Anita Berber was the physical embodiment of a historical moment. That moment was the Weimar Republic of Germany-whose intensity made up for its brevity. Like Anita, this moment is characterized by its “nearly unquenchable, lust for ineffable sensations.” This Republic, only living to be eleven years young, Berber herself only surviving until age twenty-nine, saw the rise of a fascist regime, and because of this, the intriguing Weimar period is often overshadowed. This moment was forged by the social forces at work, so too was Anita. This period was traumatized and still reeling from the Great War, and their own socialist revolution having failed. The establishment of the parliamentary republic saw a mixing and mingling of social and economic classes, greater flexibility in coming out with a queer identity and numerous progressive social reforms were successfully implemented.
However the heavy reliance on foreign (predominantly from the United States) loans left the economy in a precarious economic position which was exceptionally vulnerable to international affairs (both positive and negative). This economic instability, featuring rampant inflation, and depression left a politically vacuous opening for a far-right wing agenda to begin sowing its seeds of “alternatives” and its own brand of “stability.” Competing political and social ideologies were incredibly sectarian as a result and left very little room for coalitions to form and combat the rise of fascist policy. Weimar historian Otto Friedrich, in his text, Before the Deluge, writes: “The German people, starved and dying by the hundred thousand, were reeling deliriously between blank despair, frenzied revelry, and revolution. Berlin had become a nightmare, a carnival of jazz bands and rattling machine guns…” This exceptionally limited rendition of these events serves to outline the tumultuous and elusive history of this moment. This moment made Anita Berber, and she made it. A debaucherous dialectic was at play.
Anita was born in Leipzig to musician father and an actress mother who would later divorce, she was raised mainly by her grandmother in Dresden. The Great War broke out when she was fourteen years old, and though some historians wish to play up how unconcerned she seemed by The War- this was not an event easily survived, or processed by those who experienced it first hand. This is evidenced later by her “body madness” during performances, and her subsequent addictions. By the age of 16, she had moved to Berlin and made her debut as a kabarett dancer- introduced early on to the small venue stage by Rita Sacchetto’s dance studio and troupes. By 1918 she was working in film, and she began dancing nude in 1919. Scandalously fluid with her gender representation, and often appearing androgynous, she quickly made a name for herself. She wore heavy dancer's makeup, which on the black-and-white photos and films of the time came across as jet black lipstick painted across the heart-shaped part of her skinny lips, and charcoaled eyes. She was often seen with a cocaine laden pendant about her neck.
Anita's performances personified queerness, trauma and radical body politics that set the tone for the shock and awe of the time. Pushing the boundaries of what was expected by audiences and accepted by theatrical spaces and club venues, Anita worked with dancers (most of whom also became her lovers and partners) who would sensationalize the kabarett scene.
Some of her most famed performances drew from her addictions and experiences in post-war Germany. Acts such as "Morphine," "Cocaine," "Suicide," and "Astarte," were described as dances of depravity, horror, and ecstasy. From stills and brief film clips of these staged performances, and from critics and friends alike, the way that her dance pieces are described and explained are akin to a manic therapeutic process that recreates chaotic state of being, or a tormented psyche.
Social satires were not uncommon in the emergent German Kabarett, and a dark gallow's humor relied upon, but certain topics were not readily accepted into the cannon of follies performance, and were even rejected early on — drug use, sex work, and male queerness were not openly discussed or participated in. Sigmund Freud wrote that, "The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure." This idea is in direct response to the advent of a “gallows humor,” and happened to be penned in his essay from 1927 Der Humor, during the waning of the golden era of Weimar Kabarett.
Anita and her dance partner, and artistic collaborator (later lover and husband) Sebastian Droste, along with the venues that saw their potential and impact, pioneered a harsh sexuality and intense passion around life and death. Their macabre makeup, contortion like poses, full nudity fueled a scandalous following. Off stage Droste's androgynous-feminine stylings, and Anita's masculine styled attire coupled with their outrageous cosmetics created a gender fluidity which was either encouraged and sensationalized or targeted for criticism. Anita was often (but not always) excused as exciting and mysterious, while Droste was culturally policed as being the "Boy-Woman."
The censorship laws devised at the time bordered on the absurd. Informed by the accepted version of morality from venue to venue- the low brow taverns could see the most erratically erotic while the proscenium theatres required much more normative fair. Depicting or alluding to non-marital sexual relationships, especially queer relationships was not commonplace in the traditional theatre. Regardless, Anita and her counterparts performed sexually charged and fully nude when the producers would book them. They established themselves around the taboo, around the scandal, and brought queerness out of the proverbial shadows. This is evidenced in the numerous drawings of Otto Dix, George Grosz, Jeanne Mammen and the list actually is quite extensive. Whether the artists were condemning the decadence or supporting the expression- there is a wealth of material that illustrates the gender and sexual fluidity of the Weimar Era’s performers. Popularized in the publicized promotional materials for films, theatrical productions and scintillating handbills at nightclubs these drawings and designs crafted an aura of exciting and feared Other. These outsiders, these “moral degenerates,” effectively wooed and created a new experimental cultural; they at least broke through a dammed levee of potential.
What did it mean to process the grief and trauma of war through performance and addiction? How did Anita’s queer mind and body channel these experiences into a creative drive that left audiences reeling in her wake? These are the questions that modern performance artists, contemporary dancers, and audiences have inherited. These and more — but most importantly these questions. Venues and social codes shifted, actually more aptly put, were made to shift to accommodate and support new, outrageous pieces of “body madness.” These performances were so of their time, that they were their time.
The period could not have existed without them and likewise these performances could not have been created without this precise historical concoction. The desire then should not be to recreate these pieces, or fetishize them but rather to experience them through a historical materialism that allows for the full contextualization of them. Take from them the sense of urgency, but simultaneously droll that they exude. Take from them a body positivity that conveys a comfortability and vulnerability that does not separate the public and private spheres. Take from them an unwavering commitment to life as performance and performance as life that by extension cannot ignore the trauma suffered or means of trauma negotiated. This is what can be learned from Anita Berber, when revived in a contemporary context of performance.
- Friedrich, Otto. Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s. Reprint Edition ed. Harper Perennial, 1995. Print.
- Gay, Peter. Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider. Reprint Edition ed. W. W. Norton, 2001. Print.
- Gordon, Mel. The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin's Priestess of Depravity. Feral House, 2006. Print.
- Gordon, Mel. Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin. Expanded Edition ed. Feral House, 2008. Print.