Modernist Mythology : Berlin

Berlin is famous and infamous for its theatre and performance scene. You can find and see all sorts on the Berlin stage. Frequent nudity is what the outside onlooker most frequently discerns first and foremost, but the experimental and innovative use of stage, space, objects and living beings, and the breadth of acting is massively lively in the city. As many will know, Berlin has a bit of a tradition in experimental directing and acting for the stage and screen.

The expressionist stage of the early 1900s pioneered an uprooted aesthetics of the nightmare-like, the derailed and the brutal, presenting the industrialized city as an artistic reality for the first time. In another post, I wrote in more detail about one example, Strauss‘ Elektra, but this is only one of several works that fell within the framework of the time’s new set of artists. It ran a deep cut through both the measured and elevated tentes of neo-classical style and the heart-rendingly beautiful, emotion-rich and idealizing tendencies of the romantic era, in which a far more prolific trend had been the focus on rural landscapes, the communion with nature, oftentimes accompanied with medievalizing scenes of old castles and ancient knightships.

The expressionist movement not only had Berlin at the heart of its subject matter, in all its industrialized, over-crowded, gas-lit, disease-ridden, poverty-stricken and department-store-dazzled glory. It also found a fountain of creativity in early cinematography through works such as the silent movie Metropolis, Nosferatu or indeed Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. The expressionist style also took the fancy of the operatic milieu.

It wasn’t long before the modernizing pushes of expressionist performance in the 1900s and 1910s morphed into the heyday of fashion, film, and cabaret in the golden ‚twenties of the Weimar Republic.

A classic example is the 1930 film The Blue Angel starring Marlene Dietrich as a burlesque variety starlet singing „Falling in Love Again“ to the syncopated sounds of a jazz band, the first in german film (the movie was simultaneously produced in German and English, premiering in London in 1930). The film, based on the 1904 novel Professor Unrat by realist writer Heinrich Mann, tells the story of an older school teacher falling in love with a much younger burlesque starlet, which leads to the entire unravelling of his own self and ends with him having gone completely insane.

Another novel, another male personality’s unravelling : Berlin-Alexanderplatz. This 1929 tale of a freed convict’s failure to find his feet in Berlin upon a stint in jail, his return to criminal life and ultimate defeat in his daily struggles against the odds in the great city, is the first German modernist epic set in the metropolitan milieu, often compared to Ulysses. Turned into a movie by 1931, the story was revisited in the 1980s by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the production of a television series.

Like many of his colleagues in the expressionist literary movement, the author of Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin, was a medical doctor. The tale of someone’s unraveling, degeneration and descent into an abyss, certainly has the appearance of showcasing a determinist concept not only of biological evolution, but also moral and psychological evolution, so dear those engaged in the natural sciences at the time. Today, we can probably review this imputed agenda, and marvel at how these early seeds urban mythology have grown into a well-watered forest of urban myths alive in oral history, pop culture and indeed, the contemporary Berlin stage and screen.