Category: German Expressionism

The Truth About Babylon Berlin

The mystery train of Babylon Berlin. Photo: © Sky 1

The mystery train of Babylon Berlin. Photo: © Sky 1

In the dead of night in 1929, a Steam Locomotive roars down the tracks to Berlin from somewhere in Russia. The mysterious train carries hidden cargo, tons of gold and a huge amount of deadly poison phosgene gas. But who are the senders and who are the recipients? Disparate forces and individuals in Berlin—monarchists, mobsters, social democrats, trotskyists and stalinists—all at odds with one another and aware of the secret transport, are absolutely desperate to get their hands on it. Their nefarious plots to capture the train and its payload form just one underpinning of the new German TV series, Babylon Berlin.

Never before have I written a review of a television show, and wouldn’t you know it, my first attempt is almost as long as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. But then, Babylon Berlin is not your typical idiot box entertainment. So please enjoy my first, and possibly last stab at such criticism.

Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch). Photo: © Sky 1

Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch). Photo: © Sky 1

I have always had a passion for the art produced in Germany during the Weimar years (1919-1933), so I was thrilled to discover Babylon Berlin would depict that tumultuous period. This essay gives my view of the show thus far, its strong points and foibles, with a spotlight on the art and politics of the period.

The TV series has multiple characters and plot lines, and a few anachronisms I’ll write off to artistic license. The narrative of this detective noir period piece is engaging enough that you don’t need to know the actual history behind the drama’s backdrop—but it certainly helps. My essay is not a timeline for the show, and though long and detailed, I will not be covering everything presented in the series. However, my article will contain major “spoilers.”

The main character of Babylon Berlin is Inspector Gereon Rath (played by Volker Bruch). A man in his early thirties, Gereon is a well-mannered member of the Cologne police force. A combat veteran of WWI, he quietly suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and secretly self-medicates when high stress situations cause him to tremble uncontrollably.

For that purpose he is most likely using the cough syrup containing heroin then produced by Bayer, Germany’s chemical and pharmaceutical company. Perfectly legal at the time, heroin based medicinals were widely used as a painkiller throughout the country. Rath is also a man struggling with his Catholic faith, both for the loss of his brother Anno on the battlefield, and for his ongoing affair with his brother’s wife Helga Rath.

Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth). Photo: © Sky 1

Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth). Photo: © Sky 1

Engelbert Rath, a senior official at the Cologne police force, transferred his son Gereon from the Cologne police to the Alexanderplatz police HQ in Berlin, also known as the Rote Burg (Red Castle) for its red walls.

Gereon is partnered with vice squad leader, Bruno Wolter (played by Peter Kurth). A gruff, 44-year-old bear of a man and fellow veteran of the Great War, Bruno is a loyal friend and colleague—provided you’re on his side.

Engelbert has a clandestine mission for his son Gereon: hunt down the underworld pornographers who are blackmailing politicians with surreptitiously shot film of them engaged in sadomasochistic acts. It is suggested that the Lord Mayor of Cologne, Dr. Adenauer, is one of the victims of the extortionists. To preserve the stability of the government, and because Adenauer is a family friend, Engelbert wants Gereon to find and destroy the incriminating film.

Mayor Konrad Adenauer in 1929 with a map of Cologne. Photographer unknown.

Mayor Konrad Adenauer in 1929 with a map of Cologne. Photographer unknown.

Konrad Adenauer was in fact an actual historic figure. A devout Catholic, he was not only the Mayor of Cologne during the Weimar years, but at the close of WWII was a co-founder and leader of the center-right party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU, the same party of Germany’s current Chancellor Angela Merkel).

Adenauer was also the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) from 1949 to 1963.

Before Babylon Berlin was shown on German TV, series producer Stefan Arndt explained the plot to Bild-Zeitung. Despite knowing the actual story, the tabloid published a sensationalist piece around the question, “Is it really necessary to make the father of the Federal Republic a sadomasochist?” It should go without saying that the real Adenauer was never blackmailed for being a sadomasochist. The controversy went nowhere when the TV series eventually showed Mayor Adenauer to be completely innocent.

The digital recreation of Berlin's Alexanderplatz from Babylon Berlin.

The digital recreation of Berlin's Alexanderplatz from Babylon Berlin.

The characters, events, fashion, political movements, street names, even the buildings in Babylon Berlin are rooted in historical reality. The realistic digital recreation of Berlin’s Alexanderplatz is one such example. It evoked the hustle and bustle of the modern metropolis that was Berlin in 1929; but one has to make exception for the fact that two of the buildings depicted in the scene had not yet been built. The Alexanderhaus would be constructed in 1930 and Jonass & CO erected in 1934. Chalk it up to artistic license.

There is some bending of the truth in Babylon Berlin, the digital Alexanderplatz is a good example. Another is the hijacked train so central to the story, a German DRB Class 52 steam locomotive, which would not be built until 1942. Other examples exist, but I’ll let you find them. This brings to mind the often quoted but horribly misunderstood words of Pablo Picasso, who once quipped, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth—at least the truth that is given us to understand.”

Much of the outdoor shots in Babylon Berlin were filmed at Studio Babelsberg. Filming took place on Neue Berliner Straße (New Berlin Street) part of the studio’s Metropolitan Backlot. A modular set of four streets with different architectural styles, nearly the entire set is comprised of false front buildings. The Babylon Berlin set included a façade of the Moka Efti nightclub on a broad paved avenue with modernist style buildings. Around the corner was a recreation of the drab slums where working class people would have lived, replete with cobblestone streets. Actor Volker Bruch called the set “a chameleon.”

"Hausvogteiplatz" Rudolf Schlichter, watercolor 1926.

"Hausvogteiplatz" Rudolf Schlichter, watercolor 1926.

Viewing Babylon Berlin is like watching German Expressionist paintings come to life; the 1926 watercolor Hausvogteiplatz by artist Rudolf Schlichter is one such work. The title refers to an underground railway station in the central locality of Mitte, Berlin. Schlichter placed a gallows in his cityscape, a prescient statement on the doomed city. In 1937 the Nazis declared him a “degenerate” artist and in 1939 they forbade him from painting.

"Sie Repräsentiert" (She represents) Jeanne Mammen. Watercolor & pencil, 1928.

"Sie Repräsentiert" (She represents) Jeanne Mammen. Watercolor & pencil, 1928.

Jeanne Mammen was involved in the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement so many German artists were a part of at the time. It was a rejection of Expressionist idealism and a turn towards social and political engagement. Mammen was known for drawings in pencil, pen, ink, and watercolor washes that focused on women; in retrospect her drawings of bohemian women in Berlin’s cafes, including lesbian nightclubs, seem most remembered.

Sie Repräsentiert (She represents) was a 1928 drawing of women in a lesbian night spot; published in the pages of the weekly satirical magazine, Simplicissmus, the editors were actually the ones to title the drawing. They attached the following text; “Daddy’s a state prosecutor, Mummy sits in the state parliament, I’m the only one in the whole family with a private life!”

Mammen once said, “I have always wanted to be just a pair of eyes, walking through the world unseen, only to be able to see others. Unfortunately one was seen…” And those who saw her were the Nazis. Reading their scathing denunciations after her last public exhibit in 1933, Mammen made a choice. She entered into self-imposed isolation, what Germans called “internal exile.” She withdrew to her studio and worked there in absolute secrecy, never to exhibit, publish, or speak of her art. Miraculously, the Nazis never came after Mammen. She survived the war, and died in 1976 at the age of 86.

"Prosit Neujahr" (Happy New Year) Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, January 1926. Often referred to as BIZ, this publication was the first mass marketed illustrated news magazine in Germany. By 1928 it was the largest weekly in European circulation, selling nearly 2 million copies per issue. "Prosit Neujahr" (Happy New Year) Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, January 1926. Often referred to as BIZ, this publication was the first mass marketed illustrated news magazine in Germany. By 1928 it was the largest weekly in European circulation, selling nearly 2 million copies per issue.

"Prosit Neujahr" (Happy New Year) Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, January 1926. Often referred to as BIZ, this publication was the first mass marketed illustrated news magazine in Germany. By 1928 it was the largest weekly in European circulation, selling nearly 2 million copies per issue.

There is some gratuitous sex and violence in Babylon Berlin, which at first had me thinking the show would be just another titillating TV sensation. But the attention paid to costumes, architecture, historic events and other details kept me watching, and it paid off. Aside from being an over the top noir thriller with a labyrinthine plot, the series also serves as a basic primer on the Weimar years.

A modest political understanding of the Weimar Republic years will help you figure out the historic setting of Babylon Berlin, which is why I wrote this essay.

As WWI drew to a close, support for Kaiser Wilhelm II in Germany collapsed; at the time his Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff were in practice running a military dictatorship. In 1918 the anti-monarchist November Revolution broke out, the Kaiser abdicated, and a left-leaning provisional government filled the vacuum.

Then the Spartacist uprising, led by the just founded Communist Party of Germany (KPD), tried to overthrow the government, which in turn unleashed the pro-monarchist army and the right-wing Freikorps (Free Corps) paramilitary to crush the uprising. The Weimar coalition government was founded on Feb. 6, 1919, and on June 23, 1919, it signed the Versailles Treaty, formally ending WWI.

Freikorps paramilitary unit on the streets of Berlin, 1919.

Freikorps paramilitary unit on the streets of Berlin, 1919.

The Versailles Treaty banned armored vehicles, heavy artillery, submarines and military aircraft of any kind being possessed by Germany’s Reichswehr (the armed forces—”Reich” meaning empire or realm, and “wehr” meaning defense). The Reichswehr was limited to 100,000 men and prohibited from manufacturing and stockpiling chemical weapons.

To the monarchists, militarists, and extreme rightists, those in the Weimar government became known as the “November criminals” for “stabbing the German army in the back” and for signing the Versailles Treaty. Yet the Weimar state was reliant upon the pro-monarchist armed forces and their counter-revolutionary Freikorps allies for security.

Confused yet? History isn’t nearly as serpentine and convoluted as Babylon Berlin’s narrative, so stop fidgeting and pay attention, I’m setting the stage for the drama. The TV series traces the tensions between the weak Social Democracy of Weimar and the reactionary generals of the Reichswehr that sought its downfall.

Official logo of the Der Stahlhelm (Steel Helmet).

Official logo of the Der Stahlhelm (Steel Helmet).

The TV series focuses attention on the little known Schwarze Reichswehr (Black Reichswehr), a shadow military the pro-monarchist generals set up to circumvent the Versailles Treaty and illegally rearm Germany. The Black Reichswehr was allied to multiple paramilitary units like the Freikorps, Der Stahlhelm (Steel Helmet), and Die Organisation Consul (Organization Consul or OC).

By 1919 there were 103 Freikorps formations and by 1923 an estimated 1.5 million men had participated in them. [1] In open violation of the Versailles Treaty, Steel Helmet alone had 500,000 men under arms by 1930. The OC assassinated the Weimar government Minister of Finance Matthias Erzberger in 1921, and the Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau in 1922. These types of paramilitaries would eventually join with the fledgling fighting force of the Nazi Party, the SA or Sturmabteilung (Storm Detachment).

This 1933 John Heartfield photomontage for Arbeiter-Illustriete Zeitung (AIZ, or "Worker's Illustrated Paper") attacks Fritz Thyssen, the caption reads: "Instrument in God's hand? Toy in Thyssen's hand!"

This 1933 John Heartfield photomontage for Arbeiter-Illustriete Zeitung (AIZ, or "Worker's Illustrated Paper") attacks Fritz Thyssen, the caption reads: "Instrument in God's hand? Toy in Thyssen's hand!"

In episode 1 of Babylon Berlin a train is hijacked by followers of Leon Trotsky before it reaches Berlin, they want to send its cargo of gold to their exiled leader in Turkey in order to finance the overthrow of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

In a separate plot unbeknownst to the rebel communists, industrialist Alfred Nyssen (played by Lars Eidinger), financed the smuggling of phosgene gas into Germany on the same train in order to rearm his Black Reichswehr accomplices.

Nyssen is a stand-in for the historical figure Fritz Thyssen, who with fellow industrialists Friedrich Flick, Günther Quandt, Gustav and Alfried Krupp, and others, were the billionaires plotting against the Weimar Republic. They would later become the financial backbone of the looming Hitler regime.

The fictional hijacking in Babylon Berlin aside, history shows us that Trotsky (the founder of the Soviet Red Army) was expelled from the Russian Communist Party by Stalin and sent into exile. He ended up living in Turkey on the island of Prinkipoin before traveling to Mexico in 1937 where he and his wife lived for a short time with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Eventually a Stalinist assassin armed with an ice axe attacked Trotsky in his home in Mexico on June 7, 1940; he died from his wounds the next day.

Alexei Kardakov (Ivan Shvedoff) with Sorokina. Photo: © Sky 1

Alexei Kardakov (Ivan Shvedoff) with Sorokina. Photo: © Sky 1

The hijackers in episode 1 are a fictitious secret Trotskyist cell in Berlin called “Red Fortress,” led by Alexei Kardakov (played by Ivan Shvedoff). They run a subversive printshop where they hold meetings and print revolutionary propaganda.

In one scene they are printing flyers that read: “Workers! May 1: Step out and fight for a Fourth International and the World Revolution! ‘Stalin is the gravedigger of the revolution.’ - Leon Trotsky” (anachronism alert: the Trotskyist Fourth International would not be founded until 1938).

In the TV series Kardakov lives above ground as a violinist, and gets word of the gold from his lover Lana Nikoros, a popular Kabarett singer in Berlin (played by Severija Janusauskaite). But things are never as they appear.

Countess Svetlana Sorokina. Photo: © Sky 1

Countess Svetlana Sorokina. Photo: © Sky 1

Nikoros is the backwards spelling of Sorokina, it is an alias for the mysterious Countess Svetlana Sorokina, seducer and betrayer of communists, monarchists, and social democrats alike. It’s not even known if the enigmatic Sorokina is actually a Countess, the only certainty is that she’s after the gold cargo on the train, the “Sorokin gold,” the untold wealth of the Russian oligarch Sorokin family.

In episode 2 of Babylon Berlin, Nikoros/Svetlana has a self-serving plan to take the “Sorokin gold” from the Trotskyists, she betrays Kardakov to the Soviet diplomat in Berlin, Colonel Trochin (played by Russian actor Denis Burgazliev). Trochin is an official in Stalin’s secret police, members of which he sends to murder the Trotskyists of the “Red Fortress” as they work in their printshop.

Kardakov witnesses the massacre and narrowly escapes to become one of the most abused characters in film history; at various moments in the TV series he’s shot, falls out a window from a great height into a pool of water, dislocates his ankle, is stabbed, and is exposed to poison gas. None of this was meant to be comedic, but sheesh!

History gives us a slightly different picture. The Soviet ambassador to Germany from 1923 to 1930 was Nikolay Krestinsky, a leading communist that ran afoul of Joseph Stalin by being an admirer of Trotsky. In a move most likely to get Krestinsky out of the way, Stalin sent him to Berlin as ambassador. It’s implausible that a man close to Trotsky would see to the murder of his fellow Trotskyists. In the end Krestinsky returned to Moscow where he was arrested, given a sham trial during the Stalinist Great Purge, and executed in 1938.

Still from the 1927 film "Berlin: Symphony of a Great City" by Walter Ruttmann.

Still from the 1927 film "Berlin: Symphony of a Great City" by Walter Ruttmann.

The opening train scene made me think me of the short 1927 film by Walter Ruttmann, Berlin, Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City). His film showed the approach to Berlin through the window of a fast moving Steam Locomotive—dizzying shots of villages, bridges, transmission towers, factories, blurred by speed and interspersed with shots of the train’s mechanical components at work.

The Futurist spectacle praised modern technology, but when the train pulled into the station, the sights, sounds, and people of the city became the focus. “Symphony” is a visual chronicle of 1927 Berlin, and I’m sure the makers of Babylon Berlin examined the film again and again. Ruttmann was also the cinematographer for German film classics like Fritz Lang’s 1924 Die Nibelungen: Siegfried, and Lang’s Metropolis (1927).

Animated films made by Walter Ruttmann in the early 1920s were used in the credits of Babylon Berlin.

Animated films made by Walter Ruttmann in the early 1920s were used in the credits of Babylon Berlin.

Viewers of Babylon Berlin may think the animated closing credits are current digital studio productions. They look contemporary, but they are in fact excerpts from silent animated films Ruttmann created in the early 1920s.

From his four-part series titled Lichtspiel Opus (Play of Light Opus), segments from his Opus II (1923) and Opus IV (1925) run under the credits while clips of the show’s soundtrack are played. Ruttmann created his works by applying oil paint with a brush directly on a glass pane set up beneath an animation camera. An image was painted, filmed, altered, filmed again—repeating the entire process frame by frame until the film’s completion. Ruttmann was apparently the first to create animation in this manner.

Walter Ruttmann circa 1927, photographer unknown.

Walter Ruttmann circa 1927, photographer unknown.

Unlike many of his compatriots in the arts, Ruttmann didn’t leave Germany when the Nazis took power, despite the fact that the film studios he worked for had been taken over by the Nazis. He helped edit Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 The Triumph of the Will, and was put to work directing propaganda films.

While producing one such film on the frontline with Russia in 1944, he was seriously wounded and died in a Berlin hospital from his injuries. His career begs an important question; how does an avant-garde artist come to work with brutal totalitarians? I think this unanswered question, one of many posed in Babylon Berlin, is the reason why Walter Ruttmann’s works were included in the series.

There isn’t a better artwork to illustrate my article on the Babylon Berlin TV series than Weimarer Fasching (Weimar Carnival), a painting created by Horst Naumann (1908-1990). It could have been commissioned by producers of the show, though it was painted between the years 1928 and 1929. It offers a kaleidoscopic view of Weimar Germany, juxtaposing the acceptable with the intolerable. There’s a line of Kabarett dancers in top hats, and the man who was on his way to becoming the heavyweight champion of the world, Max Schmeling. But the painting also contains sinister images.

"Weimarer Fasching" (Weimar Carnival). Horst Naumann, 1928-29. Oil on canvas.

"Weimarer Fasching" (Weimar Carnival). Horst Naumann, 1928-29. Oil on canvas.

Paul von Hindenburg is depicted, at the time of the painting he was Reich President, but in 1933 he would appoint Adolf Hitler chancellor. Over Hindenburg’s shoulder there’s a graveyard, under him, the gaping maw of a bank vault, to his right there’s a Zeppelin airship, the type used to drop bombs during the Great War. At top left there’s a fleet of French biplanes, at the bottom of the painting a soldier in a gas mask slogs across a battlefield strewn with tanks. But it’s the central figure that commands our attention; a soldier wearing a red jacket, monocle, and a swastika embellished steel helmet. He’s probably in the Freikorps, who, to identify their units, would paint an identifying symbol on their helmets before entering a street fight. This is one of the earliest German paintings depicting a swastika that I know of.

Naumann was a painter and graphic designer who studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden until 1927; Otto Dix was one of his professors. In 1927 Naumann joined the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), and soon after started painting Weimar Carnival. In 1929 he joined the KPD’s Association of Revolutionary Visual Artists. In 1931 he worked at a commercial printing company designing billboards, postcards, brochures, and posters. In 1934 the Nazis arrested him and sent him to a detention center for left-wing political prisoners. In 1939 he was press-ganged into the Nazi army to work in a labor battalion. After the war Horst Naumann became famous for his numerous stamp and poster designs, with his posters for German Zoos being most remembered.

Babylon Berlin depiction of May 1, 1929. Blutmai (Bloody May) Photo: © Sky 1

Babylon Berlin depiction of May 1, 1929. Blutmai (Bloody May) Photo: © Sky 1

Episode 4 of Babylon Berlin shows scenes right out of a history book as Gereon and Bruno are caught up in violent demonstrations. May 1, 1929, Blutmai (Bloody May) was a real life event in German history where 33 civilians were shot and killed by a security force of up to 13,000 armed police unleashed by the Weimar government. The episode shows Gereon, Bruno, and a squadron of police carrying out a door to door raid on the civilian population to confiscate firearms; it is a prescient scene.

In 1928 the Weimar government passed strict gun control laws for “the maintenance of public security and order.” Citizens were required to register, and or surrender their guns to the police or face jail time. It should go without saying that these laws would have disastrous consequences; when Hitler took power in 1933 the German people were already largely disarmed. [2]

May 1, 1929. Bloody May. Historic photo of Berlin police with bolt-action Mauser 98 rifles patrolling the streets. Photographer unknown.

May 1, 1929. Bloody May. Historic photo of Berlin police with bolt-action Mauser 98 rifles patrolling the streets. Photographer unknown.

The actual history of Bloody May shows that the Weimar government in 1928 lifted the ban on public speeches given by Adolf Hitler.

Not surprisingly Hitler then gave a speech in Berlin and a riot ensued. The government responded by banning all public political speeches and rallies, including the International Workers Day demonstration planned by the German Communist Party.

Virtually on the eve of May Day, April 29, 1929, Der Abend (The Evening), the late edition of the Social Democratic Party newspaper Vorwärts (Forward), featured a headline that read, “200 dead on May 1? Communists prepare for crimes.” It was of course propaganda designed to discourage people from attending May Day, but it was also a way to slander the KPD.

"200 dead on May 1?" Front cover propaganda headline of Der Abend, April 29, 1929.

"200 dead on May 1?" Front cover propaganda headline of Der Abend, April 29, 1929.

That very edition of Der Abend appeared in episode 5 of Babylon Berlin during the scene of an emergency meeting between Berlin officials—Police Chief Karl Zörgiebel, Mayor Gustav Böß, and head of the Political Police, August Benda (all of them Social Democrats).

The Chief of police throws the edition of Der Abend on a table and asserts, “Our own party organ says 200 dead!” To which Benda replies, “That is false information.” That the creators of the TV series would use a duplicate copy of the May Day 1929 edition of Der Abend, shows how far they went in recreating the ambience of the Weimar years.

John Heartfield created this self-portrait photomontage showing him scissoring off the head of Berlin Police Commissioner Karl Zörgiebel. Published in Arbeiter-Illustriete Zeitung (AIZ, or "Worker's Illustrated Paper") in 1929.

John Heartfield created this self-portrait photomontage showing him scissoring off the head of Berlin Police Commissioner Karl Zörgiebel. Published in Arbeiter-Illustriete Zeitung (AIZ, or "Worker's Illustrated Paper") in 1929.

May 1, 1929 proved fatal to the Weimar government. After the mass killing, the injuring of 200, the arrests of more than 1,200 people, and states of emergency declared in the working class districts of Neukölln and Wedding, a deep chasm opened up between the social democrats and the hard left.

The Communist Party of Germany (KPD) resolved to fight the “social fascism” of the Social Democratic Party. Ultimately, disunity on the left gave the fascist right an opportunity to march into power in 1933.

One painting that depicts the divided Germany of the period is the 1932 oil painting Die antifaschistische Jugend (The antifascist Youth) by Carl Lauterbach.

There’s not much information about the painting but it’s likely a portrait of young members of the Roter Frontkämpferbund (Alliance of Red Front-Fighters), a militia founded to fight enemy political rivals of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).

Around this time Lauterbach began to paint exclusively in black and white, because in his words the Nazis took away the colors of joy. In Babylon Berlin the type of young men Lauterbach painted would be among the militants shown battling the police during Berlin’s 1929 Bloody May.

"Die antifaschistische Jugend" (The antifascist Youth). Carl Lauterbach. Oil painting, 1932. "A portrait of young members of the Alliance of Red Front-Fighters, a militia founded to fight enemy political rivals of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). "

"Die antifaschistische Jugend" (The antifascist Youth). Carl Lauterbach. Oil painting, 1932. "A portrait of young members of the Alliance of Red Front-Fighters, a militia founded to fight enemy political rivals of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). "

Lauterbach was a member of the Assoziation revolutionärer bildender Künstler Deutschlands (Association of Revolutionary Visual Artists of Germany), the group of artists who belonged to the KPD. Postwar he claimed the Nazis banned his art and declared him a “degenerate artist.” Lauterbach was celebrated in his home city of Düsseldorf—the City Museum of Düsseldorf awarded an annual “Carl Lauterbach Prize for Social Graphics.” However, history does not take kindly to liars. In 2012 the City Museum of Düsseldorf posted the following:

“Contrary to his later self-portrayal as a dissident and artist of resistance, Lauterbach has been involved in about 40 exhibitions in Germany and the territories occupied by Germany between 1933 and 1943, including at the organized by the Wehrmacht art exhibition for German soldiers in Paris. Lauterbach had no professional ban nor were his pictures considered ‘degenerate.’ Since 1934 he was a member of the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts.” [3]

The Reich Chamber of Fine Arts (Reichskulturkammer or RKK) was founded by Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. Its mission was to control the cultural life of Germany. Whatever your creative field, cinema, theater, painting, literature, etc., you had to join the RKK in order to work, but first you had to have an official Ariernachweis, a Nazi certificate proving you were of the “Aryan race.” It appears that Carl Lauterbach successfully hid or denounced his red background to climb aboard the Nazi death machine.

Head of the Political Police, August Benda (Matthias Brandt). Photo: © Sky 1

Head of the Political Police, August Benda (Matthias Brandt). Photo: © Sky 1

Returning to the narrative of Babylon Berlin; ultimately Gereon Rath and Bruno Wolter report directly to the head of the Political Police, August Benda (played by Matthias Brandt).

Benda is an ardent supporter of the Weimar government. Charitable and kind-hearted with people, he’s a relentless investigator, and suspects certain people are out to overthrow the republic.

Benda is also Jewish, and with Germany rushing headlong towards a dark future, he is a marked man. He believes Bruno might be involved with the Black Reichswehr, and so he has Bruno’s assistant, Stephan Jänicke (played by Anton von Lucke), spy on the vice squad officer.

It’s ironic that the role of Benda is played by actor Matthias Brandt; here again cinema is entwined with real life. Brandt is the youngest son of Cold War politician Willy Brandt, who was the leader of the Social Democratic Party from 1964 to 1987 and served as the Chancellor of West Germany from 1969 to 1974. Willy Brandt was a supporter of the Vietnam war and was as anti-Communist as the fictional character of August Benda.

"Clear the Way for List 1 Social Democrats." Anonymous artist. 1930. Propaganda poster for the German Social Democratic Party (SPD).

"Clear the Way for List 1 Social Democrats." Anonymous artist. 1930. Propaganda poster for the German Social Democratic Party (SPD).

A historic poster that perfectly illustrates Benda’s political position can be found in a 1930 propaganda street poster for the Social Democratic Party (SPD). The poster was issued for the German federal election of September 1930, it reads: “Clear the Way for List 1 Social Democrats.” The visual message is unmistakable, a muscular working man symbolizing the SPD elbows out Communist and Nazi party cadre, but the election results were somewhat different. The SPD remained the largest party in the Reichstag with 143 seats, but the Communists won 77 seats and the Nazis won 107. Just three years later when Hitler took control, the Nazis would ban the Social Democratic Party. It remained banned and underground until the war ended in 1945.

Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries). Photo: © Sky 1

Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries). Photo: © Sky 1

A 23-year-old woman named Charlotte Ritter (played by Liv Lisa Fries) is also one of the primary characters in Babylon Berlin. She lives with her family in Neukölln, a working class borough in the southeastern part of Berlin.

Between poverty and her dysfunctional family, her life is fairly miserable. Love for her little sister Toni and an irrepressible optimism are her only possessions. In the evenings Charlotte works as an off-the-books prostitute in the infamous Berlin dance club, the fashionable Moka Efti.

Charlotte is hired at Red Castle police HQ to catalog photographs of murder victims for the Criminal Investigation Department, headed by a man named Gennat.

Historically speaking, Ernst Gennat was the director of the Berlin Criminal Investigation Department. A brilliant criminologist, he coined the term Serienmörder (serial killer), introduced the idea of profiling, and was one of the first to insist that a crime scene must not be tampered with. Gennat solved 298 cases during his career.

The real "Buddha of Alexanderplatz," Ernst Gennat, circa late 1920s.

The real "Buddha of Alexanderplatz," Ernst Gennat, circa late 1920s.

Called the “Buddha of Alexanderplatz” by fellow officers because he weighed in at 300 pounds, the nickname carried over to the Babylon Berlin Gennat character, who was of slightly less girth. I should also mention that Charlotte Ritter’s job, that of cataloging photographs of murder victims to create a national registry of violent deaths, was an idea developed by Gennat.

History notes that Charlotte’s Neukölln was a stronghold for the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). In 1926 Joseph Goebbels, then a regional commander for the growing Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers’ Party), or Nazi Party (which had only 49,000 members in all of Germany at the time), staged a march into Neukölln that culminated in a bloody skirmish with communist militants. In 1926 there were little more than a few hundred Nazis in Berlin, a city Goebbels called “the reddest city in Europe besides Moscow.

Still from the 1930 film "Menschen am Sonntag.

Still from the 1930 film "Menschen am Sonntag."

Charlotte helps her destitute friend Greta Overbeck (played by Leonie Benesch) land a job as a full-time maid with the Benda family. Greta is loyal, apolitical, and very naive. She joins Jänicke and Charlotte at Berlin’s Lake Wannsee for a swim and meets Fritz and Otto, two young communists who like insulting fat cats and bankers. Greta develops romantic feelings for Fritz that will have disastrous consequences.

The scenes of Charlotte, Greta, and friends at Lake Wannsee were obviously modeled after Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) a black and white silent film created in 1930 by Curt and Robert Siodmak. The film was central to the advancement of modern cinema in Germany. Later on in the Babylon Berlin series, Charlotte is seen unaccompanied in a crowded movie house watching Menschen am Sonntag.

This historic photo is an interior shot of the real Moka Efti, showing the nightclub's Egyptian Music Salon in 1930. Photographer unknown.

This historic photo is an interior shot of the real Moka Efti, showing the nightclub's Egyptian Music Salon in 1930. Photographer unknown.

Babylon Berlin took artistic license with the Moka Efti nightclub, which was a historic cafe in Berlin named after its Greek-Italian owner Giovanni Eftimiades. It enticed Berliners with strong coffee and an “Egyptian Music Salon” where jazz played and refreshments were taken. Entertainment and perhaps a bit more had crowds flocking to the club. Despite what was shown in the TV series the real Moka Efti did not have a brothel in its basement. But it did have the latest technology, a passenger elevator called a paternoster lift. While you don’t see such a lift in the TV series Moka Efti, one appears in the Red Castle HQ. Charlotte and Gereon meet for the first time when they disembark from a paternoster and bump into one another, spilling their work files.

Edgar "the Armenian." Photo: © Sky 1

Edgar "the Armenian." Photo: © Sky 1

In the TV series Edgar “the Armenian” (played by Mišel Maticevic ), owns and runs the Moka Efti. A debonair man of few words, the Armenian is a ruthless mobster who has bribed, intimidated, blackmailed, and murdered his way to the top. His corrupt grip is felt in the police force and in the highest levels of government.

Gereon has noticed his footprint in every serious crime he’s investigated, yet, the Armenian is oddly protective of Gereon, a man he could have done away with on numerous occasions—and yes, Edgar is after the “Sorokin gold.”

I noticed something compelling about Edgar’s office in the Moka Efti nightclub, there are pictures of Armenian relatives or friends hanging on the walls. Given that the Armenian Genocide took place during WWI and the Ottoman Turks were wrapping up their butchery in 1923, this speaks volumes about Edgar’s temperament and may account for his being a patient of the mysterious Doctor Schmidt. As a native of Los Angeles, I’ll tell you that the Armenian population in my city is as high as 360,000, and so the issue of the Armenian Genocide is especially poignant. Every April 24th Armenians commemorate the victims with a huge march on the streets of L.A., marking the genocide that began in April of 1915.

In the TV series the unconventional psychologist named Doctor Schmidt (played by Jens Harzer), treats “shell shocked” WWI vets through hypnosis and drug therapy. His work touched the lives of many and as it turns out he healed the Armenian, administers to members of the Black Reichswehr, and has a keen interest in Gereon Rath. The character of Schmidt is woven through the whole of Babylon Berlin, and he plays a major role in the calamitous end of series two. One is left wondering if Schmidt is a saint or a sinner.

Lana Nikoros (Severija Janusauskaite) sings "Zu Asche zu Staub" surrounded by her Banana Skirt dancers at the Moka Efti. Photo: © Sky 1

Lana Nikoros (Severija Janusauskaite) sings "Zu Asche zu Staub" surrounded by her Banana Skirt dancers at the Moka Efti. Photo: © Sky 1

One of the highlights of the Babylon Berlin series is when Kabarett performer Nikoros (Svetlana Sorokina’s alter ego), entertains the crowd at the Moka Efti by singing the gloomful song Zu Asche zu Staub (To Ashes, to Dust). She’s in androgynous black leather drag and accompanied on stage by a wild troupe of exotic dancers dressed in banana skirts. The crowd sings along and follows the pantomime, swaying and gyrating in drunken revelry. But it was not the first time that banana skirts had been seen.

The American dancer Josephine Baker in her Banana Skirt at the Folies Bergère in Paris, 1927. Photo by Lucien Waléry.

The American dancer Josephine Baker in her Banana Skirt at the Folies Bergère in Paris, 1927. Photo by Lucien Waléry.

In real life the American dancer Josephine Baker made her way from the U.S. to Paris, France in 1925. At 19 she caused a sensation with her exotic dancing when she debuted in the Black American musical revue “La Revue Nègre.

That same year she become a star at the Folies Bergère performing her “Danse Sauvage,” a dance where she wore little more than “a costume of 16 bananas strung into a skirt.” [4]

In 1926 Baker performed her show in Berlin, and while Babylon Berlin makes no mention of her, the dancers at the Moka Efti are a tribute to her nonetheless. When the Nazis came to power Baker was banned from performing on stage in Germany—she moved back to Paris. When the Nazis invaded Paris she joined the French underground.

Josephine Baker would die in Paris on April 12, 1975 at the age of 68. The story of the legendary Baker would make a heart-stirring movie, if only there were any decent script writers, directors, and producers left in Hollywood.

American jazz swept Germany in the 1920s and set roots there. People listened to Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong on the radio, the Charleston became a dance craze, and Germans formed their own jazz combos and orchestras like the Weintraubs-Syncopators. Artists noticed jazz as well. Otto Dix created two paintings that showed jazz musicians, a 1922 self-portrait titled An die Schönheit (To Beauty), and a 1928 triptych titled Metropolis, which had as its central panel a depiction of elites being entertained by a jazz combo.

Central panel of the triptych "Metropolis" by Otto Dix. Oil and tempera painting on wood. 1928.

Central panel of the triptych "Metropolis" by Otto Dix. Oil and tempera painting on wood. 1928.

Even though the majority of Americans today think jazz is out of vogue, some of us still consider it an indispensable musical form. But how does jazz have political and social implications? The answer in part is found in German history.

"Im Kabarett" (In the Cabaret). Conrad Felixmüller, Color lithograph. 1921.

"Im Kabarett" (In the Cabaret). Conrad Felixmüller, Color lithograph. 1921.

In 1933 the Nazis targeted jazz for its links to African-Americans. In 1935, to stop “racial pollution” they banned jazz being played on German radio.

In 1938 they organized the Entartete Musik (Degenerate Music) exhibition to denigrate jazz as well as Jewish classical music composers like Gustave Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn.

Many young Germans belonged to the Swingjugend (Swing Youth) counter-culture, where playing jazz in underground clubs was an act of defiance. Eventually the Nazis had enough, and starting in 1941 they began mass arrests of Swing Youth, sending them to concentration camps.

It is amazing how many times Babylon Berlin will send you to the internet to research something viewed in the show, take the following song for example. In the second season’s final episode, Nikoros/Svetlana resurfaces as a Russian performer in a Paris nightclub. She sings a mournful song in Russian as an old paramour enters the club. At the end of the song, in keeping with its grief-stricken lyrics, she pretends to cut her throat using a prop theatrical knife.

The song Nikoros sang was Gloomy Sunday (titled Vaskresenje in Russian). The original Gloomy Sunday however was written and performed by Hungarian pianist and composer Rezso Seress in 1933; in Hungarian the title was Szomorú vasárnap. The song was recorded by Paul Robeson in 1936 and then by Billie Holiday in 1941. Since then Gloomy Sunday has been vocalized by innumerable performers.

Who is that jazz singer at the Moka Efti? Photo: © Sky 1

Who is that jazz singer at the Moka Efti? Photo: © Sky 1

Overall the soundtrack for Babylon Berlin is possibly the biggest anachronism in the show—but truthfully, I love it. The ambient incidental music for Babylon Berlin was written by longtime collaborators Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer, one of the show’s directors. The two composed a contemporary score using electronica, strings, and piano, it is entrancing music that sounds both modern and reminiscent of the past. To me its most successful passages fuse techno with 1920s jazz; tracks like Dunkles Babel and Der Prangertag I find particularly striking.

Why it's none other than Bryan Ferry, and he's singing the song "Reason or Rhyme." Photo: © Sky 1

Why it's none other than Bryan Ferry, and he's singing the song "Reason or Rhyme." Photo: © Sky 1

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the soundtrack was the participation of the English crooner and songwriter Bryan Ferry, who is remembered by many as the frontman for the 1970s glam art rock band Roxy Music.

Prior to punk rock in 1977, misfits like myself listened to the likes of David Bowie (Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars), and Roxy Music, which at the time included Brian Eno, who was a driving force behind the new electronic, ambient sound—some of which even influenced punk rock.

In 2012 Mr. Ferry formed the Bryan Ferry Orchestra and released The Jazz Age, a brilliant album of 1920s jazz renditions of his past hits. I have listened to this album innumerable times and I’m thrilled the songs Dance Away, Reason or Rhyme, Bitters End, Alphaville, Chance Meeting, and Bitter Sweet appear on the Babylon Berlin soundtrack. Best of all, in episode 10 of the TV show, Ferry makes a guest appearance as a jazz singer performing Reason or Rhyme at the Moka Efti.

While Ferry’s music is not actual jazz from the 1920s, it possesses its form, spirit and vitality, and the musicians of the Bryan Ferry Orchestra are no slouches either. The men of this retro-jazz ensemble have given themselves to the 1920s jazz style, and in my not so humble opinion, their music fits Babylon Berlin hand in glove. Watch the documentary The Making of ‘The Jazz Age’ to understand my enthusiasm for this music.

"Demonstration." Curt Querner, oil painting 1930. The artist (in blue) depicted himself marching in a communist demonstration with fellow artist Wilhelm Dodel. Babylon Berlin brought paintings like this to life.

"Demonstration." Curt Querner, oil painting 1930. The artist (in blue) depicted himself marching in a communist demonstration with fellow artist Wilhelm Dodel. Babylon Berlin brought paintings like this to life.

I have long complained that music in commercial films has become a hackneyed method of audience manipulation—a stupid and cheap one at that.

An example of what I’m talking about would be the music found in the 2001 “medieval adventure” film, A Knight’s Tale. Purportedly about 14th-century Europe, the soundtrack uses music from the likes of Queen (We Will Rock You), and David Bowie (Golden Years).

Yeah, because nothing says Middle Ages like rock n’ roll music. If you want just one example of the incandescent music of the medieval period, then listen to the works of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). Hollywood directors no doubt wither away when exposed to such divine sounds.

Filming the Moka Efti scenes for the TV series took place in an old silent film theater in Berlin-Weissensee called the Delphi. Opening in 1929, the hall had a stage, an orchestra pit, and a seating capacity of 900. It was closed in 1959 and served as a storage room until the production crew for Babylon Berlin recreated the Moka Efti dance hall in its interior. Since then the hall was renovated and today the Delphi is a performing arts house.

The German satirical writer Kurt Tucholsky, one of the most consequential  journalists of the Weimar Republic, once wrote, “Expect nothing. Today: that is your life.” He could of written those words about any of the characters found in Babylon Berlin or, about us for that matter.

Tucholsky was a Jewish member of the Social Democratic Party prone to intense criticism of its leadership. In 1926 he was temporarily the publisher of the left-leaning journal Die Weltbühne (The World Stage), a journal dedicated to art, literature, and politics. It received a brief mention in Babylon Berlin when the dissident Austrian journalist Samuel Katelbach mentioned it in passing to Gereon Rath.

Samuel Katelbach (played by Karl Markovics). Photo: © Sky 1

Samuel Katelbach (played by Karl Markovics). Photo: © Sky 1

Of all the characters in the series, Samuel Katelbach (played by Karl Markovics) seems the most cognizant of where society was going. Putting aside his disheveled looks, as an independent reporter he knew the score. I’ve met a few like him in my lifetime, they work outside the mainstream to expose the truth no one wants to hear. A few listened in Germany, but not enough. Despite its historic impact Die Weltbühne had a small readership, but would pay a heavy price. While it’s amazing the series even named the journal, it did not mention its role in exposing a secret Reichswehr airbase in Lipetsk, Soviet Russia.

In episode 11 of Babylon Berlin, August Benda sends Gereon Rath and a police photographer named Gräf on an aerial mission over Lipetsk Russia to gather intelligence on the covert airbase. The info was needed to build a case for the arrest of army Generals suspected of violating the Versailles Treaty, which forbad Germany from having military aircraft. Two pilots fly the men over the base in a Junkers Ju 52 transport plane (anachronism alert: the plane wasn’t produced until 1931). In the hair-raising scene Gräf nearly falls out of the plane while taking photos, and is saved when Gereon grabs his arm as the plane dodges anti-aircraft fire. Action movie antics aside, it is a fact that the Reichswehr did maintain an illegal airbase in Lipetsk, Russia.

Cover of "Die Weltbühne" (The World Stage), March 12, 1929.

Cover of "Die Weltbühne" (The World Stage), March 12, 1929.

Shady Dealings in the Air was the daring 1927 exposé published in Die Weltbühne that revealed the Reichswehr had indeed violated the Treaty of Versailles by operating a massive secret airbase in Soviet Russia.

History has revealed that the Reichswehr contracted with the Soviets to run the base where future German pilots, as well as Soviet pilots, would receive combat training. The Reichswehr wanted to rebuild the Luftwaffe and the Soviets wanted German technical know how.

In 1931 the Weimar government charged the publisher of Die Weltbühne, Carl von Ossietzky, with treason and espionage for revealing the Lipetsk airbase. Convicted, he served 18 months in prison before being released in a 1932 amnesty.

When the Nazis took power in 1933 Ossietzky was rearrested and sent to the Esterwegen concentration camp where he was brutally tortured. As he continued to suffer in the camp he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1935. On the eve of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he was transferred to a hospital under the watchful eyes of the Gestapo—soon after he was awarded the Nobel. The Nazis forbade German papers from publishing news of the award. Carl von Ossietzky died in 1938 as a consequence of his torture.

Carl von Ossietzky, political prisoner #562, charged with treason for telling the truth. Photo taken in 1934 at Esterwegen concentration camp. Photographer unknown.

Carl von Ossietzky, political prisoner #562, charged with treason for telling the truth. Photo taken in 1934 at Esterwegen concentration camp. Photographer unknown.

Liberal viewers of Babylon Berlin may think of the characters in the series associated with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) as the “good guys” and their monarchist opponents as stand-ins for today’s populists and nationalists. That viewpoint is ahistorical and ill-advised.

I will simply point out that in 1914 the marginally “socialist” SPD threw aside its principles, sided with Kaiser Wilhelm II, and voted in favor World War I. The horrific consequences are well known—18 million deaths and 23 million wounded. As a result the left-wing of the SPD abandoned the party en masse. But there is something else that may horrify liberals who believe the Weimar years were a liberatory time for women.

This may not mix well with the liberal image of daring young flappers with bob haircuts and the mythos of “new-found freedoms” for women, but an abortion ban was enshrined in paragraph 218 of the “progressive” Weimar constitution. It was primarily left-wing Germans that organized protests against the ban first added to the Criminal Code of the German Empire in 1871; the Weimar government could not, or would not, abolish paragraph 218.

"Paragraph 218" Alice Lex-Nerlinger. Acrylic spray-painting. 1931. "A blasphemous condemnation of the abortion prohibition that treated abortion as a punishable offense."

"Paragraph 218" Alice Lex-Nerlinger. Acrylic spray-painting. 1931. "A blasphemous condemnation of the abortion prohibition that treated abortion as a punishable offense."

The painter and photomontage artist Alice Lex-Nerlinger was part of Berlin’s left opposition to paragraph 218. In 1928 she became a member of the German Communist Party (KPD) and joined the Association of Revolutionary Visual Artists, or “Asso” for short, an arts group open only to members of the KPD.

While a painter she was most well known for her photomontage works à la John Heartfield. In 1931 she painted Paragraph 218, a blasphemous condemnation of the abortion prohibition that treated abortion as a punishable offense.

In 1933 the Nazis banned Lex-Nerlinger from making or exhibiting her art; she destroyed her own works to avoid arrest and persecution. Paragraph 218 is one of the few works by Lex-Nerlinger to have survived the period.

In episode 13 of Babylon Berlin, Greta Overbeck agrees to meet her boyfriend Fritz one evening at a Neukölln side-street meeting hall of the Communist Party. Anxious that Fritz is late, she paces back and forth in front of the hall when Fritz’s friend Otto arrives; they greet and wait together.

The "assassination" of Fritz. Still from Babylon Berlin. Photo: © Sky 1

The "assassination" of Fritz. Still from Babylon Berlin. Photo: © Sky 1

Yards away Fritz appears on the darkened street and calls to Greta, immediately he is surrounded by men who identify themselves as police. They grab him, he breaks away and runs towards Greta and Otto—and the police shoot Fritz in the back.

Greta and Otto watch in horror as the police toss the wounded Fritz into a car and speed off. Otto clutches Greta and they run off into the night to find safety.

The same episode reveals Bruno to be a chief planner of the Reichswehr Generals’ plot to overthrow the Weimar government and restore Kaiser Wilhelm to the throne.

Major General Kurt Seegers (played by Ernst Stötzner). Photo: © Sky 1

Right: Major General Kurt Seegers (played by Ernst Stötzner). Photo: © Sky 1

Major General Kurt Seegers (played by Ernst Stötzner) and his fellow conspirators are in prison following their arrests for the Lipetsk airbase plot, but the guards are sympathizers and give Bruno easy access to the prisoners. Bruno Wolter gives his cohorts the detailed plans for the imminent “Prangertag” Putsch.

In episode 14 of Babylon Berlin, Otto meets Greta in front of the Benda family home to tell her that Fritz “didn’t make it,” and that the political police headed by her boss August Benda were responsible for his murder. Distraught, Greta said, “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” Walking away Otto said forebodingly “We will keep in touch,” implying the Communist Party would have a plan for retribution.

Bruno Wolter lies in wait with a scoped sniper rifle. Photo: © Sky 1

Bruno Wolter lies in wait with a scoped sniper rifle. Photo: © Sky 1

Meanwhile, Bruno is whistling Die Moritat von Mackie Messer (The Ballad of Mack the Knife) as he helps initiate the planned military coup on Prangertag (the Feast of Corpus Christi). It is almost comic relief that putschist Bruno Wolter would be whistling a tune from Bertolt Brecht’s Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), but it does point out the sway left culture had in Berlin at the time. The fictional coup in Babylon Berlin seems to be modeled after the real life Küstrin Putsch of 1923.

In the TV series Bruno and his monarchist co-conspirators infiltrate a gala celebration at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in the Mitte district of Berlin. Mayor Gustav Böß as well as the French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand, and German Foreign Minister Gustave Stresemann (who were real life figures) are to be fêted with a command performance of The Threepenny Opera.

Bruno Wolter lies in wait with a scoped sniper rifle, hidden in the theater’s enormous crystal chandelier, but the mission goes awry and the coup is aborted. However… the plotters escape to try again another day.

"Portrait of Bertolt Brecht" Rudolf Schlichter. Oil on canvas, 1926-27. Schlichter painted his friend Brecht during the time the playwright was working on the opera titled, "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny."

"Portrait of Bertolt Brecht" Rudolf Schlichter. Oil on canvas, 1926-27. Schlichter painted his friend Brecht during the time the playwright was working on the opera titled, "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny."

The Threepenny Opera was actually first performed at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm on August 31, 1928. Written by Bertolt Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann with music by Kurt Weill, it was meant as a Marxist critique of capitalism.

The very title expressed Brecht’s dream that theater should only cost a worker three pennies to attend. Brecht’s 1923 play Im Dickicht der Städte (In the Jungle of Cities) was disrupted by Nazis who tossed stink bombs at the actors on stage. The 1930 premiere of his opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny was likewise attacked.

When Hitler took power in 1933 the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm fell into decline and was closed in 1944. It was reopened after World War II and in 1949 Brecht and wife Helene Weigel established the Berliner Ensemble theatre company there.

In 1967 when I was 13-years-old, I purchased the first album by the psychedelic rock band, The Doors. It contained a composition that I fell in love with titled, Alabama Song. Someone older and wiser than I told me it was written by Brecht, so naturally I went to the library to find out who the guy was. I found that the song came from Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny—written by Brecht and Hauptmann and set to music by Weill. Even better, the library had a phonograph record that included Lotte Lenya singing the Alabama Song. I checked the record out from the library, took it home to play on my portable record player… and almost lost my mind. This entire experience sent me on a lifetime exploration of the Weimar years and German Expressionism. Hopefully, Babylon Berlin will inspire that same sense of discovery for others.

"Die Aktion" (The Action) 1927. Artist unknown. Cover of left-wing magazine dedicated to art, politics and literature. Covers were usually woodcuts created by expressionist artists. This issue discussed the Reichswehr collaborating with Soviet Russia.

"Die Aktion" (The Action) 1927. Artist unknown. Cover of left-wing magazine dedicated to art, politics and literature. Covers were usually woodcuts created by expressionist artists. This issue discussed the Reichswehr collaborating with Soviet Russia.

In episode 15 of Babylon Berlin, Greta seeks revenge for the murder of Fritz and agrees to work with the communists to help assassinate August Benda. She lets KPD member Otto into the Benda family home and helps him install a bomb in a drawer of August’s reading room desk; it will detonate when the drawer is opened. When the deed is done Greta flees for the train station, hoping to disappear into another city. At the station she sees an angry mob demonstrating against Mayor Gustav Böß, who is on the train.

Historic accounts of the real Mayor Böß show that he was embroiled in the “Sklarek scandal,” where he was accused of taking huge bribes from three wealthy Jewish clothing suppliers, the Sklarek brothers, who were charged with defrauding the Berlin City Bank. Nazi activists used the controversy to help push their anti-Semitic politics.

The mob is made of men from the SA (short for Sturmabteilung, Storm Detachment), the original fighting force of the Nazis. This is the first glimpse of uniformed Nazis in the Babylon Berlin series. Examining the disparate social forces and tensions that created the Nazi movement, rather than simply making the Nazis an immediate focus of the series, is what makes Babylon Berlin so noteworthy. As a viewer you sense the approach of fascism, but the writers and directors of the show chose to build up unease over 15 episodes; they kept the thugs with the swastika armbands backstage to great effect.

We know the ultimate fate of the characters in Babylon Berlin, but we still have to ask who will end up being a Nazi, and why. Will it be the typist, the doctor, the maid, club owner, or politician? What makes a Nazi, and how do you recognize fascist culture and politics? Watching the characters in the series you get a sense of their indifference and lassitude, but it’s really no different than our own. Back then, who knew what terrible future awaited Germany? Which one of you crystal ball readers today would like to predict where we’re headed now?

While many characters in the series are warm and approachable, there is still something unsettling about them; I want to like these people but hesitate, not knowing who they really are. They are “normals” in outrageously abnormal times, and they seem as out of order as the Stock Market would be in late 1929; it crashed and destroyed the German economy, sending millions into the arms of the Nazis. A few characters in the TV series already have an aura of malevolence about them; the words “banality of evil” describe them well.

Fritz is a Nazi in the Sturmabteilung. Photo: © Sky 1

Fritz is a Nazi in the Sturmabteilung. Photo: © Sky 1

Henrik Handloegten, co-writer and co-director of the TV series put it most succinctly in a recent interview; “One of the main reasons to make Babylon Berlin was to show how all these Nazis did not just fall from the sky. They were human beings who reacted to German society’s changes and made their decisions accordingly.”

Returning to the TV series, Greta is shocked to see Otto in the crowd dressed in the Brownshirt uniform of the SA; she stares at the mob and is horrified to see Fritz, and he’s also wearing the SA uniform. Greta realizes that her lover Fritz and his friend Otto were Nazis masquerading as communists, and they were using her to get at August Benda. Betrayed, she runs back to the Benda home in hopes of reversing her treachery, but just as she reaches the home the bomb she helped to plant goes off, killing Benda and his little girl.

There is much more in Babylon Berlin to write about, the last episode of season two is, shall we say, explosive; however, I’ll leave that for you to discover. The series is far from perfect, but the imperfections are thankfully few. I’ll ignore the brief LaLa Land-like dreamy dance sequence; I’ll let slide Gereon Rath’s infrequent swashbuckling exploits; I’ll even overlook the scene where a central character drowns and minutes after death is brought to life with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation—a life saving technique introduced in 1950. I’ll forgive these sins against cinematic realism because Babylon Berlin otherwise examines history with honesty and passion.

The show provides a solid argument that first-rate drama can be had from exploring real life history. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to watch a film that is not crawling with cartoon characters, super-heros, and wiggling femme fatales. Perhaps Babylon Berlin represents a return to conscientious, artful cinema, I’m praying that is the case. I’d be in heaven if a straightforward film about the German Expressionist artists and their showdown with the Nazis were to be made. But then, such a film will never be created, unless of course there’s someone foolish enough to provide me with a budget to produce it.

Seven deadly sins in the Metropolis, Charlotte Ritter and Gereon Rath. Photo: © Sky 1

Seven deadly sins in the Metropolis, Charlotte Ritter and Gereon Rath. Photo: © Sky 1

The 16 episodes of the first two seasons of Babylon Berlin are available to view on Netflix in the United States. It has been verified that the series has received funding for a third season, so the show will eventually have to deal with Hitler and the Nazis taking power in 1933. Based on the 2008 crime novel Der Nasse Fisch (The Wet Fish) by German author Volker Kutscher, the TV series was written and directed by Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries, and Henrik Handloegten. The show had a budget of 40 million euros ($49 million U.S.), making it the most expensive TV series ever produced in Germany. By contrast on Feb. 13, 2018, Netflix cut a $300 million deal with American director Ryan Murphy (creator of American Horror Story) to produce films exclusively for Netflix.

I can happily say that one is much better off viewing Babylon Berlin.

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ADDENDUM:

[1] More info about the Freikorps: International Encyclopedia of the First World War.

[2] Stephen P. Halbrook: “Nazism, Firearm Registration, and the Night of the Broken Glass.” (PDF file). Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law, No. 3. (2009)

[3] Article about the artist Carl Lauterbach - Painter in Twilight: RP Online. Feb. 28, 2012. German language.

[4] Josephine Baker’s official website biography

FURTHER READING:

My review of the 2010 Long Beach Opera production of “The Good Soldier Schweik” holds plenty of information about Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

My 2011 essay “Paul Fuhrmann’s ‘War Profiteer” focuses on the German Expressionist painter Paul Fuhrmann, as well as the Nazi Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition of 1937.

My 2013 “Echoes of Weimar” essay covers the works of two Weimar era artists, Barthel Gilles and Otto Dix. The article holds some surprising information about the two painters.

Excellent article on German Swing Youth and Nazi repression from the German website “20-2-40-Style-Syndicate.”

The Russian website “AirPages” offers an extensive and detailed examination of the Reichswehr secret airbase in Lipetsk, Soviet Russia.

Babylon Berlin is fairly exact in all sorts of background details, including antique firearms. The Internet Movie Firearms Database tells you what weapons appeared in the series.

Echoes of Weimar

"Self Portrait with Gasmask" - Barthel Gilles. Oil on canvas, 19.5 × 15.5 inches. 1930. Collection of Suermondt-Ludwig Museum in Aachen.

"Self Portrait with Gasmask" - Barthel Gilles. Egg tempera on wood panel , 19.5 × 15.5 inches. 1930. Collection of the Suermondt-Ludwig Museum in Aachen, Germany.

Barthel Gilles (1891-1977) was one of those artists overlooked by history, he was a fabulously talented painter who lived during the rise and fall of Germany’s Weimar Republic (1919-1933), not to mention the ascendancy and demise of the Nazi regime.

An undeniably idealistic and passionate artist, he was not left unscathed by the terrible days he passed through; one could say he was left broken by them. I wrote briefly about him and his 1930 painting Ruhrkampf (Ruhr Struggle) in 2001, but I feel compelled to say more about the life and work of this little known artist.

Otto Dix (1891-1969) should be familiar to readers of this web log, since he is one of the most celebrated of all German Expressionist artists.

My conviction that there is much to learn from the German Expressionist movement, mixes with my sense that we are living in times reminiscent of the Weimar period; an epoch marked by the eroding of democratic institutions and cultural life, economic collapse, endless war, corrupt monied elites and professional politicians that are completely out of touch with common people. Add the foibles of late capitalism in the early 21st century, and suddenly this article is not so much about Gilles or Dix and the moral, political, and aesthetic questions they and their compatriots faced; it becomes a matter of how artists are responding to today’s world situation.

"Self Portrait" - Otto Dix. Oil on canvas, 39 2/5 × 31 1/2 inches. 1931. Collection of Wallraf-Richartz-Museum. Photo: Hermann Buresch © ARS, NY

"Self Portrait" - Otto Dix. Oil on canvas, 39 2/5 × 31 1/2 inches. 1931. Collection of Wallraf-Richartz-Museum. Photo: Hermann Buresch © ARS, NY

In 1927 Otto Dix painted Straßenkampf (Street Fight), a shocking representation of the ferocious armed clashes that took place between militant left-wing workers and right-wing militias in the years just prior to Nazism.

Barthel Gilles painted a similar work in 1930 titled Ruhrkampf (Ruhr Struggle); his masterwork was based upon the Märzrevolution (March Revolution) staged by German workers in 1920. But what were the real-world events that so captivated the imagination - and outrage - of these two artists?

The street battles that induced Gilles and Dix to record their indignation have mostly been long forgotten, even in Germany, but the political dynamics of the events continue to resonate in our present. To fully comprehend the two paintings examined in this article, one needs to understand a bit of German history.

When Otto Dix painted Straßenkampf (Street Fight) in 1927, he placed the viewer in the midst of a bloody and desperate mêlée between an armed populace and soldiers. His Goyaesque work of art depicted the ruthless class struggle then taking place in Germany; bloodletting that pitted impoverished workers, war veterans, and various left-wing groups against the very forces that would become the Nazi’s political base - militarists, xenophobes, ultra-nationalists, racists, and extreme rightwing anti-communists.

Straßenkampf (Street Fight) - Otto Dix. 1927. Medium unknown. In all probability this painting was destroyed by the Nazis. Photographer of the painting, unknown. Reproduction courtesy the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute Library Photo Archive.

"Straßenkampf" (Street Fight) - Otto Dix. 1927. Medium unknown. In all probability this painting was destroyed by the Nazis. Photographer of the painting, unknown. Reproduction courtesy the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute Library Photo Archive.

The painting shows a throng of disorganized civilian rebels, most of which are not men of fighting age. Shrouded in a haze of gun smoke and armed with a hodgepodge of weapons, they are desperate to get at their enemies, a unit of heavily armed paramilitary Freikorps troops. Though offering valiant resistance, the crowd is being decimated by deadly precision volleys of rifle fire from the Freikorps soldiers, who were largely battle hardened WWI veterans.

The mob buckles under the withering barrage; blood-splattered women with horrific gunshot wounds are crushed beneath the crowd; two young blonde women raise their hands in dismay; a bearded rebel fighter attempts to fling a captured “stick grenade” at the Freikorps but is fatally shot before he can toss it. In juxtaposition to the routed multitude the disciplined Freikorps seem unyielding and invincible, though one of their own lay dead at their feet, his right arm a bloody pulp. Dix’s painting was as prescient as it was horrific. He sardonically signed his painting by placing his monogram on a grenade hanging from the belt of the soldier closest to the foreground.

What specific event Dix was showing in his painting is unclear. In the early 1900s Germany was impoverished, exhausted from war, and on the verge of revolution. Left-wing rebels regularly battled with those right-wing ultra-nationalists who eventually would form the Nazis; as the hapless “liberal” Weimar government played at being centrist (all the while seeking the support of Weimar industrialists and the rightist German military). Perhaps the painting was a depiction of the Weimar reprisals made against the Munich Soviet Republic established in Bavaria in 1919. Maybe it was a portrayal of state repression aimed at the 1919 Spartacist uprising, when communists attempted to set off a revolution in Berlin. Whatever the inspiration, Dix encapsulated the agony of the Weimar years in the gory scene. The few references one can find about the painting list it as “destroyed or lost”. Sadly, there is but one black and white photo of the painting (year and photographer unknown).

Sketch for "Street Fight" - Otto Dix. Pencil on paper. 1924. The artist created this study in a 1924 sketch book.

Sketch for "Street Fight" - Otto Dix. Pencil on paper. 1924. The artist created this study in a sketch book of his, three years prior to creating the painting.

It should be remembered that once the Nazis came to power in 1933, they removed Dix from his teaching position at the Dresden Art Academy, prohibited him from exhibiting in Germany, mockingly placed his paintings in the Nazi organized Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibit, and removed two hundred and sixty of his artworks from museums. In fascist parlance his work was “un-German” and responsible for helping to undermine “the will of the German people to defend themselves.” It is a fair assumption that Straßenkampf was confiscated by the Nazis and later destroyed for its portrayal of German soldiers.

Barthel Gilles and Otto Dix both painted in the difficult medium of egg tempera. Used for centuries, egg tempera was the medium of choice for European artists until the introduction of oil painting in the 15th century. Because of its handling qualities and relative ease of use, oil would eventually displace egg tempera as a preferred painting medium. However, egg tempera did not entirely disappear. Old masters used it as an “underpainting” because it dried so quickly, completing their paintings with glazes of oil paint. German master painters like Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) and Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545) excelled at mischtechnik, the “mixed technique” mentioned above.

Leading lights in the Neue Sachlichkeit (”New Objectivity”) school of German Expressionism that flourished during the ill-fated Weimar Republic, Gilles and Dix shared an infatuation with Old Master paintings. Inspired since his youth by the likes of Dürer and Hans Baldung Grien, Dix created some of his most well-known artworks in mixed technique. While perhaps better known for his radically severe expressionist works, Dix could paint on par with a German Renaissance Master like Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553); ample evidence is provided in Triumph des Todes (Triumph of Death) a 1934 allegorical work Dix painted after the Nazis fired him from his professorship at the Dresden Art Academy. In fact Dix once said, “I am not a gifted pupil of Rembrandt, but rather of Cranach, Dürer, and Grünewald“.

A year before painting Ruhrkampf, Barthel Gilles had become a member the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), as well as joining the Assoziation Revolutionärer Bildender Künstler Deutschlands (ASSO - “Association of revolutionary visual artists of Germany”) a group of artists associated with the KPD. Notables in the group included the likes of George Grosz, Curt Querner, Otto Nagel, Paul Fuhrmann, and Hans Grundig).

Ruhrkampf (Ruhr Struggle) - Barthel Gilles. Egg tempera and oil on wood panel. 1930. The artist portrayed armed revolutionary workers in battle against government soldiers. The work was based upon the real world event known as the "Ruhr Struggle" or "March uprising".

"Ruhrkampf" (Ruhr Struggle) - Barthel Gilles. Egg tempera and oil on wood panel. 1930. The artist portrayed armed revolutionary workers in battle against government soldiers. The work was based upon the real world event known as the "Ruhr Struggle" or "March uprising".

Gilles’ 1930 Ruhrkampf (Ruhr Struggle) was based upon the March Revolution of 1920. That uprising was the response of workers to the Kapp Putsch, an attempted military coup against the young centrist Weimar Republic that was organized by an extremist nationalist named Wolfgang Kapp and joined by large segments of the armed forces. The Weimar government ordered the army to suppress the coup, but the command was refused. As rightist pro-coup troops marched on Berlin, the government fled to Stuttgart. The Kapp Putsch collapsed in four days because a massive nationwide strike against it paralyzed the country. However, the failed coup set off a series of events that would forever alter German society.

"Ruhrkampf" (Detail) - Barthel Gilles.1930.

"Ruhrkampf" (Detail) - Barthel Gilles.1930.

After the Kapp Putsch affair, large numbers of Germans who had defended the Weimar Republic came to view the Social Democratic government as an obstacle to the completion of the 1918 November Revolution that overthrew the monarchy of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Insurrection became the order of the day as revolutionary workers and former soldiers took over various cities; eventually some 80,000 leftwing workers would organize themselves as the Red Ruhr Army to control the entire Ruhr industrial area of North Rhine-Westphalia. In a fateful decision, the Social Democrats of the Weimar government sent in the army - the very same army that refused to defend the Weimar regime - and the Ruhr uprising was crushed with brutal force. Thousands of rebels were killed. From that point on, German leftists found it impossible to work in partnership with the Social Democrats, a fact that splintered opposition to the rise of Hitler. That is the background narrative of Gilles’ painting.

"Ruhrkampf" (Detail) - Barthel Gilles.1930. "(....) bullet holes can be seen in the legs of the chair, and splintering the top of the wicker basket".

"Ruhrkampf" (Detail) - Barthel Gilles.1930. "(....) bullet holes can be seen in the legs of the chair, and splintering the top of the wicker basket".

Ruhrkampf is a technically brilliant painting, and Gilles deftly employed the Old Master method of painting oil glazes over an egg tempera underpainting.

Compositionally, the work focuses on three insurrectionists from the March Revolution cramped together with their rifles behind a makeshift barricade.

The three form a curve that ends with the agitated looking fellow in the foreground. He works the bolt action on his Steyr-Mannlicher M1895 rifle, the standard service rifle for soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in WWI that would later be used by Weimar era soldiers and to a lesser extent by the Nazis. The worker in the center of the painting is also armed with an M1895, which is easily identified by its unique shaped trigger guard assembly and magazine. That Gilles included these technical details shows what a stickler he was for accuracy.

Gilles’ exactitude is found in other details of Ruhrkampf; the Neues Bauen (New Building) modern architecture barely discernable at the skyline; the working class attire of the men (precise right down to the embroidery on their caps); even the items making up the barricade add to the narrative. One can see wicker basketry, box springs from a bed, an upside-down wooden chair, and a bound stack of newspapers.

"Ruhrkampf" (Detail) - Barthel Gilles.1930. As sensitive a depiction of human hands ever portrayed in German art, these are the rough hands of a man who suffered much but remained unbowed.

"Ruhrkampf" (Detail) - Barthel Gilles.1930. As sensitive a depiction of human hands ever portrayed in German art, these are the rough hands of a man who suffered much but remained unbowed.

The papers in the painting indicate two things; that the workers were literate and well informed (at the time German newspapers ran the entire political gambit from hard left to extreme right and everything in between); and that experience taught the workers that tightly bound bundles of newspaper made effective bullet stops.

The three rebels are under fire from German soldiers mobilized against them by the Weimar government; if one looks closely bullet holes can be seen in the legs of the chair, and splintering the top of the wicker basket.

Even the cap of the worker in the top right corner has a bullet hole in it.

Given the fact that Germany was experiencing mass insurrectionary violence between the left and those on the extreme right, the Weimar government was terrified of an armed populace. The Social Democrats of the Weimar regime used rightwing Freikorps troops and the German army to brutally crush the left and communist movements in Germany - killing thousands. The Weimar gun control laws of 1928 were not so much used out of a concern to “stop the bloodshed”, as they were a desperate attempt to increase the political control the regime had over a population increasingly in revolt.

In his article, Nazism, Firearm Registration, and the Night of the Broken Glass (PDF file), Attorney at Law and conservative activist Stephen P. Halbrook wrote about Weimar gun control laws, noting that the April 12, 1928 Weimar Law on Firearms and Ammunition required that licenses issued by police departments would be necessary in order for an individual to obtain or carry a firearm. That law was amended in 1931, authorizing that all guns must “be registered with the police authorities.” The Weimar decree further authorized the police to confiscate weapons in order to foster “the maintenance of public security and order.” Those who failed to register their guns, or surrender them to the authorities when told to do so, could be jailed for “not less than three months.” [1] Halbrook also documented that Weimar law stated that “Licenses to obtain or to carry firearms shall only be issued to persons whose reliability is not in doubt, and only after proving a need for them.” [2]

Meant as a rebuttal to Halbrook’s research, liberal University of Chicago law professor Bernard E. Harcourt wrote his 2004 treatise on gun control in Nazi Germany, Hitler and Gun Registration. Harcourt conceded that “the Weimar Republic passed very strict gun control laws essentially banning all gun ownership,” and that on January 13, 1919, the Weimer government “enacted legislation requiring the surrender of all guns to the government. This law, as well as the August 7, 1920, Law on the Disarmament of the People passed in light of the Versailles Treaty, remained in effect until 1928, when the German parliament enacted the Law on Firearms and Ammunition (April 12, 1928).” [3]

Harcourt’s article correctly discounted the myth that Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party disarmed the German people, pointing out that it was the Social Democrats of the Weimar Republic that disarmed them. The Weimar Government’s gun registration program was so effective that once the Nazi’s seized power, they simply used Weimar records on gun owners to put their own version of gun confiscation into practice. With the political opposition disarmed, banned, imprisoned, driven into exile or murdered, Hitler’s regime expanded the Weimar gun laws by writing their own in 1938 - which of course forbad Jews and regime opponents from owning firearms. While Halbrook and Harcourt are ideological adversaries and they reach different conclusions, their insights into Weimar era gun bans are penetrating and informative.

There is one last wrinkle in the saga of Barthel Gilles, it is a miserable, shameful, and lamentable fact. While the majority of his colleagues in Expressionist and left political circles refused to give in to the Nazis, displaying their open or clandestine resistance by various means both large and small - Gilles appears to have collaborated with the fascist regime.

With their seizure of power in 1933, in order to guarantee their absolute control over all aspects of cultural and artistic life in Germany, the Nazis established a “National Chamber of Culture” headed by Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. Two of the Nazi organized art exhibitions for 1933, West-front (Western Front) and Gesunde Frau, Gesundes Volk (A Healthy Woman - A Healthy People), listed Barthel Gilles as a participating artist.[4] While I have no information about the former, I can tell the reader something about the latter.

Brochure cover art for the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum exhibition "Healthy Woman - Healthy Nation" (1932). Designer unknown. The exhibit and pamphlet were created prior to the Nazi takeover of the museum. The legend at the bottom of the artwork reads, "German publisher for national welfare". Image courtesy of the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, Dresden.

Brochure cover art for the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum exhibition "Healthy Woman - Healthy Nation" (1932). Designer unknown. The exhibit and pamphlet were created prior to the Nazi takeover of the museum. The legend at the bottom of the artwork reads, "German publisher for national welfare". Image courtesy of the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, Dresden.

A Healthy Woman - A Healthy People was originally an exhibit curated by the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum of Dresden, founded in 1912 as an institution dedicated to “public understanding of sciences and humanities.” Once the museum came under the direct control of the Nazis in 1933, that mission changed. The Nazis altered the exhibit A Healthy Woman, to promote their theories on racial hygiene and eugenics. It became a traveling exhibit, its first showing was outside of Dresden in the city of Cologne. I can find no record of what Gilles exhibited in the show.

In 1938 Gilles frequently took part in exhibits organized by the Deutsche Arbeitsfront (German Labor Front or DAF), the Nazi established “trade union” that replaced all worker’s organizations and unions after such groups had been abolished by the fascists in 1933. The DAF put an emphasis on combating liberalism and communism, as well as generating support for the Nazi state among the working class.

A powerful arm of the DAF was the Gemeinschaft Kraft durch Freude (Community Strength Through Joy - KdF). Responsible for arranging leisure pastimes for workers, the Strength Through Joy branch of the Nazi labor front organized art exhibits, concerts, cruises, and other cultural activities. The KdF was also responsible for developing the Volkswagen (People’s Car). Historic records show Barthel Gilles listed as a “regular” participant in Strength Through Joy art exhibits [5], though I can find no record of what he exhibited.

Even if appalled by Gilles’ collaboration with the Nazis, it is problematical to judge him. Believe it or not, the Nazi curated exhibit A Healthy Woman - A Healthy People actually toured the U.S. from 1934 to 1943. In fact, it was housed by the Museum of Science in Buffalo, New York, until 1943. [6] What does that say about abetting Nazi ideology? Apparently thousands of Americans viewed and enjoyed the exhibit, until the museum decided to permanently take the show down due to sensitivity over the then two-year long war with Nazi Germany.

As for Gilles’ exhibiting in Nazi organized exhibits, aside from exile, what other opportunities did German artists have for showing their works? Since the Nazis tightly controlled the museum and gallery system as well as all other aspects of cultural production, those who criticized the regime were hounded, banned from making art, imprisoned or worse. How many of us could withstand such persecution? Ultimately it is a question of one’s own humanity, do you keep it by resisting or lose it by consenting to the most despicable outrages. That Gilles collaborated with a genocidal regime to save himself is his shame, that many of us today accept the unacceptable is ours.

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PLAGIARISM NOTICE:

Mr. Gunther Stephan (aka ” Kraftgenie”), who administers the so-called Weimar website, has plagiarized my original writings regarding German Expressionist artists. Without authorization, he lifted my original text on Barthel Gilles (written 2001), and used it without credit or link for his 2010 Barthel Gilles post. Stephan also stole verbatim, sections of my writings on Gert Wollheim (Stephan’s plagiarized version), and Curt Querner (plagiarized version). If my most recent article about Barthel Gilles and Otto Dix shows up on Stephan’s Weimar website, at least now you will know who the genuine author is.

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[1] Stephen P. Halbrook: “Nazism, Firearm Registration, and the Night of the Broken Glass.” (PDF file). Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law, No. 3. (2009)

[2] Stephen P. Halbrook: “Nazi Firearms and the Disarming of the German Jews.” (PDF file). Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law, No. 3. (2000)

[3] Bernard E. Harcourt: “Hitler and Gun Registration.

[4] Sergiusz Michalski: “Neue Sachlichkeit: Malerei, Graphik und Photographie in Deutschland 1919-1933.

[5] Sergiusz Michalski: “Neue Sachlichkeit: Malerei, Graphik und Photographie in Deutschland 1919-1933.

[6] Susan Currell, Christina Cogdell: “Popular Eugenics: National Efficiency And American Mass Culture in the 1930s.

Paul Fuhrmann’s “War Profiteer”

Kriegsgewinnler ("War Profiteer"). Paul Fuhrmann. Oil on canvas. 1932.

Kriegsgewinnler ("War Profiteer"). Paul Fuhrmann. Oil on canvas. 1932.

Paul Fuhrmann’s painting titled War Profiteer depicts a straightforward scene of an artist at work in his studio with a patron approvingly overseeing the beginnings of a freshly painted canvas. Upon closer inspection the picture reveals a narrative on the subject of culpability and corruption; the canvas is in actuality a fully relevant morality tale for today’s art world. Fuhrmann is little known outside of Germany, though he was an important figure in the avant-garde of that country during the pre-Nazi Weimar years (1919-1932). Though Kriegsgewinnler (”War Profiteer”) was painted in 1932 under extreme circumstances, it is still worth analyzing for the insights it continues to provide.

One can begin to unravel the painting’s message by taking note of what is shown outside of the artist’s garret. In the background great factories involved in war production belch smoke into the sky, with a bank building in the foreground proudly advertising war loans. The broad streets are filled with maimed war veterans on crutches and newly recruited marching soldiers, it is an ominous scene that not only indicates a nation engaged in endless warfare, but a social order where all aspects of society are intrinsically connected to militarism.

The political drama of the artwork focuses on the two figures in the foreground, an artist at his easel and his “War Profiteer” benefactor, a bowler hat wearing patron that one can assume is associated with either the arms manufacturing or banking industry. The well heeled client has just placed a somewhat large pile of money on the window ledge of the artist’s studio. The artist, preparing to work further on his painting, squeezes oil paint from a tube onto his wooden palette. He has already outlined the central figures of his canvas; a battle dressed soldier that pledges loyalty to the nation - represented by a woman with a radiating halo. Cherubs bearing an artillery piece complete the scene. Obviously the artist was not inspired by the muses, but by a desire to ingratiate himself with the rich and powerful elite circles running society. Appropriately enough, the artist painting the jingoistic tableau wears rose colored glasses.

Fuhrmann also included subliminal icons into his disquieting expressionist masterwork. While many German artists at the time included cactus in their modernist still life paintings, Fuhrmann seemed to include two of the prickly succulent plants as a sign of looming danger. What’s more, the metal frame that holds the studio window glass together first appears as a giant Christian cross, on second-glance it becomes a Swastika; symbolic of the sacred being obliterated by the profane and prescient of the liquidation of all those who opposed militarism on religious and political grounds. There was more than a little antiwar sentiment discernable in the painting, which made it anathema to right-wing nationalists. In 1933, the year after Fuhrmann painted War Profiteer, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party seized absolute power in Germany; Fuhrmann and likeminded artists would pay a heavy price for their vision and outspokenness.

As with most of the German Expressionists, Fuhrmann’s anti-militarist stance did not simply come about overnight, it was based upon observance of and involvement in social reality, that and a mindfulness concerning the class dynamics of society. Born in Berlin in 1893, Fuhrmann was an art student at the Academy of the Museum of Applied Arts in Berlin under the Czech artist, Emil Orlik (1870-1932). Orlik’s students included George Grosz, who was to become famous for paintings and graphics that savaged the German ruling class of the period.

The First World War broke out in 1914, and the next year German authorities arrested Fuhrmann for his outspoken anti-militarist politics; WWI would end with at least five million civilians and some nine million soldiers killed. When the war ended in 1918, Germans overthrew the Kaiser at the beginning of the 1918-23 revolution, and Fuhrmann joined those revolutionaries who sought to create a popular, democratic government - the Weimar Republic. He participated in the street battles that broke out between right-wing followers of the old regime, and supporters of the new republic.

In 1918 Fuhrmann become a member of the Novembergruppe (November Group), those artists who believed that art must play a role in building a new progressive society. Members of the group included Max Pechstein, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Conrad Felixmüller, Hannah Höch, Wassily Kandinsky, Rudolf Schlichter, and many other notable expressionist artists. During the 1920s Fuhrmann began to explore the possibilities of collage and assembly artworks, and he began to regularly exhibit in galleries. Sometime around 1924 he joined the Rote Gruppe (Red Group), a radical artist’s association chaired by George Grosz.

From 1926 to 1927 Fuhrmann contributed many designs and illustrations to Germany’s growing left-wing and communist press. In 1927 he joined the KPD (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, Communist Party of Germany), and in 1928 he joined the Association Revolutionärer Bildender Künstler Deutschlands (the “German Association of Revolutionary Artists”, co-founded by George Grosz). By 1931 right-wing violence and repression was well on the rise. That year Fuhrmann’s mixed media collage The Political Ones, an artwork denouncing the German court system of the day for its suppression of left-wing activists, was removed from a Berlin art exhibition by the police. The next year Fuhrmann painted War Profiteer.

When the Nazis assumed power in 1933 they immediately moved against arts professionals who did not conform to fascist ideals. The first to be attacked were writers, and books deemed “anti-German” were reduced to ashes in the mass public book burnings of ‘33. Artists, filmmakers, and musicians lost their jobs, had their works banned, were forced into exile, or were sent to death camps. Fuhrmann’s teacher from his student days, Emil Orlik, had died of a heart attack a year earlier, but 1933 marked the end of the Orlik family. Being Jewish they would all perish at the hands of the Nazis, save for a single aunt. George Grosz went into exile in the United States.

Entartete Kunst exhibit in Hamburg, Germany, 1938.

Entartete Kunst exhibit in Hamburg, Germany, 1938.

The Nazis listed Fuhrmann as a “degenerate artist”, and forbade him from doing his work. His artworks were banned and seized by Nazi authorities, who included War Profiteer in their infamous 1937 traveling exhibition, Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art).

The fascist authorities removed all avant-garde artworks from the nation’s museums - some 16,000 paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptures - using a selection of 650 of these artworks to create the Entartete Kunst show. The exhibit condemned modern art as “anti-German”, the product of mental illness and of “Jewish-Bolshevist” conspirators. Some 3 million people attended the show during its four-year tour of Germany. Inclusion in the exhibit put Fuhrmann in good company as paintings by the likes of Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Marc Chagall, George Grosz, and many other exemplary artists were also placed in the mocking display.

The artworks in the exhibit were divided into subgroups, nine in all, each presenting supposed characteristics in art the Nazis found anathema to their extreme rightist philosophy. Artworks were condemned for their “barbarous” ultramodern aesthetics, for their “shameless mockery of any religious idea”, for promoting “Marxist and Bolshevik ideology” and for idealizing “the negro as the racial ideal” in modern art - along with “the idiot, the cretin, and the cripple.” One set of artworks was meant to showcase the “Revelation of the Jewish racial soul”. Groups of artworks were surrounded by hostile slogans daubed onto museum walls; “An insult to the German heroes of the Great War”, “Crazy at any price”, “Madness becomes method”, “The cultural Bolsheviks’ order of battle”, and “Jewish, all too Jewish”. One grouping had to do with art construed as “sabotage of national defense”, Paul Fuhrmann’s War Profiteer was likely placed with those paintings. Quoting the original Exhibition Guide printed by the Nazis on the nature of that particular group of artworks:

“Here ‘art’ enters the service of Marxist draft-dodging propaganda. The intention is manifest: the viewer is meant to see the soldier either as a murderer or a victim, senselessly immolated for something known to the Bolshevik class struggle as ‘the capitalist world order.’ Above all, the people are to be deprived of their profound reverence for all military virtues, valor, fortitude, and readiness for combat. And so, in the drawings in this section, alongside caricatures of war cripples expressly designed to arouse repulsion and views of mass graves delineated with every refinement of detail, we see German soldiers represented as simpletons, vile erotic wastrels, and drunkards. That not just Jews but ‘artists’ of German blood could produce such botched and contemptible works, in which they gratuitously reaffirmed our enemies’ war atrocity propaganda - already unmasked at the time as a tissue of lies - will forever remain a blot on the history of German culture.”

Paul Fuhrmann survived the Nazis as well as the bombings of Berlin by the Allied powers, but he never abandoned the city throughout all of the violence and destruction it suffered. He would pass away in East Berlin on January 25, 1952.

Museum catalogue for the 1991 exhibit, "Degenerate Art": The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany

Museum catalogue for the 1991 exhibit, "Degenerate Art": The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany

On a side note, long before the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), became an appendage of the BP corporate empire, it organized a partial reconstruction of the infamous exhibition in 1991, intended to reveal the crimes against art committed by German fascism. Curated by Stephanie Barron and titled “Degenerate Art”: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany, the exhibit traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago later that same year.

The show displayed 150 surviving artworks as well as archival materials like motion-picture footage and photographs. Having walked through the L.A. exhibit during its opening week, I still regard it as one of the most impressive shows LACMA ever mounted.

In collaboration with the Harry N. Abrams publishing house, LACMA also produced an exhaustive exhibit catalogue full of incisive essays and historic photos - as well as a listing (with biographies) of many of the artists whose works were included in some of the original Entartete Kunst exhibits. The inside cover of the catalogue stated unequivocally that the book’s essays “cannot help but suggest a parallel with our own times, in which artistic freedom is under attack by ideologues.” Fortunately LACMA has made a .pdf version of the entire catalogue that is currently available online. In the forward to the 1991 catalogue, then Director of LACMA, Earl A. Powell III and James N. Wood, Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, wrote the following:

“Our exhibition and catalogue ‘Degenerate Art’: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany examines the events surrounding that condemnation of modern art. Although this project has been in the planning stage for five years, its topic has recently attained greater timeliness. Museums in this country have relied for a quarter of a century on government grants through the agencies of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities, and the Institute for Museum Services. This assistance has, among many other things, enabled public institutions to continue to present important exhibitions to an ever-growing public and to attract private and corporate funding. As the 1990s begin, museum exhibitions are in a precarious position. If government support for the arts is jeopardized, the ability of all museums to organize exhibitions will be affected and the museum as an educational institution will be seriously diminished.

Only with two very generous subventions from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities have we been able to mount this exhibition, organize its related events, and produce this catalogue. This exhibition focuses on events that are powerful, disturbing, and sometimes difficult to understand. It is especially gratifying to us that the Endowments recognize the importance of the issues and made it possible for us to pursue the project.”

It must be noted that the government arts agencies Mr. Powell and Mr. Wood regarded as absolutely vital to the mounting of LACMA’s Degenerate Art exhibit, have had their budgets whittled away over the years. At the time of the 1991 exhibit the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts was $174,080,737 - adjusted for inflation that would be $275,103,014 in today’s dollars. President Obama’s proposed NEA budget for fiscal year 2012 is a trifling $146,255,000.

What is more, museums have been increasingly moving away from being institutions that acquire, care for, study, and exhibit objects of enduring significance, and are instead being steadily transformed into entertainment centers; venues where “blockbuster” shows curated or sponsored by corporate entities pander to popular tastes. LACMA has gone that route, which is why it is hard to imagine the museum ever again mounting an exhibit as profound as “Degenerate Art”: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany.

A case in point, from May 29 to October 31, 2011, LACMA is presenting a “major retrospective” on the works of Tim Burton. According to LACMA the exhibit examines “the full range of Tim Burton’s creative work, both as a film director and as an artist.” The public will have the dubious honor of viewing storyboards, puppets, movie related concept artworks and illustrations, as well as other bits of cinematic ephemera from Burton films like Mars Attacks! and Edward Scissorhands. Museum goers will also have the opportunity to view screenings of Burton’s films at LACMA’s Bing Theater, cinematic masterworks like Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Batman (1989), and the pointless 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes.

Why those in charge of LACMA regard Burton’s works as the pinnacle of artistic achievement is anyone’s guess. In all fairness, the exhibit was actually organized and curated by New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and funded by SyFy, the U.S. cable television channel owned by entertainment conglomerate, NBCUniversal. During its five-month run at MoMA, 810,500 visitors took in the show, making it the third-highest attended exhibit in the museum’s history. At $20 dollars per ticket MoMA brought in $16,210,000 with its Tim Burton extravaganza, no doubt LACMA hopes to do the same. Perhaps LACMA will next mount a major retrospective featuring ephemera from the career of late pop star Michael Jackson.

But back to Paul Fuhrmann and his brilliantly critical painting, War Profiteer.

While Fuhrmann confronted untenable circumstances that were far removed from our own, every epoch offers conditions and events that demand responses from artists, yet little of social reality seems to register with artists at this point in time. The issues are indisputably daunting; the crisis of modernity, the vulgarity and crassness of late capitalism’s hyper-consumerist societies, the deterioration of democracy and the ascendancy of oligarchy, our collective lurching towards worldwide environmental catastrophe. These are undeniably difficult concerns for artists to grapple with, but as was the case with Fuhrmann and his fellow German Expressionists, a way was found to assail social backwardness and the systematic destruction of culture beneath the weight of capital and the heels of hobnailed boots.

The type of artist portrayed in Paul Fuhrmann’s War Profiteer is with us today, though perhaps in far larger numbers and with a greater capacity for self-delusion. Metaphorically speaking, the most notable aspect of today’s art scene, from top to bottom, is the fashionable wearing of rose colored glasses. Fuhrmann’s admonition to the artist is more pertinent than ever.

The Good Soldier Schweik

"The Good Soldier Schweik." Illustration of the soldier Joseph Schweik by Czech artist Josef Lada.1923.

"The Good Soldier Schweik." Illustration of the soldier Joseph Schweik by Czech artist Josef Lada. 1923.

A rare presentation of Robert Kurka’s opera, The Good Soldier Schweik, was offered to audiences in Southern California by the Long Beach Opera at the Center Theater in Long Beach on Jan. 23, 2010, and at Barnum Hall in Santa Monica on Jan. 30, 2010. Based on the 1923 antiwar novel by Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek, the opera is scarcely known in the United States and has been infrequently performed since it first premiered in 1958.

I attended the performance in Santa Monica, California and offer this article as a review, but I also wish to familiarize readers with the history of the Schweik tale since it was first published eighty-seven-years ago.

The confluence of talents, historic events, and political lessons embodied in Schweik is nothing less than astounding. While Hašek’s story took place during the First World War – “the War to end all Wars” – the work has continued to resonate throughout the decades. It is especially pertinent now that President Obama is fighting wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

I commend Andreas Mitisek, the artistic and general director of the Long Beach Opera company, for staging a boldly anti-militarist production during a time of war. In the Long Beach Opera’s program guide for Schweik, Mitisek states: “The story of Schweik has lost none of its original bite and sarcasm. Seeing it today, you get the sense that we’ve learned some things about war – but not a lot.” It is regrettable that after all the effort the company put into mounting Kurka’s Schweik, only two performances were given. The work deserves a longer run, and hopefully the Long Beach Opera’s efforts will give rise to renewed interest in Kurka’s magnum opus.

Sergeant Vanek (left: played by Mark Bringelson) and Joseph Schweik (played by Mathew DiBattista), on patrol at the front during the opera’s closing scene. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Mark Bringelson (left: playing Sergeant Vanek) and Mathew DiBattista (playing Joseph Schweik), perform in the Long Beach Opera production of "The Good Soldier Schweik" on Jan. 30, 2010. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Of Czech descent, Robert Kurka (1921-1957) was born just outside of Chicago, Illinois. Mostly self-taught when it came to music composition, he nevertheless had a burgeoning career in the field due to his extraordinary talent.

After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1951 and an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1952, he made up his mind that same year to compose an opera based on Hašek’s antiwar novel. Why exactly he chose to do so is unknown, but whatever the reason for his decision he picked an inopportune moment in history for his endeavor. The United States began fighting the Korean War on June 25, 1950, a bloody conflict that would end in stalemate on July 17, 1953. It should go without saying that the powers that be in the U.S. were in no mood for pacifist messages in art, not only that, but American society was in the throes of the frenzied anticommunism of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Set in that context, Kurka’s resolve to write an antiwar opera can be considered an act of defiance.

As work proceeded on his opera Kurka was stricken with leukemia. He continued to labor at his composition, fashioning a brilliant modernist fusion of folk, jazz, and classical idioms. His score was created for a small orchestra without strings, focusing exclusively on percussion, brass, and wind instruments in order to produce a sound evocative of marching rhythms and martial music. The opera shared much with the theatrical works of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht – especially with their magnificent proletarian opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Kurka developed a musical language that described the absurdity of war as expressed in Hašek’s original antiwar novel, and he was just able to finish the opera when he died of his illness on December 12, 1957, ten days before his 36th birthday. Only months after Kurka’s tragic death, The Good Soldier Schweik premiered at the New York City Opera in April 1958.

In Act II – Scene 1 of the opera, a member of the ruling class, the Baroness Von Botzenheim (played by mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell) visits a military field hospital to "comfort" soldiers on their way to be slaughtered at the frontline. Bringing gifts of sausages, candies, and toothbrushes, she sings: "Brave soldiers, going off to war, day and night, night and day. While you fight, we will pray. God knows what you’re fighting for." Photo by Mark Vallen ©

In Act II – Scene 1 of the opera, a member of the ruling class, the Baroness Von Botzenheim, visits a military field hospital to "comfort" soldiers on their way to be slaughtered at the front. Bringing gifts of sausages and candies, she sings: "Brave soldiers, going off to war, day and night, night and day. While you fight, we will pray. God knows what you’re fighting for." Mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell played the Baroness in the Long Beach Opera production of "The Good Soldier Schweik" on Jan. 30, 2010. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Following the overture of The Good Soldier Schweik, the opera’s prologue commences with the appearance of “A Gentleman of the Kingdom of Bohemia,” a dandy in a bowler hat who proclaims that “Great times call for great men.” He continues his narrative by telling the audience that “modest, unrecognized heroes without Napoleon’s glory” exist, men and women who are “Greater than Alexander the Great.” He speaks of “a common man, the kind it’s easy to like,” introducing “a very plain fellow called Schweik.” With the opera’s egalitarian tone set, the black comedy farce unfolds.

Kurka had picked Abel Meeropol (1903-1986) to write the libretto for his opera, and Meeropol produced a witty and sometimes devastating libretto. He was Jewish and a teacher in New York City, but he was also a skilled writer of poems and songs. Troubled that anti-semitism would prevent his advancement in the field of writing, he published his works under the pseudonym of “Lewis Allan.” Meeropol had a second reason for using a nom de plume; he was a member of the American Communist Party. In 1937 he wrote the words and music to a hauntingly poetic song he titled Strange Fruit, a work that protested the lynching of African-Americans in the Southern United States. By 1939 the Blues singer Billie Holiday recorded the song, and her record reached No. 16 on the American music charts. Strange Fruit is still considered to be a signature work for Holiday.

In 1941 Meeropol was made to appear before the anti-communist Rapp-Coudert Committee (1940-1942), a precursor to the anti-communist campaigns waged in the 1950s by Joe McCarthy and HUAC. Headed by Senators Herbert Rapp and Frederic Coudert, the committee conducted “investigations” into the presence of communists in the public schools of New York. As a result of the witch hunt, dozens of teachers were dismissed and had their reputations ruined. Meeropol was questioned as to whether or not the American Communist Party ordered him to write Strange Fruit, but he escaped further badgering from the committee when he answered that the party had nothing to do with the writing of the song.

In 1950 the U.S. government charged Julius and Ethel Rosenberg with attempting to pass nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. The couple were tried and convicted of the charges and sentenced to death. During this period, anti-communism in the U.S. reached a fever pitch, and it must be noted that Kurka was working on his opera in the middle of all of this. On June 19, 1953, the Rosenbergs were executed by electric chair, leaving their little boys Michael and Robert orphaned. Abel Meeropol and his wife Anne would adopt the boys. In a March 2009 interview with Robert Meeropol, Guardian journalist Joanna Moorhead wrote: “It seems hard for us to understand, but the paranoia of the McCarthy era was such that many people – even family members – were terrified of being connected with the Rosenberg children, and many people who might have cared for them were too afraid to do so. After he and his wife had adopted the boys, says Meeropol, Abel didn’t get any work as a writer throughout most of the 1950s. ‘I can’t say he was blacklisted, but it definitely looks as though he was at least greylisted.’” There is little doubt that U.S. authorities kept an eye on Abel Meeropol, and that Kurka fell under suspicion for working with him.

Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek as a member of the Soviet Red Army in 1920. Hašek was attached to the political department of the 5th army, where he worked on the Red Army newspaper.

Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek as a member of the Soviet Red Army in 1920. Hašek was attached to the political department of the 5th army, where he worked on the Red Army newspaper.

To fully appreciate Kurka’s opera it is necessary to have some understanding of author Jaroslav Hašek (1883-1923) and his satiric novel, The Good Soldier Schweik (also spelled Schwejk or Švejk), one of the greatest antiwar books of all time. In the story Hašek detailed the life and times of his fictional character, the rotund and mild-mannered Joseph Schweik, who is inducted into the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to fight against the Allied Powers in World War I (1914-1918). An enthusiastic patriot, Schweik is also a lumbering idiot who, in his zealotry to carry out the orders of his superiors, succeeds only in creating havoc. But one is never certain if Schweik’s ineptness reveals his true nature or if it is clever posturing as a means of self-preservation. Whatever the case, his foul-ups keep him from reaching the war’s blood-spattered frontline, until the story’s ending, when he finally arrives at the front but disappears without a trace while on patrol.

A colorful character, as a young man Hašek was an anarchist militant before he became completely engrossed in his writing. At the outbreak of WWI the wild bohemian, writer, and radical anarchist found himself inducted into the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and sent to the frontline trenches to fight against the Allied Powers; it is not hard to see that The Good Soldier story was to some degree autobiographical. While he had already invented his Schweik character and had previously written stories about him, it was during the travails of war that Hašek began to “flesh out” the character; transforming him into a good-natured buffoon that became a menace to the forces of militarism.

In 1915 Hašek was captured by the Russians and placed in a prisoner of war camp before his captors decided to employ him as a propagandist. When the Russian monarchy and its army collapsed with the 1917 Soviet revolution, Hašek joined the Bolsheviks, becoming a political commissar in the Red Army. Hašek’s allegiance to communism proved as tenuous as his loyalty to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and after some years of living in the Soviet Union he returned to Prague in 1920, throwing himself in earnest into the completion of his Schweik novel.

Heavy drinking and ill-health overtook Hašek, who struggled to finish his masterwork. He became so sick that he stopped writing altogether, dictating to assistants the final chapters of Schweik from his sickbed. He died of tuberculosis on January 3, 1923, at the age of 40; it was said that he had completed some 1,500 literary works during his lifetime – but alas Schweik would not be one of them. Hašek had planned on Schweik running six volumes in length, but he had only created three volumes when he died (a forth was published posthumously). His old friend Josef Lada created marvelous illustrations for all the volumes, and it is his artworks that defined the bumbling good soldier. Years after his death Hašek came to be accepted as one of the most important of all Czech writers, and The Good Soldier Schweik – having been translated into 60 languages – is still the most well known work of fiction by a Czech author.

Stage design for Piscator’s 1928 production of "The Good Soldier Schweik," showing backdrop projected images by George Grosz.

Stage design for Piscator’s 1928 stage play production of "The Good Soldier Schweik," showing backdrop projected images by George Grosz.

I first learned of Hašek’s masterpiece years ago through my studies of the German Expressionist movement of the late 1920s. Because of its disdain for militarism the Schweik novel was appreciated by broad sectors of the German public, who had been impoverished and exhausted by WWI. The intelligentsia embraced the story for its pacifism and defiance of conservative social order. In 1928 Erwin Piscator (1893-1966), the German Marxist director and producer of political theater during the years of the Weimar Republic, developed a landmark stage play adaptation of The Good Soldier Schweik that he presented at the Theater am Nollendorfplatz in Berlin.

Drawing by George Grosz for "Hintergrund: 17 Zeichnungen zur Aufführung des Schwejk in der Piscator-Bühne" (Background: 17 designs for the performance of the Schwejk in the Piscator stage). Published in 1928 by the Malik-Verlag Berlin publishing house, this portfolio contains reproductions of 17 drawings created by Grosz as stage background images for the stage play, "The Good Soldier Schwejk." This particular image was the portfolio’s title page.

Drawing by George Grosz for "Hintergrund: 17 Zeichnungen zur Aufführung des Schwejk in der Piscator-Bühne" (Background: 17 designs for the performance of the Schweik in the Piscator stage). Published in 1928 by the Malik-Verlag Berlin publishing house, this portfolio contains reproductions of 17 drawings created by Grosz as stage background images for the stage play, "The Good Soldier Schweik." This particular image was the portfolio’s title page.

Piscator commissioned prominent playwright Hans Reimann (1889-1969) to write the play’s script, and Bertolt Brecht assisted in writing the adaptation. Edmund Meisel (1894-1930) who just three years earlier had scored the music for Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, was commissioned to compose the music. The character of Schweik was played by the famed actor Max Pallenberg. Artist George Grosz created the stage backgrounds for the play, making hundreds of pen and ink drawings for the production. His drawings were made into an animated film that was back-projected onto the stage to coincide with the play’s action – a groundbreaking theatrical technique common to Piscator’s productions. The Long Beach Opera utilized Piscator’s idea of projected images, but its choice of images was much less effective.

"Schwejk: The Actor Max Pallenberg." George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. Grosz created this portrait of the Opera’s leading man playing the part of Schweik the soldier This drawing was plate no. 1 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio, and carried the title of; "Beg to report, Sir, I am an idiot."

"Schweik: The Actor Max Pallenberg." George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. Grosz created this portrait of the play’s leading man as Schweik. This drawing was plate no. 1 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio, and was titled, "Beg to report, Sir, I am an idiot."

Piscator’s theories concerning what he called “epic theater” transformed the stage presenting Schweik into a motorized “arena for battling ideas,” in fact mechanized treadmills moved actors about on stage – in one scene allowing actors dressed as soldiers to march off to war without actually moving.

The intent behind Piscator’s theatrical work was to prevent audiences from losing themselves in the illusion of theater, instead making them focus on socio-political ideas. The young Bertolt Brecht would be inspired by Piscator’s ideas, making them his own.

The Schweik production included projected still photographs on the stage and auditorium walls – news headlines and text, as well as projections of motion picture films (Grosz’s animation, footage of war, and the like).

The projections were combined with other theatrical devices: audio recordings and electronic sounds, actors emerging from the audience, and giant military maps as stage scenery. Grosz wrote the following regarding his role in the Piscator production:

“It is a fact that here Erwin has created a great new area for the graphic artists to work in, a veritable graphic arena, more tempting for graphic artists of today than all that stuffy aesthetic business or the hawking around of drawings in bibliophile editions for educated nobs. Here’s a chance for our often quoted latter-day Daumiers to paint their gloomy prophecies on the walls. What a medium, though, for the artist who wants to speak to the masses, purely and simply.

Naturally a new area requires new techniques, a new clear and concise language of graphic style – certainly a great opportunity for teaching discipline to the muddleheaded and confused! And there’s nothing to be achieved with your careless impressionist brush, either. The line must be cinematographic – clear, simple, but not too thin, because of over-exposure; furthermore it must be hard, something like the drawings and woodcuts in Gothic block books, or the massive stone carvings on the pyramids.”

"Kein schoner Tod." (Not a Nice Way of Dying). George Grosz. Black chalk. 1927. Plate no. 12 in the Hintergrund portfolio, this drawing also appeared in another portfolio of prints by Grosz titled, Die Gezeichneten (The Designated). In that portfolio the print had the title of "Mir ist der Krieg wie eine Badekur bekommen" (The War Did Me a Lot of Good, Like a Spa).

"Kein schoner Tod." (Not a Nice Way of Dying). George Grosz. Black chalk. 1927. Plate no. 12 in the Hintergrund portfolio, this drawing also appeared in another portfolio of prints by Grosz titled, Die Gezeichneten (The Designated). In that portfolio the print had the title of "Mir ist der Krieg wie eine Badekur bekommen" (The War Did Me a Lot of Good, Like a Spa).

Grosz’s projected drawings helped to move the drama along by emphasizing aspects of the Schweik tale, but the artworks also transcended the story, becoming universal in their condemnation of war and its causes. The audience could see that Grosz was criticizing the renewed warlike direction of Germany’s ruling class, and if his projected images were not unsettling enough, Grosz would up the ante by publishing a number of the drawings in book form.

He collaborated with Wieland Herzfelde (founder of the Malik-Verlag Berlin publishing house and also the brother of well-known artist John Heartfield), in issuing a portfolio of reproductions titled, Background: 17 designs for the performance of the Schweik in the Piscator stage. The publication of the book caused a major uproar; what had been ephemeral projections could now be held in the hands of increasingly powerful critics.

Three drawings from the portfolio, Shut up and soldier on!, Bow to the Authorities, and The pouring out of the Holy Spirit, led to a right-wing campaign against Grosz and Herzfelde that resulted in the authorities charging the two with blasphemy and placing them on trial in 1928; it turned out to be one of the longest running and closely watched blasphemy trials in history.

The essence of Grosz’s drawing, The pouring out of the Holy Spirit, would be preserved by Meeropol in his libretto for Kurka’s opera in Act II, Scene Two, “Okay, let’s pray!”. In attempting to explain his Shut up and soldier on! drawing to a judge, Grosz said the following:

“This drawing was created as a cover on the book about Schweik. In one of the chapters there’s the following scene – I’ll give you the gist, because I can’t remember it exactly. Well, there are these two soldiers lying on a bed in a cell, I think, and they’re telling each other stories about their war experiences. They grumble about the war. One says to the other something like: Well, shut up and soldier on. As I read this account the drawing took shape in my imagination. I imagined that Christ might come now… They would grab him, hand him a gas mask, put him into army boots, in short, they wouldn’t understand him at all.” [Taken from notes of the blasphemy trial, published in Das Tagebuch, 1928].

"Maul halten und weiter dienen." (Shut up and soldier on!). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1928. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde (brother of John Heartfield) were accused and tried on blasphemy charges for this drawing, which originally served as a backdrop image in the Opera, "The Good Soldier," but was later published in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

"Maul halten und weiter dienen." (Shut up and soldier on!) George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1928. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde (brother of John Heartfield) were accused and tried on blasphemy charges for this drawing, which originally served as a backdrop image in the play, "The Good Soldier Schweik," but was later published in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

After numerous trials and retrials, Grosz and Hezfelde were acquitted in 1931, but the Schweik drawings and their printing plates were confiscated by the court and destroyed. The social forces of the burgeoning Nazi movement had scored a major victory. When Hitler came to power two years later, The Good Soldier Schweik became one of the many thousands of books destroyed during the massive public book-burnings organized by the Nazi party on May 10, 1933. Hašek’s book was burned because it was considered “pacifist literature,” but books by “Marxists,” “liberals,” “Jews,” and anyone considered to be “un-German” were thrown onto the bonfires as well. Books by Piscator, Brecht, Grosz, and Herzfelde were also added to what the Nazis called the “funeral pyre of the intellect.”

"Die Obrigkeit." (The Authorities). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. This print had the subtitle of: "Seid untertan der Obrigkeit (Bow to the Authorities). Plate no. 2 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde were tried for blasphemy because of this drawing.

"Die Obrigkeit." (The Authorities). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. This print had the subtitle of: "Seid untertan der Obrigkeit" (Bow to the Authorities). Plate no. 2 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde were tried for blasphemy because of this drawing.

To escape Nazi persecution Grosz would flee to the U.S. in 1932. Herzfelde went underground soon after, finally escaping to Prague in 1933. Working on a film in the Soviet Union in 1933, Piscator found himself in exile when Hitler came to power. He became disillusioned with the Soviet Union under the leadership of Stalin and by 1936 he move to France, finally emigrating to the U.S. in 1939.

Piscator was invited to found a Dramatic Workshop at New York’s The New School, where his students included Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte, Tony Curtis, Shelley Winters, and many others. Ironically, the anti-communist hysteria of McCarthyism drove Piscator from America. His associate and fellow exile in the U.S., Bertolt Brecht, was hauled up before HUAC on October 30, 1947, and harshly interrogated regarding his political sympathies. The next day Brecht left the U.S. for Europe. Piscator did not wait to receive his subpoena, he returned to West Germany in 1951 to avoid the witch-hunts.

"Ausschuttung des heiligen Geistes." (The pouring out of the Holy Spirit). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1928. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde were tried for blasphemy because of this drawing. Plate no. 9 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

"Ausschuttung des heiligen Geistes." (The pouring out of the Holy Spirit). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1928. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde were tried for blasphemy because of this drawing. Plate no. 9 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

Piscator’s technical ideas regarding the staging of the Schweik play clearly have had an influence on theatre and opera over the decades. His concepts like projected backdrops, stage hands incorporated into the action as they shuffled props on and off stage, and actors performing in the aisles amongst the audience, were incorporated into the Long Beach Opera production. However, Piscator meant to provoke his audience into taking sides against war and those who profit from it, while the Long Beach Opera placed its emphasis on entertainment.

Given the profundity of Kurka’s material it would be impossible not to impart some level of political insight, and such moments were plentiful in the Long Beach Opera production. In Act I – Scene Four, Schweik finds himself in a cell at police headquarters after having been arrested for allegedly speaking against the Emperor. Many others are also in the jail for the very same offense, and all are worried about being brutalized and tortured at the hands of the police. Schweik, assuring his fellow jailbirds that things are not so bad, sings:

“I once read in a book where it said, you had to dance on red-hot iron and drink molten lead. You were shot or hanged, burned or slaughtered, and as a special event, drawn and quartered. They split you open or chopped your head, you might be innocent but you were also dead. There’s no quartering here or things of that kind, it’s improved for our benefit I’m glad to find. We’ve got a mattress, a table, a seat, they bring us soup and water and bread to eat, the slop pot is right there under your nose, a lot of progress is what it shows.”

"Der Lebensbaum." (Tree of Life). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. Executed prisoners hang from a tree made out of the "§" symbol used to denote German legal articles. Plate no. 4 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

"Der Lebensbaum." (Tree of Life). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. Executed men hang from a tree made of the "§" symbol used to denote German legal articles. No. 4 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

As with a number of scenes in the opera, the action in Scene Four transcends the period setting of 1914, in fact it is hard not to think of the present when hearing about the “progress” made in the handling of prisoners held by certain governments. Surely waterboarding is an improvement over being drawn and quartered – yes, a lot of progress is what it shows!

The ending scenes of the Long Beach Opera production could hardly have concluded on a more profound note. In Act II – Scene Seven, the character of Schweik at last finds himself at the front. On the stage backdrop a gigantic image is projected, a terrible scene of utter desolation; shattered and blackened skeletal trees and bomb craters cast in blue light. From behind the stage backdrop the orchestra begins the somber music for the song, “Wait for the ragged soldiers.” Groups of wounded troops walk onto the stage – collapsing, exhausted, dying, as they sing their foreboding song:

“Wait for the ragged soldiers, watch for the ragged men with their sunken faces, holding their blood-red wounds with their hands. No sound of drums when they come, no trumpets blow when they come, no flags at the gate. Wait for the ragged soldiers. Wait…wait and watch for the ragged, watch for the tired men marching slowly homeward. Men… homeward. (….) Coat sleeves armless, legless, sightless. Angry, angry, angry men, angry men. No sound of drums when they come, No!”

Act II – Scene 7. Joseph Schweik and Sergeant Vanek at the bomb blasted battle front. A group of wounded soldiers trudge by, collapsing one by one into muddy trenches as they sing: "Wait for the ragged soldiers, watch for the ragged men, with their sunken faces, holding their blood-red wounds with their hands. No sound of drums when they come, no trumpets blow when they come, no flags at the gate."  Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Act II – Scene 7. Joseph Schweik and Sergeant Vanek at the bomb blasted battle front. A group of wounded soldiers trudge by, collapsing one by one into muddy trenches as they sing: "Wait for the ragged soldiers." Photo of the Jan. 30, 2010, Long Beach Opera production of "The Good Soldier Schweik" taken by Mark Vallen ©

Patrolling the battlefield, Schweik and Sergeant Vanek enter the scene carrying their guns; here the production has been updated to good effect.

Rather than carrying WWI era bolt action rifles, the two soldiers are armed with modern automatic assault rifles, reminders that the sentiments of this opera are not rooted in the past, but relevant and applicable to the world as it is today.

Lost in the landscape of mangled barbed-wire and stinking corpses, Schweik and Vanek argue over which direction to take. Vanek insists that his military map indicates a right turn, Schweik shrugs and says, “Maps are sometimes wrong.” The two cannot agree on how to advance, so they part, going separate ways.

Schweik watches the Sergeant disappear into the blackened wasteland of destruction, waves goodbye, and lays down his gun. As the character of Schweik begins to walk off stage, he sings: “I’ll take a quiet road where forget-me-nots grow, along a clear stream where soft breezes blow. I’ll take it easy for the rest of the day and pick some meadow flowers on the way. I’ll take a quiet road and I’ll lie in the sun, for birds and butterflies, I won’t need my gun.” His song over, Schweik vanishes.

In the opera’s epilogue the gentleman of Bohemia returns, stepping out of the darkness and into a spotlight to find Schweik’s abandoned gun. The gentleman sings the opera’s final words: “Schweik, Schweik, where did he go? He just disappeared and that’s all we know. Some say they saw him at a much later day, sipping a drink at a little café. And others will swear he was seen on the street, and lost in the crowd before they could meet. Schweik, Schweik, the Good Soldier Schweik, the kind of fellow that fellow men like. In one place or other he’s sure to be found. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s somewhere around.”

[ More information on Robert Kurka’s opera, The Good Soldier Schweik: Song lyrics and a synopsis of the opera’s storyline, can be found on the Cedille Records website in .pdf format. An excellent recording of the opera performed by the Chicago Opera Theater and released by Cedille Records can be purchased from Amazon, where you can also hear song excerpts. An English language edition of Jaroslav Hašek’s Schweik novel, with illustrations by Josef Lada can also be purchased on Amazon.]