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Cabaret (Weimar Germany #AtoZChallenge)

C AtoZ Challenge 2018

Weimar culture is often identified with its cabaret experience, and rightly so. In the cabarets springing up in every big city (in Berlin more numerous than anywhere else), the extreme, modern, free post-war lifestyle found its fuller form of expression.

Cabarets were born in France in the late 1880s and from the beginning were associated with sexual innuendo and lewd shows. This form of entertainment arrived in Germany at the very beginning of the 1900s, but at the beginning, they were very different from their French counterparts, since the authoritarian imperial society didn’t allow the freedom of the French shows. German cabarets were restaurants or nightclub where a show of singers, dancers or comedians were offered from a small stage. Nothing too risque. Nothing too extravagant.

"The cabaret was the quintessential expression of the Weimar Republic, the highest form of freedom of expression Click To Tweet
Anita Berber by Otto Dix, Berlin, 1920s
Anita Berber

But as the Empire died out and the republic surged, the cabarets changed the same way German urban society changed. As the republic lifted the old form of censorship, shows became bolder and more salacious. Dancers became more and more scantily dressed and their dances and songs ever more suggestive. Cross-dress wasn’t uncommon. Harsh political satire was so popular that some cabarets specialised in it. A very characteristic form of German cabaret that would become knows as Kabarett.

It was indeed a subversive form of art, where modernism and non-naturalistic (therefore non-patriotic, as some considered them) expressions found a place. Everything was grotesquely distorted, and still, it was perfectly recognisable. Characters belonging to the lower life (prostitutes, gangsters, corrupted politicians) became very familiar and even loved by the public. Expressionist décors, their odd angles that suggested anxiety and represented the displacement of the new urban life and industrial war, were also very common. So was extreme makeup, which deformed the actors’ faces.

The life that kabarett depicted was outrageously modern, extremely subversive and – in the eyes of some – utterly decadent. For most right-winged thinkers, this sort of show was clearly not enough German and altogether too degenerated, something dangerous that could taint and destroy the true German spirits. And if this was not enough, kabarett entertainment was mostly Jewish. Owners and managers were Jews more often than not. Actors, singers, musicians and, more importantly, playwrights and authors were Jews. For the Right, this made them too powerful manipulators of German culture at large. Kabarett culture, popular as it was, often became the aim of their hatred and blame.

Jazz

The city had a jewel-like sparkle, the vast cafés reminded me of ocean liners powered by the rhythms of their orchestras. There was music everywhere.

Josephine Baker

In the 1920s, jazz in Germany was almost as popular as in America. To many people, it sounded like the modern time they were living and in a way, it was a kind of natural counterpart to expressionist visuals.

It started very early, as early as the end of the war when many African American musicians who had fought in WWI chose to stay in Europe and work there. Europe was then discovering jazz and the social environment was more favourable to them.
As jazz became more and more popular, many famous jazz players and singers came over to Europe to perform, and most of them passed – as it was obvious – from Berlin, the hotbed of European jazz.

Later in the decade, many German bands were born. The first school of jazz in the world opened in Berlin – in the US, the cradle of jazz, the first school only opened in the mid-1940s. While America seemed to consider jazz a lesser form of music, many German composers incorporated it into their music, maybe because of its affinity with the expressionist movement. Many kabarett authors – including Bertold Brecht – used it in their plays.


RESOURCES

Wikipedia – Jazz in Germany
The Culture Trip – 10 Songs That Capture the 1920s in Berlin
I Heart Berlin – Berlin’s Nightlife & Music Scene of the 1920s
Alpha History – Weimar Cabaret
The Guardian – Sex, seafood and 25,000 coffees a day: the wild 1920s superclub that inspired Babylon Berlin


AtoZ Challenge 2018 - Cabaret - Weimar culture is often identified with its cabaret culture, and rightly so. In the cabarets springing up in every big cities (in Berlin more numerous than anywhere else), the extreme, modern, free post-war lifestyle found its fuller form of expression.

47 Comments

  • Lillian Csernica
    Posted April 3, 2018 at 01:33

    I hadn’t put the architectural style all together with the makeup and the music. Now I have a more complete idea about the period. Thank you!

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 3, 2018 at 09:21

      Avant-garde seems to have influenced all kinds of aspects in Weimar life. A bit like jazz in America. Or maybe modernist avant-garde was an expression of Weimar life to the point that it was the best language to express that culture.

  • Jamie Lyn Weigt
    Posted April 3, 2018 at 01:50

    This actually explains a lot to me about the Broadway show Cabaret that I never fully understood, having only seen it a few times… interesting, thank you!
    Jamie Lyn Weigt | Theme: Odds and Ends Dragons | Writing Dragons

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 3, 2018 at 11:21

      You know? I’ve never seen Cabaret. But I’ll have to put it on my TBW list.

  • Birgit
    Posted April 3, 2018 at 03:17

    It was quite decadent…and fun:) My mom got a book from her best friend about Berlin in the 1920’s and I loved reading that book because it spoke about the decadence of that time including Cabaret and who often frequented these places from Lotte Lenya, Bertold Brecht to Marlene Dietrich. They loved jazz and many people felt free at that time.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 3, 2018 at 09:23

      But what is it that we consider decandent, and why?
      To me, Weimar artistic life sound vibrant and awere. Unfortunatley being aware, then and there, meant being aware of a lots of bad things, but it wasn’t the fault of the arts 😉

  • Leanne | www.crestingthehill.com.au
    Posted April 3, 2018 at 08:48

    I always associate caberet with the Moulin Rouge and Paris and French flair and decadence – I can see why the more stoic Germans would be appalled by it (and the type of people involved).

    Leanne | http://www.crestingthehill.com.au
    C for Consider Every Angle

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 3, 2018 at 09:24

      LOL! That’s quite true. Besides, that was true for the ‘old’ life. The younger life born after the war was quite different.

  • Sue Bursztynski
    Posted April 3, 2018 at 10:59

    If I could do a time machine music tour, 1920s Berlin cabaret would be a place of choice. Great post!

  • Tizzy Brown
    Posted April 3, 2018 at 11:51

    It’s really interesting to learn more about kabarett. I’ve danced some of the numbers from Cabaret on stage and really enjoy the musical but I didn’t know much about the history and politics of this art form.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 3, 2018 at 12:59

      I have never watched Cabaret. I really should.

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 3, 2018 at 13:57

    Why do people turn on everything that’s fun?… I imagine cabaret life was very fun at the time 🙂

    The Multicolored Diary: Weird Things in Hungarian Folktales

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 3, 2018 at 14:33

      What a question! Because fun is decadence and perdition!!!! 😉

  • Bob Scotney
    Posted April 3, 2018 at 14:31

    This reminded me of the Liza Minnelli film ‘Cabaret@>

  • Ronel
    Posted April 3, 2018 at 14:40

    Great info. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 4, 2018 at 09:22

      Happy you found it interesting and thanks for stopping by 🙂

  • Melanie Atherton Allen
    Posted April 3, 2018 at 17:52

    Hey Sarah. So much good stuff in this that it is hard to know where to begin. Great information, well-presented, with insightful connections made. 🙂 Yay! One question: why was non-naturalistic art characterized as non-patriotic? I mean, intuitively, I can kind of see how that could be, but I can’t really figure out why.
    Thanks for a great article! Happy A-to-Zing!
    Melanie

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 4, 2018 at 09:25

      Well, I’ll cever this on another post, but basically, the Right considered everything which was traditional to be linked to the land and so to the motherland. Everything which was modern or modernistic was considered the opposit of that and so – as an extation of meaning – anti-patriotic.
      Hope this makes sense.

  • Margot Kinberg
    Posted April 3, 2018 at 18:18

    The cabaret really was a microcosm for all of what was going on in the Weimar cultural scene, wasn’t it? There was decadence, but there was real talent, deliberate non-conformism, and more. It was such an interesting setting for all of that creativity!

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 4, 2018 at 09:27

      That’s true. So much of what was modern and new went into the cabaret life.
      I feel like I know too little abotu this. I foresee more research on this subject 😉

  • Tasha Duncan-Drake
    Posted April 3, 2018 at 19:08

    You always have such amazing information – I have no idea the world of kabarett was so heavily Jewish or quite how out there it was. My brain has always conjured up safe dinner entertainment when the word cabaret comes up – not anymore.
    Tasha
    Tasha’s Thinkings – Movie Monsters

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 4, 2018 at 09:29

      LOL! That sounds nothing like the kabarett!
      I had a vague idea this was risqué and heavily Jewish even before researching it (besides, my sister wrote her thesis abotu the Berliner political kabarett), but actually researchign it has kind of disclosed a new world to me.

  • Shilpa Garg
    Posted April 3, 2018 at 19:09

    We have cabret dances in our Hindi Cinema, but wasnt aware of the history and it’s origins. Thanks for an informative post, Sarah!
    Couchsurfing : Pros and Cons #AtoZChallenge

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 4, 2018 at 09:30

      That is so interesting. I had no idea cabaret featured in Hindi Cinema.

  • Kristin
    Posted April 3, 2018 at 19:22

    Very interesting, all of it, what you post, the comments, your replies and the thoughts they all give me.

    http://findingeliza.com/

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 4, 2018 at 09:31

      Thansk so much for the nice world, Kristin. And thanks so much for stopping by.

  • Shalini
    Posted April 3, 2018 at 19:45

    I watched one live when in Thailand. Thanks for letting us know the history too 🙂

  • Miss Andi
    Posted April 3, 2018 at 20:20

    I think cabaret in Germany and in Hungary evolved parallel at least for a while, I remember similar characters in old Hungarian movies – mostly in passing and despised but some with envy for their freedom. Thank you for this great summary!

    My blogs in the A to Z: Self discovery via travel and a separate Interactive story.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 4, 2018 at 09:37

      Since the German lands and the Austro-Hungarian lands belonged to the Pan-German cultural area, I think it’s quite likely that cabaret life was similar to Germany, especially before WWI.

  • Roland R Clarke
    Posted April 3, 2018 at 20:33

    Another informative post, Sarah. You keep triggering memories of things I had forgotten – whether Marlene Dietrich in the Blue Angel or Isherwood. And I realised, after reading about B for Berlin, that B is also Bertolt Brecht, when of my favourite playwrights – but maybe the period is wrong.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 4, 2018 at 09:48

      Bertold Brecht was one of the most preheminent playwrights in Berlin. You are not mistaken 😉

  • Hilary
    Posted April 3, 2018 at 20:34

    Hi Sarah – this is such interesting information on this period of time in Europe – didn’t Eva Braun and Hitler get involved with the Cabaret cycle … and oh yes – do watch Cabaret … thanks for writing these up for us – cheers Hilary

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 4, 2018 at 09:50

      I read somewhere that although jazz and the cabaret life was of course considered degenerated by Nazis, they still seemed to appreciate and enjoy it very much.

  • Debs
    Posted April 4, 2018 at 11:50

    Your post provides fabulous background detail to one of my favourite old films – Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. Whilst Liza Minelli was the star, Joel Grey stole the show for me.

    A-Zing this year at:
    FictionCanBeFun
    Normally found at:
    DebsDespatches

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 4, 2018 at 15:30

      This film has already been mentioned many times in the comments. I need to watch it!

  • John Holton
    Posted April 4, 2018 at 22:46

    Brecht worked with Kurt Weill on “The Threepenny Opera,” from which we get the famous “Moritat von Mackie Messer” (“Mack The Knife”). Think I should read up a little on that whole period, because it was obviously important from a musical standpoint.

    It’s kind of disheartening to know that jazz was looked down on in the US and was taken more seriously in Europe, probably one reason that so many jazz performers emigrated to Paris and Berlin…

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 6, 2018 at 18:09

      I think Berlin in the 1920s was the place to be if you were a performer. Lots of advancement in all different kinds of performing arts, from what I read.

  • Raesquiggles
    Posted April 5, 2018 at 10:31

    For me Cabaret used to always be Liza Minnelli in a bowler hat until I heard Fascinating Aida’s satirical version of Marlene Dietrich singing ‘in German’ – Lieder.

  • Mandibelle16
    Posted April 20, 2018 at 19:14

    Again very neat. I attended a Caberet Opera once. It was called ‘Wild in Weimar’ and it was very neat b/c the opera here in the city we’re redoing their home theatre, so they were holding their season all in different venues. The ambience of this caberet show was amazing. It took place in an old movie theatre down town, which is likely as old as this Cabaret culture in pre-WII Germany. Plush velvet seats, old school decors and style inside the theatre etc. Throughout the play we were encouraged to go down to two two concussions that were part of the play for beer, brotworst, and that fried cabbage Germans like. I’m not a fan of the food but the beer was great 🙂 Fascinating theme this year, as in other years 🙂

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted May 3, 2018 at 09:12

      That sounds like an awesome experience!
      I have never had much chance to go to cabaret shows, though this is changing, since my sister is getting involved in cabaret porformace.

  • Brian Hastings
    Posted March 19, 2019 at 08:41

    Thanks for sharing the rich history.

  • Sindy
    Posted June 15, 2019 at 17:32

    Thanks for sharing! I live in Germany for years now but didn’t know anything about this. It is good to know about the history and your post provides the rich background.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted June 16, 2019 at 22:34

      Thanks so much for stoppin gby, Sindy 🙂
      The history of 1900 Germany is so fascinating. I love researching it.

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