“She was the most remarkable spirit that I ever met in the weird underworld of human sexuality.”
I have a fascination for Weimar Berlin It was such a wild period which began in 1919 and then ended with the beginning of the Third Reich in 1933. Some of the famous names from this period include: Christopher Isherwood, Conrad Veidt, and Marlene Dietrich. So when I spotted a book about one of this period’s most notorious, scandalous figures, Anita Berber, well, I couldn’t resist. Author Mel Gordon details a glittering, decadent Weimar Berlin in the book The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin’s Priestess of Depravity. According to the author post WWI Berlin “became the world showcase of nude dance and the erotic revue-sketch,” and with the catastrophic devaluation of the German Mark, “moral degeneration” reigned in a city that rapidly became a metropolis of exotic, erotic cabaret performances. During her brief, explosive career Anita Berber was Weimar Berlin’s “most widely discussed female personality.” She performed to packed theatres, outraging her audiences, sharply dividing critics, and shocking society with the scandals that surrounded her both on and off stage. With her perfect, lithe body, dancer and performance artist Anita Berber reigned supreme.
Gordon charts the meteoric rise and tragic fall of the notorious dancer. During her short, brilliant, and self-destructive life, she earned many names, and was called a “totally perverted woman”, the “Madonna of Dresden”, the “Countess of Sin”, “a living embodiment of sin”, and “an incarnation of the perverse.” Gordon offers the reader a portrait of a difficult life–fraught with public scandal, private demons, and an avant-garde approach to dance that brought Berber the wrong sort of audience. Gordon argues that the very audience who flocked to Berber for her scandalous naked dances could not appreciate the artistic relevance of her performances, and thus heckled–and ultimately abused her.
Gordon tracks Berlin’s long-standing tradition with Naked Dance as an art form and traces Berber’s career from her early dance training to German Expressionist Richard-Oswald films. But it was Berber’s ability to dance that brought Berlin–at least temporarily–to her feet.
The book examines Berber’s disastrous relationship with petty criminal, con man, and fellow dancer–Sebastian Droste. Included are details of Droste’s post-Berber career in America and his membership in a notorious New York sex cult. The major scandals in Berber’s life are examined–her three husbands, her affairs with the sexually obsessed Gerda and her daughter Elsa, and the “lovesick” Baroness Leonie Puttkamer-Gessmann. Berber’s health steadily declined as her various addictions grew uncontrollable, and she rapidly became a “creative liability” on stage–even whacking a businessman over the head with a bottle of champagne one evening. My kind of woman….
The book also serves as a glimpse into artistic life of Weimar Berlin–and there are mentions here of many notables–including Leni Riefenstahl (she was Berber’s understudy for one engagement), Conrad Veidt, Fritz Lang, Marlene Dietrich, and Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld. If you’ve seen those famous photos of Nazis burning books, then most likely those are the photos of Nazis destroying Hirschfeld’s library at his Institute for Sexual Research.
The text is peppered with marvelous photographs, posters and graphics depicting various Berber routines (including the Dances of Depravity, Horror, and Ecstasy). Additional materials follow the text–including poems by Berber and Droste, synopses of Berber’s dance performances, and a bibliography. It’s sadly ironic that Anita Berber–who once was so infamous–has now almost disappeared, and it is a particular joy for those interested in Berber (me) that Mel Gordon wrote this work on a much-neglected artist. It’s difficult to grasp just how much the world must have changed for Germans (and the rest of the world) when the Nazis came along.
For more on the life of Anita Berber, I recommend the incredible film Anita: Dances of Vice by Rosa von Praunheim.