Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht's Berlin

Sloth / Introduction

Weimar Berlin boasted a thriving nightlife, exciting technology, and foreigners from around the globe (Kaes et al. 1994, 206-207; Storer 2013, 157-159). In this exhibit, we focus on the connection between modernity and globalization in city life and the many forms of sloth in Weimar Berlin, including luxury, comfort, boredom, and lack of action.    

In 1903, Georg Simmel, a well-known German sociologist and philosopher from Berlin, wrote an essay titled “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” In this essay, he outlines the effect that modern and industrialized city life has on the individual and society, arguing that the new stimuli erodes the individual, causing them to think indifferently and quantitatively. Simmel emphasizes a version of the sin of sloth in his essay through his concept of the “blasé attitude.” He writes “The essence of the blasé attitude is an indifference toward the distinctions between things,” emphasizing that city life leads to a general overstimulation in the individual. The entire society walks the streets lacking the skills to feel real emotions or react to situations because of the new and relatively extreme number of stimuli (Simmel 1903, 14). In other words, by living in a city for the first time, people experienced a state of involuntary boredom, or a “blasé attitude.” Although Simmel wrote his piece in 1903, in some ways he predicted Berlin during the Weimar era. In this exhibit, we will refer back to the idea of sloth as a result of overstimulation in the city, reflecting the contemporary belief that Berliners during the 1920s adapted to modernization and globalization by developing an incapacity to react to their surrounding, appearing apathetic in most scenarios. In particular, the pieces in this exhibit titled “The Culture of Making It Easy for Oneself” (1920) by Count Hermann Keyserling and “Short Operas” (1928) by H. H. Stuckenschmidt both explore the different aspects of sloth as demonstrated in Simmel’s “The Metropolis and Mental Life.”

The concept of drug use, namely as pictured in the film poster from 1927 for Laster der Menschheit, will also be discussed in this context. Drug use, especially as a part of Berlin’s nightlife, was commonplace and widely accepted during the 1920s and 30s. After World War I, “drugs became more and more important for the despondent population [of Germany]…. The desire for sedation led to self-education and there soon emerged no shortage of know-how for the production of a remedy” (Ohler 2017, 8-9). The effects of war hit Germans hard, and many resorted to drug use to escape from the reality of economic crisis and political instability. As drug production increased, Germany became a major global exporter of cocaine, morphine, and heroin, exporting 91 tons of morphine in 1925. These drugs had a everyday presence in Berlin. A lack of hope regarding the fate of Germany, the choice to ignore Germany’s international or national situation, and a sense of existing chaos spread throughout Berlin and caused people to feel like anything was allowed.  Cocaine, heroin, and morphine were not hard to find in the streets of Berlin, and people could even obtain some through pharmacies. Filmmakers included them in their movies, and celebrities were well known drug users (Ohler 2017, 8-11). Films portraying drug use linked drugs to criminality (Johnson 2014). The film poster for Laster der Menschheit (1927), as an advertisement for a film about cocaine use, could be considered one of the influencing pieces of media that created the image of Berlin as the criminal, drug using city. The woman pictured, as a popular representation of a person on drugs, appears almost asleep. Like many Berliners, she has succumbed to the influence of sloth and decided to follow the appeal of fantasy and escape during the 1920s.    

The choice to show a woman in the Laster der Menschheit poster relates to the idea of the female criminal or prostitute which can be seen in relation to the “new women,” or “neue Frau,” of Weimar society. According to Carol Schmid, in the Weimar period, the “‘New Women’ … became a symbol of female social freedom, fashion, and beauty but also of modernizing economy and societal political tensions” (Schmid 2014, 4). While they represented freedom, the modern female identity formed by the changing Berlin society also indicates the boredom, or “blasé attitude” as coined by Simmel. The “new woman” functions as a representation of the typical modern young woman who worked a job during the day and went out at night, enjoying life in a way not socially acceptable for women before World War I. As a person living in the Berlin, the “new woman” experienced the new stimuli the city had to offer, becoming almost numb to her surroundings (Grossman 1986, 62-63). Portrayals of women, such as Im Gasthaus (In the Restaurant), a 1927 painting by German-Swedish artist Lotte Laserstein, highlight the almost haughty boredom thought to be felt by the “new women.” Many Germans felt that the “new woman” existed in luxury without the need to care for a family or depend on a husband. These Germans saw that the “new woman” spent her money on entertainment and other luxury costs, rather than buying household items, and they felt concerned about her future (Grossman 1986, 62-65). This luxury and the boredom felt by the “new women” and the drug use associated with female prostitutes in Weimar Berlin can be interpreted as both sloth and as symptoms of a modern society.

Finally, we explore how sloth can be understood in relation to efficiency and rationalization, another concern of many Germans after World War I. Here we turn to the Frankfurt Kitchen. After World War I, Germans faced the challenge of providing housing for the veterans coming back after fighting, as well as for other people without housing. One proposed solution was the idea of more rationalized housing. Germany’s rationalist and functionalist architects and urban planners tried to make the entire city more efficient and to create a society that operated in a different manner. By reforming the household and promoting overall efficiency and functionality, architects thought that they could influence people to lead their lives in what they thought was a better way. The Frankfurt Kitchen is an example of a room designed as part of the rationalized building projects, or the “mechanization of the household” (McElligott 2009, 2017-215). Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, an Austrian architect, created the Frankfurt Kitchen with the idea that women should have ease of access in the home for maximum efficiency (“The Frankfurt Kitchen” 2018). The modern city, full of things to do and get done, necessitated a new, more efficient lifestyle, which we see as another idea that corresponds to Simmel’s understanding of the blasé attitude.

--Rachel Ross and Daphne Schigiel

“The Frankfurt Kitchen.” 2018. MoMA | Counter Space: the Frankfurt Kitchen. Accessed April 29, 2018. https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2010/counter_space/the_frankfurt_kitchen.
Grossman, Anita. “Girlkultur or Thoroughly Rationalized Female: A New Woman in Weimar Germany?” in Women in Culture and Politics: A Century of Change. Ed. Blanche Wiesen Cook, Judith Friedlander, Alice Kessler-Harris, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.
Johnson, Nicholas K. “Weimar Germany, Part 1: Intoxicating Metropolis.” The Blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society (blog), October 23, 2014. https://pointsadhsblog.wordpress.com/2014/10/23/weimar-germany-part-1-intoxicating-metropolis/.
Keyserling, Count Hermann, “The Culture of Making It Easy for Oneself.” In The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, edited by Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg, 360-362. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
McElligott, Anthony. “Weimar Germany.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Ohler, Norman. Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich. Trans. Shaun Whiteside. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.
Schmid, Carol. “The ‘New Woman’ Gender Roles and Urban Modernism in Interwar Berlin and Shanghai.” Journal of International Women’s Studies 15, no. 1 (2014): 7, accessed March 22, 2018. http://vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1731&context=jiws.
Simmel, Georg. “Chapter 1: The Metropolis and Mental Life,” in The Metropolis and Mental Life. From the Blackwell Publishing website. http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/content/bpl_images/content_store/sample_chapter/0631225137/bridge.pdf.
 Storer, Colin. A Short History of the Weimar Republic. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013.  
Stuckenschmidt, H.H. “Short Operas.” In The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, edited by Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg, 574-576. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

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