November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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“Berlin! Berlin!”/Book Review

Tucholsky

Berlin! Berlin!

Writings of Kurt Tucholsky (Berlinica)

by Fred Roberts

When I was in high school in the 70’s, I had a book called “Prelude to War”, the first in a Time-Life series about World War II. The most fascinating chapter of the book was a collage of photos documenting the Weimar Tucholsky_PortraitRepublic days of Germany’s capital, “Dizzy, Decadent Berlin”. The collage of photos, many of them rather risqué, portrayed the gaiety and wildness of Berlin’s nightlife. My newly found interest led me to two films of the era. “Der blaue Engel” (1930) with Marlene Dietrich captured the decadence and perhaps cold-bloodedness of that cabaret scene. Fritz Lang’s “M” (1931) showed another side of Berlin, as the police and the underworld raced against each other to capture a child murderer. These ran on PBS at the time, and both left lasting impressions on me. A pair of silent movies “Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt” (1927), a film collage of one day in the life of that metropolis and “Menschen am Sonntag” (1930) – co-written by Billy Wilder, showing the typical Sunday pastimes of Berlin’s residents, complete a well-rounded cinematic documentation of 1920s’ Berlin. Add to that Berthold Brecht’s film “Kuhle Wampe” (1932) which is more political and portrays the working class experience of that era. If you never felt a fascination for this unique period in history a viewing of these films will whet your appetite for an important English-language book release “Berlin! Berlin! Dispatches from the Weimar Republic”, writings of Kurt Tucholsky in Berlinica, translated by Cindy Opitz and edited by Eva C. Schweitzer. It is surprising that someone as brilliant as Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935) could be virtually unknown in the English language. Tucholsky, a Berliner himself, was a leading satirist in Germany whose keen cultural, social, and especially political observations were unparalleled for the time, and maybe even today. His political satires, compelling and prescient warnings against the right wing tendencies of the time, would be enough to cement his reputation. The statements he made are so honest that they somehow set themselves above agenda, they are more in service to justice and democracy than to a transient political whim. It is not about preaching to the converted but rather making the guilty uncomfortable. Perhaps that is why the Nazi’s hated him so much. The Berlinica collection establishes that feeling early on in the piece “Three Biographies”: “Peter Panter … Born May 8, 1891 … The premature child is so hard of hearing in his left ear as a young boy that he already seems destined for a career in justice.” “Berlin! Berlin!” is an excellent first acquaintanceship with Tucholsky. The foreword by Anne Nelson and Introduction by Ian King give a good synopsis of the zeitgeist of the period and of Tucholsky’s biography and significance for anyone completely unfamiliar. The selection shows the many sides of Tucholsky in articles and a small selection of his poetry, interspersed with numerous photographs. Ample footnotes explain the background of the pieces as well as any references that might be obscure today. The volume follows a clear concept, namely Tucholsky’s writings centering on Berlin, organized into four distinct historical periods. The writings span the years 1907 through 1932. This was surely the only way to do it, given the amount of articles, stories and poems that Tucholsky wrote in his lifetime. In that respect the focus on Berlin is clever, given the general interest in that time and place in history. The volume contains several titles that are considered classics in the German language. One gem “Ape Cage” about a baboon exhibit at the Berlin Zoo reads like a cousin to Franz Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy”. A number of wry observations lead us to ask, who is the real spectacle? The apes in the cage, or the visitors? My favorite, “Where do the Holes in Cheese Come From?” is one of the first pieces of Tucholsky’s that I read (in German) I had considered it untranslatable, so was happy to find it accomplished here. A child asks his parents an innocent question his parents can’t answer and receives a runaround in return. The child is finally sent to bed but the question enters into the conversation among the evening party, leading to absurd extremes. “Central Office” is a timeless Orwellian snapshot of the decay inevitable in any organization. Just as timeless is the “Brief Outline of the National Economy” which teaches more about economics than an Economics 101 class. “The Times are Screaming For Satire” is another famous piece of Tucholsky’s which has fortunately been included, showing how the profit-oriented theater business transforms the richest satire into toothless entertainment. Echoes of Saturday Night Live in that. Here and there one encounters passages that ring eerily true today, about the complacent mainstream media, the absurdity of war, the disappearance of the middle class, wages that no one can live on, bitter attacks on child poverty (“A Children’s Hell in Berlin”). On an allegorical level the piece “Lion on the Loose” reminds of the recent manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers. In “Leaving Berlin” one encounters the quote, “Now that’s the typical money man of our time… A tough guy when the going gets tough. He won’t let anyone get him down. Doesn’t sweat the small stuff; doesn’t read books; doesn’t give a damn about anything but his business.” Sound familiar? The most remarkable piece is the article “Röhm”, written 1932 about the head of Hitler’s SA, about whom accusations of homosexuality had been publicized. It shows the high standards to which Tucholsky adhered in his writing. He did not mock the man but took to task the “radical leftist press” for doing so. As long as Röhm did not abuse his position to seduce his subordinates, his private life should be off limits. Ambrose Bierce, H.L. Mencken and Mark Twain are the historical names I think of when searching for writers on a level with Tucholsky. Tom Lehrer, in the 1960s, comes to mind, too. But one is hard put to find satire of this caliber in America today. One thing in recent times that comes close is Stephen Colbert’s speech at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, that ironic speech directly challenging the Administration and Press in ways that no one had dared during the five years previous. In reading “Berlin! Berlin!”, that place and time in history becomes something universal. Berlin is today and now. The social and political battles fought then are the same challenging us today, the human observations as applicable today as they were then. The translation by Cindy Opitz is contemporary English, but for my feeling the thoughts sounded exactly like Tucholsky. It is the first time I’ve read him outside of German. Compliments to Ms. Opitz. It is not easy to capture Tucholsky in English. I hope that more translations will be forthcoming, especially a volume focused on his political satires. The times are screaming for satire.   Berlinica Publishing 255 West 43rd St. New York, NY, 10036 ISBN: 978-1-935902-21-8

Tucholsky in English: kurttucholsky.blogspot.com (my own translations)

1 comment

1 Weltbuehne { 09.18.13 at 2:58 am }

Fred says, “I hope that more translations will be forthcoming”. If you would like to read more English translations of Tucholsky, please visit my blog at: http://weltbuehneenglishtranslation.wordpress.com