Berlin im Licht

When Kurt Weill wrote the soundtrack to the “Golden Twenties”

Actress Renate Müller poses with colleagues for a jazz band. Paul Graetz sits at the drums.
(Photo: ullstein - Wolff von Guldenberg)

Anyone strolling along Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm and Tauentzienstraße on the evening of 15 October 1928 witnessed an extraordinary event at the department store KaDeWe. On the large open square in front of Wittenbergplatz station, musicians who appeared to form a military band set up. But when the conductor raised his baton at 9 p.m. and gave his ensemble their cue, the music rang out could not have been less military. All at once, people heard blues, foxtrots, Bostons, a march – sounds they knew from the bars and dance cafés. The concert in the square was part of a great spectacle that kept the imperial capital, already not lacking in attractions, enthralled in mid-October 1928. “Berlin im Licht” was the name of the festival that lasted several days and was an early form of today’s “Festival of Lights”.

A city in the limelight

Mayor Gustav Böß had set the direction with the slogan “Licht lockt Leute” (Light attracts people): Berlin was to present itself as a modern and forward-looking metropolis. And so the city was literally floodlit, bathed in dazzling light every evening by huge spotlights. People were on their feet non-stop to admire the illuminated Hedwig’s Cathedral, the Reichstag, the Rathaus, the Museum Island and the waterfall at Kreuzberg. Columns of light were erected and a carpet of lights stretched along Leipziger Straße. Those who had the necessary cash could board specially provided cars, buses and trams that headed for the illuminated sights. Even the river Spree and the Landwehrkanal were toured by their own “Lichtcorso” motorboats. After four days, the grand finale of the festival took place in the Kroll Opera House opposite the Reichstag with the “Light Ball”. As the highlight of the evening, the well-known cabaret artist and actor Paul Graetz performed the Berlin im Licht song. The organisers had pulled off a real coup, because the work came from the artistic dream team of the year: Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. Their Threepenny Opera premiered at the end of August and has been the talk of the town ever since: every bar rang with The Ballad of Mackie Messer, and the Tango Ballad played in every dance hall. Weill’s short foxtrot Berlin im Licht had already been heard in an instrumental version in the square concert in front of the Ka-DeWe and had shown its qualities as a catchy tune there, but with Brecht’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics, it immediately became a popular hit.

Positive attitude

Weill and Brecht’s song struck a positive chord with people at the height of the “Golden Twenties”. In social and economic terms, the mood in 1928 was one of stabilisation. The economy was not performing badly and the unemployment figures were lower than in previous years. Industrial production and wages reached pre-war levels again – with significantly reduced weekly working hours. In the Reichstag elections in May 1928, the parties loyal to the republic managed to record one of their best results, and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) even managed to gain almost 1.3 million votes. With 29.8 percent, it formed the largest faction in the Reichstag, while Adolf Hitler’s NSDAP, with 2.6 percent, was still a largely insignificant splinter party. With the founding of Greater Berlin on 1 October 1920, the population had doubled to almost 4 million. Only London and New York had more people. And in terms of area, Berlin had even become the second largest city in the world after Los Angeles. "

Rapid radicalisation

And yet the twenties were not all golden. In the run-down and completely overcrowded tenements with their many inner courtyards, conditions were sometimes inhumane. The misery of the unemployed and the dreary existence of day labourers became especially visible at night, as the actress and singer Trude Hesterberg recalled: “These people stood begging with their starving children at the exits of the bars and dance halls, which sprang up like poisonous mushrooms. Everything became shorter, the hair, the clothes, love, sleep!” The “Golden Twenties” came to an abrupt end. One year after Berlin im Licht premiered, Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann, the only great statesman the Weimar Republic produced, died on 3 October 1929. “It is an irreplaceable loss, the consequences of which cannot be foreseen,” as Harry Graf Kessler noted in his diary. He was to be proved right. Three weeks later, the New York stock market collapsed and the Great Depression began. A further six months later, the last government of the Weimar Republic that could rely on a parliamentary majority fell apart. The new Chancellor, Heinrich Brüning, who took office at the end of March 1930, could only govern by emergency decrees issued by the aged president of the German Reich, Paul von Hindenburg. What followed was an increasingly rapid radicalisation of the political culture. Germany stumbled into dictatorship.

No “Happy End”

And Kurt Weill? He had somehow managed to compose the Berlin Requiem, the Kleine Dreigroschenmusik, the Lindberghflug, the songs for the ill-fated Salvation Army comedy Happy End as well as half a dozen other incidental music pieces during this time. “The atmosphere around Happy End seethed with jealousy,” recalled Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya. “Three of Brecht’s women were there: Helene Weigel, constant companion and mother of his son Stefan; Carola Neher, star of the play, with whom he had an affair; and finally Elisabeth Hauptmann, author of the play, who found out during rehearsals that Brecht had married Weigel, and subsequently attempted suicide. Brecht was therefore careful to ensure that the two actresses had equal roles in the play.”

Aerial view: Wittenbergplatz 1920
(Photo: Wikimedia commons)
Mayor Gustav Böß opens the Volkspark in 1929.
(Photo: Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia)
Begging war invalid
(Photo: Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia )
Kurt Weill
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)
Bertolt Brecht
(Photo: AKG Images)