Around nine o’clock in the evening of Saturday the 10th November 1928 the twenty nine year old dancer Anita Berber died. Anita’s funeral was arranged for four days later. On the morning of Wednesday 14th November she was buried in St Thomas’ cemetery in the Neukölln district. Her funeral was a basic klasse 5 burial: plain coffin with no trimmings and an unmarked grave.
Over the next few weeks several newspapers and magazines printed obituaries. One of the first was by Hans Feld in Film-Kurier. Published on the 13th November, Feld wrote of Anita as the embodiment of Weimar Berlin. A challenge to Wilhelmian morality she was a force whose power would prove an inspiration for future generations. Der Film and Reichsfilmblatt, both published on the 15th November, carried critiques of her life and work outlining her contribution to Expressionist dance and acting. The 26th November edition of the Berliner Illustriete Zeitung saw her work as groundbreaking and inspirational. Musik und Theater, published on December 2nd lauded her unique contribution to dance and the edition of Filmbühne of the 10th December praised her acting skill in her many films.
But it was as a dancer that Anita existed; and a dancer like no other. She enjoyed the response that her dance generated and indeed thrived on it. She sought it, she fed off it, and in turn she responded to it. Her dance became a two-way process between her and the audience. She gave something to the audience but also took something from the audience. Her live performances gave her life. When she was dancing, when she was performing, she existed at that moment for the dance and the dance alone. When she acted she became the character. Anita did respond to her audience; she drew from her audience; but it was very much on her terms. She wasn’t adapting her act in the way of Josephine Baker, the great black dancer who brought the Harlem renaissance to Paris and Europe in the twenties. Josephine Baker was alive to her audience and adapted her act to the Parisian style and the French audience. But in the case of Anita although she drew from the audience and from their response her adaptation was very much on her own terms there was no compromise in her artistic content or the artistic message she was trying to express. There was adaptation; Anita did learn and grow from the response of the audience but it was more of her drawing from the audience what she wanted rather than a reciprocal relationship. When her dances were adapted in response to the audience, that adaptation could as easily be a negative one rather than a positive. A particular dance or element within a dance that elicited a negative response from the audience would be extended or exaggerated. Anita interpreted any lack of positive response from the audience as a challenge and would meet that challenge head on. The emotions she felt were played out in her dancing for the whole world to see. Her Expressionism was extreme, honest, contradictory and extraordinary; it was the Weimar Republic.
Anita had been, from the very start a troubled wild child. Her life was a series of bad choices and bad behaviour. In many ways she was a spoilt child demanding attention and throwing a tantrum when she did not get her way. Her excess in the use of drugs and alcohol as well as sexual parters and practices continued this pattern. But ultimately the only person she truly hurt was herself. It does not take much analysis to understand Anita and the various demons that tormented her. Her relationship with her mother was strained as a result of Lucie’s initial abandonment of her and subsequent emotionally unsupportive behaviour. With the parent who was present rejecting her Anita turned to the father who had also abandoned her. Time and again she sought to replace him and of course failed. And then there was the underlying guilt. Anita probably blamed herself for her abandonment as a child. What had she done to deserve that? She craved love and attention and like all children screamed when she felt unloved and ignored. Confused, scared, angry and unhappy Anita tried to get her parents attention and if she could not do so with good behaviour she would try with bad.
Unfortunately for Anita she happened to be living through a time and place that was also in turmoil and so wild behaviour was all around her. This normalised much of what she did but also meant that to be noticed she had to be really outrageous. Anita had to drink more cognac and champagne than everyone else; she had to take more and wilder drugs; she had to dance faster and wilder and more naked than anyone else. Her life was a constant search for the truth of why her father, and mother, had abandoned her. A search that she carried out through the medium of dance and against a backdrop of political, economic and social chaos. It was a potentially fatal combination that eventually did kill Anita but not before she gave some of the most amazing expressionist dance and film performances that Weimar Berlin ever saw. The Republic outlived Anita by only five years and its death has been attributed to many causes. A search by the German people for the truth behind their losses in the war through the medium of vicious partisan politics and a series of bad choices is one, amongst many, explanation. When seen in that light, the parallels between the Republic and Anita continue even unto death. Both did terrible things and wonderful things; both made foolish choices and yet created beautiful art. Anita Berber was a true child of the Republic. The likes of Anita Berber, and the Weimar Republic, will never be seen again.