illustration & photo: Amanda Artiaga.
The new decade we have just entered invites comparisons with the much-mythologized 1920s. People are undoubtedly fascinated by that bygone time, and that fascination has found an outlet multiple times even on this very blog, like when we were recounting the 20s nightlife with the History Phone. But the phenomenon is universal – chances are you’ve heard about the very popular TV series ‘’Babylon Berlin’’, which brings to the screen the novels of Volker Kutscher set in the Weimar Republic.
Even though there seem to be clear dichotomies between the former and current 20s like techno replacing jazz, I think that one could also find a few common denominators. Read about some of these cultural intersections of the 20s in this article.
The legendary nightlife of the 1920s went down in history as a period of living out a sexual revolution at a particularly precarious time. Especially the name Eldorado is associated with a nightlife venue that embodied the rather brazen spirit of the time. Today, Berlin clubs are still very much a celebration of inclusivity, striving to provide safe spaces for hedonistic expression. A notable example is Pornceptual – a party that profoundly influenced Berliners’ common definition of a kinky night.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1983-0121-500 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Pornceptual, photo: Chris Phillips
However, the recent developments in the club scene are a constant reminder that we can’t take these spaces for granted. Closing of Griessmuehle due to a lack of understanding with the property’s owner and a similar threat hanging over Kit Kat are the kind of events that will undoubtedly alter the Berlin nightlife as we know it.
The legacy of Berlin’s 1920s is so unique thanks to the disruptive artists that were active back then. Some of them are still instantly recognizable, like the iconic Marlene Dietrich, never afraid to experiment with an androgynous look. But it wasn’t only this legendary performer that shaped Berlin’s art scene in the 1920s. Two more artists that really challenged the status quo are Claire Waldoff and Valeska Gert. Waldoff was a singer especially renowned for her bold cabaret performances and also a prominent member of Berlin’s queer scene at the time. Valeska Gert gained popularity as a revolutionary performance artist who predominantly chose dance as her medium, with some of her acts causing quite a riot.
Contemporary Berlin artists prove there is still quite a few conventions left to question. Peaches is an example of a current female musician who does not shy away from celebrating her sexuality. Her bold performances rarely leave the audience indifferent. When it comes to creating an absolutely riveting look that amazes the world, there’s no one quite like the Berlin-based artist Hungry.
This category is slightly different than the previous ones. It’s not about contemporary counterparts to 1920s classics, but I feel like it nevertheless belongs in this piece. You’ve probably heard about Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s cinematic masterpiece from the 1920s (1927, to be precise). As its title might slightly give away, this silent film is a chilling vision of a future metropolis. It is extremely impressive to watch today, not only if you’re a movie buff. The amazing thing is that the cinema Babylon in Mitte (which by the way was opened in 1920s) offers screenings of Metropolis with the accompaniment of a live orchestra. Don’t worry, it also has subtitles in English! If you care to imagine what it was like to watch a movie in the 1920s, seeing Metropolis in Babylon is a must.
For true fans of the 1920s, Babylon offers another treat: the upcoming screening of another 1927 silent film (also with live orchestra): ”Berlin – die Sinfonie der Großstadt”. This 63-minute film has no dialogue, but it surely offers a fascinating visual insight into the decade in question.
All in all, I’d say Berlin, with its incessant flow of colorful characters, still retains a lot of the charm of the 1920s metropolis that Christopher Isherwood immortalized in his prose. I just hope that had he lived in the new 20s, he wouldn’t find a reason to move out by the end of the decade.