Christiane Schnfeld, ed.
Commodities of Desire: The Prostitute in Modern German Literature
Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2000. Pp. 270. $59.00

Reviewed by Christoph Lorey

As countless modernist artistic representations show, no other subject seems to signify the destructive forces of capitalism and rapid urbanization better than the figure of the prostitute. Perceived by artists as the most visible icon of modernity and its commodified and eroticized reality, the sex worker was destined to become both symbol and metaphor to uncover the very essence of the modern human being and all its frailties and fears. Indeed, in German literature between the 1890s and the 1920s, the prostitute became one of the most prominent female characters. Christiane Schnfeld's volume examines the colorful iconography of this fascinating literary figure precisely during the pinnacle of its popularity.

The well-structured introduction provides a comprehensive survey of the figure of the female prostitute in German literature. Numerous references to French and English literature and culture invite readers to recapture the complexities of the social and moral positioning of prostitution in Wilhelmian and Weimar Germany. Schnfeld begins by sketching a social history of female prostitution, focusing on the literary and legal developments from the onset of the industrial revolution to the years of the Weimar Republic. Rather than reading the signification of the prostitute along the lines of poststructuralist feminist notions of the Other, the author attempts to establish a theoretical context that is based on the theories of the leading sociologist of the time, Georg Simmel (18581918), and of the cultural critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin (18921940).

The following ten articlesmost of them superbly written, well researched, and methodologically soundexamine different aspects of the topic, covering a broad spectrum of works by male and female authors, both well known and obscure, and of several genres, including song, cabaret, and film. Karl Leydecker measures the appearance of prostitution in German and Austrian drama of the 1890s against contemporary conceptions of free love and marriage. Stephanie E. Libbon scrutinizes Frank Wedekind's plays and his most notorious literary figure, Lulu, and demonstrates that this playwright's ideas of sexual autonomy and emancipation were strictly limited to women who did not threaten his own image of masculinity. In a chapter on the sües Mädel (sweet girl) in fin-de-siècle and modern Vienna, Brenda Keiser points out the socially significant differences some Austrian writers have made between so-called kept women who barter sex for luxuries in long-term arrangements and streetwalkers who, inhabiting the lowest rank of the social order, cannot afford to get emotionally involved with the men to whom they sell their bodies.

Margaret McCarthy's article on the differences between diary and autobiography in literature and film deals only marginally with the role of the prostitute. Like Anna Richards, who in the following chapter draws interesting comparisons to French and English writers, particularly to Alexandre Dumas, Émile Zola, and Jean Rhys, McCarthy examines Margarete Bhme's international bestseller Das Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (The Diary of a Lost Woman, 1905), with which Bhme contributed like no other writer of her time to the social debate about prostitution. The editor's own contribution, "Streetwalking the Metropolis: Prostitutes in Expressionism," is a continuation of the volume's introduction and, covering the time from 1905 to 1923, bridges the chronological gap between the previous and following chapters.

Looking at Weimar street films, including Karl Grune's 1923 production Die Strae (The Street) and Joe May's 1929 hit Asphalt (Asphalt), Barbara Hales explores the connection between female sexuality and criminality, a leitmotif in many medical and artistic depictions of the "independent woman" during the Weimar years. The next two chapters, by Paula Hanssen and Alan Lareau, are dedicated to portrayals of the prostitute in the early works of Bertolt Brecht. Notable here is Lareau's entertaining, yet erudite, reading of what he calls "that forgotten tradition of cabaret, music hall, revue and entertainment music, where whores' songs, bordello poetry and Apache dances were standards" (168). The final chapter, contributed by Ingrid Sharp, traces the regulation of sexuality in the Weimar Republic in light of the 1926 publication of the case study/diary Vom Leben gettet (Killed by Life).

Collectively, the articles illustrate that modern understandings of prostitution and the question of love as commodity have served male and female writers to meet a series of strikingly different objectives, ranging from moral and sexual education to social criticism to the cheapest forms of brassy entertainment. Schnfeld's collection thus sheds new and brighter light not only on a remarkable, and heretofore largely forgotten, literary phenomenon, but also on early twentieth-century notions of human love and sexuality.

The book's shortcomings are few, though some are truly annoying and others may alienate the curious reader from outside the field of German literature. Citations from original sources are generally not translated, and insufficient background information is provided in the discussions of lesser-known artists and texts. Furthermore, the volume is edited quite unevenly: English spelling and hyphenation competes with American practices throughout the book; dates of authors and texts are frequently omitted precisely where they should appear; and the index fails to list so many names, proper nouns, and subject entries that its usefulness is greatly diminished. Despite these drawbacks, Schnfeld's edition is a well-carried out and timely project that makes an important contribution not only to studies in German literature and culture, but also to Women's and Gender Studies in a wider European context.