June 2007

Len Bracken


The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin's Priestess of Depravity by Mel Gordon

Anita Berber was Weimar Germany's decadent dancer extraordinaire. Her style if not her lewd inclinations inspired Leni Riefenstahl and Marlena Dietrich to the point of plagiarism: the former launched her acting career as the understudy who filled in for Berber, copying her every move, and the latter, whom Berber dated, borrowed Anita's fashion sense and confident demeanor. Unmatched by her imitators, Berber danced through life, slinking her sable-wrapped-yet-otherwise-nude form across the chessboard tiles of hotel lobby floors. At one point she was everywhere -- in the streets of Berlin with traces of powder on her nostrils and a pet monkey around her neck, on the silver screen playing macabre characters, in newspapers and entertainment reviews, and on stage in wispy costumes, dancing to words by her first husband, the expressionist poet and notorious international con artist, Sebastian Droste:

 . . . Ah-jump over the Shadow
It torments, this Shadow
It devours, this Shadow
What does the Shadow want

Mel Gordon brings together a dazzling array of photographs, drawings, paintings, anecdotes, poems, manifestos and other material into this short yet informative biography. Working with a novel about Berber by one of her contemporaries and monographs and articles by dance specialists, Gordon, a U.C. Berkeley professor and the author of numerous books on Germany, notably the biography Erik Jan Hanussen: Hitler's Jewish Clairvoyant, brings deep historical knowledge to his subject.

The height of Berber's career and nude dancing coincided with the Inflation, and the author depicts this period primarily by its natural, hedonistic response to war and economic distress, although Gordon doesn't dwell on it. Surprisingly, no mention is made of the noteworthy takeover of the country by soldier and worker councils following the war. Gordon prefers to remain close to his subject, the schoolgirl raised by her grandmother in Dresden where she attended body movement schools before moving to the capital at age 16 to become a dancer. Gordon knows from his encyclopedic Voluptuous Panic, now in an expanded edition, precisely where Berber fits in the erotic world of Weimar Berlin, and he fills in the background with plenty of interesting oddities, such as showgirls sliding down a giant razor blade.

Seen as a morality tale for the era, Gordon reports that Berber died from tuberculosis at 29 after a tour of Greece and the Middle East. But the author is clearly fascinated by Berber and sympathizes with her, especially when she was paid to do more than dance. It seems that Gordon himself was caught up in the 1990s Berber revival, in which her dances were recreated in several cities. The author even helped choreograph her moves for a new wave musician.

Gordon makes the point that Berber's career was buoyed at various points by the graphic arts and her appearances in magazines. The best photographs show elegantly long, tapering legs with a narrow waist and slender shoulders -- the body of a professional dancer. In movie stills she appears in an Eton-Boy tux with trousers, sporting a monocle; or again shooting an older man, possibly her father, with a pistol. Otto Dix captured her in 1925 wearing the tomato-red "Morphine" costume in a painting recently on exhibit at the 2006-07 "Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s" show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and nicely reproduced in the book. The semitransparent cloth clings to a long waist at the center of the painting. Dix hints at the muscles of her abdomen, her belly button and a small band of fat below it -- all very smooth in contrast to the diagonal folds of the skirt and the rise of her breasts. One hand presses against her hip. The other curls toward her private parts, seen as a faintly dark triangle, with the fingers hovering like red-tipped pincers. Dix contrasts the high-collar dress blending into her auburn hair and the crimson background with Berber's powder-white face and large eyes. She wears a fierce expression in the portrait that was turned into a national postage stamp in 1991 -- an expression at once determined with her glassy eyes staring at a point in the distance, yet whimsical with ornately colored lips.

That's how she looked when she danced to the words in the poem "Morphine," which is reproduced with others in the back of the biography: "strange flowers and greenhouse plants, painted people and listless sounding bells.so far.so.distant.merging.breathing." These poems originally appeared in the Berber-Droste collaborative book The Dances of Depravity, Horror, and Ecstasy (Vienna, 1922) and Gordon draws a strong portrait of Berber's first husband and dance partner, making this more like three books in one.

It was with Droste that Berber created some of her biggest scandals on the stage and in crime stories in newspapers across Europe. Gordon recounts how Droste finally conned Berber, stealing her furs and jewels to fund a transatlantic journey and his transformation into a baron. In New York Droste would manage to stage a Carnegie Hall recital and was featured in now-famous photographs by Francis Bruguière, while coexisting with sex guru charlatans in an Upstate love colony and reporting firsthand for German newspapers on the hanging of Gerald Chapman.

When they were still together in Europe, Berber and Droste were banned from most the top venues in Europe and expelled from Vienna -- what Gordon calls "madness on tour." Although never performed, in their book the perverse couple envisioned a dance with Berber catching Droste's sperm in her mouth as he hangs from a rope above her.

Her second husband was another dancer, an American who met the dada artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhaven in New York and rented a room from her in Berlin. Anita heard about the well-connected arrival and caught his first performance in the city. She waited for him after the show, taking him for one of Anita's nights on the town. He was content to go along with her plans. In an effort to restart her career, the cocaine-addicted cabaret star married the young American two weeks later.

Gordon quickly moves from incident to incident in this tumultuous life -- from Berber's arrest in Zagreb on charges of spying to Munich where she was shunned by her violin maestro father -- always coming back to Berlin and dancing. Her last tour stretched from Athens to Cairo, Baghdad to Beirut and on to Damascus. When she finally returned to Berlin, using funds raised by friends to make the trip, she had tuberculosis on top of her addictions to drugs and alcohol. Berber would soon die in a Kreuzberg hospital, a trend-setting woman living in times that, for all the disruptions, encouraged artistic experimentation.

Gordon's biography gives us Anita Berber's irrational, artistic response to those times. The book shows a life striving to live beyond all limits, a life like the best art that fails for its excess but wouldn't be the best without it. Berber left behind her performances, her drawings and poems, but with Gordon's portrayal, Berber's life itself can be seen as her unfinished masterpiece.

The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin's Priestess of Depravity by Mel Gordon
Feral House
ISBN: 1932595120
213 Pages