4 Jun 2019

The Women of Weimar


4 Jun


German women were granted the right to vote and to be elected on 12 November 1918, the day after the Armistice. It was a positive sign of what would become the Weimar Republic’s drive for gender parity. And while that may have largely remained a dream, there is no doubt that women firmly established themselves within German society between the wars and became its most dominant icons. Here are five of them.

Marlene Dietrich © Granger Historical Picture Archive & Alamyn


The release of The Blue Angel on 1 April 1930 heralded one of the great symbols of cinema. Reclining on an old barrel, her right knee pulled up to reveal her suspenders and wearing a top hat, Marlene Dietrich (pictured) truly embodies the smouldering, dangerous cabaret singer Lola-Lola. It is the visual equivalent of her signature song, by cabaret habitué Friedrich Hollaender, ‘Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt’.

Born in Berlin in 1901, Dietrich was originally named Marie Magdalene and would often personify the character of a sinful woman. A wannabe violinist, her ambitions were curtailed by a wrist injury, but she made her way as a chorus girl and worked with Max Reinhardt, appearing on stage in Berlin and Vienna. In 1928, composer Mischa Spoliansky cast her in his musical Es liegt in der Luft and she recorded her first song.

And it was Spoliansky’s Zwei Krawatten that brought her to the attention of director Josef von Sternberg, who defied his colleagues and cast her as Lola-Lola. Although Dietrich was not the greatest singer, having only a limited range, her ability to communicate both tragedy and irony, to say nothing of her sexual allure, made her an irresistible force.

Come with us to the cabret at Queen Elizabeth Hall on Monday 23 September, when Esa-Pekka Salonen will conduct some of the great cabaret songs by composers from Kurt Weill to Friedrich Hollaender.


Having trained as a painter at the Grand-Ducal Saxon Art School in Weimar before World War I, Marianne Brandt returned to the city in 1923, when the school was known as the Bauhaus. Life for its female students was not always easy, however, as they were often prevented from studying what were considered masculine disciplines, including architecture. Brandt nonetheless asserted herself and became the only woman in the metal workshop and, later, its acting head. She was an expert silversmith and created a series of elegant, handmade designs, all informed by geometric forms. These were some of the most popular products from the Bauhaus in the 1920s. Many of her teapots, as well as ashtrays and other silverware, are produced to this day. And, typically for a Bauhaus member, Brandt did not limit her focus to metalwork, also producing visionary photomontages.

Having left the Bauhaus in 1929, she went to work with Walter Gropius in his private architectural practice, though as commissions evaporated, she took up a post at the Ruppel metal goods factory in Gotha and entirely reconceived the company’s range. In 1933, with the Nazis firmly established, there was no longer a position for such a prominent former member of the Bauhaus and Brandt retreated from public view until after World War II.


Christopher Isherwood’s famous claim, “I am a camera”, has a surprising precursor. In Irmgard Keun’s The Artificial Silk Girl, published in 1932, seven years before Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, the protagonist Doris remarks that “I want to write like a film”. In her novel, Keun gives voice to the flâneuse, the female wanderer, released from domesticity onto the streets of Berlin.

Born in the capital, Keun likewise distanced herself from her own bourgeois family and worked as a typist, before trying her luck with acting. But it was thanks to Alfred Döblin, author of Berlin Alexanderplatz, that she took to writing. “If she writes even half as well as she speaks”, he said, “she’ll be the best female novelist Germany’s ever had”. First came Gilgi, One of Us in 1931 and then The Artificial Silk Girl, which Isherwood may well have known, given the book’s notoriety. The protagonists of these, her most famous novels, embody the feminist ideal of the Neue Frau (new woman), and they go on to discover the dark reality of the world in which they live. Keun would learn similar truths, when her novels were banned by the Nazis in 1933.


Described by writer Elias Canetti as “an angelic gazelle”, Manon Gropius was the only child of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler, widow of the great composer Gustav. During her marriage to Mahler, Alma had an affair with the devastatingly handsome Gropius and in August 1915, four years after Mahler’s death and Alma’s equally tempestuous relationship with artist Oskar Kokoschka, she and Gropius were married.

Manon, named after her paternal grandmother, was born on 5 October 1916. As a child, she was fiercely protected by her mother and kept from her father’s reach, particularly after her parents’ somewhat inevitable divorce. The ultimate pawn of the 1920s, Manon was passed between the old Austrian imperial capital of Vienna, with her mother poring over the memory of Mahler, and the thrusting metropolis of Berlin, where Alma’s second husband imagined the ‘crystal symbols’ of his architectural utopia.

Their daughter desperately wanted to be an actress, but polio struck just as Manon was coming of age. Alma quickly arranged a marriage to the young fascist Anton Rintelen, but it was too late. Following Manon’s death, Alma engineered the young girl’s memory, deflecting any accusations she had been a spoiled child and inveigling Alban Berg, whose extramarital affairs Alma knew all too well, into dedicating his Violin Concerto ‘to the memory of an angel’.

Listen to Berg's Violin Concerto on Thursday 26 September at Royal Festival Hall.


Otto Dix’s portrait of Sylvia von Harden © Alamy

Like Marlene Dietrich, Sylvia von Harden was to become one of the icons of the Weimar Republic. An extensively published journalist and poet, she is now known chiefly through Otto Dix’s 1926 portrait (pictured). The pair met at the Romanisches Café in Berlin, which was a gathering point for intellectuals, including Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler and Irmgard Keun.

One evening, Dix approached Harden and declaimed, “I must paint you! I simply must!”. She responded jadedly, “so, you want to paint my lacklustre eyes, my ornate ears, my long nose, my thin lips; you want to paint my long hands, my short legs, my big feet – things which can only scare people off and delight no one?” Dix was not remotely taken aback. “You have brilliantly characterised yourself and all that will lead to a portrait representative of an epoch concerned not with the outward beauty of a woman but rather with her psychological condition.”

True to his word, Dix created what is one of the Weimar Republic’s most famous, if most unflattering, portraits. Representative of the forthright Neue Frau, with her distancing cigarette, unashamed drinking, androgynous monocle and bob cut, she resists all objectification. Dix may well have intended a caricature, but Sylvia von Harden is resolutely in charge.