For those of us born after World War II there is one face that conjures up the spirit of Berlin around 1930 best, and that belongs to a man who was only born in 1932, in Cleveland of all places: Joel Grey, master of ceremonies in Cabaret, the androgynous host of the Kit Kat Club. Grey managed to personify everything we now associate with the end of that giddy, sinister, brilliant decade between the two world wars, when Berlin was the capital of sex, art, and violence. The sunken cheeks, the curled blood-red lips, the rouge and death-white powder, the lacquered black hair, the little dark eyes darting about like malevolent black insects, and all this combined with that unforgettable voice—whining, lisping, sneering. It is the sum of everything we find repellent yet deeply intriguing about Berlin at the dawn of the Third Reich.
What is so brilliant and disturbing about Joel Grey’s act is its air of boundless cynicism. Nothing is real about his character. He is utterly without feeling. Or rather all his sentiment is false. He trades in sexual innuendo but is sexless himself. He is a hollow man who knows that survival rests on people’s worst instincts, and this he conveys with a sense of deep loathing under his leering smile.
Cabaret was of course a favorite subject of European artists in the Roaring Twenties. The pumped-up naughtiness of “erotic reviews,” the lines of naked women kicking their legs in a frenzy to syncopated music, were typical of a decade when everything appeared to have become unhinged after a monstrous war that mutilated a generation. This was especially true of Berlin, the capital of a country that was reeling from the shock of mass slaughter, wartime defeat, failed revolution, and hyperinflation. With the brutal destruction of the old order—the rigid class system, the authority of monarchy and church, the discipline of the parade ground—anything seemed possible. This was fertile ground for sexual adventure and artistic experimentation, but also the source of social panic, from which the hedonism of the brothel and the dance hall—and, a few years later, massive rallies to worship the Führer—offered a temporary escape.
It might seem ironic that this era of urban sophistication and political violence should bear the name of a provincial town in Thuringia, whose main distinction, apart from some fine eighteenth-century architecture, is that Goethe and Schiller once ran a theater there for the Duke of Weimar. The German republic, lasting from 1919 to 1933, was named after Weimar because that is where the government was formed and the constitution written. The Weimar National Theater, where these matters were concluded, was thought to be a safer place to found a democracy than the center of unruly Berlin, to which the government was soon transferred. The setting was anything but grand. Theodor Wolff, a politician and editor of a liberal paper, recalled that the main hall was “decorated with flowers as if for a modest middle-class wedding reception.”1
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