Friday, December 24, 2004

Colonizing Weimar Berlin

In my previous post, I mentioned Carl Zuckmayer's memoir. It is one of the best accounts of the Berlin arts scene in the 1920s. What makes it especially useful is Zuckmayer's own perspective as an outsider, a so-called provincial in a cosmopolitan milieu. But it is also a reflection of the exile that he experiences in his life. These issues made him sensitive to the formative aspects of place and the relationship between one's native landscape and experiences, especially in the diaspora from Nazism.
Birthplace is no fiction of the emotions, no intellectual construct. It governs growth and speech, sight and hearing; it animates the senses and opens them to the breath of the spirit.
For Carl Zuckmayer, place was neither trivial nor transparent. His Jewish ancestry and his politics made him a refugee who was never allowed a home. He left Germany in 1933 when Hitler came to power. He settled in a small village in western Austria, believing that he could remain there for the rest of his life. But the village made a sharp right turn, especially when Germany absorbed Austria in 1938. Zuckmayer left Europe entirely, settling on a farm in Vermont where he waited out the war.

His sense of place was also central to his writing. He was from Mainz, but he made no particular commitment to memorialize his home in his works. During the heady Weimar years he made several attempts to establish a reputation as a playwrights in Berlin in the expressionist vein: he failed miserably. His luck changed in 1925. Starting with The Merry Vineyard, he started to give his plays more local flavor, placing them in specific milieu in order to frame his narratives and make them emotionally appealing. He modeled his characters on people familiar to him (both real and legendary). His plays became more raucous and bawdy. He started to write his dialogue in dialect: not just his native dialect, but dialects throughout Germany, and employing more popular stories and humor. (Zuckmayer's most visible work to English speakers was his script for The Blue Angel.)

His most popular play, The Captain of Köpenick, had nothing to do with Mainz, the Rhine, or western Germany. The play was based on a bizarre mini-coup in a small Prussian town in 1910 by a shoemaker (description here). Living in Berlin, Zuckmayer was able to capture the mentality of Prussians, employing their jokes in order to create what was effectively a political critique of the authoritarian turn that the Weimar Republic was taking.
The story was an image, a farcical mirror image, of the evil and dangers that were growing in Germany.

Zuckmayer was a particular thorn in the side of the Nazis: not just because he was Jewish, not just because he mocked militarism, and not just because he (admittedly) poked fun at Nazis in his plays. His use of place stole an issue that the Nazis felt was exclusively their own:
[The Nazis] rightly felt that they had been portrayed in the comic character of the play, into whose mouths I had put the old and new radical and anti-Semitic phrases. The Völkischer Beobachter, Hitler’s paper, foamed. The Nazis were also outraged because the play took away from them something they thought they had a lease on: the German landscape and German folk life, but without any of the blood-and-soil nonsense.
Ultimately the Nazis were hostile to real local folk life, promoting a homogenized version of Bavarian culture in its place.


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