Peter Jelavich. Berlin Cabaret. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
In Berlin Cabaret, Peter Jelavich traces the evolution of Berlin cabaret from its early stages in 1900 through its death at the hands of National Socialism in the 1930s and ‘40s. The book is both a narrative account of the history of the art form and a synthesis of the many themes (aesthetic, sexual, racial, fashion, and political) that were present in cabaret. In short, it is an examination of the triumphs and failures of popular entertainment in the modern city.
Despite the popular conception of cabaret as little more than a strip show, established by the film starring Liza Minelli and the career of Marlene Dietrich, Jelavich views cabaret as an “ephemeral art” that stood between sleazy nightclubs and vaudeville on the one hand and the higher art of opera on the other. Cabaret is, in its ideal type, a series of short numbers of differing genres on topical issues such as sex, fashion, fads, and politics performed intimately on a small stage in front of a small audience. While Jelavich acknowledges this “ideal type” was rare and short-lived, anything else was not cabaret proper.
The structure of the book is not in keeping with cabaret, which would have a series of disconnected numbers, but rather Jelavich follows revue, with central themes loosely woven into the various chapters. Satire, whether looking at politics, sex, fashion, or race, is the central theme of the book; its goal was “to shock, or to amuse, or to make someone or something look ridiculous,” (50). This satire, and the entire program of cabaret, would function as a safety-valve, allowing political and social pressures to be released in a theater and not in the streets.
The book’s structure follows a chronological order. The first chapter focuses on the environment of the subject: Berlin. A modern, or “world”, city, Berlin was in need of a new form of entertainment, one that stood between mindless variety shows and cryptic avant-garde art.
The subsequent three chapters examine pre-war cabaret. Wolzogen’s Motley Theater, the first Berlin cabaret, sought the “ennoblement” of vaudeville. Wolzogen, an artistic elitist, stressed the refinement of popular entertainment and the exclusivity of cabaret. Ultimately, however, his cabaret would fail, simply not being good enough for the public at large he catered to. Max Reinhardt’s Sound and Smoke took a different approach, opting instead for exuberant play. Over time, Reinhardt would abandon cabaret, looking more like a standard theater of classical and modernist productions. Finally, the pre-war years saw different types of cabaret, from the pub-cabarets modeled after Paris to Rudolph Nelson’s upper-class and Claire Waldoff’s lower-class cabarets.
Chapter five discusses cabaret during World War I and the early Weimar years. As censorship came under military control, most forms of entertainment turned nationalistic; cabaret was no exception. Left-leaning writers such as Kurt Tucholsky and Walter Mehring toned down their lyrics, opting for a more ambiguous political tone.
Chapter six explores the most popular form of entertainment in Berlin during the Weimar Republic, the revue. Unconcerned with most forms of censorship, revue revealed much about sexual and racial assumptions. For the first time, nude dancing was allowed onstage, although eventually there would be some restrictions. At the same time, jazz became popular in Berlin, its spontaneity and primitive qualities being praised, but its performers patronized at best and horribly mistreated at worst. Another form of Americanization, the kickline of “Girls,” was praised, but lead to many debates over gender, military, and industrial questions.
Chapters seven and eight describe the end of cabaret in Berlin. While politics had always been a part of cabaret, it was not a primary focus. The movement failed to see the dangers of National Socialism, and Hitler himself, choosing to simply make fun of him. In the end, most cabaretists would flee the country, practice a form acceptable to, and even supportive of, the Nazis, or face labor camps where they would perform for Jewish captives.
Berlin Cabaret, in the end, is an important study of a movement that swept through Germany for a brief time, had a few triumphs, but ultimately failed to live up to its promise. Cabaret never achieved a high level of social satire, whether politically, sexually, or racially; it usually ended up looking like other forms of popular entertainment. The book is a good study, one that well proves its thesis, using the best available primary and secondary sources. The only difficulties are the inherent problems in translating German humor into English and the lack of a cohesive movement, none of which are the author’s faults.