Berlin between the wars was a place of social unrest and wildly creative art. Germany’s defeat in World War I found the country in the grips of an identity crisis that drove many artists, writers, and performers to reject the conservative values that led to devastating warfare and embrace new, revolutionary forms of expression. In the chaotic early days of the Weimar Republic, the siren song of Berlin lured the creative class to its embrace and in so doing became a legendary locale for decadent parties, riotous behavior, and permissive sexual attitudes.
In this atmosphere, few names attained the degree of notoriety achieved by performer Anita Berber. A severe presence seemingly without shame, Berber’s nude dances scandalized the city alongside her omnivorous appetites for exotic sex and drugs. Anita lived and breathed decadence, her narrow, angular frame providing a physical manifestation of Berlin’s sex culture: androgynous, anti-fecund, and dangerous.
Beginning her dance career at sixteen in smoky cabarets, three years later in 1919 she was the Weimar It Girl, appearing as a vamp figure in silent films and dancing for adoring audiences. She posed for some of the great artists of her time: photographers, painters, cartoonists, and illustrators depicted her in—and out of—elaborate costumes. Expressionist Otto Dix, who memorialized the German experience of his time in paintings and etchings, famously depicted a prematurely jaded Anita as a red-on-red vision of fire and pale skin.
What set Anita apart in a city brimming with bare flesh was the intent of her dances. Beyond simply showing skin to titillate, Anita choreographed performances exploring themes of twisted sexuality, drugs, and death. Together with her dance partner and sometimes lover Sebastian Droste, himself a fantastical, attenuated creature seemingly animated from the drawings of the wildest Expressionist nightmares, Anita performed the Dances of Depravity, Horror, and Ecstasy beginning in 1922. This series of short, stylized dances found Sebastian pierced by arrows in an homage to his saintly namesake, Anita in the grips of morphine and cocaine addiction, and the couple enacting multiple necrophiliac tableaux, each in turn playing the part of alluring corpse. Beyond arousal, Anita’s dances provoked—demanded—strong response from those who watched them.
Anita extended the performance of her life off-stage. She indulged in a cornucopia of illicit drugs, consuming staggering quantities of opium, morphine, cocaine, ether, and every imaginable form of alcohol (cognac was a favorite). Perhaps exacerbated by her drug use, her behavior could be erratic and even violent. Tales are told of Anita accidentally smothering her pet monkey within the voluminous folds of her fur cape, attacking nightclub goers with champagne bottles, and shooting a stagehand with a pistol on the set of a melodramatic film in which she appeared.
Her sexual partners were many and came in all forms, from wealthy older men to virile military officers to at least one baroness. She even made lovers of a politician’s wife and daughter—simultaneously. Anita’s personality dominated those who craved cruel treatment and her handiness with a whip was legendary. From an early age, Anita learned to harness the power of her erotic being for pleasure, profit, and power.
Anita occupied the spotlight only briefly. By the time she died from tuberculosis (that most poetic of wasting diseases) in 1928, new ingénues had replaced her and the same newspapers and magazines that once celebrated her exploits barely marked her passing. She was the embodiment of a different time: the disorder of the early Weimar period bred permissiveness and experimentation but forces were in play that were on the brink of replacing all this with Nazi totalitarianism.
Today, Anita Berber is remembered as the ultimate pansexual free spirit, a woman who seized the liberal moment into which she was born and gave the world a brief but glorious life performance as the Mother Superior of Eros-Thanatos.