If there is a certain period I‘d have loved to experience in Berlin, it‘s the roaring twenties. I can just picture myself meandering through the streets and alleyways, which looked completely different back then, as of yet untainted by the war to come. How beautiful this city must have been, on par, in my imagination, with Vienna and Paris.
Those days are conserved in old photographs and stories, that speak of time in which German art, culture and science bloomed. It was the time of Beckmann, Max Ernst, Otto Dix and Käthe Kollwitz, the time of Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann. And it was the time of the Bauhaus generation, the „New Objectivity“, and a time of excess.
Politically, those were exciting and turbulent days. The first world war was over, fascism seemed but a distant specter at the fringes of perception, and women successfully fought their fight of emancipation. The role of women in society started to change quite rapidly, not least due to the fact that many positions left vacant after WWI were filled with women, a circumstance which hoisted some of them into positions of equality with their male peers. The classic distribution of gender roles was relegated to the dustbin. In political terms, this meant that universal suffrage was introduced in 1919, with the result that many young women from smaller towns moved to Berlin in search of work and financial and societal independence.
This change was reflected in the political discourse of the time, but also in every day culture and fashion.
Androgynity was en vogue. Bustling, tightly laced dresses went out of fashion, in favor of wider silhouettes, more revealing cuts and – á la mode – trousers. The beauty ideal changed with the society as well: very slim women with short hair – elegant, androgynous beings – populate the collective idea of the time.
Behind closed doors, Berlin was a city of excesses, and the literal lust for life that informed the goings-on in this city was legendary even at the time. Intoxicating parties, wild abundance and love for sale made the Berliner nights irresistibly attractive to bon-vivants from all over the world and people looking to flee the drudgery of every day existence alike.
Berlin had officially become a cosmopolitan metropolis.
Ironically, almost a century later, the Berlin of the 20s reminds me more and more of the Berlin I live in today. The city is once again famous around the world for its wild party nights, but also for its tolerance and the lively political discourse. Still, I would so love to be a fly on the wall of the Berlin of back then, or even better, to dive into one of those famed nights in the 20s, if only just once.
Well, until someone invents a time machine, we have books as a wonderful means of conveying the atmosphere of bygone times. „Die Juten Sitten“ (in English: „Good Manners“), the new audiobook by Audible does just that. Author Anna Basener takes us right into the hustle and bustle of this golden age, and makes a point of peeking behind the closed doors at the time, without shying away from the taboo subject of prostitution. Protagonist Heidi grows up in a brothel in Berlin, and leads a life in the grey-zone between legality and illegality, which was populated by truly remarkable, strong women. Looking back at this time, the author tells the story of a bygone era with love, humour, and no lack of Berliner slang.
At the launch event, I had the chance to meet Anna Basener in person, and I seized the opportunity to ask her a few questions about the slippery subjects she‘s dealing with in her book.
Which particular location in Berlin inspired you to write this book?
There was, in fact, a pub called „Die Ritze“ (English: The Slit“), a place – as the name suggests – for easy women and tough guys. The place was in Mulackstrasse, the entire interior of the pub has been preserved and is now on display at the Gründerzeitmuseum in Mahlsdorf, including the „Hurenbock“ („fornicator“) and the „Hurenstube“ („whore-chamber“). I visited the museum and was so gripped by the place that I knew right away I needed to write about it.
How did you go about researching the issue of prostitution in the 20s?
It was mainly through literary sources, one book leads to the next, and you read and read… Mel Gordon‘s „Sinful Berlin“, a photography book about the time, was a particularly helpful source. I highly recommend it! A word of warning though, it‘s not ideal coffee table reading, nothing for public cafés in which you have little kids running around… you‘ll be hard pressed to explain some of the things on display. Trust me, I speak from experience.
Prostitution is still a subject that is laden with taboos. What made you choose to write a audiobook, of all mediums?
Partly for exactly that reason – because it is still a taboo. Taboos lead us to live with preconceived notions, in this case about prostitution, without knowing anything about the issues at hand. The consequence is that sex workers are stigmatized and in turn all too easily victimized. But there are so many more stories to tell than just that old trope of the fallen lass and the monstrous pimp.
How has prostitution changed from back then to today?
Prostitution, like everything else around us, has become thoroughly globalized and capitalized. Women from all around the world work in the field in Germany today, and they arrive with the sole prospect of becoming sex workers. That is one aspect which was very different in 1927, there was no work-migration for prostitutes on the scale we see today. The situation has also changed regarding pimps: the more legal prostitution becomes, the fewer pimps. All that said, it is crucial to differentiate between prostitution and forced prostitution. Work and slavery is not the same. Being a sex worker can be an independent, free choice – being a sex slave never is.
How does writing an audiobook differ compared to writing a physical book? Was your approach different in any way?
I have a way of writing lots of dialogue in my novels as well, which means I work pretty close to the audiobook format anyways. The difference with writing an audiobook is, quite obviously, that you focus on the auditive aspects of telling a story. Whatever happens, I as a writer need to know what this particular action or occurrence sounds like. Is the door slammed? Is it creaking? Does it have a little window, which may rattle as the door falls into the frame? Technically speaking, an audiobook is what‘s called a B2B text, which means I don‘t primarily write for the listener. Instead, my text is the working basis for actors and directors. It doesn‘t make much of a difference in terms of content, but it does change the formal aspect.
Which message would you like to convey with the book?
Ernest Hemingway once said „If you‘ve got a message, send a telegram“, and I‘m with him on that point. It‘s not the job of an author to send messages or to take a moral stand, that‘s for fairy tales and textbooks. The moral point of view generally makes for boring stories. I‘m interested in the exact opposite, I want sensual characters who live, love and fuck up. But this is not to say that I don‘t think that „Die Juten Sitten“ doesn‘t contain a message for the listener, it may well do. If that is the case, I am totally interested in what the listeners feel and take with them, and happy about it. But I‘m not sitting down at my desk with the intention of conveying this or that.