Brendan Nash praises a documentary on Berlin’s Weimar era…
What is it that is so beguiling about Berlin in the 1920s and 30s? A quick glance at the bookshelves above my desk reveals a dozen hefty tomes on that subject and that’s not including a plethora of novels by Hans Fallader, Phillip Kerr, David Dowling and, of course, Christopher Isherwood.
The enduring popularity of the film Cabaret and the current resurgence of TV period costume dramas in the UK bear out the fascination with this period.
I ask everyone at the beginning of my walking tour “so, what do you know about Weimar Berlin” and the answer is almost invariably: “Well, I’ve seen Cabaret”.
Berlin in the 1920s was the second largest city in the world, and the most modern city in Europe. It seems inconceivable that the description of Berlin as “poor, but sexy” was only coined by Mayor Klaus Wowereit in recent years. It would have been just as apt a motto for Berlin in the 20s, but maybe with an added “and desperate”.
Berlin in the 20s, the Weimar Republic, was a time born out of a disaster and destined to end in tragedy, a dance on the rim of the volcano. The end of the First World War , in November 1918, saw a revolution that swept away an entire political order.
Within a year, the German people had a whole new constitution, censorship had been abolished, and for the next 14 years, life would be like nothing they had ever experienced before. And Berlin would be the epicenter of this new freedom and openness.
This terrific documentary, Legendary Sin Cities, made by the Canadian broadcaster CBC, covers just about all the bases for a portrayal of Berlin as the ‘Sex Capital of Europe’. The rampant inflation of the early 20s meant that nearly every foreign currency was worth more than the German Mark and tourists from around the world flocked to Berlin. Ten US dollars could buy you anything you wanted — and it was all on offer.
Entire life-savings had vanished for many middle-class Berliners, forcing them into a lifestyle previously unthought of. If you knew where to look, anything and everything of a sexual nature was available on the streets of Berlin. An openness and acceptance of sexuality saw a boom in the gay and lesbian population, and writers, artists and intellectuals were drawn to this tolerant and vibrant city.
There is scant attention paid in the film to the huge technological, scientific and industrial advances of the period, but a film with such a provocative title obviously never intended to.
The film also does little to dispel the myth of Marlene Dietrich as a huge star prior to the filming of The Blue Angel in 1929, but it does, at least, give two of the real female stars of the era, Claire Waldoff and Anita Berber, their proper place in the scheme of things.
The Üfa studios were at their peak and Berlin was second only to Hollywood in film output. Technicians and engineers were coming to Üfa from the USA and around he world to learn the craft of talking pictures and the new techniques in special effects.
The seemingly inexorable rise of the Far Right is inevitably a major part of the film, but it is comforting to know that Berlin was a major challenge for the Nazi Party, with little or no support on the streets. Joseph Goebbels denounced Berlin as “a melting pot of everything that is evil” and set out to conquer the city. He surmised that “Berlin needs sensations like a fish needs water” and offered its citizens the ‘sensations’ of propaganda and brute force.
Yet before the ‘dark curtain’ fell on the city, as historian Alexander Richie so eloquently puts it at the end of the film, there is “no doubt that something quite unique happened, something special. An energy, a dynamism, a creativity, an openness to the world, to modernism, to new ideas that had not been seen in Berlin before that time and hasn’t been seen in Berlin since…”