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The History of Cabaret in Germany

The first modern cabaret was Le Chat Noir, created in 1881 in Paris. The central character of this early cabaret was a cat who could sing, dance, be a mystic and a teller of broad tales. But most importantly give contradictions that could only be "resolved in the derisive spirit of satirical laughter" (Appignanesi, 2004, pp.8). In 1901, Ernst von Wolzogen opened the first Parisian-styled cabaret theatre in Berlin. He was inspired to open his own club by poet and dramatist Benjamin Franklin Wedekind's songs, titled Deutsche Chansons (German Chansons, which he helped to contribute. He established his club Überbrettl in 1901 which he deemed to be of a higher class than Le Chat Noir and it helped to pave the way for the rise of popularity cabaret would have in German society (Segel, 1977, pp.43-44). Alan Lareau, professor of German at the University of Wisconsin, believes that cabaret was an attempt by the intellectuals and artists to create cultivated entertainment to reconcile high art and popular culture (Lareau, 1991, pp.471). However, when reviewing the history of cabaret in Germany, it is evident that it has been consistently used as a form of political and societal criticism by its performers rather than attempt to create cultivated entertainment. Cabaret became more popular as political instability was more rife and people needed an escape from the situation they found themselves in.

Figure 1: Female cabaret performers wearing typical 1920s costumes.

The most popular form of live entertainment in Weimar Berlin was the revue (a combination of music, dance and sketches, however these made very few political statements (Jelavic, 1993, pp.154). Berlin cabarets would instead use the everyday struggles the German people were going through, such as bankruptcy, inflation and apartment shortages, in order to mock the hypocrisy of the time as some became incredibly wealthy whilst most people lost everything. (Lareau, 1991, pp.474). Despite the shackles of censorship being lifted in 1918 with the abdication of the Kaiser and the foundation of the Republic, the promise of performers being able to provide political commentary was not realised. What resulted, was an increase in nudity and vulgarity. Lareau believes this was due to the audience not being interested in the political issues that faced the young Republic. They came to these shows to forget that, they instead wanted to see smut, anything that did attempt to make political commentary above clichés and prejudices didn't make any money (Lareau, 1991, pp.474-475).

Figure 2: The first Cabaret theatre in Germany, Buntes Brettl (Überbrettl) theatre.

Even what many considered to be the highest level of musical and literary excellence during the period, Trude Hesterberg was not exempt from these limitations (Senelick, 1992, pp.70). Despite the tone of social dissatisfaction in her songs, these pieces were written for pleasure-seekers. Her performance of I'm a whore, where she appears on stage with a red flashing light proclaiming she's a whore but refuses to use the word money, emphasising how worthless the Mark had become. After twenty verses the light turns green and the performer sobs "I've had enough of this existence" and walks off stage, stressing the desperation amongst the German people as their country falls apart (Lareau, 1991, pp.478). Trude Hesterberg's performance I'm a whore, shows the way cabaret writers and performers chose how to share their art form with the German people. This piece is not concerned with being high art but rather a reflection on the grave situation the Weimar Republic and its citizens were in, it is clearly more concerned with portraying this reality.

Figure 3: Trude Hesterberg performing.

By 1924, while the Weimar Republic was on the brink of collapse, the French had occupied the Ruhr valley due to a missed reparation payment. The Mark had become worthless and the Weimar government were unable to buy any foreign currency or gold. France was willing to accept reparations through natural materials like coal instead of the worthless German mark (Layne, 2014, pp.306-307). However, German Chancellor Gustav Stresemann managed to stabilise the German economy by introducing a new currency called the Rentenmark, that could be bought in exchange for the old worthless Marks. Furthermore the Dawes Plan, a loan from the USA of 800 million Marks helped to balance the German economy and it began to thrive. The Weimar Republic would now enter the 'Golden Twenties,' a period of healthy economic growth and the expansion of liberal values in society.(Armstrong & Mosler, 2020, pp12-16).

By the 'Golden Twenties', cabaret had faded into irrelevance. Lareau argues "without the social, economic, and intellectual unrest of the inflation years, general interest in current events, satire, and the more critical brand of cabaret seems to have died down." Lareau attributes this to a feeling of satisfaction and complacency now the tough times of hyperinflation were over (Lareau, 1991, pp.480). This further supports the notion that cabaret was a tool for political and societal criticism. As greater stability occurred in Weimar Germany, the popularity of cabaret decreased. Other art forms, such as film, were starting to attract the attention of intellectuals, as it was easier to provide art for a mass audience. As a result, cabaret theatre was considered to be 'low' art and started to fade into irrelevance (Lareau, 1991, pp.479). This contradicts Lareau's earlier argument that cabaret was an attempt by intellectuals to provide high art for popular culture. As the reputation of cabaret fell to 'low' art it is evident that this attempt was unsuccessful. Cabaret performers used the art form to satirise the political and social situation in Germany and it's lack of popularity during a time of stability highlights the true nature of cabaret, to parody the problems facing the Weimar Republic.

Figure 4: German film star Marlene Dietrich in 'Der blaue Engel.' A film set in a Cabaret in the Weimar Republic.

On October the 24th 1929, Germany was once again plunged into economic chaos. During the 'Golden Twenties' the Weimar Republic had been heavily reliant on the Dawes and Young plan to stabilise its economy. These were agreements that staggered the war reparations in the Treaty of Versailles so the German economy could stabilise itself (Ritschl, 2013, pp.111). The Wall Street crash meant the Young Plan was no longer viable for the American banking system to handle and it had to recall the money being sent to Europe and cancel all the credits. The value of German exports fell which, combined with international obligations and the influence other countries had on the Reichsbank, meant the German financial system was about to collapse (Stachura, 1986, pp.13). Cabaret seems to prosper in times of political and economic crisis. During the Great Depression cabaret sought to break away from the entertainment industry and became aware of its political responsibility. Cabarets started to practise radical social criticism as they worked closer with workers' movements across Germany (Lareau, 1991, pp.485).

The Great Depression had led to the formation of smaller and more radical stages as they openly criticised the republic (Jelavich, 1993, pp.187). This is evident in Friedrich Hollaender's The Wrong Train, where a man falls in love with the wrong woman or always gets on the wrong train. In the third verse he complains that the train is going in the wrong direction, toward "Nazidonia" rather than the "Pacific", highlighting the wrong direction the Weimar Republic was headed (Lareau, 1991, pp.488). This provides further support to the claim that cabaret's focus was on the political situations occurring in Germany, the time of the Great Depression was one of great uncertainty and there was a dramatic increase in radical politics in German society with the rise of the Nazi Party. What Hollaender's The Wrong Train shows, is the awareness of cabaret performers that an age of censorship and oppression will return to Germany and they are attempting to make the people aware of it, rather than trying to reconcile high art.

Figure 5: Friedrich Hollaender

The success of the Nazi party in the 1930 election meant that the vocal political criticism was now threatened (Jelavich, 1993, pp.187). The Nazi regime put great strain on writers and performers of cabaret, that most cabarets dare not speak out against the Nazi party for fear of being thrown into prison, a concentration camp or when the war had started, onto the frontline (Mandl, 1969, pp.25). The Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels went to a theatre in Vienna and was so angry at what he saw, he threatened to put the entire performing team into a concentration camp if it happened again (Mandl, 1969, pp.25). However, at least at the surface level, social criticism and rebellion was still prominent in German media. Rudolph Nelson, German composer and writer of cabarets, had topical implications of rebellion in the 1938 film Dance on the Volcano. The protagonist of the film, a French Revolutionary, incites his fellow citizens to rebellion. It's as if Nelson was making a point to the Nazi regime that democratic theatre still survived (Ringer, 1975, pp.258). Additionally, Werner Finck was famous for provoking the Nazi regime after they seized power (Gainham, 1963). German theatre critic Frederich Luft remembers that 'people went there to see how he (Werner Finck) would manage to get his neck out of the noose again’ (Berghaus, 2000). Finck was constantly raided by the Gestapo and was eventually placed in a concentration camp in 1935 (Gainham, 1963). He would still do stand-up comedy in prison showing how rebellious he was to the Nazi regime. Rudolph Herzog, son of celebrated filmmaker Werner Herzog, recalls a Finck joke his father told him about "Well, what do you have to fear? You can’t be sent to a camp, you’re already in it” (Maclellan, 2011). What Rudolph Nelson and Werner Finck show, is the continued tradition of cabaret and cabaret performers using their voices for political criticism. Even in the face of life threatening consequences they were still brave enough to criticise German society, as it was at the core of their artform.

Figure 6: Rudolph Nelson at his piano in 1953.

In conclusion, Lareau's notion that intellectuals attempted to use cabaret as an attempt to reconcile high art and popular culture rather than a form of political and societal criticism, is false. Through the years of rampant hyperinflation, cabaret was not overly political, as these shows would never be profitable. However, they did critique the social issues the citizens of the Weimar Republic were facing. Trude Hesterberg's performance of I'm a Whore can hardly be considered a merging of high art and popular culture, but it reflects the desperation of early Weimar society as unemployment and a worthless currency threatens the collapse of the country. This theory is reinforced through the 'Golden Twenties,' as Germany's economic situation started to stabilise, the popularity of cabaret started to decrease. The Dawes Plan had helped to strengthen the German economy and as a result there were less issues cabaret artists could criticise. Additionally, the emergence of cinema started to distract intellectuals, as this was a more viable way of providing art for popular culture. Cabaret's popularity would once again increase during the Great Depression, this time becoming more political as extremist politics became more prevalent in German society. This is made clear by Hollaender's The Wrong Train, where he highlights the wrong direction he feels the Weimar Republic is heading, as it goes towards 'Nazidonia.' Finally cabaret and cabaret performers were still politcally vocal during the rise of the Nazis. Rudolph Nelson used topical implications of rebellion in the 1938 film Dance on the Volcano as the protagonist incites revolution. Less subtle was Werner Finck who would openly criticise the Nazi party and got himself arrested and placed in a concentration camp where he would still perform stand-up comedy. Even in the face of absolute tyranny cabaret and cabaret performers used the art to criticise German society and politics.

Bibliographical References

Appignanesi, L. (2004). The cabaret. Yale University Press.

Armstrong, P., & Mosler, W. (2020). Weimar Republic Hyperinflation through a Modern Monetary Theory Lens. Gower Initiative for Modern Monetary Studies.

Berghaus, G. (2000). Walking a Political Tightrope Over the Abyss. Blesbok.

Gainham, S. (1963). The Political Cabarets: Source of Berlin's Satire. The Atlantic.

Jelavich, P. (1993). Berlin cabaret. In Berlin Cabaret. Harvard University Press.

Lareau, A. (1991). The German Cabaret Movement during the Weimar Republic. Theatre Journal, 43(4), 471–490.

Layne, C. (2014). Kant or cant: The myth of the democratic peace. In Realism Reader (pp. 301-310). Routledge.

Mandl, H. (1969). LITERARY CABARET. Modern Austrian Literature, 2(3), 24-40.

MacLellan, L. (2011). What's So Funny About the Nazis, Rudolph Herzog? Vanity Fair.

Ringer, A. L. (1975). Dance on a Volcano: Notes on Musical Satire and Parody in Weimar Germany. Comparative Literature Studies, 12(3), 248–262.

Ritschl, A. (2013). Reparations, deficits and debt default: the Great Depression in Germany. The Great Depression of the 1930s: Lessons for today, 110-139.

Senelick, L. (1992). The Good Gay Comic of Weimar Cabaret. Theater, 23(3), 70-75.

Stachura, P. D. (Ed.). (1986). Unemployment and the great depression in Weimar Germany. Springer.

Segel, H. B. (1977). Fin de siecle Cabaret. Performing Arts Journal, 2(1), 41–57.

Visual Sources

Cover Image: (1927). Bridgette Helm in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, [Photograph].

Figure 1: (c.1920). A group of female cabaret dancers wearing costumes typical of the 1920s, [Photograph]. Alpha History.

Figure 2: Bartles,G. (c.1901). Colourful Board, [Photograph]. Wikipedia.

Figure 3: Pragher, W. (1939). Scala (Berlin): Trude Hesterberg, [Photograph]. Wikipedia.

Figure 4: (1929). German film star Marlene Dietrich in 'Der blaue Engel' [Photograph].

Figure 5: n.d. Friedrich Hollaender at his piano, [Photograph].

Figure 6: Noske, J.D. (1953). Grammofoonplaatopname van Cabaret Nelson: Rudolf Nelson [Photograph]. Dutch National Archives, The Hague.


Author Photo

Charlie Hartley-O'Dwyer

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