Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Times of Decadence or About Being Different

Heinrich Mann wrote his novel Small Town Tyrant, on which the film The Blue Angel is based, in the early 1900s. The years or actually decades preceding the outbreak of World War I in 1914 were often considered as a time of growing decadence and degeneration. Every new generation appeared to be softer, thus weaker than the one before and the increased sensitivity seemed to make it more susceptible to all kinds of temptation, be it political, social or sexual. The general tone was ranging from melancholic to downright pessimistic. 

Corruption of morals and decay of culture were often lamented, especially in the arts. In their works writers, too, depicted the uncertainty and discontent with life that were characteristic of the period. They also strived for new ways to capture what was going on. The feigned objectivity of naturalism limited them too much and it was only a matter of time until they broke free of it. They began to spread out before their readers the inner world of their protagonists (and themselves), in other words, their subjective points of view and their individuality. 

The years around the turn of the twentieth century were times of big change, but just like today not everybody was willing or able to keep up pace. Social conventions have always served as the backbone of society, as a stabilizing and conservative force in an environment that is perceived as unpredictable or even dangerous. However, they can keep going the old world only for a while. Sooner or later it breaks down and often in a big crash. In 1914 World War I made an end to everything that was outdated and no longer of use to society. 

In our modern world we may be startled at what was considered as unacceptable behaviour at the time when Heinrich Mann wrote Small Town Tyrant and when Josef von Sternberg made the novel into The Blue Angel a quarter of a century later. Today we are allowed to live our individuality to a much wider degree than our ancestors, and yet everyone who dares stepping out of the normal ruts has to face consequences. We may not be openly treated like Professor Raat/Rath because this isn’t socially accepted in our days. Still we need a thick skin, if we are different.

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