Can we learn from Europe’s Interbellum? Three sources to the test.
While watching Walter Ruttmann’s ‘Berlin: Die Symphonie der Großstadt’, it occurred to me that every day’s delusions, traffic chaos, rich-poor contrast, more or less obscure subcultures and all other archetypes as presented in this film about Berlin in the twenties of the last century, were not really different from contemporary life.
Of course there are differences, for instance between media and culture of the Interbellum and today as for instance we now have ubiquitous Internet and a twenty four hours economy. Also the way people ‘live’ their times in their Zeitgeist may differ.
We now live roughly ninety years after the momentum of three documents that are the sources of this paper: Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (Essay by Walter Benjamin, 1936), Die Symphonie der Großstadt (Film by Walter Ruttmann, 1927) and Civilization and Its Discontent (Pamphlet by Sigmund Freud, 1929). Ever since these documents were published, the world evolved from a black and white film screen to smart phone HD screens on which one plays Xbox games. But are these real differences? ‘Berlin: Die Symphonie der Großstadt’ shows a world that appears different from our days’ city life but at the same time, I sense many similarities between the two eras and as I believe that we can and must learn from the past in order to shape our world, the documents can help us in understanding current social, economical, technological and political dynamics.
With Dutch elections only days away and presidency elections in the United States of America duly coming, politicians of the broadest political scale bombard us with their political and social rhetorics, sleaze towards their opponents and promises of a better world for their electorate. All promise a new and better future stating that maybe we have to go through some welfare troubles but eventually we will get there. It is not a new phenomenon. Is anything new under our sun since, let us say, close to a century ago? And in terms of media, are for instance our contemporary social media really an invention of the late nineties of the past century or were they there already? Is our human media consumption and ditto behavior really invented in the last two decades, as many dare to say? A study of the three mentioned documents may provide answers.
Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit
In 1936 the German philosopher, writer and critic Walter Benjamin wrote “Jeder heutige Mensch kann einen Anspruch vorbringen, gefilmt zu werden“ (Benjamin, p. 47), implying that media enabled not just the elite group of professionals (actors) but literally all – everybody – could, as we would say in our days, publish or be published. Even more, Benjamin stated that, because of having apparatus available to produce art, the expression of it has become portable; “transportabel”as he called it meaning that we speak not of our contemporary trouser pocket devices (mobiles apparatus like smart phones) but apparatus that can be moved from one cinema audience to another.
Further on in his essay, Benjamin states that the discrimination between author and audience loses its basic character (“grundsätzlichen Charakter”) as “Der Lesende ist jederzeit bereit, ein Schreibender zu werden” (Benjamin, p. 47).
In the tenth chapter of the same essay in which he elaborates on the position of pieces of art in the era of reproduction, Benjamin notes the at that time relevant issues of a changing media culture. His conclusions would fairly well fit into our days of what we in our modern times call ‘unprecedented media and publishing possibilities’. Benjamin’s essay was published only threesome years before the outbreak of the Second World War. It was written in the aftermath of the European interbellum in what was then the capital of innovative and provoking cultural and art experiments: Berlin. In the same tenth chapter, Benjamin remarkably associates radio and film as art productions with politics in his extensive footnote: “Das ergibt eine neue Auslese, eine Auslese vor der Apparatur, aus der Star und der Diktator als Sieger hervorgehen” (Footnote 20 p.44).
Benjamin is a thorough observer: “Der Filmdarsteller weiß, während er vor der Apparatur steht, hat er es in letzter Instanz mit dem Publikum zu tun: dem Publikum der Abnehmer, die den Markt bilden“ (Benjamin p. 45). This is where he discretely refers to his time and place, scenery where stardom is most elevated, be it in or out of the studio. It is about personality (“Starkultur”) in a system financed by film capital meaning ownership of rights.
Today “Starkultur” is a major media market and a political instrument at the same time. It is as if the audiences need stars as mental life coaches; famous people, both actors and politicians, role modeling the woßrld and his wife into sets of moral ethics of various tastes and fashions. In Benjamin’s days, film was a dominant medium in reaching fast groups of people. He knew that film in it characteristics was not just a reproductive form of art, it would influence many people at the same time.
In his thirteenth chapter, Benjamin elaborates on this issue as he draws a line with Freud’s theories on psychoanalysis stating that film has isolated and at the same time made analyzable issues that before the introduction of film floated along in broad streams of perception (Benjamin p.58). Understanding this thought may lead to an observation that, considering the current floatation values like “who cares” mentalities may eventually lead to an overly strong stardom of thought leaders who care more for the satisfaction of their power anxiety than care for integrity.
For Benjamin, film is a new art, reproductive and for made for large groups that observe and participate in the art piece differently from individual art pieces, not made for reproduction. He ends his essay with the statement that quantity (of art re-production) has turned into quality as far larger masses of participants have produced a different way of participation (Benjamin p.69).
Benjamin observed that in his days of pre-war German fascism expected satisfaction of art would change the sensed observation of war because of technology (Benjamin p.77). In other words, mass-arts can lead to aestheticisation of politics as operated by fascism. Communism answered by politicizing art (Benjamin p.77).
Can we draw a line with our times? Perhaps. But before we do so, let us have a look at the earlier mentioned film.
Berlin: Die Symphonie der Großstadt
Walter Ruttmann’s black and white speechless film serves as a kaleidoscope of every day’s cosmopolitan life. It is an epic ode to the cultural capital of Europe in the twenties of the twentieth century, the crazy days of the Interbellum. The film is of a specific city-symphony genre, music supported the participants as Benjamin would call the mass-audience on their ‘evening out’ to the cinema, or better the theatre-like cinema as a life performing orchestra would play Edmund Meisel’s musical score on the rhythm of 24 hours out of the life of Berlin, divided in fife parts – acts – with motion of trains, streetcars and people as a leitmotiv.
Resemblance with today’s cosmopolitan cities is astonishing: crowdedness, motility of the inhabitants, differences in classes and milieus, rich, poor, middle class, workers, builders, police agents, scuffles and riots, rascals and hoods, ladies and gentlemen, fashionados, advertisement columns that also serve as a case for telephone technology. On the other hand, 1927th Berlin also shows us empty streets in the early hours of the day, no one in the streets. And obviously, we see nobody talking into smartphones. And although many in Berlin were of the more progressive and avant-garde minds, there was hardly any integration of different races of mankind apart from nightlife artists as shown in act 5.
One could say that the resemblance with our times is obvious as 1927 is not that far away and great inventions such as the telephone, train and motorcar had already taken place a lot earlier. In fact, modern life had begun after the ‘Great War’, the First World War that can be regarded as the starting-point of modern life. The Interbellum was not just the ‘in-between-wars’ time. It was a breakthrough, a change not just in terms of technology but also and most likely more in terms of mentality. Of course it was not until 1936 that Benjamin spoke of transportable media technology but, given the deeper concept of that technology on a path of evolution that may have lead to the ubiquity of today’s media, but the film intrinsically offers signals of a changing towards a modernistic environment. For instance the already mentioned advertisement column served as a case for a telephone relay center may well be regarded as a near hidden sign of change. And also the abundance of film shots of electric streetcars and their wiring system proofs that people in those days admitted to the importance and at the same time dependence of technology.
Technology plays a natural role in the film; it simply is there, meaning that it is embedded in every day’s lives of all Berliners and one could not do without, as was the case of media (and marketing for all that matter); advertising was all around, telephone was normal, papers were printed and read and there was a lot of creativity in exploring new possibilities of extending the senses as media. Ubiquitous technology had become a natural and obvious essential in the modernistic cosmopolitan Berlin and Ruttmann must have understood the relevance of noting those signals down for future generations and the evolution of culture as such.
Civilization and Its Discontent
We have seen that technology has indeed changed the characteristics of art, at least certain forms of art, photography and a little later putting many photos in a row; motion pictures. The same evolution also created stardom, actors were changing their “aura” as Benjamin called it, perhaps best described as appearance or even stronger, their charisma since with the up rise of film, they needed not to perform as a single shot on the theater stage. If the acting was not right, a new take could be made over and over until the directors thought it was right.
Stardom is also associated with near mythical lives of the actors and as one other characteristic of cinema was that many people could see the film in contrast to theater productions, many people would become fan of those great actors of the silver screen.
In the draw up of Berlin: Die Symphonie der Großstadt, no mythical star performs a role. It is the city itself that is starring. Thousands of anonymous people walk the streets, sit in cars and streetcars, restaurants, bars and Berlin’s great squares. Perhaps Berlin, as seen through the eyes of the director, in that particular era of the Interbellum stood for a level of quality of civilization. Perhaps Ruttmann followed the rules of psychoanalysis by showing us the fundamental tension between the individual human being and its civilization in which man lives.
In ‘Civilization and its discontents’, Sigmund Freud sketches, what he called, the disagreement between the search for individual freedom and the man-made civilization with its harsh rules and regulations. The contrast is like an enormous paradox. On the one had the individual quests its freedom but can only do so by regulating its habitat for if all individuals would live totally free lives, it must become a giant chaos; everybody would simply just do what one would desire to do thus overly interfering in other’s lives. But then on the other hand, the process of ruling and regulating the world, in what we may call civilization, leads to a certain discontent of that same civilized world; discontent arrays as a constant feeling.
And this ‘peculiar feeling, which never leaves him [human beings] personally, which he finds shared by many others, and which he may suppose millions more also experience. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of eternity, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded, something “oceanic“’ (Freud p.2). Perhaps that is why man invented religion as religion tends to sooth man’s mind and inexplicable experiences.
One of the Interbellum’s roots can be found in The First World War. It must have been a time of great tensions in civilization right after that horrible war. People must have been dazed by the atrocities of the battlefields and cultural and spiritual pauperization. Perhaps it is of this reason that we see in the film about Berlin, mainly in its fifth act, a more or less decadent approach to life; cabaret, song and dance, Jazz and abundant night life. Maybe people were in search of moral standards and grip. Maybe this behavioral culture was a quest for religion, not necessarily in a Christian sense but on a more abstract level, trying to cope with unhappiness and experimenting with new ethics.
We know from Freud’s ‘The future of an illusion (1927)’ that he regarded organized religion as a collective neurosis; ‘a system of doctrines and pledges (Freud p.7)’. In ‘Civilization and its discontents’, he elaborates on the topic. Nowadays it is not difficult to read between the lines and observe that Freud also outlined dictatorship as a form of religion. Not long after his publication, fascists ruled the lives of the common man with their artifacts of high masses and total believe.
It is a total paradox of civilization. We must feel unhappy in order to survive or better, protect ourselves strangely enough it regards protection against the same unhappiness. But then, are we to blame for our own misery, our own unhappiness?
Freud ends his writings with the question “whether and to what extent the cultural process developed in it [the fateful question of human species] will succeed in mastering the derangements of communal life caused by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction” (Freud p.40). It is as if we are aware of guilt deep within us and this guilt, or better a guilty conscience, is our pay off for civilization and was less than a couple of years after Freud’s publication when fast groups of people would find a new religion: national socialism.
Walter Ruttmann’s ‘Berlin: Die Symphonie der Großstadt’ is the oldest document in these writing in search of answers on the question what we can learn from the Interbellum and is more or less of the same age as Sigmund Freud’s ‘Civilization and its discontents’. Walter Benjamin’s ‘Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit’ was published in the same year when Charlie Chaplin used reproducible art (film) to opinionate the world about his views on modern times, the quest for dignity and the fallacies of those days. Four years later, the world had diminished its norms and values in an inferno of aggression, hate and disaster.
In each case media and a certain agency to adapt to rules and regulations played a crucial role in the shaping of Interbellum’s society. Today is not different.
Again we devote our lives to the few and leading stars, be them film actors or smooth talking politicians. Technology enables mankind to unify and perhaps the only difference that really matters may be the relative borderless sharing of information.
But still, obstinate rebellions questing to find the truth like Mr. Assange and Hackers Anonymous are ruled as criminals who must be dismantled or even stringer, eliminated. One way or the other. And in any case, one may question the freedom of sharing information through ubiquitous technology as we now know that one of the possibilities of digital communication technology is that it can (and is) recorded; all our communicative behavior is known to authorities. Again there is the Freudian paradox: we fight our unhappiness and thus we become unhappy.
Maybe we are reliving a contemporary Interbellum but now in a perhaps more complex society. Complexity however is a relative concept. We live our lives with genealogical historical references. We may have more media, more ubiquity and more direct possibilities to communicate than our ancestors in the Interbellum but that does not necessarily change our quest for happiness; we remain human beings with our anxieties, super-egos, Eros and Thanatos. Perhaps we remain searching for our religion, at least our religious experiences. And who knows what the societal situation will be in a couple of years from now. In Ruttmann’s days the world, at least Berlin, was an ostensibly merry unity, chaotically organized and squeezed in paths by well-dressed traffic controllers. Berlin had little to do with the Bavarian men in brown uniforms and little did they know that only a few years later a political process was in full action, paving the road to disaster.
What do we know now?
Benjamin, W. 2006. Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Freud, S. 1929. Civilization and Its Discontent. Buckinghamsire: Chrysoma Associated Limited.
Ruttman, W. 1927. Berlin: Die Symphonie derGroßstadt. Berlin, Deutsche Vereins-Film.
Adey, P. 2010. Mobility. Abingdon: Routledge.
Ahrendt, H. 2009. Over Revolutie (On Revolution). Amsterdam: Amstel Uitgevers BV.
Chaplin, Ch. 1936. Modern Times. California, Charles Chaplin Productions.
Chaplin, Ch. 1940. The Great Dictator California, Charles Chaplin Productions.
 According to Peter Adey, motility is the potential to e mobile and even further more the ability to turn that potential into an actuality (Adey, 2010).