By David Lyndon
‘It’s just like Howlin’ Wolf used to say,’ says Brad, a bartender and close friend who I have been calling ‘Hans’ for the entire morning. ‘You got them “ol’ Weimar Blues”.’
I chewed over this possibly unintentional non sequitur for a few moments before reassuring Hans that he was indeed correct and that I should very much like to have another Martini.
Not only was the attribution a shade off the mark, but Hans had failed to perceive my mood entirely. I wasn’t blue, I felt fantastic.
The Sunday sun was at its peak and I was already several cocktails into an endless Berlin night. I had been attempting for the last two, maybe three hours, to fortify myself with some kind of mad fervour to better appreciate Berlin Sydney – a series of arts events held in conjunction with AGNSW’s exhibition of German modern art, The Mad Square.
My plan; to get inside the myth of the ‘golden years’ of the Weimar Republic – Germany’s fleeting reprieve in the wake of a horrific and crippling war, a violent revolution and financial ruin. The unending party before the dark clouds of Nazi horror closed in.
It’s a time that has been romanticised as a ‘modern’ renaissance. During this short period in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Germany was the world’s centre for cutting-edge thought. Heisenberg, Adorno, Born, Heidigger, Horkheimer, Benjamin, Godel and dozens of other figures from this period who are significant enough to be known instantly by their surname, developed the foundations of 20th century physics, philosophy and mathematics. Cultural output during this time is said to have rivalled any other period in human history, with the creative arts being produced in Germany being more advanced, varied and daring than anywhere else in the world.
It was also presumably a lot of fun.
In Berlin, the epicentre of this intellectual and artistic maelstrom, night-time revellers drifted from club to club, places like El Dorado and Kakadu, all lit up in flashing electric light, rubbing shoulders with intellectuals and outcasts, criminals and bohemians. The cocaine-laced ‘Berlin wind’ blew them along for days on end and they never got tired.
The American crazes for cocktails (borne out of a need to mask the flavour of cheap bootleg liquor) and jazz had taken root in Berlin and were the daily bread for these 24-hour party people.
So that is why I am drinking martinis at midday.
It’s all well and good to stand back and admire the culture of the period at a distance but I’m obsessed with trying to see these things through the same eyes. These works were created by artists who had seen the collapse of society as a very real possibility a few short years before, for an audience that did not mind that tomorrow may never come. What insights can be discovered by replicating that air of utter abandon?
I’ve organised for myself and some compatriots to catch a performance of The Threepenny Opera in Walsh Bay then head to the gallery to see Mad Square, prefacing, punctuating and concluding these events with stops Hans’ bar within a bookshop – ‘Moonshine Slim’s at Ampersand’ on Crown St – my El Dorado-lite for the day.
Given that we could not locate ‘sultry Argentinian waitresses’ to serve us ‘petals from white roses that had been soaked in chloroform and ether’ (apparently, the designer drugs of the day), primal cocktails interspersed with fits of cheap champagne would suffice to haul the burden of my sanity into new and greater realms. The names passed by like a parade of dear friends – Manhattan, Martini, French 75 (named after a WW1 cannon), Mint Julep – this cavalcade dancing to the beat of the Wientraub Syncopators, Kurt Weill, Billy Bartholemew and Teddy Kline’s Jazz sinfonie.
To the great relief of those eating lunch or quietly browsing for books, my awkward attempts to perform the Charleston were soon interrupted by the urgent need to make our way to the matinee.
Rolling onto the street, the beastly sun judging us harshly, I feel as if I have become my own wax double. An escapee from Madame Tussaud’s, facial features turning to liquid, I spill into the back seat of a taxi.
We arrive at the theatre and get through the front door, with only the merest hint of total, utter confusion.
I hear that lonesome curtain-call bell. He sounds too blue to fly.
In my seat now and on stage there is a noose overshadowing what appears to be a boxing ring. It seems we are in for quite a cheery ride.
Brecht & Weill’s ‘ballad opera’ has been restaged by the Sydney Theatre Company, with lip service paid to transferring the action to present-day Sydney. It’s an odd choice. Mac the Knife stalks the mean streets of Randwick. I mean, sure, why not?
While, on the whole, the music, singing, acting and staging are unimpeachable, I spend much of the time pondering the implications and uncanny parallels of a Weimar-period play originally set in Victorian London refigured for noughties Sydney.
On stage; gangsters, beggars, whores, corrupt cops and a smattering of unwitting rubes, all faces painted in pallid, dour countenances. In the crowd; much the same but more polite, well dressed, tanned and wealthy. I imagine we’re all actors in the same in same schema, filling in time between impending crises. Credit crunch, colonial war, property-bubble apocalypse, murder, fire, bombings and peak oil –hubris and decadence punctuated by the taut crack of a hangman’s rope.
My head is swimming in Weill’s music; it’s the din and clatter of a metropolis keeling over sick in the gutter.
The opera frequently returns to grim themes; at one point the gangsters foreplay the Valentine’s Day Massacre, their backs against a wall, the lights making naked their shock and surprise. The absurd hilarity of a summary execution is on everyone’s mind.
Alongside the changes to setting are alterations to the lyrics of the songs. While only a very slight modification, changing the refrain from ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive’ to ‘What keeps a man alive’ is tantamount to fundamentally changing the meaning of song. Instead of a universal appeal to the masses it comes off more as a tabloid lambasting of Macheath. Less a discourse on the base nature of humanity and more a pageant of the ‘Knife’s bestial acts. I feel that it’s against the spirit of the play to put Mac on a pedestal like that, he’s supposed to be rescued from the gallows after all…
By the time we hear Polly Peachum sing about the ship in the harbour (The Pirate Song) I feel as though I am taking on water. The two dozen staging pretences (or perhaps, an equal number of French 75’s) are causing me to list heavily to one side. But like that it’s suddenly all over. The hangman will have to wait for another day and this treachery can only take us so far.
Another taxi and we’re waiting in line at the gallery to buy tickets for Mad Square.
The first room of the exhibition utilises the space most successfully. It’s closed in and confined, with the walls at odd angles, reminiscent of being lost in some serpentine Berlin back alley. Unevenly lit and combined with the darkly painted walls gives the impression of street lamps at midnight. Faces look alternatively like that of a back-alley thug or a dear friend – depending on where they stand.
In this room is Ludwig Meidner’s Apocalyptic Landscape, a precognitive ruined landscape rendered with hallucinatory intensity in 1912. The painting sets the scene for what, in an exhibition documenting a ‘tumultuous period’ in history, is arguably the calamitous. The First World War.
The second room illustrates the war through works by Beckmann, Dix, Grosz and Kollwitz. They are primarily concerned with its aftermath and detritus, its effects on the soldiers and the society they left behind. The thought that consumes me at this point is one of dehumanisation. I am not proud to say it but looking at the wounded, gas-masked or alien faces of the characters in Dix’s War series and at the murderous and Grosz’ deviant soldiers-on-leave, my throat is almost bursting with a knotty stream of revulsion. This is powerful, sickening stuff.
Considering one of Dix’s wounded soldiers, I am reminded of a song we had listened to at the bar a few hours earlier, Brecht’s Die Legende vom toten Soldaten (Ballad of the Dead Soldier). The lyrics recount the story of a soldier’s body being exhumed from a Verdun battlefield, passed fit for service, given a new uniform and recycled into combat. It’s a poetic idea, but to someone living in a society with thousands of people so grievously injured yet alive, it would be an everyday reality.
There is a very human counterpoint to Dix and Grosz’ meditations on dehumanisation in the form of Kathe Kollwitz’ wood block prints. It is as though they reflect the loss and anguish of so many during the war as an aching, dead-wooden grief.
Still reeling from the war, I find myself before an installation of works from the Berlin Dada scene. Abstract epileptic seizures of the mind. Random flashes of forgotten memories. Pastiche, cut up, remix culture presaged in the rage against the corrupt self-destruction of humanity and culture. Thinking of Dix’s re-sewn faces, a shrapnel ball through the face of God’s image, hastily patched up. One only needs to look at those poor Frankensteins to realise that nothing is sacred.
Bauhaus. Clean exposed living. Nowhere for the nightmares to hide.
Representing the rebirth of German industry in the post war period is a series of pieces, my favourite being Carl Grossberg’s White Tubes. It is a beautiful painting of an impressive machine with an array of chrome and pearl pipes. Its function is unknowable. I suggest that it, like Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca, is a machine for the manufacture of shit.
Another room and I can’t escape the feeling that all the portraits are glaring at me with the same eyes — that mad Weimar stare. As such I am immediately drawn to Karl Hubbuch’s Twice Hilde. Neither Hilde is looking at me. To be precise one is looking at the floor and the other in strict profile is looking perpendicularly away. In a strange way these isolated poses betray an intimacy the other portraits do not.
Depraved sex addicts, whores, lustmord. Everything is married to its dark twin; sex and murder, pleasure and pain. This is the kind of sinister madness that is vapourised with the dawn of the sun.
Somehow I have arrived in the final room of the exhibition and already I can sense the weight of a hammer suspended above me by a rapidly fraying rope. Entarte Kunst, a dove on a bayonet, Goering with a meat cleaver, a German family sits down for a pleasant meal of bomb parts.
I know the exhibition has been organised chronologically but I feel as if I missed the evanescent golden moment that I was expecting. There were glimpses of it surely, but I was still dragging the weight of the first war as even now I’m looking down the barrel of another.
I’m obviously not the only one who has a sense of impending doom. The characters in Felix Nussbaum’s Mad Square seem in an impossible rush to cash in before Berlin is reduced to an apocalyptic landscape.
There are some trite remarks about the ignominy of wading through the gift shop after dealing with all that heavy shit, but I cannot really be bothered to make them now. Instead we retreat back to the El Dorado to bunker down for coming storm. For if we don’t find the next whisky bar I tell you we must die…