Hedonism, sex and fear why the Weimar republic is in vogue

From Fritz Lang to Brecht, 1920s German culture is being celebrated in print and on stage perhaps because it has clear echoes today

It was one of the most febrile and fascinating periods in the 20th century. A time when cultural creativity and technical innovation walked hand in hand with political uncertainty, growing inequality and storm clouds gathering on the horizon. Small wonder, then, that 100 years later, the Weimar republic is being celebrated in film and literature, music and art.

Next month sees the conclusion of the BFIs well-received Weimar programme, Beyond Your Wildest Dreams: Weimar Cinema 1919-1933, a series of films from the well-known such as M, Metropolis and The Blue Angel to the more esoteric such as the silent film Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolisand period drama Chronicles of the Gray House.

Meanwhile, Esa-Pekka Salonen, artistic adviser and principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra, is overseeing Weimar Berlin: Bittersweet Metropolis, a series of concerts, cabaret, films and talks, culminating in September at the Royal Festival Hall with The Partys Over, which includes a performance of Kurt Weills 1924 Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra and Alban Bergs Lulu Suite.

Just down the road, Tate Modern is showing Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany, having last year also dedicated an exhibition to Anni Albers, one of the few female Bauhaus artists. And, on television, the German series Babylon Berlin, adapted from Volker Kutschers bestselling books, has become a global and critical hit, with a third series scheduled for later this year.

Literature, too, is in on the act. Last month saw the publication of Metropolis, the last novel by the late Philip Kerr, which takes his much-loved PI Bernie Gunther back into the dying days of Weimar Berlin. The Hiding Game, Naomi Woods new novel about a group of young students at the Bauhaus and beyond, is published in July, and the following month sees the publication of Blueprint, the debut novel by German author Theresia Enzensberger, which tells the story of a would-be architecture student at the Bauhaus.

Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. Photograph: Granger Historical Picture Archive/Alamy

I think part of the appeal is that we know what is coming but there is also such a sense of joy, particularly within the Bauhaus movement, says Wood. It feels very fresh, and that period is such a time of fertile production and liberal politics and experimentation. Theres something seductive about it and not simply because we know the horror that is coming.

Wood was first inspired to write about Weimar and the Bauhaus movement after seeing a photograph of a group of students at the institutes famous 1929 metal party. It was so crazy and they looked so happy, the joy radiating off them. There was something very appealing about the notion of a golden collective where everything starts to go wrong.

Enzensberger agrees that the youth of those attending the Bauhaus exerts an almost magnetic pull. There is something so accessible about that period, she says. The school, the parties I also wanted to capture the seriousness and earnestness of their political ideals. We all know what it feels like to be young and feel passionately.

There are parallels between Weimar and our current unstable times. In both, technology has changed so fast it threatens to overwhelm the populace. Both have seen political opinions harden and entrench, with intense debate over attitudes towards gender and sexuality.

It is hard not to see parallels, agrees cultural historian Gavin Plumley, who oversaw the programme for the Philharmonia in addition to making a series of short films about the period.

I tried not to be too slavish in teasing out those connections because history doesnt repeat, but what I think resonates is that rather vicious and lurid combination of extraordinary hedonism and a train driving into the buffers. Theres definitely the idea that were becoming almost blind to the appalling situation unfolding around us.

Margaret Deriaz, who programmed the BFIs film season, agrees. It was a period of great experimentation and vitality and also of diversity and multiplicity of voices. I think its inevitable that the social, political and economic turbulence during the Weimar period strikes a chord.

I dont want to over-egg the analogy, although I will say that the vision of a world in which democratic values are under threat and the social fabric is torn no longer seems quite so remote as perhaps it once did.

For Deriaz, the best thing about the renewed interest in the period has been the way in which the films are speaking to a new generation. Weve definitely seen a younger audience and, in some ways, that doesnt surprise me because the films feel very modern. They are the precursors of film noir, horror and sophisticated romantic comedy, and they capture both the excitement and the fear of life in such a fast-moving society.

That notion of a nation feverishly dancing on the edge of the volcano is key to our continued interest in Weimar, says Plumley, adding that the eras ultimate appeal lies in that sense of the rule book being ripped up The odd haircut or item of clothing aside, you could walk down a Berlin street 90 years ago and you wouldnt feel as though youd landed in another world. Its that immediacy that still resonates down the years.

Weimar: the definitive works

The book
Goodbye to Berlin
by Christopher Isherwood
The basis for Cabaret, Isherwoods six interlinked stories, published in 1939 but set during the Weimar era, were described by George Orwell as brilliant sketches of a society in decay.

The film
The Blue Angel
directed by Josef von Sternberg
This landmark 1930 tragicomedy of a troubled teacher whose life is slowly destroyed after he falls obsessively in love with a cabaret singer made an international star of Marlene Dietrich.

The artwork
The Trench
by Otto Dix
Later presumed destroyed in aby fire, Dixs 1923 anti-war painting made his name and became a touch point for what Weimar culture stood in opposition to. The Nazi government confiscated more than 260 paintings by Dix.

The music
The Threepenny Opera
by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
The 1928 play with music is the story of the rise and fall of criminal Macheath. The Ballad of Mack the Knife is perhaps its best-known song.

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