“One dances hunger and hysteria, fear and greed, panic and horror…Anita Berber—her face frozen into a garish mask under the frightening locks of the scarlet coiffure—dances the coitus.
Would the dancer, actress and poet Anita Berber like to be remembered as a cautionary tale? Brusque and cold, it’s not likely—even though her very real talent was stopped short by a lifetime of drug abuse; not unusual in her time and place, Berlin between the wars. Like 20th century icons such as Marilyn Monroe, her lifestyle has come to represent a unique era and her early death its end.
“The Priestess of Depravity”
Before Anita turned 14, she had already inspired her 17-year-old lover to steal from his school’s soccer cashbox to buy her sweets. (She would always love sweets, as well as jewels, furs, shoes and exotic pets.) At 15, her 23-year old lover, a dentist, offered to make her an honest woman. The chains of wedded bliss were not for her. At 16, asked to drum up attendance to her first professional dance performance, she knocked on the door of 43-year-old novelist Karl Walter, her mother’s ex-lover. After agreeing to be her companion for the opening, “Anita sprang to life. In a flash she shed her dress and sauntered naked to his bedroom.”1
Anita came to fame as a dancer, but was immortalized as a symbol of decadence of Berlin between the wars. She drank cognac and did cocaine, a lot of it—although so did many in her time. She also indulged in hashish, opium, morphine and absinthe.2 She had sex easily and often, with both men and women. She was named in notorious divorce proceedings. She was beautiful, especially in the bloom of her youth: a muse for poets and a boon for journalists; she was a favorite subject in German men’s magazines. She gambled, and often and ultimately, lost.
As post-WWI Berlin abandoned censorship and became the belly of the beast for foreign travelers with a few dollars in their pocket (especially as inflation spiraled out of control), Anita was alight. Then, perhaps not surprisingly, the fire burnt itself out. The effects of this spiral are poignantly represented in the words of Klaus Mann, describing his first meeting with the infamous “priestess”:
“Her face was a somber and vicious mask. It seemed obvious that the strongly curved mouth was not her own but was a bloodred concoction out of a little pot of rouge. The chalky cheeks had a violet shimmer. The eyes required at least an hour of work every day—she talked incessantly and lied terribly.”3
Perspective is an interesting animal. The curators of the 2006 Met exhibition “Glitter and Doom,” assert that “were it not for Otto Dix’s striking portrait of Berber, she would be unknown today.”4 I don’t know if I can agree; I do know that I don’t think she should not be forgotten.
They also note, however, that “in no other picture did Dix use red to such menacing and dramatic effect.” It is left up to us, I guess, to inquire why? Why was the color of heat, passion, power and decadence so notably used in this portrait? Czech dance critic Joe Jenik, in his biography of Anita published two years after her death, provides a hint, and beautifully describes her cultural and historic resonance.
“Anita Berber’s long, bony hand ripped the silken dress off the tarted-up old woman—a ghostly figure the dancer called Public Morality. Now they stood in front of one another, each naked with horrible scars. Berber’s whip lashed out at the ancient hag: but Anita always punished herself at the very moment when she tore open the doddering whore’s repulsive flesh. The two played out an ecstatic dance of human desire and destitution. They fought each other savagely but both of them knew implicitly that the ruination of one was the ultimate death of the other.“5
Born to an actress and violinist in Dresden on June 10, 1899, Anita’s parents separated soon after her birth. Her mother left within years for the stage of Berlin. Under the care of Grandma Theim, the unruly and aggressive girl was sent to a utopian academy that promoted “a novel choreographic aesthetic called Eurythmics [that] fell somewhere between dance and abstract acting.”6 She took to this physical training, and in her mid-teens she was recruited as a dancer in an avant-garde troupe headed by Madame Sachhetto.
Her youth, verve and talent were an immediate hit with both audiences and critics. She posed for a variety of promotional postcards for the troupe. She also soon began work as an actress for Richard Oswald, “Vienna’s most controversial and prolific filmmaker in the postwar era.” (Gordon) Amongst the many films she worked with the director included Prostitution, and Different from Others which dealt sympathetically with homosexuality. By the late 19-teens, her star had risen from the dance stage to the big screen.
She continued to dance yet as an established star, she was left to her own inspiration—with this, her style took on a decidedly erotic and edgy tone. This was to come to full fruition upon partnering with Sebastian Droste, whom she eventually married. The pairs Dance of Depravity, Horror and Ecstasy included dances titled “Byzantine Whip Dance,” “Cocaine,” “Martyr” and “Suicide.” Droste eventually left her for America (funding his travels by stealing her jewels and furs), and she was to marry once more, to American dancer Henri Chatin-Hoffman.
By 1928, at age 29, diagnosed with tuberculosis and her body shot by years of drug use, her last days were spent in the hospital. “She had the mask of a mad old hag” recalled friend Leo Lania. She died on November 10, 1928 and was buried in a pauper’s grave.
Her Style: “Berlin’s Naked Goddess”
If Anita was around today, how she would sneer at starlets making news with inconsequential crotch shots. Or, would she even deign to notice? She wouldn’t have to. Perhaps she’d take a little snort of cocaine from her silver brooch and remove her heavy fur coat. Her smooth dancer’s body would gracefully emerge, gleaming, nude in full but for high heels and a baby chimpanzee hanging around her neck.
This version of Anita, apparently, was a common sight in Berlin’s high-toned night spots—although, ever the performer, she preferred to have a waiter remove her coat, rather than doing the work herself.
Gordon calls her “Berlin’s Naked Goddess,” and Berber apparently sported this iconic look with ease, night or day. I dream of transporting an innocuous camera phone back in time to immortalize the following image: “the tipsy naked dancer in high heels and sable wraps was a common sight in Berlin’s open-at-dawn produce market.”7
(Monica and Lisa are partners in the series, Anarchists of Style)
For further discussion see:
Gordon, M. The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin’s Priestess of Depravity. Feral House, Los Angeles; 2006.
Renwald, S. Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s. Yale Univeristy Press, New Haven, 2006.
[1, 2, 5-7] Gordon, M. The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin’s Priestess of Depravity. Feral House, Los Angeles; 2006.
[3, 4] Renwald, S. Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s. Yale Univeristy Press, New Haven, 2006.