THE WEIMAR “LAST TRANCE” CABARET: Escaping to Feed Your Head

For Walter Benjamin, this was the real significance of the First World War, “an attempt at a new and unprecedented commingling with the cosmic powers.” He worried that mankind’s alienation from itself was deepening “to such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” …

Economic and political instability ravaged Germany after World War One. The few short years of apparent relief by some were viewed by many others as moral decay. Decadence and materialism were beginning to thrive until the Great depression hit. One can easily imagine that after the hard times of World War One and the ensuing hyperinflation that the German people let their hair down and became absorbed, and escaped to,  the Roaring Twenties.

Guardian:Featuring sets that revel in artifice, painted backdrops and scenery with off-kilter lines and skewed perspectives, Caligari tells the tale of the eponymous doctor and his somnambulist sidekick, Cesare (Conrad Veidt). Cesare can predict the future: most importantly the time of death of anyone who asks. Even though Cesare predicts it, a couple investigate the mysterious death of their friend, and so they find out the true identity of the doctor....

“The Fed is mulling inflation as a fix. Can I, may I ask, can somebody help me out on that, because they tried that before. They tried it Zimbabwe and they tried that in the Weimar Republic. That’s not a fix. To inflate your money to be able to pay down your debt. That’s not a fix…. The Fed has announced now that inflation is part of their new policy. Perfect. Perfect. We are officially in Weimar Republic territory. It’s all out in the open now. We’ve been telling you they were doing it for a while but now it’s all out in the open.” ( Glenn Beck, Oct.6)

The parallels between America and Weimar Germany are tempting, but are they as real and valid as certain pundits make them out to be? We know America sufficiently well; the roots of its malaise and its many symptoms have been hashed over and picked about. But we do not know Weimar well enough, so it is not that obvious to judge the familiar by the unfamiliar. On the surface, its nervous, alienated and often brilliant culture seems disconcertingly like our own, but was the sickness that killed the German Republic comparable to the ailments that afflict America today?

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. 1920.

In February, 1920, the expressionist film, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” had its premiere in Berlin. the deranged doctor who used a man under hypnosis to commit murder was a fascinating study of the degeneration of obsession; ultimately the question of perception and madness invades the film as a fantasy.

Part of the film’s power lies in its bizarre scenery: the walls of Caligari’s booth and of a police station are not parallel, but elongated and pointed, like a distorted cathedral. The streets zig zag like strokes of lightning, and the floors of rooms, the sidewalks, and the walls of buildings are marked with irregular lines. it all looks like a drawing by Lyonel Feininger, though he had nothing to do with the making of the film. Yet the resemblance is not merely coincidental; it testifies to the dominance of expressionism over German art in these early post-war years. ….

“For the society as well as the individual,( Walter ) Benjamin realized “the importance of intoxication for perception, of fiction for thinking.” The new consumer culture of the 19th Century induced a wide-spread trance in the public, as capitalism breathed supernatural power into its products. The World Exhibits, the Belle Epoque’s celebrations of global commerce, “open up a phantasmagoria that people enter to be amused. The entertainment industry facilitates this by elevating people to the status of commodities. They submit to being manipulated while enjoying their alienation from themselves and others.” The euphoria induced by these spectacles was like a drug that robbed the masses of their will, that taught them how to enjoy being transformed into objects of exchange.”

Max Beckmann. The Unemployed. "In the 1920s, he was associated with the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), an outgrowth of Expressionism that opposed its introverted emotionalism."

….Expressionism- that passionate, melodramatic , deliberately antinaturalistic vision that brought yelling to the stage, extravagant metaphors into poetry, and strident, outlandish colors to painting- had been born before World War I but reached its apogee in postwar Germany, a country as extravagant as the art it spawned and supported for some time. Politics, it seemed, was imitating art. “The Cabin

f Dr. Caligari” was the ideal expressionist film in an expressionist age. ….

The Weimar Republic got off to a shaky start due largely to the financial penalties imposed upon Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. To pay the Allied Powers, mostly Britain and France, France and Belgium even sent troops into Germany to force them to pay. Germany fired up the printing presses and cranked out worthless currency to pay the tab. After a few years of hyperinflation, the Weimar Republic elected a new chancellor, as well as a new head of the Reichsbank, and after November 1923 or so, the economy began to stabilize. But the social unrest was still prevalent.

---Lovis Corinth (July 21, 1858, Tapiau, East Prussia (today Gwardeisk in the Russian enclave Kaliningrad Oblast) - July 17, 1925, Zandvoort, Netherlands) was a German painter who found a synthesis of impressionism and expressionism.---

…But the meaning of “Dr. Caligari” goes beyond this. While it is always risky to impose too heavy a burden of significance on a single work of art , the film tells us much about the prevailing temper and insoluble problems of the early republic. The authors of the script, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, had intended their fable to be an antiwar tale. In their original version Caligari, the mad doctor, was in fact the director of the insane asylum. He stood then for unchecked authority, and his hapless patients, for the sheeplike people who follow their leaders down the road to perdition for sheer love- or sheer habit- of obedience. ….

The Far-Left thought the ‘Social-Democracy’ wasn’t Socialist enough and the Far-Right thought it was way too Socialist. But for a few years, Germany’s monetary system was relatively stable as the latest version of the Rentenmark was indexed to the price of gold and a new bank, the Rentenbank, tightened credit on speculators as well as lending cash to the government. By late 1924, the economy began to turn around, especially with the help of loans from American banks.

---Done during the Weimar Republic, near the rise of Hitler, this painting was done full of disgust at the greed, propaganda, and affected patriotism of the time. These grotesque, nightmarish figures stand in as a satirical mirror to his times. ---

… In this sense “Dr. Caligari” represented a widespread , if in the long run impotent, protest against the madness of war. Janowitz and mayer did incorporate into their tale some  youthful experiences , but the real force behind it, without which the story would have been little more than an anecdote, was World War I. It was an attempt to remind the film going public of past mistakes , so that it might avoid similar mistakes in the future.

But of course, this is not the film that Germany, and later the world, came to see and admire, and this too, is significant. Much to the extreme but helpless annoyance of its authors, the producer and director destroyed the polemical intentions of the original tale by placing it within a frame. The chief protestor, Francis, is a madman; the villain, the mad doctor, is not really cruel, but kind; the attack on authority thus springs from delusion. “A revolutionary film,” as the German critic Siegfried Kracauer observed in “From Caligari to Hitler” , “was thus turned into a conformist one.” ….

Otto Dix, Sylvia von Harden, 1927

“They understand socialism. They understand tyrants. But none of us have ever had it here. We don’t even know what it looks like. Part of what we’re trying to do in “Saving Freedom” is just show that where we are, we’re about where Germany was before World War II where they became a social democracy. You still had votes but the votes were just power grabs like you see in Iran, and other places in South America, like Chavez is running down in Venezuela. People become more dependent on the government so that they’re easy to manipulate. And they keep voting for more government because that’s where their security is. When our immigrants get here, they’re worried, because they see it happening here.” ( Sen. Jim DeMint )

….It is hard to estimate what the audience would have made of the fable unaltered- expressionism was often as murky in its message as it was fervent in its proclamations- but the imposition of a frame upon the original story remains interesting for its own sake. It was less a symptom of some crass desire for box-office success than of the desire to avoid the issues that the defeat and fall of the German empire had raised. Throughout the 1920’s this evasion of harsh realities would remain characteristic of the German scene. Expressionism in the film, the theatre, and painting began to fade in the mid 1920’s and a new cooler objectivity, the “Neue Sachlichkeit” , took its place.

Otto Dix, Grosstadt Triptych (right panel), 1928.

“Writing in the 1920s and ‘30s, Benjamin smoked hash, tried mescaline, and enjoyed his own trips: “I thought with intense pride of sitting here in Marseilles in a hashish trance; of who else might be sharing my intoxication this evening, how few.” Thinking under the influence of hashish was like unrolling a ball of thread through a maze: “We go forward; but in so doing we not only discover the twists and turns of the cave, but also enjoy the pleasure of this discovery against the background of the other, rhythmical bliss of unwinding the thread.”

On hashish, he saw the elaborate furnishings of the 19th-century bourgeois interior concentrating “to satanic contentment, satanic knowing, satanic calm … To live in these interiors was to have woven a dense fabric about oneself, to have secluded oneself within a spider’s web, in whose toils world events hang loosely suspended like so many insect bodies sucked dry. From the cavern, one does not like to stir.” The narcotic trance revealed an occult and sinister undercurrent to the bourgeois love of comfort and exotic décor.”

The period between 1924 and 1929 saw a new wave of optimism in Germany. The political extremists were still about but held less sway with the general population. A cultural revolution of sorts took place, particularly with the young, the ’intellectuals’ and women. An ‘anything goes’ attitude emerged as cabarets and jazz spread. This offended both the extremists as too bourgeoisie. As part of the financial aid from America, so to was imported other aspects of American culture, such as flappers and Hollywood movies.

Max Beckmann. Andrew Graham-Dixon:The Descent from the Cross, painted in a very different style to that of the pictures that had preceded it, was a pivotal work in the artist’s career. It is not a masterpiece, exactly, but it has undeniable force – a kind of grotesque, broken pathos. Christ is a gaunt mannequin, blood seeping from the jagged holes in his hands and feet. There is a jagged quality also to Beckmann’s depiction of space, rendered as a series of shattered, overlapping planes sharply suggestive of violence and dislocation. The picture could almost have been painted on shards of broken glass instead of canvas.

But by the 1929, the economy began to tank again. Competing political extremists were still at each other’s throats and the Great Depression set the stage for mass unemployment everywhere, including Germany. In 1930, the nation’s political leaders became more authoritarian. With backing by the military, the Weimar Republic already started down the road of dictatorship with ruling by decree.

Here we are now. We’ve run up a ‘bar tab’ so huge that even with a decent GDP growth rate, it would take a century to pay it off. That’s only IF we decided to do so! Glenn Beck cautions America to study the Weimar Republic and it’s history. Are we headed now for a period of chaos and our own version of an Enabling Act? Will some ‘national emergency’ be used to justify such? Did it already happen back on 9/11? Or September, 2008? Glenn Beck likes to quote Thomas Jefferson, “Question with boldness!” Perhaps Howard Beale said it best, “So if you want the truth… Go to God! Go to your gurus! Go to yourselves! Because that’s the only place you’re ever going to find any real truth.”

"The Lovesick Man" (1916) by George Grosz

Beck: “I’m not comparing” Obama to Hitler, but “please read Mein Kampf” and learn from Germany’s mistakes…Beck says “the Germans” during Hitler’s rise “were an awful lot like we are now”

In a speech to the Florida Renewal Project Monday night, which in an unprecedented move was live streamed on the American Family Association’s Web site, Huckabee compared America to Nazi Germany. He first implored the audience to renew their “commitment to Christ” and “to our nation, to its heritage, as well as to its future,” adding “do we expect the seculars [sic] to do it? Do we expect the unbelievers to lead us, and if so, how will they lead us and where?” He then engaged in an extended description of his visit to the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem with his 11- year-old daughter, who asked, “why didn’t somebody do something?” Huckabee, who has called abortion a “holocaust,” then issued a dire warning:

… I pray that no father ever stands over the shoulder of his own daughter and after her witnessing the decline and the fall of a great nation, writes, and sees her write these words, “why didn’t somebody do something?”

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