Avant-Garde Photography in Germany, 1919-1939
In October 1928, with The Threepenny Opera playing to full houses at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm and the Wall Street crash still a year away, Berlin’s public utility companies organized a week’s festivities to establish their city as the new ville lumière. Five composers, one of them Kurt Weill, were set to write pieces on the theme of “Berlin in the light” for a band concert directed by the eminent avant-garde conductor Hermann Scherchen on the Wittenbergplatz. Brecht wrote a text to inspire Weill, which has just been published for the first time and may be rendered roughly as follows:
We’ve got so much to show
Which can’t be seen at night.
Unless you have a thousand lamps
You won’t have that much light.
Berlin’s a fair-sized town
The sun is none too bright
But switch the arc-lamps on, and you’ll
See Berlin in the light.
It ain’t a meadow by the stream
With daisies all around.
It ain’t a nook to sit and dream
It is a fair-sized town.
Why is this vision of Berlin im Licht—the brilliantly lit Berlin of the late Twenties—so evocative to us today? Why for that matter is Goodbye to Berlin so much more powerful as a title for Christopher Isherwood’s stories of the dying Weimar Republic than would have been that of the more ambitious novel which he really meant to write about it: The Lost? Looking at modern England we may think we see some obvious reasons in our local echoes of pre-Hitler Germany: the unemployment, the frustration, the hooligan violence, the aimless sexual freedom, the growth of astrology and other nonsense cults, the creation of an intellectual proletariat, the outbursts of racism, and, alas, the new concept of war as national therapy, all of which give the very idea of Berlin in the 1920s an appeal and a relevance which it never had for us at the time. An almost visceral reaction now makes young Englishmen with no particular previous knowledge feel drawn to the old German capital and the electric culture which it stands for, until names like Bauhaus, agitprop, Alabama-Song, Heartfield, Grosz, Lehrstück, and Dada turn into enchanted words for the 1980s and signposts for our own pop culture. At the same time there has to be something more to account for the equally strong American curiosity about the same historical and geographical area. For whereas both the books under review originated in Germany, it is primarily the United States to whom their English-language editions are addressed; and here the echoes are not quite the same.
More important than specific parallels, then, is the interest that any advanced society must feel in a culture that faced so many of the problems we still have to solve. If the great Paris avant-garde before 1914 established the forms and values that now so largely guide us, Germany in the 1920s began to work out how these could be socially …