The end of summer is upon us, and the Labor Day weekend is the perfect opportunity to binge watch two miniseries that are relevant to the history, legacy and mythology of design. These German productions tackle the feminist failings of the Bauhaus in Weimar under the directorship of Walter Gropius, and if you are annoyed by the Gropius in one, you can be further disappointed by the Gropius in the other. But that itself is fascinating. Produced in 2019 to celebrate 100 years since the opening of the school are The Bauhaus: The New Era and Lotte am Bauhaus. Both are available on Amazon Prime.
I suggest you begin by watching the six episodes of The Bauhaus: The New Era. The First World War is over. Inflation and political discord result in violent attacks by ultra-right factions against the Weimar Republic. Out of the ashes of defeat, the architect Walter Gropius founds the state-run art and design school in Weimar. Although claiming to be apolitical, the school is a petri dish for the Modernist revolution in painting, architecture, music and society.
For viewers who are looking for a simulacrum of the original school, students and masters, this satisfies the urge. However, graphic design and typography are given short shrift. The plot revolves around a real Bauhausler, the female student Dorothea "Dörte" Helm, who wanted to become a book illustrator. After listening to Gropius talk about the art and architecture of the future, a new life—a radical self-reinvention—begins for her. Layer by layer she frees herself from the corset of her time and finds her way as a woman, artist and activist. The opponents of the Bauhaus form up and gain influence, and Gropius has to fight for his ideas against Weimar conservatives and radicals with all his political might. In this tense atmosphere, we are introduced to a young Marcel Brauer, Anni Albers, Oskar Schlemmer, Laszlo Mohly-Nagy, Lyonel Feininger and the cult leader, oddity, Johannes Itten, who founded the Bauhaus core curriculum and wore futuristic clothes.
Although truth and fiction are woven as seamlessly as a Bauhaus textile, this viewer was vicariously engaged by the supposed inner workings of the most idealized art and design academy in history.
For a palette cleanser, I suggest a quick binge into the two parts of Lotte am Bauhaus, which also emphasizes the forgotten role of women who studied at the Bauhaus. The beautifully art directed historical drama takes the viewer inside the classrooms of the Staatliche Bauhaus from the point of view of one of its artists, Lotte Brendel, a character based on fabric designer Gunta Stölzl, one of the first female students at the Bauhaus. The school, we are told, accepted women—but on strictly limited terms. Against the will of her parents, Brendel enters the Bauhaus in Weimar.
The film was created with the support of the current director of the Bauhaus Archive, Annemarie Jaegg, who states: “The film gives an idea of the creativity, curiosity and passion that these women embodied in that center for creative experimentation known as the Bauhaus.”