Poised now as we are here on the verge of spring, I’ve been finding myself ready for a voyage – mainly a nocturnal one, though my hope is to conduct it without nostalgia – into the past and to Berlin, and what follows is just such a tour, though it re-enters the present by the end.
The fascination exerted by this city abroad has not dissipated during the present crisis, but instead continues to grow, bolstered by the fact that even today Berlin, regarded from the outside, is often still viewed through the nimbus of the Weimar Republic, the reputation it enjoys being couched, explicitly or implicitly, in terms of that chapter of its and the country’s history; this is a tendency which has not gone unnoticed by the culture industries at several levels, high, middle, and low, in various countries, industries which, in their different ways, have each known how to profit from the city’s continuing appeal, all the more so during our current global conjuncture, which now quite readily instills in those familiar with the history that disquieting “De te fabula narratur” feeling: and so, here we have a case where, for the time being, the object as well as the intellectual and the commercial interest in it, all sustain one another in what is – or, for us, at least it ought to amount to – an uneasy triple alliance.
And yet, all this notwithstanding, Berlin is a fascinating city and has been so ever since its rapid ascent to prominence in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the Gründerzeit during which its population and extent grew even more rapidly than the power sought in imperial self-aggrandisement was amassed by the Wilhelmine Germany whose capital it had become. As such it was well posed to elicit reflection on the role played at all levels of modern life by a methodical organisation and the inclination inherent in individuals to self-discipline – here I’m referring to a genre of reflection that either in effect or explicitly took its bearings from the inquiry in the second treatise of Nietzsche’s Zur Genealogie der Moral into the constitutive ante-history of the human being as a being that should be capable, by virtue of the will and the memory which have been drilled into it, of making and keeping promises, and, even more fundamentally, as a being that, insofar as it is, is itself a promise or even a promissory note to the future – this was a genre of intellectually explorative essay of which the first example may not have been German but French, namely, Paul Valéry’s early publication, initially entitled “La Conquête allemande.”
For the record: the essay was first published in The New Review (London: William Heinemann), vol. xvi, no. 92 (January 1897).
Lest it appear I’m straying far from the field of music: surely it’s plausible (though of course it is merely a vast generality) to remark that in the absence of such antecedent, and also, actually, ongoing training, the inner metronome in each member of a musical ensemble would scarcely ever have been set to tick – and without strict maintenance of this interior feeling for time and timing, symphonies could neither be written nor performed.
To rehearse his essay here would have little point, as it has more lucidity, clarity, and distinctness in its articulation than summaries could ever hope to attain: suffice it to say that in it the typical cast of mind anatomised by Nietzsche’s second treatise was taken to be a fait accompli, and its consequences as inaugurated in the German national system were considered under the twin rubrics of methodical collective action and the discipline and self-discipline of persons; however, when Valéry towards the end touches on the achievements of individual minds which exist apart from any such system on a large or national scale, while yet representing something like variations of it in microcosm, in this connection a few sentences may fittingly be quoted. Tous les grands inventeurs d’idées ou de formes me semblent s’être servis de méthodes particulières, he rejoined to those who would raise the objection that new insights necessarily emerge only in as yet untrodden territory, or, in other words, from beyond the familiar paths of any extant method. Je veux dire que leur force même et leur maitrise est fondée sur l’usage de certaines habitudes, et de certaines conceptions qui disciplinent toutes leurs pensées. Chose étrange, c’est justement l’apparence de cette méthode interne que nous appelons leur personnalité ! Il importe peu, du reste, que cette méthode soit ou ne soit pas consciente.
To this encomium to the inner self-discipline of the mind that is nearly identical with the person’s character itself, for my part I should merely like to add that even more than in ideas or in forms, it may be in music that it can result – and in its contribution to wit and esprit it would show that, far from suffocating, it could even lend strength to a mind’s own spontaneity.
Accordingly, the best and most beautiful fruit of method and discipline, albeit an unintended byproduct thereof, might in fact be a precise musicality on the one hand, a sharp sense of humour on the other. Is it any wonder, then, that Berlin has long been known especially for both?
Within the realms where German was spoken, those who, around the year 1900, were most aware of Berlin’s peculiar twofold position, being at once the capital of Prussia and of a united Germany and yet also a cultural centre whose intellectuality and sophistication manifested quite other qualities than mere obedience, method, and discipline, have left some quite acute insights into the nature of the modern metropolis as such; and of these observations there are none sharper than those contained in Georg Simmel’s essay about “Die Großstädte und das Geistesleben,” which, if one thinks past the ex cathedra and universal manner in which he phrased his remarks, begins to seem as though it were written above all about Berlin – and as though its substance actually comprised real questions rather than bald statements.
Simmel’s essay was first published in Die Großstadt: Vorträge und Aufsätze zur Städteausstellung, ed. Theodor Petermann (Dresden: von Zahn & Jaensch, 1903).
His own city would then have served him as an experimental subject for ascertaining the degree of plausibility of his insights into what he liked to call the “subjektive” and the “objektive Kultur” of the modern metropolis and its inhabitants.
Often only a single verb need be transferred to the beginning of his sentence, and with the change in intonation several open inquiries are released at once from the constative form inside which they were hidden.
Die Beziehungen und Angelegenheiten des typischen Großstädters pflegen – this is one of those verbs – so mannigfaltige und komplizierte zu sein, vor allem: durch die Anhäufung so vieler Menschen mit so differenzierten Interessen greifen ihre Beziehungen und Bethätigungen zu einem so vielgliedrigen Organismus ineinander, daß ohne die genaueste Pünktlichkeit in Versprechungen und Leistungen das Ganze zu einem unentwirrbaren Chaos zusammenbrechen würde.
The centrality, within this nexus of ideas, of the notions of Pünktlichkeit, Versprechungen, and Leistungen, may be taken as confirmation that Simmel’s essay belongs to the genre of reflection to which I referred before.
Now, if one wanted to typify Simmel’s thought in general, it would be tempting to call him a thinker of degrees, one whose sixth sense for the experiential, intellectual, mental, and perceptual thresholds where differences in quantity are transformed into differences in quality, and vice versa, is perhaps even today unmatched – and, accordingly, the question that actually preoccupied him in his reflections on the modern metropolis, was this (and here I’m putting the matter quite literally): how necessary is the self-discipline, or more precisely, the automatic and at the same time willing subordination or co-ordination of its residents to an impersonal arrangement of time, to a great existing schedule, in order that such a city continue to discharge its essential functions properly.
This question may easily be construed from two remarks in particular, in which his essay’s tendency to apodictic overstatement itself passes beyond a certain point and becomes nearly parodic – as though intentionally so.
Wenn alle Uhren in Berlin plötzlich in verschiedener Richtung falschgehen würden, auch nur um den Spielraum einer Stunde, so wäre sein ganzes wirtschaftliches und sonstiges Verkehrsleben auf lange hinaus zerrüttet.
So ist die Technik des großstädtischen Lebens überhaupt nicht denkbar, ohne daß alle Thätigkeiten und Wechselbeziehungen aufs pünktlichste in ein festes, übersubjektives Zeitschema eingeordnet würden.
Given the speed with which it leapt into the first rank of cities late in the nineteenth century, but also on account of its large topographic size and its particular mode of apportionment in districts, Berlin might have seemed to be tailor-made to serve as the object for an inquiry into the role and the limits in modern life of punctuality, in the comprehensive sense – designating a condition both subjective and objective – that Simmel evidently lent the term.
If Berlin did in fact figure in his essay as the paradigm of the modern metropolis, would it then be so far-fetched to suggest that Simmel was also taking the measure of a twofold analogy – between the city and a symphony, on the one hand, the Berliners and the musicians of an orchestra, on the other – or even a tripartite one, supplemented with a comparison between the sum of the city’s timetables and a symphony’s authoritative score?
As with any worthwhile analogy, this one too ought to cut a swath in both directions. (After the ground’s been cleared, one will perhaps begin to hear more of the sounds of the largest cities while listening with care to this or that symphony, no matter the size, constitution, or degree of self-discipline of the orchestra performing it.)
Die Symphonie der Großstadt. – It’s more than probable that film-makers such as Ruttmann or Siodmak and Ulmer, who, a couple of decades later, were to record Berlin in just such terms, should all have known Simmel’s essay nearly by heart.
Behind all the disorder in Berlin during the nineteen-twenties, did its residents continue to live their lives as though they were members of some sort of orchestra, doing so (this is perhaps the most pertinent question) even in their free time, even when they were simply Menschen am Sonntag?
The disposition of urban spaces typical of Berlin, which, compared to Paris (not to mention the very different matter of the skyscraper cities), is so much more spread out and less dense, taking considerably longer to traverse – and this articulation of space and time is not the least of the features which lend plausibility to the comparison between cities and symphonies generally – makes room for some characteristics of the relationships amongst the city-dwellers to become perceptible as such, whereas these do not perhaps extrude themselves so distinctly in urban environments that are organised more compactly; thus it was especially in Berlin that the constitutive role played by a certain soft antipathy in those relationships could be taken as a topic for reflection, and so it is not surprising to find Simmel recurring to it again and again in his essay: although his remarks in this connection are likewise marked by a degree of exaggeration, he wasn’t really wrong when he asserted that such antipathy bewirkt die Distanzen und Abwendungen, ohne die diese Art Leben überhaupt nicht geführt werden könnte, for otherwise the entirety of the urbanites’ surroundings in their very proximity would impinge upon them far too closely and far too often, in a manner that would be both “unnatürlich” and “unerträglich” in equal measure.
In accommodating themselves to the overarching “punctuality” of time and space without which the life of the metropolis would soon be extinguished (for, his exaggerations notwithstanding, Simmel’s claim remains rather plausible), the residents almost necessarily had need of some degree of antipathy in their mutual relations, if the latter were to be relationships at all and not to be compressed into something else of quite another kind, immediate contact abolishing both form and dignity – or into, to vary the terms in keeping with the symphonic analogy, sheer horrible noise; and thus Simmel had reason to suggest that this soft antipathy, or, speaking more precisely, ihre Maße und ihre Mischungen, der Rhythmus ihres Auftauchens und Verschwindens, die Formen, in denen ihr genügt wird, was not to be sundered, perhaps not even analytically, from the im engeren Sinne vereinheitlichenden Motiven, for the untrennbares Ganzes der großstädtischen Lebensgestaltung – and at this point one may again infer that it was a whole which might well be likened to a symphony – could only have been constituted by the concurrence of both.
(To cite Simmel’s own more abstract terminology: this antipathy which unmittelbar als Dissoziierung erscheint when viewed right in the midst of the relationships comprised in the modern metropolitan form of life, was in Wirklichkeit nur eine ihrer elementaren Sozialisierungsformen. A proper vantage-point would be requisite if one were to grasp – I should like to suggest, to hear – that underlying reality.)
So, more readily than in some of the other great cities of the time, in Berlin’s large expanses an essential characteristic of the relationships amongst the urbanites in the modern city could become manifest – though, to be sure, the antipathy to which Simmel’s attention was drawn, is not some sort of absolute quantity. It too would vary with the conjuncture, and this Simmel was well aware of, for he took care to identify it as being a harbinger, or indeed a Vorstadium des praktischen Antagonismus, potentially a preliminary to the outbreak of quite real conflict.
Around a quarter of a century after Simmel published his essay, another author, less abstractly theoretical but with a perhaps even more perspicuous and subtle sense for urban realities, set out to rediscover his native city after returning early from an extended visit with old friends in Paris, where he had lived for some years before the First World War and was now to find them changed, preoccupied with the demands of their careers and without much time or even the inclination any longer for the way of life they all shared then; the fading away of the possibility of truly being a flâneur in Paris (for flânerie was not the least of their pastimes in the lives they had led) prompted Franz Hessel to outline the thought which had guided the Parisian flâneurs in their purposefully aimless ventures through the city, a summation he provided in a few lines in his “Vorschule des Journalismus” – a text which already pointed forward to the next chapter in his own career, in Berlin as a sort of roving reporter: as though to imply that a formulation as concise and clear as his was, could only have been wrought while the very object of the inquiry already stood on the threshold of vanishing.
Or, in a speculative mood, could one espy in this end to Hessel’s visit a signal that towards the end of the nineteen-twenties the flâneur as a slightly outmoded metropolitan type was ready to relocate to another city, to be sure while also renovating its persona, language, manners, and predilections somewhat along the way?
Much more likely the latter, as the few quizzical lines penned by Hessel concerning the essence of the way of life of les flâneurs de Paris, do not read as though they were meant merely retrospectively, amounting to an epitaph and nothing more; on the contrary, from them one could infer that in his opinion it was in Berlin – as surprising as this idea must have sounded – that new fields were opening up which the flâneur might suddenly re-emerge out of the past to explore.
Here is his synopsis: Was ist das für eine Sippe oder Abart, die nicht suchen will, sondern immer nur finden? Wir Fatalisten des Zufalls glauben geradezu: Suchet nicht, so werdet ihr finden. Nur was uns anschaut, sehen wir. Wir können nur –, wofür wir nichts können.
Himself a consummate flâneur, Hessel was particularly attentive to the so to speak environmental differences between the two cities, and above all to the possibility that in Berlin flâneurs could set out on the trail – in order to find them unsought – of a wider range of experiences than those to be met with in Paris, so more numerous were the opportunities there for “Fatalisten des Zufalls” than in the latter; whereas chances were that Paris, given the scale on which it’s been built, would have appealed above all to the eyes of the flâneurs, Hessel’s native city, with its vaster distances in space and time, might well have addressed them by sight and by sound in turn: and actually, its larger open areas and lesser urban density could then even have entailed that the basic rapport between it and the flâneur was acoustic in kind before it became visual.
Long exposure to this other environment in its characteristic specificity may even have heightened Hessel’s sensitivity to the particularly Parisian experiences comprised in the older flânerie, and thus helped him to summarise its principles as succinctly as he did. Thus, had he not already learned in Berlin to understand how a modern metropolis could call upon the city-dwellers, albeit softly and even from around solid corners, to lend an ear and to listen hard to its significant messages – had Hessel’s own ears not earlier been addressed by and/or become attuned to receive those messages, his insight into the peculiar intentionality lodged within urban things generally, which is frequently taken as a rubric today whenever talk turns to him and his works, “Nur was uns anschaut, sehen wir,” would most likely never have been formulated: perhaps it was reserved to a perspicuous Berliner to glimpse it as such and put it so plainly into words.
In his native city, according to the chapter “Der Verdächtige” in the book he dedicated to it, Spazieren in Berlin, muss man müssen, sonst darf man nicht – but precisely for the reason that in the capital geht man nicht wo, sondern wohin, often doing so in a rush and amidst much noise, a sensitive flâneur, quite aware of the obstacles posed to his characteristic pursuits there, could venture some acute observations not only concerning the purposefully non-purposive character of flânerie in general, but also about the various strange ways in which, though the city-dwellers were frequently uninterested in the things they passed by every day, the latter might well display an interest in them.
Accordingly, but a bit more specifically, and bearing in mind what interests me here most, music and the realm of aural phenomena, I find myself wondering: prior to the metropolitan sighting of any significant thing and indeed constituting the condition of possibility thereof, does there not in fact exist an antecedent dimension of hinternoise (to borrow a term coined by René Baptist Huysmans) whose role is deserving of an acoustically intellectual exploration in its own right? Would it then result from one’s having undertaken an excursion into this dimension that one could, in Hessel’s words, do something for whatever one happens to come across while strolling through the city, whereas those who’ve limited their peripatetic search or inquiry to that which may be seen, will subsequently most likely discover themselves able to do nothing more for or else about whatever they had wanted to seek?
(And to take this line of thought somewhat further: could certain abstract works of filmic art from those years, for instance Ruttmann’s several Lichtspiele –
– be regarded as depicting something like the after-images that might pass spontaneously in revue before the closed eyelids of a tired flâneur worn out after many hours of exploration afoot in a city now awash in all kinds of artificial light, especially if in so doing the dimensions of experience other than the visual had been overlooked inattentively?)
Much more than in Paris, perhaps it was in – or: by virtue of – Berlin that such questions might beckon to be posed in the first place.
In 1929, the year of the Crash, Hessel published his essay on Paris in the collection fittingly entitled Nachfeier. That same year there appeared the account of flânerie in his home city, and it’s one of the several virtues of Spazieren in Berlin that it is attuned to the undertone of aversion or antipathy which had earlier been detected by Simmel in the relations amongst the city-dwellers – and to the antagonism whose outbreak could be easily sparked by even the seemingly slightest things. Or, by then, more than merely the usual antagonism: for, as is well-known, a spectre of conflict haunted Berlin at the end of the nineteen-twenties, and in his walks through the city, however non-purposive they, as reported by him, might appear to be at first, it often seems as though Hessel had meant to set out on its trail.
Wo Altes verschwindet und Neues entsteht, siedelt sich in den Ruinen die Übergangswelt aus Zufall, Unrast und Not an, he declares in Spazieren in Berlin (in the chapter “Nach Osten”), and while walking through the city Hessel would hear the conditions to come announcing themselves already from afar, or close at hand but still as yet out of sight, even before they entered his field of vision; here what was required of this solitary walker were neither rêveries nor aural delirium nor Rausch but rather a set of ears finely tuned to register the at first invisible approach of the new, as awful as it might then show itself to be. It was not least by virtue of his capacity to listen hard and in so doing to discern the intersection of sound and space in his urban environment that, as noted in his friend Walter Benjamin’s astute review of Hessel’s book, “Die Wiederkehr des Flaneurs,” in the experience of this flâneur Berlin eröffnet sich ihm als Landschaft, sie umschließt ihn als Stube – a formulation which seemed to imply that the specific novelty of flânerie in Berlin would consist in the flâneur’s turning away from the city under its latter, more familiar sheltering aspect, in order to encounter it as it had seldom been seen or heard before, as a nearly unbounded landscape.
The metropolis as landscape: though one would be tempted to regard this simile merely as a belletristic bit of wit, in this instance it was meant to be taken seriously. When considered in terms of its acoustic properties, as Berlin’s own disposition of space, with its wide spectrum of urban densities – differing so greatly in effect from the domain of sound in Paris – practically invited one to do, the city could indeed be compared plausibly to a landscape; while conversely, were it the comparison itself with which one began, one might then have found oneself moved to exercise one’s ears, to adapt and attune them more adequately to the vagaries of Berlin’s aural-urban reality.
Thus there was warrant to point out the similarity between a landscape and this capital city; and moreover, to direct attention to the likeness could also be of help in drawing another feature of a resurgent flânerie in Berlin into perceptibility, namely, that elements of the urban environment such as corners or thresholds or open spaces were the conduits through or around which sounds could reach the flâneur’s present not simply from the precincts of the near future: for this metropolitan landscape also included the city’s own past as one of its dimensions, and in particular places within it some past moments might still be resoundingly present, albeit virtually, if only one had the ears to hear their echoes or to heed their calls. In such locales, perhaps precisely to the degree that the experience was more essentially aural than visual, that past might once again be manifest, and in a mode different from that of bygone pastness; here in present audibility the past might again take shape, now in some other manner than as the sheer irrevocability or irretrievability as which it frequently appears from just beyond the reach of the human will (an Ohnmacht of the latter which represented its greatest torment, averred Nietzsche*): for, at such moments when something notable crossed the flâneur’s path, the encounter could well have served as the starting-point for a train of recollection leading virtually through (rather than into, in a surfeit of nostalgia) older regions in the space-time of the metropolis considered as a landscape.
* Also sprach Zarathustra, vol. ii, “Von der Erlösung”
Perhaps the most memorable instance of all this in Spazieren in Berlin was Hessel’s invocation (in the chapter “Rundfahrt”), occasioned by one of his own walks on and near the Unter den Linden, of an anecdote told by Jules Laforgue in the second chapter of his memoirs of the years he spent in the city. There, as the older author recounts, already several decades before, some winter morning early in the Wilhelmine era, at the crossing de l’avenue des Tilleuls et de la rue Frédéric, le point le plus encombré de Berlin par une après-midi d’été, je m’arrête un instant et dans un moment de torpeur involontaire, comme en rêve, seul le bruit dominant de la rue m’arrive – and what else would this sound have been but the metallic clang of officers’ swords, le bruit du sabre qui traîne; this “moment de torpeur involontaire,” a lapse which seems enigmatically significant in its own right (did the noise itself induce it?), echoed so strongly in Hessel’s mind as to insert itself later into his literary composition at an opportune point: and when Hessel then dismissed this small memory with the remark that, bis auf einige Reste, the era in question was ja nun vorüber, it reads as though a question were being posed, as if for him it did remain quite conceivable that those sounds from the past might again return to dominate the Berlin streets, in a recurrent time breaking rapidly from an even darker future into his city’s troubled present.
Laforgue’s memoir, under the title Berlin: La Cour et la Ville, was published posthumously (Paris: Éditions de la Sirène, 1922). The quotation is from the chapter entitled “Impression monarchique et militaire • Militaria.”
Hessel’s quizzical undertone which unfolds a statement into a question, may be taken as an example of a sense of humour characteristic of Berlin; and humour (I suggested earlier, drawing on Valéry) may be on a par with musicality when considered as having resulted from the inner self-discipline applied both freely and consistently which is often regarded as being nearly identical to the personality – and not necessarily only the individual’s: wit, whether of a person or of something as large as a whole city, then might represent one of the fruits of long methodical training and thus be comprised in an indissociable unity (as Simmel would say) together with it.
Berlin’s feeling for humour has frequently been praised, and one brief encomium recommends itself especially here – Marlene Dietrich’s, between two of whose performances, in each of which it is variously exemplified, I have placed it in the following short sequence.
The first of these is from Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair, the scene in the nightclub when Dietrich sings “Black Market,” composed as was much of her music by their fellow émigré, Friedrich Hollaender. Never did she deliver a performance as seductive as this; but, as it is also interspersed by something of the characteristic humour of the city, it’s from this latter angle that I’d now like to consider it briefly.
After an introductory round of applause, her performance begins in effect with a call to order, a reminder that a precise sense of timing was required of the musicians, of the audience, and of the singer herself, if the number were to be pulled off successfully; then it moves to a rhythm of double entendres about what exactly was on offer to be exchanged in the illicit marketplace she was singing of – or rather it’s swept along on a current of cynical irony about “broken-down ideals” that one surmises owes some of its bite to an earlier trust in some belief which was subsequently shattered (the actual political colour of the night-club singer’s cynical attitude is rather dubious); yet it isn’t her initial reference to discipline, nor the ironic tone adopted by the character per se, so much as it is Dietrich’s own sense of humour flashing through here and there, which imbues the scene with its seductive charm.
On at least one occasion, Dietrich’s daughter has confirmed a point which already seems rather evident: that the actress was quite aware how much the appeal of her persona was a product of the most precise application of numerous techniques of commercial publicity, her success thus in large measure a result of the wrapping devised by the latter and of her dextrous co-operation with it. She knew well that her career owed much to the marketing and could thus furnish a textbook illustration of its importance in the industry of culture, and the attitude with which a star might regard all of this staging by which images were sold – namely, a peculiar oscillation back and forth between cynicism and irony, which is deserving of reflection in its own right – was not alien to her. Nor was it to those who thought up A Foreign Affair, for the transaction by which an image is sold, is one of the things that the film is actually about, and this comes right to the fore in the “Black Market” scene itself, where the illicit dimension behind or underneath an exchange of goods is explicitly addressed (or should I say undressed?) along with the irony and the cynicism to which the prevalence of such exchanges can conduce; but what distinguishes this performance and lends it a bit of Berlin humour are the smiles elicited involuntarily which Dietrich could not suppress at a few moments – lasting less than seconds, notably at the 1:35 and 1:45 marks in the video, though the more closely one pours over it, the greater the number of micro-smiles one begins to observe flitting even more rapidly across her face – at the moments during the song when, with the verbal enticements utilised in those mercenary transactions passing in revue, the double entendres in the lyrics are especially sharp.
See Riva’s Marlene Dietrich by Her Daughter Maria Riva, especially the chapter “Hollywood – The Beginning.”
In this night-club number, such fugitive smiles do not distract or detract from her attitude, but rather bolster it with some additional appeal, indeed rescuing it from being nothing beyond cynicism and irony: presumably this is the reason why these extra-theatrical lapses on her part (if in fact that is what they were) were not consigned to the cutting-room floor. Yet the extra charm lent by such flashes of Dietrich’s amusement about all this commerce and her role in it, also works to heighten the desire for that which is on sale (and it was by no means only her image that this film was selling) – and moreover this last twist in the audience’s seduction contains a humour of its own, of which it’s nearly certain neither she nor Wilder was unaware and which sensitive listeners and viewers today should also be able to discern.
Yes, Berlin’s sense of humour, as she says in the encomium which follows this scene from A Foreign Affair, is a marvellous one.
– Avez-vous le sens de l’humour, Marlène Dietrich ?
– Ah oui, parce que je suis née à Berlin. Oui, Berlin, c’est une ville comme une petite île en Allemagne. C’est que les Allemands ne sont pas très célèbres pour leur sens de l’humour. Mais les Berlinois ont un sens de l’humour merveilleux. Et ça m’a permit à vivre comme j’ai dû vivre, très souvent dans la tristesse, et très souvent sans mon pays. Et ça m’a sauvée.
– Quel est le sens de l’humour des Berlinois ? Est-ce qu’on peut essayer de la caractériser ?
– Oui, on rit en face de la grande tragédie. On essaye de rire à soi-même, ne pas se prendre trop au sérieux, naturellement. Mais aussi de trouver les points drôles dans tout ce qui arrive. Et c’est ça qui vous sauve : si vous pouvez rire, même en face de la grande tristesse.
– Le courage de rire dans les pires moments ?
– Interview with A. Parinaud and P. Giannoli (RTF, 1963)
The third piece is her song “Berlin, Berlin” (included on the album Marlene singt Berlin, Berlin), and similarly it both reflects upon the city’s characteristic sense of humour while also exemplifying it. Here the self-deprecating humour of this city, “wie’s weint, und wie es lacht,” which has known to bring bitter and sweet, laughter and tears, together and to imbue each with something of the other, is praised in song by Dietrich with a restrained affection which is all the more moving as the lyrics in fact stem from a popular tune dating from the first decades of the century – and thus her performance strikes an unsentimental balance between the personal and the impersonal.
Dietrich’s rendition stands on its own (or at least it should for those who know enough of the language), beyond the point where commentary could usefully elucidate it; but there is one line in the lyrics which merits a few remarks, for (if, that is, it too formed a part of the original popular tune and was not added afterwards) it suggests that ordinary Berliners were often aware that the overarching time-schedule they all had to observe, individually and reciprocally, were the city to continue to function properly at all, imparted to their everyday lives a certain sort of theatricality, in the quite limited sense of a well-honed feeling for timing in the performance, keyed to the likely response of an audience of some kind, which had likewise to exercise a degree of self-discipline and feeling for good timing however it might choose to respond or not to respond to the performer (and indeed the lyrics do also speak of “Beifall,” applause, as an occurrence in everyday life). One need only imagine overhearing this single line –
Berlin, Berlin, Du bist mein Publikum
– being whistled or hummed on the city’s streets long before Dietrich sang it, to grasp how well the Berliners understood that their modern metropolitan punctuality imposed roles upon them, which they simply had to discharge properly at the precisely right time and place, so that others could fulfil theirs in turn, and thus that they all might as well carry on with some measure of wit or esprit; their understanding of this necessity also translated into their free-time (amidst the “Symphonie der Großstadt” or as “Menschen am Sonntag”) and informed the roles they likewise played there, whether they were amongst the actors or in the audience. Of course, it’s probable that a certain sense of the humour of all of this would have developed whenever the punctuality and the interchangeable roles of everyday big-city life in its enduring organisation were recognised as such and the implications fathomed; and it’s precisely this soft bemusement à la berlinoise which may be heard both in the original lyrics and in her delivery.
This is a discovery which may tempt one to listen more closely to other performances of Dietrich’s, in order perhaps to hear better what they actually are about – or, with that goal in mind, to listen to covers thereof by singers and musicians who have evidently paid very close attention to them; in the case of perhaps her most famous song of all, composed by Hollaender with lyrics by Robert Liebmann and featured in Joseph von Sternberg’s film Der blaue Engel, “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt,” a recent version by the German trio Turm der Liebe (it is a new experimental ensemble based in Cologne and Leipzig, comprising the vocalist Lisa-Gwendolin Eichberger, the pianist Laurenz Gemmer, and the drummer and synthesiser-player Johannes Klingebiel), fittingly and minimally entitled “Kopf bis Fuß” and now uploaded on the ensemble’s Soundcloud page, embodies this sensitivity to something in the original song that others might have sensed was there, though without having heard it quite clearly until now.
Once divested of its alluring surface sensuality – and in accomplishing this, the musical procedure adopted by Turm der Liebe may be compared to the diagnostic explorations of ultrasound technology – the amorous attitude expressed in the song sounds positively forlorn, as though it emerged as a desperate response to a life sunk in hopelessness; the pursuit of love then would amount to something of a last resort, and despite itself even, when acted upon habitually, to a species of addiction (and thus the song is revealed at a stroke as being a counterpart to the “Ballade von der sexuellen Hörigkeit” in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Dreigroschenoper): yet even more interesting than these findings are in themselves, is the conclusion that an awareness thereof may plausibly be imputed in retrospect to the lyricist and to the singer of the original song – as though they both already had intended that one day it should be heard in just this way.
Here, as a practice of interpretation, a cover version of an old standard does not remain under the latter’s level but has raised itself to it, in order to uncover something in the original which one never had heard quite that way before – thus in some sense renovating it and our ears as well.
For a further elucidation, one might want to turn back, beyond Dietrich, Hollaender, and Liebmann’s song, or, alternately, behind the novel (Heinrich Mann’s Professor Unrat) on which the film was based, to a few perspicuous statements in Simmel’s “Die Großstädte und das Geistesleben” concerning the terrible loneliness to which life in the modern metropolis could lead; that the film was set in some smaller city is not particularly important in this connection, as the distinction between inhabitants of the lesser and of the largest cities was ever more a quantitative rather than a qualitative difference: and hence the individual’s feeling of being lost was an increasingly general one.
Simmel had contended in his essay that die gegenseitige Reserve und Indifferenz so prevalent in modern times werden in ihrem Erfolg für die Unabhängigkeit des Individuums nie stärker gefühlt, als in dem dichtesten Gewühl der Großstadt, weil die körperliche Nähe und Enge die geistige Distanz erst recht anschaulich macht, and as in the modern city wie sonst ist es keineswegs notwendig, daß die Freiheit des Menschen sich in seinem Gefühlsleben als Wohlbefinden spiegele, in the last analysis es ist offenbar nur der Revers dieser Freiheit, wenn man sich unter Umständen nirgends so einsam und verlassen fühlt, als eben in dem großstädtischen Gewühl – thus their urban liberty appears to be an isolated freedom, one from which the city dwellers, though generally in vain, try to awaken by various means, for example by falling in love over and over again.
Another kind of response to these conditions is also easy and near at hand, and yet perhaps even more vain than the former: the increasingly common blasé attitude, “die Blasiertheit,” which Simmel touched on several times in his essay and elsewhere. On account of its major role in modern life this attitude is full of interest, for in it gipfelt sich gewissermaßen jener Erfolg der Zusammendrängung von Menschen und Dingen auf, die das Individuum zu seiner höchsten Nervenleistung reizt – pushing the individual to an exhausting exertion, and then durch die bloß quantitative Steigerung der gleichen Bedingungen schlägt dieser Erfolg in sein Gegenteil um, in diese eigentümliche Anpassungserscheinung der Blasiertheit, in der die Nerven ihre letzte Möglichkeit, sich mit den Inhalten und der Form des Großstadtlebens abzufinden, darin entdecken, daß sie sich der Reaktion auf sie versagen: which means, in other words, that all this effort would tend to lead to a curiously self-defeating result, as die Selbsterhaltung gewisser Naturen could only come at den Preis, die ganze objektive Welt zu entwerten, was dann am Ende die eigene Persönlichkeit unvermeidlich in ein Gefühl gleicher Entwertung hinabzieht.
At bottom, what else does one hear recorded first in “Kopf bis Fuß” and retroactively then too in “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt,” if not these “Gefühle gleicher Entwertung” and some attempts to find a diversion from them?
Under the Weimar Republic, Berlin certainly knew its share of diversions; but before I turn now to consider one of the most celebrated of them, I should like to suggest that the works of art and literature, and, more to the point here, of theatre and music created in those years which have endured, have done so despite having originated during that period, or that they outlasted it on account of having stood in a critical or an antithetical relation to the circumstances from out of which they emerged – in my opinion, such significance as they may continue to exhibit today, confers no stature on the Weimar Republic itself, considered politically, but should rather render us even more wary of it, for those who lived through it and later castigated its mores, as regards its political life in general, were quite right to do so. However, as the present text could not possibly aim at being an exercise in either the history or the science of politics, this whole background will have to remain in the background.
Much more pertinent are a few preliminary remarks ventured by Peter Sloterdĳk in his investigation* of the Weimar Republic as a “symptom,” in other words as comprising a peculiarly complicated form of self-consciousness that is now often found to be a harbinger and first version of the cynicism reigning today – thus it was the putative similarity of that era and Sloterdĳk’s own which served him as the starting-point in this part of his “critique” (the term being used, albeit loosely, in the Kantian sense), though in the course of his research he also began to entertain doubts about that comparison and to raise questions concerning the limits of its validity. Above all it was a notion prevalent while he was composing his work a bit more than thirty years ago that he came to regard with increasing skepticism (and today this notion continues to circulate and perhaps even more widely than it did then), namely, the notion that the two eras were comparable periods of “crisis”: or rather, on occasion he himself turned into something of a cynic about the very concept of crisis and its overuse in much of cultural criticism. Nach hundert Jahren Krise ist das Wort Krise so welk, he went so far as to insist, wie die Individuen, die es einst aufrütteln sollte – although, on the other hand, especially now, three decades after the publication of his book, his own cynicism on this point may in fact embody a quite perspicuous realism about our current circumstances in general, and more specifically, about the intellectual predilection common in several countries for taking the Weimar Republic to constitute a paradigm of the present.
* Kritik der zynischen Vernunft, vol. ii, pt. ii, sec. iv
Worth reflecting on further, is not only Sloterdĳk’s caution about too facile an application of the concept of crisis, but also his refusal to embrace the idea that the proverbial advantage of hindsight would lend to later histories of the Weimar period a higher perspicuity which it could not have attained about itself; and in fact, when he wondered whether hindsight confers much of an advantage, in response it’s hard to deny that frequently it offers none at all. Beim Lesen der Dokumente stellt sich nämlich der Eindruck her, daß viele Texte von damals auf einem weit höheren Niveau von Reflexion, Einsicht und Ausdruck geschrieben sind als die späteren Kulturgeschichten »über« sie, he noted a few pages later – and here of course it’s easy to generalise his point from texts to works of music of various kinds. Redet man einfach »darüber«, so ist man nur zu leicht schon darunter. Yes, certainly with respect to the cultural history of the Weimar Republic in general, this is a pitfall of pride which one would do well to anticipate and avoid, and in particular as regards what’s perhaps its most famous single piece of musical theatre, the Dreigroschenoper.
Since its debut in 1928, the Dreigroschenoper has been reprised innumerable times, the most recent version being Robert Wilson’s upcoming staging at the Berliner Ensemble; here however what interests me most is one of its songs, the “Moritat von Mackie Messer,” and I shall try to handle it with some care – for were this Moritat not a tricky piece of work, it would not have been Brecht’s.
A memorable version has been recorded by Ute Lemper.
Yet unfortunately the theatricality in her performance is too self-involved, thus overwhelming one’s attention and detracting from the strength of the song itself, which might – it’s conceivable – be better served by an exclusively aural rendition; and here two such versions offered fairly recently by singers from Berlin may be recommended, the first by André Schneider, the second by Mara Kim.
Nonetheless these also are somewhat too self-preoccupied and still lack a certain sharpness; so how better to feel it than by turning to Brecht himself?
In this most original version there’s a sound of something menacing, which is precisely what one ought to be listening for; as the song, frequently regarded as embodying a protest against the consignment of the powerless to oblivion by the powerful who would thereby reserve the historical record to themselves, nearly as their exclusive privilege –
Und man siehet die im Lichte
die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht
– was actually singing of something quite different, indeed nearly the opposite of this: on the contrary, there resounded the suspicion that it is the powers that be which seek out obscurity in order to operate more successfully under cover of darkness. In the wider arena of those years of economic crisis, above all but by no means solely in Germany, paranoiac belief of precisely this kind was gathering force and finding an enemy ready-made in that venerable bête noire, “das internationale Finanzkapital”; and – to speak plainly – it was this old idea which was represented in miniature, as it were, in the Moritat’s litany of misdeeds perpetrated by small skilful criminal bands: accordingly, covers which fail to sound out this arraignment, enclosed by Brecht in the lyrics, will uncover next to nothing of the real intention of the original.
Even before the Crash occurred the next year, and increasingly during the few years left to it afterwards, the Weimar Republic was tending to the extremes, as if in belated confirmation of the diagnosis in Simmel’s essay of the existence of eine leise Aversion in the relations amongst the city-dwellers in the modern metropolis, or rather, of eine gegenseitige Fremdheit und Abstoßung by then coursing through the country as a whole, which in dem Augenblick einer irgendwie veranlaßten nahen Berührung sogleich in Haß und Kampf ausschlagen würde. In their readiness to abet that rapid escalation, the political extremes, however little or much they might have touched one another in numerous respects (this topic being one of those questions in political science to investigate which the current essay is not the place), as though by tacit agreement proceeded to invoke – cynically, as Sloterdĳk would say – this or that variation on a single still potent myth, the one which Brecht for his part also set out as the actual albeit concealed theme of this Moritat; and so, if one listens hard to the Dreigroschenoper in general and to this song in particular, one begins to realise that Brecht understood what the public wanted and had provided it, a fact which begins to account for the play’s great success both commercially and critically.
As Hessel noted (in the chapter “Friedrichstadt” in Spazieren in Berlin), already by 1929 the songs from the Dreigroschenoper were circulating through the city’s streets.
During his trip to Europe towards the end of 1932, Gershom Scholem attended a performance, and was quite dismayed by what he observed transpiring in the theatre. Um mich, wie es wohl hier angemessen ist, berlinisch auszudrücken: ich staunte Bauklötzer, als ich sah, daß hier ein Publikum von Bürgern, die jeden Sinn für ihre eigene Situation verloren hatten, einem Stück zujubelten, in dem sie bis aufs letzte verhöhnt und angespuckt wurden, he wrote of the disconcerting spectacle he witnessed there. Es war, drei Monate vor Hitlers Machtantritt, ein wahrer Auftakt zum Kommenden für jeden, der ein solches Schauspiel aus der Distanz ansah. Ich konnte mir kaum Illusionen über das Faktum machen, daß ein Großteil dieser Zuschauer Juden waren.
He recalls this in the chapter “Krisen und Wendungen” in his Walter Benjamin – Die Geschichte einer Freundschaft (first published in 1975).
One might go so far as to wonder whether, above and beyond the Dreigroschenoper itself, it was this spectacle that Brecht, tricky Bert Brecht, had meant to stage, in order thus to exhibit (for posterity?) the decadence of his audience’s instincts in political matters – taking the latter as constituting a factor without which the whole course of events would not be properly understood.
Yet that is a exculpatory or charitable explanation. A sharper assessment of Brecht’s own role therein, lending voice to the myth of a dark yet efficacious conspiracy as he evidently had wanted to do, may be derived from what, when prodded by Heinrich Blücher, Walter Benjamin had to admit some years later in Paris about his commentaries on some of the poems, and in particular on the third entry in the ”Lesebuch für Städtebewohner”; there Brecht emerges, Benjamin acknowledged, as an advocate of expropriation not so much for any rational reason but rather insofar as it would provide an occasion for a species of revenge and indeed as offering to a newer and younger generation of would-be expropriators a chance to indulge in the pleasure of cruelty for its own sake – in other words, as revelling in the idea of a practice in der die schlechtesten Elemente der KP mit den skrupellosesten des Nationalsozialismus kommunizierten: and this decision on Brecht’s part and his earlier oversight regarding it Benjamin then resolutely repudiates, certain potential excuses notwithstanding.
The remarks come from an untitled note from the end of 1938 or 1939, published under the title “Notiz über Brecht” in the sixth volume of his Gesammelte Schriften. The manuscript was preserved in the Fonds Walter Benjamin of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, and is now in the Walter Benjamin Archiv, Akademie der Künste, Berlin.
Jedenfalls ist der Kommentar, in der Gestalt, die ich ihm gegeben habe, eine fromme Fälschung – a clean admission of Benjamin’s own error! – eine Vertuschung der Mitschuld, die Brecht an der gedachten Entwicklung hatte.
In the case of his “Moritat von Mackie Messer,” or indeed the Dreigroschenoper as a whole, Brecht may be charged with an analogous share of culpability, insofar as the myth with which his piece of theatre was suffused, did in fact embolden the extremes to meet, or, as Benjamin put it, to communicate with one another behind the scenes.
And still, without having trained one’s ears by reading Brecht’s works, familiarising oneself with his sly sense of humour and tricky feeling for the right time, could one have heard anything of this in them to begin with? Here the accusation itself owes a great deal to the accused – so what then?
From – though at the same time against – this Berliner amongst poets and playwrights there’s still much to be learned, even or especially now, and not least an acuity of ear which might help preserve one from things that would be seen only too late, as he once said outright, in two of the sharpest lines he ever penned:
Hörend die Reden, die aus deinem Hause dringen, lacht man.
Aber wer dich sieht, der greift nach dem Messer
Addendum (July 2022). A bit of further attention to the song “Berlin, Berlin” brought to light the fact that its text was not an anonymous artefact of the earlier period in the city’s life around 1900, but rather the work of the lyricist Willi Kollo, dating from the beginning of the nineteen-sixties, written for Marlene Dietrich, and so my inferences from it about the Berliners’ manner of considering the roles they assumed in their own kind of life do not hold good, especially not in the overbearing fashion in which they were put forward. Yet if, for his part, Kollo drew upon a half-remembered fund of authorless popular tunes from several decades before, which he indeed may well have done, perhaps my assertions in what I wrote, so long as they are expressly taken in reference backwards to conditions in Berlin at the start of the twentieth century, will nonetheless convey some illumination, and in so doing rescue these matters from the sector of a merely antiquarian inquiry. Thus I let that set of remarks stand as it was without amendment in the text (though the epigraph’s attribution has been corrected).