Weimar Republic is the unofficial name of the Deutsches Reich or, simply put: Germany in the interwar period between 1918 and 1933. After the Great War and before the rise of the Nazis, Germany and Berlin were shaken by political and social turmoil, decadence and cultural renaissance.
If I say Weimar Berlin, you may think of sexy cabaret nights and hot girls dancing naked in dodgy clubs as for instance depicted in the acclaimed TV show Babylon Berlin.
But is this decadent madness all that Weimar is?
To answer this question and to collect as much information as possible for my current writing project, I have been reading lots of books about the arts, music, politics, psychology, and science of that time. Here is my personal selection to savor the real flavor of the Weimar years of Berlin:
You may ignore the text and simply immerse yourself into the colors and lines of the art, architecture, design, photography, and films described in this rich collection of incredible images. Berlin in the 1920’s does not tell you, it shows you the essence of what free spirit really meant in the Weimar years of Berlin. You will feel the vibe of the jazz bars, cinemas, and modern roads, where the crowd of Berliners would meet, hate, and love.
The book of Peter Gay, German-American historian born in Berlin in 1923 and fled to the US in 1939, is a timeless present to posterity. Widely recognized as one of the most accurate portraits of the Weimar Culture, Peter Gay weaves together the multifaceted expressions of those years in a vivid and realistic reportage.
Thomas Levenson writes a passionate account of Albert Einstein’s life in Berlin between 1918 and 1932. He masterfully connects historical events and private anecdotes with Einstein’s prodigious scientific achievements. With a vivacious and precise writing, Levenson traces the historical roots of Weimar Berlin from an original perspective — That of one of the greatest scientists of all time.
Often compared to Joyce’s Ulysses, Berlin Alexanderplatz is considered by many as one of the best novels of all time. Döblin tells of a working-class Berlin through the eyes, thoughts, and angst of a murderer, Franz Biberkopf.
In this novel, writer Heinrich Mann, elder brother of Nobel-prize winner for literature Thomas, narrates the story of Professor Raat, whose existence is haunted by his unfortunate name. Everybody in town knows him as Professor Unrat — Professor Garbage. Professor Unrat goes to The Blue Angel to find Fräulein Rosa Fröhlich and tells her to stop corrupting his students; instead, Professor Unrat falls for her. This story inspired the legendary movie Der Blaue Engel, which, within its frames, hides the beauty and talent of Marlene Dietrich, one of the most celebrated (sex) symbols of Weimar Berlin.
Weimar was not just cultural, scientific, and political ferment. Weimar also meant decadence beyond belief. Perhaps Anita Berber is the female figure that best embodies this sexual, scandalous, libidinous Weimar. Anita Berber was a singer, a taboo-shattering performer, and the movie star of films such as Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler. Anita Berber had lots of hot fun in Berlin with many notable personalities, among which: Marlene Dietrich, Klaus Mann (the son of Thomas) and, apparently, the King of Yugoslavia.
This book consists of two novels published in 1945, Goodbye to Berlin and Mr. Norris Changes Trains, by Christopher Isherwood, an American novelist, who experienced firsthand the heat of Weimar Berlin. Drawn by its reputation for sexual freedom, in Berlin Isherwood embraced his attraction to men and fully enjoyed the variety of lustful opportunities the city had to offer. The Berlin Novels, an autobiographical account of Isherwood’s life in Berlin, inspired the acclaimed music hall Cabaret (1972).
The comic book series by Jason Lutes is set in Berlin in 1928–1933, the final years of the Weimar Republic before the rise of the Nazis. The three volumes, Berlin City of Stone (2000), City of Smoke (2008), and City of Light (2018) focus on the relationship of Marthe Müller, an art student, with journalist Kurt Severing. Among other subplots, the most intriguing in my opinion is that about a group of African-American jazz musicians who perform at a Berlin nightclub.
After the Great War, Berlin had become the magnet, the city where everything was allowed, attracting minds and bodies from all sides of the World — Pregnant prostitutes, naked dancers, men dressed as women and women dressed as men; “apolitical” writers and artists who would shatter canonical schemes; musicians, negros, foreigners, fascists, and communists dancing in the same club; courageous scientists ready to change the mathematics of the universe.
Berlin in the 1920’s was the place to be.
Then, the elections of September 1930 gave more than 6 million votes to the Nazis, who, once in power, would cleanse all that creative mess.
Tragic order was the new rule — The irreverent voice of Weimar was silenced.
I took the “Berlin 20’s” cover photo here in Berlin.
The “Metropolis” photo was taken in the Deutsche Kinemathek. For more check on
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