Urban Subcultures
Apl. Prof. Dr. Anne-Rose Meyer / German Studies
Photo: Friederike von Heyden

Not socially acceptable?

International conference "Urban Subcultures" looks at the fascination of underworlds

"Authors and directors make visible the spectrum of human desires, cravings and longings that do not conform to the respective social norm," says Prof. Dr. Anne-Rose Meyer, literary scholar and co-organizer of an international conference titled "Urban Subcultures" at Bergische Universität from October 07 to 09, which will focus on the fascination of subcultural phenomena in literature and film of the early 20th century.
But what are urban subcultures actually? "Qua term, first of all, something negative," the researcher begins. "In German - as in other languages - culture is spatially semanticized. So we make a clear distinction between 'high culture' and 'subculture'. The former is located somewhere in Olympus, where Goethe, Tchaikovsky, Picasso or Bernini, for example, are located - in heights inaccessible to ordinary mortals." This means that high culture is worthy of a museum, is heard in the great concert halls of this world, is presented on the stages of traditional theaters, or is published by renowned publishing houses. Subculture is far, far below that, because subcultures are ways of life and behavior of marginalized groups. Meyer continues: "In the growing European cities of the early 20th century, including Berlin, they were able to develop in a variety of forms and cultivate different lifestyles, and to do so in clear distinction from social norms and taboos, from the mainstream, as we would say today. In the period we are looking at, homosexuals are representatives of the subculture, artists who are not yet established, proletarians, homeless people, addicts, prostitutes and criminals." Members of subcultures would have a significantly lower standing than creators of high culture or its audience. They thus stand noticeably lower on the social ladder and occupy urban spaces that are sometimes found at the very bottom, such as the basement, basement bars or the metro. "This is where you find a culturally fertile underground, but also the criminal underworld."

Bad guys and bad girls are exciting

It is easy to see in world literature that literature has always dealt with individuals from marginalized groups, but it is precisely at the beginning of the 20th century that writers* and filmmakers* are devoting a great deal of space to these socially unacceptable lifeworlds. "Bad guys and bad girls are exciting," Meyer explains, "probably because they are maximally far removed from our own lifeworld and offer new perspectives on the 20th century. In that respect, we in academia are no different than millions of crime and thriller fans worldwide. Certain subcultural phenomena are recurring, so they're influential in our time, too." Meyer cites the so-called heroin chic fashion photos featuring then-pale and hollow-cheeked supermodel Kate Moss from the 1990s. The shots seem to fluidly borrow from those of dancer and actress Anita Berber, who coked herself to death in 1928. "The lives of drug addicts, prostitutes, bohemians, and generally the precarious situation of the lower classes became worthy of literature and of interest to broad circles from the 19th century on. In the metropolises, gay and lesbian scenes with corresponding meeting places developed at the latest at the beginning of the 20th century. All of this is important for humanities scholars and cultural historians because we wonder why many subcultural phenomena became so popular at the time in the first place and at times become so again decades later." She therefore sees a possible answer precisely in the contrast, "because subcultures deviate from norms and taboos, but because they also repeatedly confirm norms and taboos. The emergence of subcultures of whatever form always has to do with conflicts between different values - between individuality and conformity, for example, between hedonism and asceticism, egoism and public spirit, conformity and emancipation, tradition and innovation. The list could be continued." At this point, he said, the task of the humanities, which work historically, begins, researching past life worlds from various angles and conveying their influence on us today. "The visual arts, music, literature and film studies examine how different subcultures were portrayed and what effects their artistic design had." Especially the medium of film, which was still young at the time, offered diverse insights into the reality of life for a broad discussion.


One item on the program of this conference also deals with the much-discussed series BABYLON BERLIN by the Wuppertal director Tom Tykwer. Says Meyer: "BABYLON BERLIN shows Berlin in the 1920s in a way that seems exceedingly real. Costumes, locations, make-up, sounds - everything exudes the charm and horror of that time. All social classes are set in carefully composed images, aristocracy and upper middle class as well as middle and lower class, communists and national socialists. The political radicalization in the final phase of the "Golden Twenties" is clearly visible. Squalid working-class neighborhoods and sleazy brothels are as much settings as trendy bars and palatial residences of the super-rich." These diverse aspects of subcultures were an important reason for the researcher and her colleagues Wolfgang Lukas and Rüdiger Nutt-Kofoth to make the series a topic at this conference. "The title is, after all, very ambiguous: with the term "Babylon," Berlin is marked on the one hand as a haven of sin and decadence, as an anti-Christian center of power that contrasts with the heavenly Jerusalem, where everything is quite different, namely pleasing to God. On the other hand, the Berlin of the time is also mythicized and highly exaggerated by these biblical references," Meyer explains. The participants also want to find out to what extent history is being shaped here in an accurate way or whether it is a matter of constructing its own cinematic reality.

Underworlds and half-worlds find their way into world literature

Underworlds and half-worlds in works by Vicky Baum, Stefan Zweig and Arthur Schnitzler play a special role and reflect the social spheres, especially in the early 20th century. "We must not forget that the development of metropolitan life in Europe accelerated greatly only in the second half of the 19th century. Here in Germany, we only became increasingly metropolitanized at all after 1918, and the expanded opportunities for individual development that came with that, the sensual attractions of urban spaces, and advancing industrialization went hand in hand with the development of mass culture," Meyer explains. "There were movie screenings in magnificent movie palaces, people visited one of the numerous vaudeville theaters in Berlin, for example, watched revues, listened to jazz concerts, went to sporting events in huge stadiums. The vast majority of the postwar generation was no longer exclusively concerned with high culture." Thus, underworlds and demi-worlds also gained appeal, their inhabitants populating the collective imagination of early modernism. Meyer continues, "We find these figures in literature and film as well as in cultural studies and sexual anthropological writings of the time, in social reports and morality tales, for example by Curt Moreck or Magnus Hirschfeld. In these, there is a preference for reporting on the change in values that took place in the 1920s in the area of sexuality and gender roles, incidentally also in detail about the so-called 'third sex' and androgyny. Often localized in deep space or on the fringes of metropolitan hustle and bustle, the demimonde and underworld show up in a variety of guises and testify to a remarkable fascination industrial and urban modernity had with them." Two authors who were particularly interested in social and even psychological deviance were the Austrians Stephan Zweig and Arthur Schnitzler. "Statistically, Vienna had almost two million inhabitants around 1900. Economically and industrially, the city could not compete with Berlin, London, New York, or Paris, but as the metropolis of a multi-ethnic empire, Vienna was marked by extremes in a special way. A mixture of Germans and Hungarians, Galicians, Bosnians, Czechs, Jews, Christians, Muslims, day laborers, officers, beggars, maids, elegant ladies, and rich citizens made up Vienna's cosmopolitan character. And Zweig and Schnitzler became experts in the tensions and temptations, psychological abysses and intellectual flights of fancy that went with it," says Meyer.

The growing interest in crime

The depiction of crime played a major role during this period. Films by Fritz Lang and Joseph von Sternberg will explain this at the conference. The subject still fascinates today. Perhaps these films were, in a sense, the forerunners of today's crime series and whodunit concepts. Meyer confirms: "The detective film was a very popular genre, but not yet in the form of regular series; at most, there were radio plays on the radio or printed serial stories. The most famous is probably the one about 'Dr. Mabuse'. The overwhelming success of Fritz Lang's first film (1922) was one of the reasons why the Luxembourger Norbert Jacques wrote another bestseller, 'The Testament of Dr. Mabuse', ten years later. The public's great interest in crime and criminals also had a stimulating effect on other writers."

The spectrum of human wishes, desires and longings

Underworlds are worlds of life from which many people keep away and yet would prefer to know everything about them. Meyer puts it more succinctly: "'Underworlds' are worlds of life beneath the smooth, standardized surface of society. They represent everything that also belongs to society, but which we rarely encounter in our well-ordered bourgeois everyday life. Authors and directors make visible the spectrum of human wishes, desires, longings that do not conform to the respective social norm." In this respect, 'underworlds' are, on the psychological level, an expression of the breadth of human characteristics, and on the social level, alternatives to our predefined social structures. They are counter-designs to common concepts of life and prevailing social stratifications. They help us to question, criticize and, if necessary, also change given orders," says Meyer, and at the same time they guarantee authors and filmmakers a broad reader or audience interest, because they are the "other" that is also sought by the recipients as the "interesting" and thus the exciting.

Historical Subcultures in Wuppertal

The university conference "Urban Subcultures in Literature and Film of the Early 20th Century" also ends up getting a picture of Wuppertal's subcultures with a guided city tour, and in Meyer's opinion, there's a lot to discover there. "With a look at history, you can definitely call our Wuppertal a metropolitan area. In 1905, together with its two sister cities Elberfeld and Barmen, it was one of the ten most populous areas in the German Empire and was considered one of the leading textile centers in Europe. Today, Wuppertal, which has been united since 1929, is known as the metropolis of the Bergisches Land region. It was here that the suspension railroad, one of the boldest and most spectacular means of urban transportation, was built in 1901. It was also in Elberfeld that department store pioneer Leonhard Tietz opened his first retail stores in western Germany as early as the 1880s. It was from here (and even before Cologne) that he revolutionized the world of consumption and opened it up to the masses. The monumental Tietz department store (now Kaufhof/Karstadt), which opened in 1912 on Elberfeld's Neumarkt, became a focal point of modern, urban life."
She says the city's suburban developments can be seen continuously from the early 20th century to modern times. "There are the first workers' organizations founded here before 1900, which gave rise to the SPD and were relentlessly persecuted during the years of Bismarck's infamous "Socialist Laws." In the early Weimar Republic, Elberfeld developed into the West German center of anti-democratic and völkisch-national movements. Address books of the city testify to a lively scene of night bars and clubs, to which Wuppertal's demimonde must surely have been magically attracted."
And after 1945, it becomes even more obvious "On the Hofaue, formerly one of the most important textile trading locations in Germany, Wuppertal's red light district established itself after World War II," she reports. "In the 1950s and 1960s, Wuppertal was one of the centers of the artistic avant-garde: not only Fluxus and happening art, but also free jazz are closely associated with the city." Younger people, on the other hand, are mostly familiar with the scene in Wuppertal's so-called old town. "In Luisenstraße, in what used to be called the Bermuda Triangle between 'Katzengold,' 'Luisencafé,' 'Café du Congo' and 'Köhlerliesl,' all the youth milieus that were common at the time, e.g. poppers, wavers, punks and mueslis, frequented the area in the 1980s - strictly separated by pubs with corresponding music. In addition, the city today has numerous migrant and post-migrant subcultures, a queer center and various artist initiatives. The autonomous scene is active here, as are Zionists, Pietists, Catholic journeymen's associations, and also Salafists."

The conference will be enriched by a reading by author Volker Kutscher on October 07 at 7 p.m. in the music hall of Bergische Universität. Kutscher's Gereon Rath novel series is the template for the film series BABYLON BERLIN.

Uwe Blass (conversation from 28.09.2021)

Prof. Dr. Anne-Rose Meyer studied General and Applied Linguistics, Modern German Studies and Romance Studies at the University of Bonn and received her doctorate ibid. in 2000. Meyer habilitated at the University of Paderborn in 2009. In 2018, she was appointed apl. professor at Bergische Universität. She teaches Modern German Literature in the Faculty of Humanities and Natural Sciences ibid.
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