Photo Gallery: Berlin in the 1920s

Foto: dapd

The Age of Excess Berlin in the Golden Twenties

After the devastation of World War I, cultural life blossomed and reached its heyday in Berlin. The 1920s were a time in which all the arts, both old and new, were cold, raw, shocking and sharp-edged.  But the "live fast, die young" ethos would be cut short by the rise of the Nazis.
Von Mathias Schreiber

Editor's Note: Berlin is currently celebrating its 775th anniversary. In the coming days, SPIEGEL ONLINE International will be publishing a series of stories on the history of Germany's capital. This is the third part of the series. The first and second parts can be read here.

It was almost a miracle. The roar of battle in World War I, a death sentence for at least 15 million people, had hardly faded away before Berlin's art scene was suddenly teeming with life once again. And that was considerably before the 1920s had turned into the legendary "Golden Twenties" that followed the hyperinflation of 1923.

In 1920, the Otto Burchard Gallery held an exhibition of photomontages, collages and drawings called the "First International Dada Fair." It was the time of the cult of nonsense, when Wieland Herzfelde published a magazine with the provocative title Jedermann sein eigner Fußball (Everyman His Own Football).

The most important success of the Dada Fair was a trial in which the charges included "insulting the Reichswehr" or the German military in the Weimar Republic, and "incitement to class hatred." In a city that would have 147 political daily newspapers by 1928, only a short time later, the trial brought welcome publicity to artists, but it also brought them fines. The artist and caricaturist George Grosz, for example, was fined 300 Reichsmarks.

In a review of the Berlin exhibition, writer Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935) was especially enthusiastic about Grosz (1893-1959), a Berlin native whose real name was Georg Ehrenfried Gross.

"It's very quiet in the small exhibition, and no one is really outraged anymore," Tucholsky wrote. "Dada -- well, okay. But there is one artist who shakes up the whole place. That one artist is… George Grosz … If drawings could kill, the Prussian military would certainly be dead … His portfolio 'Gott mit uns' (God With Us) deserves a place on the table of every good middle-class family. His grimacing faces of majors and sergeants are infernally haunting reality. He alone is Sturm und Drang, riot, ridicule and -- as is rarely the case -- revolution."

'Infernally Haunting Reality'

The expression "infernally haunting reality" neatly sums up the cultural environment in the German capital in the 1920s. One of Grosz's drawings depicts a disillusioned soldier in a steel helmet who wants to relax by the riverside in a large city, only to find a bloated corpse there, apparently a former comrade who had lost his desire to live.

The sarcastic title "Feierabend" or, quitting time, is a reference to both the death of the drowned suicide victim and the end-of-day feeling of the man looking at the corpse. The title -- perverted into a negative take on the original meaning of the expression, which actually refers to the pleasant feeling of reaching the end of the workday -- is sharp-edged, shocking and direct, exhibiting a keen view of real contradictions.

From this time on, this cold view of what writer Bertolt Brecht called the "asphalt city," and its sinister agents, became established in the most important branches of art and hastened by the new mediums of photography, radio, poster advertising, records, the daily press, cabaret and film. Raw truth replaced expressively blissful beauty. "Art is boring; one wants facts," author Alfred Döblin (1878-1957) wrote in defining this wave of reality-based art.

This art broke ranks with the Expressionists' subjective, emotional perspective. Indeed, by this point, Expressionism, a product of the first years of the century, was already passé, even though works by Expressionist painters from Germany were still being exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1922 and 1928.

New Objectivity with a Dash of Conviviality

The present consisted of grinning, cigar-smoking, salacious fat men who seemed preoccupied with eyeing the derrieres and breasts of whores. They wandered like ghosts through the pictorial worlds of painters like Grosz and Otto Dix. In the 1925 painting "Ungleiches Liebespaar" ("Uneven Couple"), Dix brings together a whore's body with a man's lust in an especially grotesque way.

In their almost caricature-like impression of the demimonde, the artists portrayed the social injustices of the day, such as the juxtaposition of the starving unemployed (133,000 in Berlin in 1928 alone) and nouveau riche businesspeople driving around in large convertibles with elegant women on their arms.

Early on, these painters also shaped the style that would come to dominate the second half of the 1920s, characterized by political provocation, cool meticulousness and a burning realism that hurts the eyes, a style summed up as "New Objectivity" -- the title of a 1925 exhibition at the Kunsthalle Mannheim that made cultural history.

In the restless, everyday life of Berlin's cultural scene, the sharp social criticism of this art movement came dusted with a swirling conviviality and a turbulent world of entertainment that offered up everything from variety to cabaret, chansons to popular songs ("Who on earth rolled the cheese to the station? / How impertinent! And how can they do such a thing? / The cheese tax hadn't even been paid yet!"), revues to operettas and six-day races to fashion shows. All of this was seasoned with the intelligent, quick and derisive sense of humor typical of Berliners.

This humor flared up in the socially critical chansons and street ballads of Claire Waldoff (1884-1957). "There is only one Berlin," "Oh God, how stupid men can be," "He who slings mud should be ashamed of himself, and he ought to throw something other than mud," she warbled, sometimes in cabarets and sometimes in pubs.

The "Comedian Harmonists," a Berlin-founded quintet of singers with a pianist that lyrically parodied the human comedy with its everyday erotic desires ("Veronica, the asparagus is growing!", "My little green cactus"), was not as drastic as Waldoff. One of their acts, "Tempo Variety," was especially typical of Berlin. These men who were cheerful in their melancholy recorded their first record in 1928, the first of more than 80 recordings made in the course of their international career.

Heyday of Credit

From 1924 to 1929, between the end of hyperinflation and the stock market crash in New York that led to the Great Depression, there was a short period of economic recovery in Germany that justified the economic connotation of the "Golden Twenties." Industrial production in Berlin, involving such international companies as Siemens, AEG and Borsig, grew by about 50 percent between 1924 and 1929.

Nevertheless, owing to the high cost of war reparations, Germany remained dependent on massive loans from American banks. As soon as the flow of money from the United States ran dry, as it did in 1929, "the building" of the Weimar Republic had to "collapse," as the historian Werner Conze wrote.

The cultural heyday of the years in which Berlin was lauded as the "city of 30 stages" (in fact, it had many more than that), was a heyday paid for on credit. Looking back on the period, playwright Carl Zuckmayer ("The Captain of Köpenick"), who lived in Berlin from 1924 to 1933, wrote: "The arts blossomed like a meadow just before being mowed. This explains the tragic yet brilliant charm that is associated with this era, often seen in the images of poets and artists who died prematurely."

The realization that this euphoria could not last undercoats the best works of art of these years with the metallic tone that soon became the trademark of artistic modernity. This applied, quite literally, to the refined simplicity of the anti-plush, steel-tube furniture of Bauhaus designer Marcel Breuer and the architecture of the same movement, fashioned from strictly functional steel skeletons. The Dessau school complex (1925-1926) of Berlin Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius (1883-1969) is exemplary of its typically angular contours and cubical, flat-roofed structures.

'Less Is More'

After the decorative excesses of the aging plaster facades from the turn of the century, these succinct forms seemed provocatively mute and naked -- and it isn't surprising that they were controversial. The Weissenhofsiedlung (Weissenhof development) in Stuttgart, built in 1927 under the direction of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was soon derided as an "Arab village."

The spatial geometry of the Bauhaus movement, which relied on generous expanses of glass and seemed intent on achieving an airy transparency, was reflected in the style of important villas that were being built in Berlin, as well as in that of unusual, publicly subsidized residential developments.

The designs were by Gropius, such as that of the Siemensstadt housing development, and by architects such as Bruno Taut (the Onkel Toms Hütte and Hufeisensiedlung developments in Berlin's Zehlendorf district), Hans Scharoun and Mies van der Rohe. The latter, whose "less is more" maxim became the most famous Bauhaus motto, was the director of the school when it was moved from Dessau to Berlin in 1932 and was forced to close under pressure from the Nazis just a year later.

Metaphorically speaking, the tendency toward metallic, unadorned expression also applied to the literature of the period, and certainly to the objectivist collage technique employed by Alfred Döblin in his novel "Berlin Alexanderplatz" (1929). Döblin blends together the sound of wind, the rhythmic thud of the steam pile-driver, quotations from newspaper advertisements, stock market reports, soldiers' songs, nursery rhymes and prostitutes' patois with expressive, poetic flights of fancy, and injects all of these noises and fragments of language into the protagonist's stream of consciousness.

The colossal book describes in meticulous detail the ultimately vain struggle of Franz Biberkopf, a furniture mover who has been released from prison, to build a new life. This first important big-city novel in the German language was also the first great 20th-century novel about the working classes. It was made into a film in 1931, starring Heinrich George as a good-natured and childlike Franz Biberkopf.

Berlin Gets Bigger and Bolder

The language of Marxist poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) is austere and direct, flirting with Biblical simplicity, as in the play "Trommeln in der Nacht" ("Drums in the Night"), in which a soldier spends the revolution in a comfy bed. The play was performed at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin in 1922, shortly after it premiered in Munich. In the Munich production, the legendary banner containing the words "Don't stare so romantically!" hung above the stage.

In the revue-like gangster drama "The Threepenny Opera," an entertaining gothic tale of love, crime, class hatred and greed based on the English dramatist John Gay's 18th-century piece "The Beggar's Opera," Brecht combines socially critical polemics with erotic sentimentality. He creates conflict among the villain, Macheath, his girlfriend Polly Peachum and his treacherous ex-lover, Pirate Jenny. The social clichés Brecht touches on -- oh, those truly brutal gangsters! -- are softened by the many suggestive lyrics, such as: "Oh the shark has pretty teeth, dear. And he shows them pearly white. Just a jackknife has Macheath, dear. And he keeps it out of sight." Kurt Weill composed the music. The premiere was performed in 1928 at the Berliner Theater on Schiffbauerdamm, where the play ran for almost a year. In 1929, it was performed on 19 German stages.

The journalist Willy Haas later described the enormous success of Brecht's hammer-like aesthetic in these words: "The time was ripe for the caustic cynicism, brutality and tough knockout of the songs of Brecht and Weill. Every young man who was attuned to the times wore this brutality in his buttonhole as the slogan of the day." The metallic or, as it were, cool tone had become fashionable.

In 1922, in a piece for the Vossische Zeitung newspaper, Döblin used Berlin's typical bluntness in describing the city's 'fast-paced tempo' as Berlin's calling card: "This excitement of the streets, shop and cars is the heat that I must constantly beat into myself when I work. It is the gasoline that powers my engine."

In 1921, the "Automobile Traffic and Training Road" (AVUS) was opened. It was the world's first autobahn, though it was primarily used as a racing and test track. At the time, the private automobile was a luxury product for the upper crust. Even though Berlin's population had surged to 4.3 million, only 50,000 private cars were registered in the city. Many horse-drawn carriages still struggled through the bustle of traffic alongside buses, streetcars, trucks and motorcycles. It was only in 1924 that the first traffic signals were built, at Potsdamer Platz, to direct the city's traffic. A policeman operated Berlin's first traffic light by hand, standing on a covered, elaborate traffic tower, an import from the United States.

'The Raging Reporter'

Another structure that symbolized Berlin's obsession with speed was the Rudolf Mosse publishing house. The building was strikingly renovated by the architect Erich Mendelsohn between 1921 and 1923, after the façade had been heavily damaged in street fighting between government troops and members of the Spartacus League, a Marxist revolutionary movement, shortly after World War I.

Mendelsohn went beyond static Bauhaus geometry with the sensibility of rapid movement. He made the rounded corner of the 10-story press building more dynamic by adding continuous cornices and long, horizontal windows known as ribbon windows. The curvature of this "dynamic" corner facing an intersection is reminiscent of tram tracks and foreshadows vehicles -- streetcars and automobiles -- rushing around the corner. Commenting on the design, the journalist and architect Adolf Behne described it as "not Potsdam or Neu-Ruppin," but "big city, modern city, concentrated, powerful life, confidence, affirmation, will and the pace of work."

Mosse, the Jewish publishing house, owned the Berliner Tageblatts newspaper. The symbolism of the building's façade, with its evocation of speed, was also the ideal complement to the communicative machinery of the modern daily press, whose triumphal march through society was just beginning at the time. The industrialized big city became a laboratory for the acceleration of almost all aspects of life, and the daily press served as both its amplifier and venue.

The portrait the painter Christian Schad made of the "raging reporter," Egon Erwin Kisch, in 1928, illustrates this link between journalism and the zeitgeist. Kisch published his collected works in 1924, in a book entitled "The Raging Reporter." Schad painted Kisch as a proletarian, with a naked, slightly pudgy, delicately tattooed upper body. A knife pierces the left side of his chest, and a dominatrix occupies the middle of his stomach. The subject's gaze is very direct, as if he were observing and journalistically examining the person looking at the painting. Like a manifesto, this portrait affirms the equality of literature and reportage under the banner of an objectivity that reflects the new role of science and technology.

Succumbing to the Magic

In 1920, Berlin's six districts added 14 more to become "Greater Berlin," a city whose cultural appeal was reinforced by the lives of its artists. Schad, the painter who created important portraits of the New Objectivity movement, was from the Bavarian town of Miesbach and had lived in Munich before succumbing to the siren call of the Prussian metropolis. And Kisch, who had lived in Berlin since 1921, was a Jew from Bohemia, born in Prague in 1885.

A number of important artists and intellectuals succumbed to the magic of this notoriously agitated city on the boundary between Western and Central-Eastern Europe: from the physicist Albert Einstein, the sculptor Georg Kolbe, the French-American dancer Josephine Baker, who captivated Berlin in 1926, to authors Robert Musil, Lion Feuchtwanger, Erich Maria Remarque (his 1928 antiwar novel "All Quiet on the Western Front" became an international best-seller), Erich Kästner, Franz Kafka (who lived in Berlin from 1923 to 1924), Ricarda Huch and Gottfried Benn, not to mention composers Paul Hindemith and Ferruccio Busoni.

Great directors of the day began their careers in Berlin, including Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer. Berlin's uniquely colorful theater world was filled with such outstanding actors as Heinrich George, as well as directors Leopold Jessner, Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator. After a failure at the Volksbühne theater, Piscator, a leftist, established his own, 1,100-seat theater on Nollendorfplatz, funded by a beer brewer. It was one of 75 Berlin theaters with private financial backers. Piscator's practice of frequently exposing the fly loft and creating distance with film projections came to epitomize the anti-illusive "epic theater" in the style of Brecht.

"The audience is good enough to fill the ranks … but it actually gets in the way. After all, it doesn't understand anything. What's important is the criticism," Berlin-born journalist Kurt Tucholsky wrote in 1929, with delicate irony, on Berliners' wild enthusiasm for the theater. Audiences and theater managers alike awaited the reviews in the daily newspapers, often printed only a few hours after premieres, as if they were sports scores. An artist's career could be decided by the criticism or praise of an influential theater critic, such as Alfred Kerr.

Printed theater reviews already existed in the days of German writer Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781), but the acceleration of the intense interaction between reviews and the reaction of audiences was new. At the same time, theatergoers, who were predominantly liberal and left-leaning, were also an increasingly isolated minority in the crisis-ridden metropolis, where ordinary people had no contact with the theater and its critics.

The Golden Era of Berlin Film

In addition to the daily press, another accelerating factor was a new medium whose products depended on a lot of technology: film. In 1921, Berlin already had more than 400 film theaters, with about 150,000 seats. In the era of silent films, which ended around 1929, up to 70 musicians created dramatic sound backdrops for performances, as they did in Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's 1922 vampire film "Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror." As if to compensate for the technical coldness of the new medium, the film, with its pantomime and makeup, takes atmospheric Expressionism almost to the limit of the tolerable.

The most famous silent film of the time was Fritz Lang's 1927 film "Metropolis." Using highly suggestive crowd scenes, which demonize the modernity of the big city, Lang confronts two worlds: the "Club of the Sons," carefree and divorced from reality, and the underworld of the machine workers, with their robot-like movements. A love story traverses the precarious bridge across the social gulf separating the classes.

The first German film with sound was the 1929 musical comedy "Melodie des Herzens" ("Melody of the Heart"), made remarkable by its star Willy Fritsch, who received a new role in a film every year between 1920 and 1930. The first sentence that was spoken in the film was: "It's because I'm saving for a horse."

At almost the same time, the first important German sound film was made at the UFA studios in Berlin: Josef von Sternberg's adaptation of Heinrich Mann's novel "The Blue Angel," the story of Immanuel Rath, a high-school teacher in a German provincial town who is derided by his students as "Professor Unrat" ("Professor Garbage") and then later runs away with a calculating cabaret performer.

He meets the scantily clad performer in the dressing room of a cabaret theater, an encounter that will be his undoing. He falls for her, and he ruins his life in the process. The amusing play on the eternal subject of "the intellectual and trivial life" drew Hollywood's attention to Marlene Dietrich, and the song she sang in the film, "Falling in Love Again (Can't Help It)," became an international hit.

Dietrich's coldly brilliant acting and the brawny appeal of her male counterpart, Emil Jannings, promised a great future for German film. But the Nazi takeover of Germany in 1933 separated the on-screen lovers. Dietrich backed the Americans in World War II, while Jannings, because of his involvement in Nazi propaganda films, was banned from the screen for life after the Allied victory.

Intellectual Turning Point

The culture of 1920s Berlin was an intellectual turning point after World War I, the great seminal catastrophe of the 20th century. World-famous artists and authors, whose names are still remembered today, were part of it.

What motivated them? It was undoubtedly the lively, intense exchange of ideas that this prickly city adored. But it was also the attempt to escape the emotional and material hardships following the lost war, as well as a desire to leave the empty pomposity of the Wilhelmine Gründerzeit period.

The traditional image of humanity that was still so palpable in neo-Gothic churches around the turn of the century was now giving way to an experimentally mobile search for humanity that was interested in science and technology and oriented toward an open future.

In some respects, Berlin's cultural fireworks of the 1920s are reminiscent of a motto of the rock 'n' roll and hippie eras that became "hip" 50 years later: "live fast, die young." Some of the great designs of this early German modern age would only have the chance to mature after World War II.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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