1920s Berlin offered one last taste of decadence before the storm clouds rolled in.
Americans might have flocked to Paris in the ’20s, but the real action was in Berlin — the modern Babylon where every night felt like New Year’s Eve and any pleasure could be obtained for a price. In fact, if ever a historical era blurred into one continuous, manic party, it was Berlin in the Weimar years. (The name Weimar Republic comes from the small city where Germany’s first democratic constitution was drawn up; it lasted from 1919 until the Nazi takeover in 1933). Berliners had always enjoyed a reputation for licentious behavior and artistic rebellion; many Germans blamed the invigorating Berliner Luft, Berlin wind, for encouraging a tendency to perversion. But the defeat in the World War I and the hyperinflation that followed seemed to shatter any vestige of security and restraint. By 1923, it was as if there really was a whiff of cocaine in the breeze: “The air was always fresh and spiced up,” wrote the poet Carl Zucherson. “One did not need much sleep and never got tired.” Around the clock, wrote Friedrich Hollander, partygoers “writhed like creeping plants to new rhythms in the blue lights of the bars.” But the era offered far more than superficial hedonism. The most creative minds of Eastern Europe converged on the city to take advantage of its boundless freedom. Through the bar smoke you might spot Vladimir Nabokov, Marc Chagall, Marlene Dietrich, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, George Grosz, Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, Fritz Lang, Bertolt Brecht, Lotte Lenya, or Kurt Weill.
Scoring an Invitation: No matter how exclusive the club, visitors with hard currency were always welcome. (Just for reference, one U.S. dollar, which had been worth 272 paper Reichsmarks in 1922, was worth 3,500,000 Reichsmarks on August 7; 10,000,000 on September 1; 60,000,000 on September 30; and 4,200,000,000 on November 30). But foreigners were also targeted by a schleppers — teenage kids looking out for chumps. They would lead the tourists to low-life clubs, where guests would pay a fortune for filthy sekt bubbly and have their pockets picked by toothless lap-dancers.
What to Wear: Club fashions were exaggerated for theatrical effect: Berlin men sported dandified suits, including lilac or lime shirts with high stiff collars and cravat. The women wore short hair, striking makeup, and backless dresses with plunging necklines or men’s suits. The fashion pace-setter was the beautiful redhead dancer and silent film star Anita Berber, who gadded about with her face powdered a ghoulish white with a vivid slash of scarlet lipstick, stark naked beneath a mink coat except for a gold chain around her ankle and a pet chimpanzee hanging on her shoulder. Once-staid German girls began to copy her style, and even streetwalkers found it hard to keep up with the standards of exposed flesh.
Party Progress: Entertainment was everywhere; it seemed you couldn’t order a glass of lager or plate of würst unless it was accompanied by a provocative chanteuse or stand-up comic. At least 150 venues called themselves cabarets, although only perhaps a fifth of those were anything we might recognize from Marlene Dietrich films. The most creative were to be found along the Kurfürstendamm — small, intimate places where audiences sat around tables in direct eye contact with the performers; their shows were made up of five to 10 minute sets of singing, stand-up comedy, dances, theatrical skits, poetry readings, and political satires. They were hosted, as in the film Cabaret, by a witty master of ceremonies in a dark, cynical vein. In January 1922, the young Bertolt Brecht had performed his Ballad of the Dead Soldier, a disturbing ditty about the German army digging up a soldier’s corpse and sending him back to fight at the front. Many other “cabarets” were simply strip clubs or erotic pageants euphemistically known as Beauty Nights, where seedy patrons sat with opera glasses even though only 15 feet away.
Berlin’s 400 or so bars were divided in tourist guidebooks according to a strict taxonomy of desire. Flush heterosexuals might choose the Kakadu, with Polynesian-style décor and caged parrots hanging over each table; when patrons wished to leave, they could tap their glasses and the bird would squawk loudly for the check. Gay men would descend on the Karls-Lounge, where the waiters and “Line Boys” all wore neat sailor’s outfits. Lesbians liked Mali and Ingel, where guests were obliged to dance with the randy owners, or the Café Olala, where some customers liked to dress in Salvation Army outfits. Male cross-dressers went to the Silhouette, female cross-dressers to the Mikado, and everyone the entire sexual spectrum over blurred at the Eldorado, where one dancer, when quizzed by a slumming grand dame as to gender, replied in a haughty voice: “I am whatever sex you wish me to be, Madame.”
Drinking Notes: Visitors from the Prohibition-bound U.S. were agape at the craze for “American cocktails.” But few were content with an alcohol buzz when high-grade opium balls, morphine, and cocaine were readily available from street dealers or even waitresses, such as the sultry Argentine girls at the Rio Rita tango bar. Berliners also experimented with fashionable designer drugs: They would bite the petals from white roses that had been soaked in chloroform and ether, then sample strange new aphrodisiacs like “radium cream” and the juice of the African yohimbé bush.
The After-Party: Weimar Berlin’s carefree fiesta provoked a savage hangover. The city’s “morally unhinged” ambiance was at least partly responsible for the rise of Nazism, as exhausted and frightened German voters began to pine for social order and look for convenient scapegoats. In 1933, Hitler was able to quickly close down the sexually experimental nightspots and outlandish cabarets, many of whose creative directors were Jewish; some who could escape Berlin made it to Hollywood. As for the provocative singer and fashion icon Anita Berber, she died penniless and alone in 1928 from self-abuse. By then she was regarded as the ultimate Weimar basket-case, a convenient symbol of self-destructive decadence. But compared to the theatrical clowns taking control of Germany, she might be hailed as a beacon of mental health. • 20 April 2009
SOURCES/FURTHER READING: Gordon, Mel, Voluptuous Panic: the Erotic World of Weimar Berlin (Los Angeles, 2000); Schrader, Bärbel and Jürgen Schebera, The Golden Twenties: Art and Literature in the Weimar Republic, (New Haven, 1988); Toepfer, Karl, Empire of Ecstasy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture 1910-1935 (New York, 1997).
Tony Perrottet's new book, Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins, July, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.
Photograph from the German Federal Archive (Creative Commons).