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Anita Berber: A Portrait of Excess and Intrigue in the Roaring Twenties

Updated: Apr 19



Throughout history, certain figures stand as vivid reminders of an era characterised by excess and liberation. Anita Berber, an emblematic figure of the hedonistic whirlwind that engulfed the Weimar Republic in the 1920s, remains an enigmatic and compelling personality. Amidst the clamour of the Jazz Age, Berber's life unfurled as a tapestry of extravagance, artistic fervour, and unabashed indulgence.


Anita was born into a middle-class family with artistic leanings, her father held the prestigious title of First Violinist within the Municipal Orchestra, while her mother, Lucie, aspired to grace the stage as a dancer and actress. However, their marriage ended in divorce, and Anita was packed off to live with her grandmother.


In pre-war Germany, amidst the aftermath of World War I's upheavals, Berber's formative years unfolded against a backdrop of economic flux and burgeoning artistic fervour. The epoch embraced the avant-garde spirit of Expressionism, mirroring the societal turbulence of the era. Simultaneously, the cabaret scene burgeoned with an audacious flair, emboldened by the relaxation of censorship laws.


Intrigued by the rhythmic cadences of movement, Berber embarked on a journey of artistic exploration. In 1913, she enrolled in a modern dance school, immersing herself in the fluidity of rhythmic gymnastics. Subsequently, her quest for artistic expression led her to the hallowed halls of Berlin, where she delved into the classical techniques of ballet.



As Berber came of age amidst the cultural renaissance of interwar Germany, she found herself drawn to the pulsating heart of Berlin's nightlife. By the tender age of 20, she had become an emblematic figure of the city's cabaret circuit, captivating audiences with her uninhibited performances. Embracing the ethos of the era, Berber shed societal conventions, performing nude in the smoky confines of avant-garde cabarets, where artistic expression knew no bounds.


By the time the year 1919 had rolled around, Berber had entered into matrimony with Eberhard von Nathusius, a prominent screenwriter endowed with wealth and social standing. However, their union proved ephemeral, as Berber's heart veered towards a liaison with Susi Wanowski, proprietor of a lesbian establishment. Wanowski, assuming dual roles as both Berber's manager and paramour, became an integral figure in the tumultuous tapestry of Berber's life.


Beyond the limelight of cabaret stages, Berber's cinematic forays illuminated screens with her presence. Her celluloid repertoire encompassed over a dozen films, among which her portrayal in the 1919 silent masterpiece, "Different From the Others," holds particular significance. Revered as a pioneering work, the film dared to depict homosexuality with empathy, challenging the draconian strictures of German legislation. Regrettably, its subversive potency incurred the wrath of the Nazi regime, consigning it to the annals of forbidden cinema.


Berber's unapologetic embrace of bisexuality and rejection of societal norms thrust her into the relentless scrutiny of tabloid gossip. Whispers of her dalliance with the illustrious Marlene Dietrich, renowned for her provocative androgynous allure, pervaded the gossip columns of the day. Speculation abounded regarding the extent of their connection, prompting contemplation over Dietrich's iconic tuxedo-clad persona in "Morocco" and its potential homage to Berber's enigmatic allure.


Marlene Dietrich from the 1930 film Morocco directed by Josef von Sternberg. Anita Berber in a tuxedo for the 1921 film Bitte Zhalen.


Berber married again in 1922, this time to a dancer named Sebastian Droste, embarking on a collaborative odyssey marked by artistic symbiosis. Together, they birthed a masterpiece that transcended conventional boundaries: "Dances of Vice, Horror and Ecstasy," a fusion of poetry and photography that mirrored the chiaroscuro of their tumultuous existence. This magnum opus not only adorned the pages of literary works but also found its pulse within the pulsating rhythm of nocturnal revelries, where they enacted its verses in the dimly lit ambiance of nightclubs.



Yet, amidst the intoxicating allure of artistic creation, the shadows of addiction loomed large. Both Berber and Droste grappled with the insidious grip of substance abuse, cocaine featured heavily in their lives during this period. Their performances, suffused with an eerie beauty, often served as veiled odes to their shared struggle, weaving haunting narratives punctuated by allusions to narcotic reveries.


Within the verses of "Cocaine," a potent lament emerged, bearing witness to the corrosive influence of the drug upon their souls. Its words, etched with the anguish of addiction, spoke volumes of the agony that accompanied their descent into the abyss of chemical dependency:

"Cocaine, Outcry, Animals, Blood, Alcohol, Pains, Many pains, And the eyes."
Nachlass Madame d’Ora, Anita Berber and Sebastian Droste in their dance martyr, 1922,

The avant-garde spectacles of Berber and Droste's continued to reverberate with shockwaves across society, provoking consternation and ire. Their audacious performances reached a crescendo when Berber's nude dance deeply offended the sensibilities of the King of Yugoslavia, resulting in her being locked up in prison for several weeks. The repercussions of this scandal were far-reaching, culminating in a ban from European stages that endured for years, casting a shadow over their artistic endeavours.


Amidst the tumult of public outcry, Berber's eccentricities garnered no respite from scrutiny. Her penchant for scandal manifested in conspicuous displays, from her unconventional choice of pet—a monkey draped nonchalantly around her neck—to her brazen forays into public spaces, draped solely in a short coat. Whispers of her unorthodox behaviour echoed through the streets, perpetuating her enigmatic allure.


The tempestuous trajectory of Berber's personal life intersected with the fickle winds of fate when Droste's misdeeds led him into the clutches of justice, incarcerated for fraud and accused of pilfering Berber's prized furs and jewels. It was amidst this whirlwind of turmoil that Berber encountered Henri Chatin-Hoffman, an American dancer whose path crossed hers like a fleeting waltz. Their whirlwind romance culminated in marriage a mere fortnight after their initial encounter, a testament to Berber's penchant for impulsivity and the capriciousness of fate.



Berger and Otto Dix

Following this marriage, Berber agreed to sit for the renowned German artist Otto Dix in 1925. Renowned for his scathing critiques of the war's devastation, Dix undertook a captivating portrayal of Berber. Departing from the conventional nude depictions that often characterised representations of Berber, Dix opted to encapsulate her essence in a different light. Clad in a sinuous crimson gown, Berber's figure exudes a potent allure, her hand resting casually upon her hip in an assertive stance. Behind the façade of theatrical glamour, however, lies a visage obscured by layers of makeup, akin to a mask veiling her true identity.


Dix's intimate acquaintance with Berber, both in professional and personal realms, imbued his artistic endeavour with a profound insight. Having borne witness to Berber's live performances alongside his wife, Dix's portrait serves as a poignant reminder of the performative nature inherent within Berber's persona. Through his brushstrokes, Dix invites the viewer to peer beyond the veneer of Berber's ostentatious sexuality, unveiling the intricacies of her enigmatic existence as a ceaseless theatrical performance.

Otto Dix, The Dancer Anita Berber, c.1925,

The Early Death of Anita Berber

Tragedy struck in 1928, during one of Berber's performances at a Beirut nightclub, as she collapsed. Several months later, she succumbed to the grip of tuberculosis, a poignant testament to the toll exacted by years of substance abuse. In the aftermath of her demise, a distorted narrative, rife with embellishments and inaccuracies, seized the public consciousness, casting a shadow over Berber's true legacy for decades.


However, the passage of time has ushered in a renaissance in our understanding of Berber's life and contributions, catalysed by the insights gleaned from LGBTQ+ and feminist studies. In this contemporary reevaluation, Berber emerges not as a mere caricature of excess, but as a pioneering figure, a harbinger of empowerment and self-expression. In the pantheon of modern icons, one cannot help but draw parallels between Berber's audacious spirit and the fearless confidence epitomised by contemporary luminaries like Madonna and Lady Gaga.


Indeed, Berber's legacy transcends the confines of her era, foreshadowing the emergence of performance art long before the label found currency within artistic discourse. In an alternate reality where Berber graces the present day with her presence, she would likely be celebrated as a trailblazer, an emblem of unapologetic authenticity and unbridled creativity. Far from being confined to the narrow confines of debauchery, Berber would stand tall as a symbol of resilience and defiance, her legacy immortalised in the annals of cultural history.

 


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