What’s Past is Pure, What’s New is Better:
Weimar Culture and the Historical Context of The Blue Flower
By Jim Bauer
Weimar, the fragile German experiment in democracy after World War I, became a classic and singularly tragic confrontation between traditionalists and modernists, conservatives and liberals; between those who believe that what is past is pure and those who believe that what is new is better.
By and large, events from the early part of the twentieth century lie hidden in the long, deep shadows cast by Hitler, the Holocaust and World War II. Like a three-legged colossus, they stand so large in the middle of the century that it is difficult to see past them. But it is only by peering into those shadows that one can see how the twentieth century took shape and how the twenty first may yet be sculpted.
We have always lived and, it seems, will always continue to live in or between two wars: whichever the last one was and whatever the next one will be. The years of the Weimar Republic in Germany, from the end of World War I in 1918 to the Nazi takeover in 1933, constituted another of our worlds between two wars. But the wars were not just any two, and the second followed the first with barely a breath between.
Almost immediately after concluding what was at the time the most destructive war in history—nearly ten million dead and the trenches never moved more than ten miles in either direction—the wheels began turning for a new war that would break yet again all records for atrocity.
The poisoned gases of the First World War never really cleared before the Second World War began. By some reckoning, World War I was not finally concluded until 1994, when the last Russian soldiers left German soil. By another calculation, The Great War was not the “war to end all wars” as Woodrow Wilson had hoped, but the “war that never ended.”
At the beginning of the twenty-first century we are still rearranging the debris and alternately dressing and salting the wounds created by the war and the Versailles Treaty that concluded it. It’s this treaty Islamic extremists allude to when saying that after eighty years, the axe will finally come down on the west.
The fact that it was so recent is all that keeps the Weimar period from seeming mythological. In the short-lived world between the last century’s two giant wars, the most highly Communist demonstration being dispersed, May 1929, Leader of National Socialist Youth addresses demonstration of General German Student’s Union charged aspects of human experience were tightly compressed into a dense and haunting emotional package. Stunned by the sudden growth in destructive capabilities made possible by new technology, and reflecting grimly on what they had done, people—particularly those on the losing side of a particularly pointless war—were justified in feeling confused about most anything.
Through valid institutions and legitimate societies we had behaved in the most indecent ways imaginable. How were we to judge and who was to say now what was decent and what was not? The Great War had mugged the world and disfigured the planet, leaving empty trenches like jagged scars across its face. Every rule had been broken, and the slate wiped brutally, if unintentionally, clean. There was no choice left but to begin again, and, in the minds of many, to begin by inventing a whole new set of rules.
In the beginning of the Weimar period, ballast for heavy grief and suffocating remorse was provided by a weightless sense of relief, a buoyant feeling of optimism. There was a burst of creativity, a sense of freedom, adventure and open horizons, a feeling that the world could be made anew. The Weimar spirit was driven in part by the possibility and thrill of creating things instead of destroying them, building them up instead of tearing them down.
Geographical borders and sexual boundaries were redrawn, social roles redefined, and little remained constant from one day to the next. In Germany, Jews could hold public office for the first time, and people were allowed to vote, even women. Art, architecture, literature, music, dance, theater and film exploded with new theories and excitement. Everything was in question, everything fair game, and at every turn lay opportunities for reinventing the world, from Russian-style communism to Gropius’ Bauhaus to Schoenberg’s tone rows.
But Weimar was also a world fractured into many pieces and deeply divided: outwardly blooming with hope but inwardly trembling with fear of and gnawing doubts about the horrors of the past and the shadows those horrors cast on an uncertain future.
With a demagnetized compass and a broken rudder, society swirled freely about in a political, economic and cultural maelstrom until Hitler, wasting little time and with a keen eye for opportunity, found a way to make things appear simple.
During the Nazi regime in the 1930s and 40s, it was not uncommon for Germans fleeing oppression to choose to stop speaking German altogether, in part out of shame, in part out of protest. The fictional Blue Flower character Max Baumann takes it a step further. He stops speaking real language altogether. His reasons include and go well beyond political protest. It is a form of art for him, something like painting, a form of expression, a method for getting beyond words.
The inspiration for Maxperanto comes from two primary sources. First is the enthusiasm at the turn of the twentieth century for the idealistic notion of one-worldone-people commonality, like Franz Marc and Wassilly Kandinsky’s “Blaue Reiter” art movement/manifesto and the invention of the experimental universal language of Esperanto by L. L. Zamenhof (aka: Doktoro Esperanto, or “Dr. Hopeful”) in 1887, two years before the story of The Blue Flower begins. Max Baumann is in effect a child of the Esperanto Generation.
Second, and more importantly, Dada poets, writers and performers experimented with the abstraction of language in the same way and for the same purpose visual artists experimented with the abstraction of imagery: to reveal the “meaning behind the thing.” Abstract artists break images down to their component parts: shape and color. To reveal the meaning behind the words—“truth”—Dada poets broke language down to its component parts: sounds and syllables. Language had betrayed their generation, destroyed many of them, and they were going to start from scratch. Think of today’s massive marketing, cable news and political spin, and the response provided by Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” factor. For Max Baumann, the meaning of what is uttered and the emotion in the utterance is more important than the words that are spoken. —Jim Bauer
We began The Blue Flower with the purpose of expanding and animating our work as a musician and a visual artist with the four-dimensionality of live theater. We had no particular theatrical form in mind as a model, goal, or destination, only the desire to exploit the narrative powers of sound, light, movement, and imagery in the magic of a staged environment, and to do it in a way that would blur the distinctions between “high art” and popular entertainment.
The project started with music—the visceral way music, particularly live musical performance, communicates to its audience—and a curiosity about the shifting mixture of and running competition between light and dark, playfulness and restlessness, hope and foreboding that flowed through much of the popular and stage music of the Weimar period in Germany. Without a specific story in mind, only a mood to express, orchestration was conceived and music written in an attempt to capture some of the same color and feeling, a style of music we describe as “Sturm n’ Twang,” or “Kurt Weill going tête-à-tête with Hank Williams.”
As songs without lyrics took shape, we began an examination of the Weimar Republic and the brief “world between two wars.” We were by necessity led back to the Great War that preceded it, the Belle Époque out of which the twentieth century seemed to spontaneously combust, and then further back through the longest period of uninterrupted peace and prosperity in European history. We finally reached 1889, the year in which we decided, for many reasons, the story would begin. In the course of our exploration we found inspiration for four fictional characters in the historical figures Max Beckmann, Franz Marc, Hannah Höch and Marie Curie—three artists and a scientist—all four in ambitious pursuit of one thing or another, and all four drawn into the deep mud and unmoving trenches of the First World War. As we puzzled over why, counter intuitively, so many artists of the time eagerly marched off to war, a story began to take shape and lyrics were woven into music that had been waiting for a sense of purpose and a place to go. It was 1999, on the precipice of the new millennium, and the deeper we got into our subject, the more the fin of the present siècle was looking like the fin of the last. The parallels then were chilling, and are even more so now.
Inspired by the art and art movements of the early twentieth century—in particular Dada (in both its lyrical and its venal, politically charged forms), Surrealism, the golden age of German silent film and the presiding spirit of pioneering artist Kurt Schwitters—the production is built as a collage, mirroring the intense interest in collage work immediately following the First World War. The world was in pieces both metaphorically and in reality, and the task was to make it whole again, put it back together in a way that made sense. The title comes from the symbol of the blue flower used initially by Novalis and other German romantic poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to signify the ongoing, never-ending search for artistic perfection. It evolved into an emblem of hope; a symbol for the simultaneous end to and beginning of all things, for reinvention and reincarnation, for the idea that after failing time and again, we keep coming back, each time having the opportunity to do things perhaps a little less badly. We dedicate The Blue Flower to the possibility of learning from history.
—Jim and Ruth Bauer, 2010