Commentary: Night Falls on the Berlin of the Roaring Twenties

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Night Falls on the Berlin of the Roaring Twenties. A Book by Robert Nippoldt and Boris Pofalla. Taschen, 2018. ISBN 978-3-8365-6320-8.

In the wake of seeing Metropolis this past weekend, I decided to finish reading this wonderful art book, purchased at the Book Loft in Columbus when I was there in January.  When I first purchased the book (which was sealed), I was expecting a collection of photos of Weimar-era Berlin.  What I got was something altogether different and evocative.

This is a book in tones of black, white and sepia, full of artwork and illustrations by Robert Nippoldt, who has previously produced books on gangsters, jazz, and Hollywood. Some of the illustrations are directly based on photographs; others are entirely his own.  The book feels as if a German Expressionist movie had somehow been created in book form.  A few examples follow:

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To accompany the illustrations, Boris Pofalla’s text tells the story of Berlin and its popular culture through many of its most famous citizens–politicians, musicians, artists and film directors, authors, performers and cinema stars, athletes, scientists, journalists businessmen, and criminals.   The city itself is a character as well–its clubs, parks, buildings, department stores, fashions, sporting events and electric lights (Berlin was particularly known as a city of electricity, adding to the allure of its nightlife). The portrait that emerges is one of a city hurtling into modernity during a period where many of its residents could barely afford to put food on the table, where many women turned to sex work both because of the freedom it afforded and the money it brought them in an era where jobs were scarce.

In particular, the text highlights the importance of those who were lured to the city for various reasons — Einstein, by a university appointment; Josephine Baker, by the freedom offered a Black singer in perhaps the least restrictive city in Europe; Christopher Isherwood by the attraction of a liberal attitude towards homosexuality.  And sadly, the story of almost every single one of those highlighted, whether they were natives or more recent arrivals, ends with their exile or death, as other than for a select few, the rise of the Nazis meant the end of the Berlin they had loved.

But what vaults this book into another realm entirely is that it has a soundtrack. In the back of the book is a CD with 26 songs, each cued to a part of the book, so that the listener can, for instance, hear the voice of Marlene Dietrich while reading about her. The songs are all original recordings, mostly from the 20s, and a section in the back of the book gives a little more detail about each song.  This absolutely transports the reader back in time, bringing the text and illustrations vividly to life. This is a brilliant step, as hearing the voices of the singers and the sound of the nightclubs has the effect of resurrecting them for the listener.

What I loved more than anything is how the stories of the people and the cities all wove together.  Berlin of the 20s becomes more than just a collection of buildings and nightclubs–its people are by far the more interesting story.  The book gives more context to something like Babylon Berlin; it certainly helps explain the almost-casual attitude to sex work among young women during the period.  Perhaps the one missing element is a greater discussion of the arts outside of popular culture – literature, music, and visual arts, as well as architecture, all of which were undergoing their own revolutions during this period.

The author’s note at the end of the book mentions that Nippoldt also developed a stage presentation, Ein Rätselhafter Schimmer, based on this material. That phrase that can have multiple meanings in English, as rätselhafter can mean mysterious or enigmatic and schimmer can mean shimmer, light, idea, lustre, or glimmer– or perhaps, all of them.

 

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