The Weimar Republic, a pivotal era that′s more than the ′Berlin Babylon′ clichés | Film | DW | 14.12.2018

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The Weimar Republic, a pivotal era that's more than the 'Berlin Babylon' clichés

While the Weimar Republic is often summarized as a period of "dancing on a volcano" ahead of the Nazi era, cultural historian Sabina Becker tells DW why the period should be revisited for its rich cinema and culture.

DW: You would like to see a re-evaluation of culture in the Weimar Republic era, the interwar period between Germany's defeat in World War I in 1918 and Hitler's rise to power in 1933. What does that mean?

Sabina Becker: Various historians have long urged to go beyond assessing the Weimar Republic as linked to 1933 and the Nazis, that second mega disaster in German 20th century history. The Weimar Republic should be given the opportunity to be seen as an era of its own, without losing sight of its failure. But the Weimar Republic and its culture really should not just be interpreted with an eye on 1933 and the inevitable transfer of power to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.

Has cultural innovation in the Weimar Republic been swept under the carpet?

The following metaphor has long played a major role in descriptions of cultural developments in the Weimar Republic, namely that the era was a "dance on the volcano" — the ground seething, unstable and in no state to enable any form of cultural innovation.

I think we need to put into perspective this imagery that has been floating around in the debate about the culture of the Weimar Republic. Only then will we be able to perceive and describe artistic and cultural developments in the 1920s not just under the motto "life and culture in a crisis," but see the innovative accomplishments of the era as well.

What about film in the Weimar Republic: What were the new aspects it added to culture?

Unlike literature, film was seen as a medium that allowed a degree of democratization in the reception of culture. Film presents itself as an open medium, as culture for the masses.

Just look at the numbers of moviegoers in the 1920s. In 1926, German cinemas recorded 332 million visitors; at the end of the decade, they recorded more than 2 million visitors every day. The figures show a trend, they show opportunities the medium film offered in the 1920s. We need to discuss how the film industry worked with this, whether it managed to keep people interested. But clearly, it got people into the movie theaters.

Sabina Becker

Sabina Becker, an expert on the culture and literature of the Weimar Republic

In those years, film underwent aesthetic developments. What were the most important milestones?

Expressionist film was leading beginning in the early days of the Weimar Republic, after 1920 and in connection with the dominance of the silent film. Back then, important films like Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which uses a strong expressionist cinematic language, closed-in spaces, pointed angles only and few realistic outdoor shots — a groundbreaking example.

Directors also aimed for a more authentic manner of portrayal in film.

Georg Wilhelm Pabst's 1925 film The Joyless Street and Walter Ruttmann's 1927 Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis are good examples in silent film, as are the sound films Berlin-Alexanderplatz by Phil Jutzi as well as Fritz Lang's M – A City Searches for a Murderer.

The latter took a documentary-style, matter-of-fact approach, showing the killer's urban surroundings, and the methods the police employ, including fingerprinting and graphology. It's a new phase in the history of film.

Filmszene Die freudlose Gasse

One of the first films of the "New Objectivity" movement: Joyless Street by G.W. Pabst

The series "Babylon Berlin" is set in the Weimar Republic era. Does the film use clichés?

It does, it evokes the simmering volcano, the entire horror story, equating the dance on a volcano with the metropolis, Berlin. It shows the traumas the hero and other figures bear as a result of WWI, and of course it introduces the motif of criminal structures in a big city.

What volcano this is supposed to be, what might have triggered it, all that remains up in the air. That is the first thing that comes to my mind as a constraint on the cultural and political possibilities of the Weimar Republic, certainly the social potential. As far as I am concerned, the image is a constraint.

What was Weimar? In the series, it was not much more than a volcano that led to 1933. I would have wished for more.

Sabina Becker teaches Modern German Literature at Albert Ludwigs University in Freiburg. The professor, regarded as a leading expert on Weimar Republic culture, just published a comprehensive study  entitled "Experiment Weimar — a cultural history of Germany 1918 – 1933."

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