Anita Berber: dancing on the edge of a volcano



Weimar Berlin, 1919 until 1933, was an extraordinary era; a time when sexual, political and artistic freedom came together like never before or, arguably, since. Art forms that had been growing and developing in Germany, and Europe, from the end of the 19th century exploded as revolutionary ideas from Russia and ‘Americanism’ from the United States penetrated German culture. Dancers, artists, playwrights and poets struggled to understand and express through their art the horrors of the Great War and the chaos of the Weimar Republic. The Wilhelmian morality of the day, instituted by the kaiser, came up against the modern world and a Verwilderung der Sitten (degeneration of morals) swept across Weimar Germany, most notably in Berlin.

Anita Berber, who died on the 10th November 1928 aged only twenty nine, was the epitome of Weimar Berlin. Painted by Charlotte Berend and Otto Dix, she was an actress, a dancer and a poet who ended her life in a pauper’s grave in Berlin. She scandalised and challenged middle class German morality in equal measure. An Expressionist artist who frequently danced naked Anita interpreted music with every atom of her being. She inhabited her body in a way that was sensual and erotic. She moved in a way that disturbed the audience. Even those who flocked to see her and who spoke approvingly of her dancing still found themselves somewhat disconcerted by the emotions and sensations she awoke in them. This was the effect that Anita intended but that intention was completely natural and without artifice. However much Anita used her body as a work of art and carefully cultivated her image it was completely truthful. This was not an artist who put away the costume at the end of the performance; Anita’s whole life was a performance.

This was a woman who seduced married women away from their husbands; punched a German boxing champion in the face and almost got punched back; insulted the king of Yugoslavia and got called a ‘Serbian Pompadour’ and got banned by the International Artists Union but kept on dancing anyway. She was the great Berlin wild child who was called ‘totally perverted’ and who managed to be arrested or deported from practically every country in central Europe. Anita danced naked, gambled wildly and partied like no-one before, or arguably, since with a concoction of drugs that defies belief.

But Anita was also a vulnerable woman. She personified the German obsession with death. Abandoned by first her father and then, temporarily, by her mother in early childhood Anita grew up psychologically damaged. She searched all her life for her father’s approval and never received it. Like a child desperate for attention she threw tantrums and made bad choices. She was a flawed genius with a self-destructive nature who expressed that vulnerability and pain publicly. Her vulnerability and pain was there for all to see in her slim waif-like naked body. This was a woman who was unafraid to express her sexuality, unafraid to say she took drugs, unafraid to say she drank to excess. But this open expression of her life was a mask that hid the deep wounds. She lived life to excess as many did in Weimar Berlin. But with Anita it was more than that, it was always more. Her sexuality was frequently of a masochistic nature; her drug taking was equally to escape reality as to enjoy life. Her behaviour was destructive and nihilistic. But underneath that there was a vulnerability that touched the audiences – even if they were unable to say so consciously unable to consciously articulate why she had that vulnerability. And that gave her that spark of sympathy that gave even her wildest behaviour and performances the mark of human tragedy that followed her all her life.

Anita lived her life in raw emotion. There was no artifice with her and that gave her the strange mixture of strength and vulnerability and allowed the audience to engage with her and find her, for all she was a terrifying presence, a fragile, vulnerable beauty. The intense emotion that came from her was the truth. This was not a mere naked kabarett dancer; Anita Berber was an Expressionist artist who has never been equalled.

Anita’s dances included
Arabesque Duet
Brahms Waltz
Caprice Espagnol
Dance in White
Diana, the Huntress
La Masque
Legend of Dagobah
Lotus Land
Man and Woman
Murder, Woman and hanged one
Salomé Princess of Judah
Telephone call 19-20
The Burr
The corpse on the dissecting table
The night of the Borgias
The Rose
The somnambulist and the convict
The woman with the seven masks
Three small dream marches

Anita’s appeared in twenty eight films
Das Dreimäderlhaus (1918) (The House of the Three Girls)
Dida Ibsens Geschichte: Eine finale zum Tagebuch einer Verlorenen von Margaret Böhme  (1918) (Dida Ibsen’s story: A finale to the diary of the lost girl by Margaret Böhme)
Die Nixen Königin (1919 ) (The Nixen Queen)
Die Reise um die Erde in 80 Tagen (1919) (Around the World in Eighty Days)
Anders als die Andern (1919) (Different from the others)
Die Prostitution/ Das Gelbe Haus (1919) (The Madam/The yellow House)
Peer Gynt (1919) Peer Gynt
Peer Gynt 2. Teil: Peer Gynts Wanderjahre und Tod (1919) (Peer Gynt – Part 2: Peer Gynt’s years of travel and death)
Unheimliche Geschichten (1919) (Tales of Mystery)
Nachtgestalten (1920) (Creatures of the Night)
Yoshiwara, die Liebesstadt der Japaner (1920) (Yoshiwara, the Japanese city of love)
Falschspieler (1920) (The Deceiver)
Der Schädel der Pharaonentochter (1920) (The skull of Pharaoh’s Daughter)
Der Graf von Cagliostro (1920) (The Count of Cagliostro)
Verfehltes Leben (1921) (Destroyed life)
Die goldene Pest (1921) (The Golden Pest)
Die Nacht der Mary Murton (1921) (The night of Mary Murton)
Lucifer (1921) (Lucifer)
Dr Mabuse, der Spielmann (1921) (Dr Mabuse, the Gambler)
Die von Zirkus (1922) (She from the Circus)
Schminke (1922) (Makeup)
Lucrezia Borgia (1922) (Lucrezia Borgia)
Die drei Marien und der Herr von Manana (1922) (The three Maries and the Lord of Manana)
Im Kampf mit dem unsichtbaren Feind (1922) (Fighting the invisible enemy)
Wien, du Stadt der Lieder (1923) (Vienna, City of Song)
Moderne Tänze (1923) Modern dance)
Irrlichter der Tiefe (1923) (Light from the Depths)
Ein Walzer von Strauß (1924) (A Waltz by Strauss)

She wrote three hauntingly beautiful poems



Available on Amazon –


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