by Annabel Fielding
Anita Berber was born in 1899, and her blood ran with music and dance. That blood also ran hot. There were excellent reasons for all three facts. Her father Felix had been a talented violinist who performed internationally since childhood and, according to his son from his later third marriage, was obsessed with his art. Her mother Lucie was a cabaret chanteuse who performed at Berlin’s Chat Noir (not to be confused with the Paris establishment of the same name). The two’s quarrels were so stormy that, in the end, Lucie even attempted to shoot her husband (fortunately for everyone involved, they finally divorced in 1902). Arguably, these roots pulsing with restless energy and strange passions went even deeper.
Her great-grandfather was a political refugee from the Hungarian revolution of 1848. In Germany, he ended up running a firm that sold souvenirs. However, the respectability of the clan didn’t last long – his daughter-in-law, Constance, enjoyed bohemian and musical circles, and had been close to Franz Liszt. She ended up leaving her husband, who then shot himself in front of their teenage son.
After her parents’ divorce, Anita was brought up by her grandmother and a range of aunts, in Leipzig and Dresden. There, she enjoyed a quiet middle-class upbringing, including her first dance lessons. However, the tranquility didn’t last long: in 1914, the war started, and Anita ended up leaving with her mother for Berlin.
The next years she spent between queues for margarine and bread, fortifying herself with unsugared tea, and finding solace only in her classes at Rita Sacchetto Ballet School. In February 1916, Anita made her debut with other girls at the school – entering the stage as a Zephyr.
Rita’s performances were original, whimsical, artistic, and often disturbingly sensual. Once, she got in trouble with the government censorship for the costumes and routine of the dancers in ‘Indisches Madchen’ (‘Indian Maiden’). Infuriated by this intrusion of prudish Prussian control, Anita later vented her frustration to her diary. Rita’s programmes allowed her to appear before the public in such varied roles as, to quote critics, ‘Fraulein Berber as a Gothic Woman’, ‘Fraulein Berber as a butterfly’, and even ‘Fraulein Berber as a Harlequin’. In March 1917, Anita performed solo for the first time.
Her early training in dance and rhythm did her a good service – reviews praised the natural grace of her manner and her almost supernatural flexibility. Her debut in cinema followed a year later.
Her first film was a respectable costume drama inspired by Franz Schubert’s life. However, later she went on to participate in Richard Oswald’s controversial films such as ‘The Diary of the Lost Ones’ that was later banned for treating sex a little too frankly. And to star with Conrad Veidt, the bisexual Gothic villain of black-and-white cinema par excellence, in the horror anthology ‘Unheimliche Geschichten’ (‘Unnerving Tales’). In 1919, the two also starred in ‘Anders als die anderen’ (‘Different from the others’). This startlingly sympathetic film features two male violinists in love with each other, only to have their affair ruined by scandal and blackmail. It was a great success not just in Berlin, but in Munich and Vienna – and became one of the reasons Richard Oswald’s name was later blackened by the Nazis. Some contemporaries even claimed that there had been only three queens of the silver screen in the Twenties in Germany: Marlene Dietrich, Lya de Putti, and Anita Berber.
However, Anita’s true fame still lay ahead – and the first step to it was her meeting with Sebastian Droste in 1920. This thin, dark, androgynous dancer, who signature routine was called Opium Intoxication, attracted her both as a man and a fellow artist. It was not long before they started putting on performances together. Their first piece was a routine with a sweetly respectable name of Spanish Dance – however, a different idea was already ripening in their heads: the number that was going to get Anita dubbed a ‘naked dancer’ and propel her to the heights of fame was on the way.
It took place in the nightclub Alkazar in Hamburg. She entered the stage in a slightly translucent blue shawl, a golden diadem, golden rings, and earrings. The orchestra started playing a languid foxtrot called ‘Salome, the loveliest flower of the East’. Then, to the gasps of the audience, Anita slipped out of the shawl, and proceeded to dance naked in the ethereal white light.
Some denounced her performance; some lauded it as a return to the stark and natural nakedness of antiquity. Either way, it was an overnight success. Suddenly, young women going to nightclubs were dressing and doing their makeup ‘a la Berber.’ Men paid prostitutes extra for impersonating her. The postcard brand Ross was printing her photographs. Fashionable magazines were inviting her to model hats and frocks for them.
Only one cloud appeared on the horizon, and it was a small one: Anita and Sebastian’s joint addiction to the ‘silver powder’ – aka cocaine, the ‘champagne drug’ of the Twenties.
Anita was dubbed ‘the goddess of the nightclub,’ for whom men and women alike ruined themselves. Sometimes, during a shooting of yet another film, she spent the whole night partying. She came into the studio in the morning, looking terrible; then she revived herself with a cup of strong Mokka and a few pieces of ice, and then was ready for the working day.
The success brought on more travel – sometimes she spent a better part of the year in Vienna, engaged by Ballhaus Tabarin or the Ronacher Theatre. Anita even toyed with the idea of settling in Vienna permanently, but then abandoned it. Most of her plans of this kind remained faint phantasmas. According to her contemporary, Siegfried Geyer, she lived not even from one day to another, but from one half hour to another. A bank account was an ‘unknown language’ – to her, money was something she had (or didn’t have) in her purse.
Her love life was just as chaotic. Her most steady friend and lover had been Susi Wanowski, the wife of a high-ranking police official (Droste didn’t seem to mind). Another, much more tempestuous one, was Baroness Leonie Von Puttkamer. Wild blood flowed in Leonie’s veins – her mother, a famous beauty, became in her own time enmeshed in a divorce scandal after falling in love with an Italian diplomat and living with him in Rome and Palermo. Leonie herself was technically married to an Austrian by the name of Albert Gessmann – however, the marriage was that of distance and convenience that suited both parties. Albert got his ticket into high society, and Leonie the opportunity to carry on her affairs under the gauze veil of married respectability. Leonie, as Anita’s new fan, did her best to contact her via letters and telegrams – to no avail. They ended up getting together in Vienna, where Leonie had Anita driven to her house in the evenings and returned to her hotel in the mornings to avoid Susi. The affair lasted less than a year, but set a lot of tongues wagging. The fact didn’t help Anita when, a year later, Droste was deported from Austria for criminal offenses, including drug dealing.
Granted, the deportation didn’t happen immediately– with Droste and Anita bringing so much money to the theatres they performed at, no one had been in too much of a hurry to expel them. The Ronacher Theatre used the scandal as free promotion for the show. Same could be said for the Apollo Theater and the Ballhaus Tabarin. Finally, on the 5th of January 1923, Droste was forcibly taken to Hungary, and both he and Anita were forbidden to enter Austria for the next five years.
Anita, who was not forcibly removed from the country quite yet, made a memorable exit. Realizing that her time was running out, she tried to smuggle the gowns and jewelry that were set aside for her use out of the Ballhaus Tabarin. However, on the way out, she and her two companions came across a suspicious porter who realized what was happening, and tried to search her. In response he got a fist in the face from Anita. The next day, Berliner Zeitung am Mittag reported delightedly that, having ended her career in Vienna as a naked dancer, Anita debuted in that of a boxer. The fight was finally put to an end by the director of Tabarin himself.
One of the technical grounds for the expulsion that were later read to her was ‘the profaning of Beethoven’s music’. In truth, it was more likely to have been her lesbian affairs and her drug problems, not to mention the above accident in the Tabarin. To make matters worse, as soon as the couple reached Berlin, Droste absconded with her jewels and boarded a ship to America (where he became a moderately successful Expressionist poet).
Anita did not grieve for him for long, and launched her programme at the White Mouse Club. Simultaneously, together with Conrad Veidt and other artistic stars, she entered the honorary committee of Academie der Farbe (Colour Academy). In 1924, they undertook the organisation of a series of masked balls, themed around a colour of each month – white for October, red for November, gold for December, violet for January, multicoloured for February, green for March.
In the evenings, Anita drank cognac in the bars of the glistening, vice-filled ‘new West’ of Kutfurstendamm. If she was in ill humour, the evening could end in broken plates.
The dancer Henri Chatin Hoffman, himself a son of a German-Swiss family, came to Germany from the US in 1923, and captured the novelty-hungry interest of Berliners immediately. He also captured Anita’s heart. They got married on the 10th of September 1924 and started a joint programme with a self-explanatory title of ‘Dances of Erotica and Ecstasy’.
The joys of married life, however, did not slow down Anita’s descent into addiction. Already by that time, she sometimes needed to drink a whole bottle of cognac to appear on stage. A year before, in November 1922, she wrote an open letter for the magazine Die Fackel (‘The Torch’) to dispel supposedly false rumours that she had been treated at a clinic for nervous diseases. When she felt particularly dejected, she could be found drinking cognac and taking cocaine at the transvestite bar Eldorado, on Lutherstrasse.
In her 1926 interview, smoking one cigarette after another, Anita asked, tears boiling up in her eyes, if she was corrupt and stupid for wishing a quiet bourgeois life now – to open a fashion house, to work a lot, to enjoy simple pleasures, and dance sometimes at the five o’clock tea dances at Bristol or Adlon, instead of striving for the sublime?
In order to a new beginning, she and Henri decided to leave Europe and do a tour of the Middle East. There, Anita danced in the elegant hotels of Alexandria and murky bars of Beirut. She claimed to have never taken a drop of alcohol during that tour. However, the sudden and complete abstinence was hard on her, and her health was further weakened by the tropical climate.
On the 13th of July 1928, the crisis came. She went on stage to perform her routine ‘A Dance in White’ – and collapsed on the floor. The doctor diagnosed a swiftly progressing lung disease.
They had to break up the tourney mid-way, and speed Anita home. The money was running out swiftly. Finally, in Prague, Henri found out that they had no money for a ticket to Berlin, and her old friend, the Cabarettist, Willy Karzin had to organize a collection among their fellow artists to allow her to return home.
When she checked into Berlin’s Bethanien Hospital in Kreuzberg, few would have recognized the naked beauty of years past in the skeletal creature that she had become. On her bedside table, she ended up keeping morphine syringes and little statuettes of Christ.
Her fight with death lasted a whole week. During that time, neither Anita nor her friends wanted to acknowledge she was dying. Sometimes she delighted them with her plans about a tour of Italy, and promises never to drink again.
She ended up dying on the 10th of November at 9 p.m. Henri was not with her – he had a performance at Weidenhofcasino with a new partner. This lady, whose name was Shelda, ended up becoming his next wife.
The journalists reporting Anita’s death referred to her as an ‘inflation dancer’ – and, in a way, they were right. When she died in the hospital, the time for her era – that of inflation and extravagance, naked dances and glorious revues, silver screen and silver powder – was running out. It was as if the Golden Twenties, as they are dubbed in German, expired with her, who symbolized them so greatly.
Anita Berber: Ein getanztes Leben, by Lothar Fischer.
About the Author
Annabel Fielding has studied Media, Communications and Cultural Studies in Newcastle University, and later got her Master’s in Public Relations in the UAL in London. However, as a lifelong history aficionado, she spent most of her time there admiring local landmarks. Since then, she has published a queer historical novel A Pearl for My Mistress with HQ/HarperCollins and started a history blog with a dash of travel on http://historygeekintown.com, as well as sharing haphazard tidbits of both on @DearestAnnabel on Twitter.