Cabaret-era Berlin in times of rising populism. German Weimar Republic

Excerpted from Deutsche Welle 12.28.2018

Buchcover Goodbye to Berlin von Christopher Isherwood (Random House )

Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel was described by George Orwell as “brilliant sketches of a society in decay.

There was a less glamorous, more dramatic side to Berlin in the 1920s. The fragility of the German democracy after the First World War 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: the sexual liberation of the time was much more about people being unemployed and having nothing else to sell but their bodies. Prostitution, both homosexual and heterosexual, and often practiced by minors, is indeed another feature of the period.

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 Serwhood’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).

That audience was fascinated by the spirit of the German capital then, or better said, by Isherwood’s accounts of it. Berlin was not just another city in Europe. 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.

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

A popular TV series, Babylinon 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.

Bundeskunsthalle | Ausstellung Kino der Moderne - Film in der Weimarer Republik (Deutsche Kinemathek/Horst von Harbou)

A current exhibition at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn also revisits the cinema of the Weimar Republic. Shown here: a still from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”

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