For devotees of cultural history, Central Europe between 1890 and 1940 offers unparalleled opportunities for study. The German and Austrian empires, Europe’s last two hierarchical societies, fractured under the twin pressures of populist politics and industrial capitalism, moving from monarchy to democracy to fascism. Artists and intellectuals responded viscerally yet rigorously to these shifts, and their work reveals the confusion, idealism and fear of the age.
Even a curtailed roster of these cultural eminences makes for an astonishing list. In music, Johannes Brahms and Arnold Schoenberg; in literature, Thomas Mann and Arthur Koestler; in art, Gustav Klimt and Walter Gropius; in cultural studies, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. And then there were Sigmund Freud and Martin Heidegger, arguably the two most influential minds of the first half of the 20th century, enjoying their heydays.
Aside from attracting the attention of academics, this intellectual ferment and historical drama allow for exciting, informative popular histories. Two exemplars are Frederic Morton’s “A Nervous Splendor: Vienna, 1888-1889” and Modris Eksteins’ “Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age.” A reader can come away from these sharply written, narratively oriented works not just intellectually fuller, but with a visceral sense of the way it must have been to live through this turmoil.
Pamela Katz’s “The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women and Germany on the Brink” has all of the elements a reader might expect from another gripping look at this place and period. Her setting is Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s, the waning days of the Weimar Republic; her protagonists are the radical playwright Bertolt Brecht, the avant-garde composer Kurt Weill, and the three women — Elizabeth Hauptmann, Helene Weigel and Lotte Lenya — who were their lovers, collaborators and inspirations. The book’s central action is Brecht’s and Weill’s joint composition of the 1928 masterpiece “The Threepenny Opera,” but Katz’s trajectory spans 50 years, from Brecht’s and Weill’s young lives in Wilhelmite Germany up to their deaths in the 1950s. This is material that Katz, a professor of film who recently wrote the screenplay for the film “Hannah Arendt,” seems well qualified to explore.
Yet, judging by the standards of popular history, Katz succeeds only up to a very limited point. Her main strength is that she clearly identifies the stakes of Brecht and Weill’s joint project, connecting it to the historical tumults unfolding around them. Now that a liberal democratic order had swept away feudal hierarchies, artists had new freedom to comment on their societies because their patrons were no longer princes but a commercialized reading public. Brecht and Weill wanted to marry music and drama’s long heritage of serious composition aimed at a small, appreciative audience with the new potential of popular appeal and subversive subjects.
But the intensity generated by Brecht and Weill’s project recedes in the face of Katz’s writing. The book’s main problem — there is no other way to say this — is that it is boring, because Katz is too respectful toward her subjects to write efficiently or confidently about their lives. At 470 pages, “The Partnership” is at least 100 pages too long, since Katz seems to have been unwilling to leave any detail of Brecht’s or Weill’s lives out. Readers are treated again and again to descriptions of streets and beaches and apartment furnishings and daily routines at the expense of the book’s momentum.
Exacerbating the problem is Katz’s cautious tone. Rather than straightforwardly describing Brecht’s and Weill’s experiences, she often resorts to verb modifiers like “must” and “would.” So: “On March 24, 1927, the nature-loving Weill probably would have been delighted by the warm breeze coming in through the open windows.” Or: “The smells and sounds would have taken Brecht back to the long summer days in [his hometown].” This distances the readers from the action, loading down what is supposed to be a swift-moving story with all the encumbrances of an academic text.
Occasionally a human moment gleams through, for instance the disastrous rehearsals for “The Threepenny Opera”: Even in Katz’s lumbering account, they read as unpredictable clashes of creative perspectives and sexual attractions, shadowed by the pressures of an unpredictable public. But the gleam recedes quickly, and the reader is left to wade through page after page of fact, descriptor and modifier. The history Katz recounts might be unusually fertile, but it takes skillful writing to make it live.
Matthew Wolfson has written for the New Republic, the Times Literary Supplement and the Los Angeles Review of Books. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink
By Pamela Katz
(Nan A. Talese/Doubleday;
470 pages; $30)