During occasional childhood visits to the German grandparents I would often hear my gran swear about loose women, her eyes firmly peeled on my grandfather, who would grin cheekily. My grandfather was a sweet natured man who slept with only two women in his life, his first wife and my gran and in that order, so whilst he was probably more than flattered to be associated with loose women it couldn’t have been further from the truth. Especially not Asta and that Anita who were supposedly the cause of my gran’s jealous rage. My Mum vaguely remembered from her childhood that they were raucous starlets, whom my granddad used to encounter as a policeman when on the beat in 1920s Berlin. My staunch socialist granddad never spoke about this and got his memories in a twist about the two world wars he had unwillingly been drafted for.
My gran hated Asta because she had a deep voice and was Danish, that being Asta Nielssen (1881-1972) who was one of the early silent movie stars alongside the other Scandinavian Greta Garbo, who (had my gran remembered her), could not also have been trustworthy as they both seemed to dress up as boys a lot. In fact they both starred in a film together in 1924 just before Garbo left for Hollywood. Anita was hated because she didn’t wear much, but at least didn’t have a deep voice and was rather feminine.
This all didn’t bother me much until I discovered my personal love for being naked in public and hanging out in Berlin. It was 1984, I wore heavy black eye make-up and listened to Lotte Lenya and German New Wave band Malaria, and discovered sex with girls and stealing. Quite obviously I didn’t share these pastimes with my grandparents, this I thought was my Berlin, not theirs. And the matrix for this Berlin was provided (in my mind) by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Rosa von Praunheim, both gay film directors who delved into the deep recesses of German hedonism, one fat and bearded and the other gamine and effeminate. They both liked women a lot, the kinds I liked myself modelling on, like the young sluttish Hanna Schygulla torturing her uptight girlfriend with her come-ons in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Fassbinder 1972) and the old woman who remembers being an exotic dancer in the Weimar era in Anita Dances of Vices (Praunheim, 1987). The films were pure Seventies and Eighties - my time not someone else’s. Until that is when I suddenly made the link between Anita and my gran’s icon of hate. The intriguing snippet of my policeman granddad dragging Anita out of a hotel because she decided to drop her furcoat to reveal none other than her birthday suit, all of sudden made sense. It was that Anita and her companion Sebastian, whose cool photos me and my tranny mates had not only been admiring but also tried to emulate, dress (or undress) wise. My puppy love, a lanky berlin girl with very pale skin looked just like her, I thought.
Anita Berber, born 1899, child of divorced bohemian parents, a trained actress and dancer shot to fame with her expressionist performances and also as a silent movie starlet. She wore heavy dancer’s make-up, which on black and white photos from her era and filmstills from Dr. Mabuse and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, came across as jet black lipstick painted across the heart-shaped part of her skinny lips and charcoaled heroin chicesque eyes. Her hair colour was frequently bright red, as we can gather from archive narration and the famous painting of her by Otto Dix.
Her hair was cut fashionably into a short bob and either worn as a crazy bird’s nest or slicked down with pommade. Her dancer friend and sometime lover Sebastian Droste was so skinny his ribs stuck out and he had black hair with gelled up curls much like sideburns. Neither of them wore much more than lowslung loin cloths and Anita occasionally a corsage, unravelled and way below her tiny breasts. In short they were supersexy and staring at them was intellectually justified for me and my friends because they were original members of Freikoerperkultur, espoused expressionist avantgarde dance and were in seminal arthouse movies. Cut to Hoxton in the Noughties and the camp clubnights where kids dress to excess and size zero reigns, if only to pretend that skinny could have been brought about by taking drugs and having sex not food. Well Anita and Sebastian really lived like that and not for long. Anita died age 29 after a heavy bout of tuberculosis (so they say). She hadn’t eaten in years and fuelled her fantastic choreography of dances of vice, lust and all sorts of other excesses by heavy doses of cocaine. (the sort which wouldn’t have been cut and was therefore very potent). She was described by her peers as a genuinely talented dancer who supposedly slipped into the Weimar era underground scene in Berlin, most likely because of her sexual leanings rather than lack of talent. She didn’t really make that much money but got by through a form of “prostitution’ which would have most likely involved dancing up close to wealthy guys and girls and getting them to pay for more drink and drugs in return for being highly amusing. She was famously remembered not only for dropping her sable in the lobby of the überglamorous Adlon hotel whilst kissing two male companions at the same time, (until my granddad put a stop to it) but also for exclaiming on stage: “Don’t worry, eventually I get round to sleeping with you all”. Anita, being young and beautiful and daring with her furs and imbibing copious amounts of Veuve Clicquot Champagne, which she of course never paid for, epitomised the glamour and fast-living hedonism of the Weimar era. Her portrait by the social realist painter Otto Dix, famously showed her in a skin-tight red dress, her superwhite skin and looking three times as old than her actual age, 25. For Dix she was the ultimate epitome of desire; unobtainable because of her open love affairs with a bar owner called Susi Wanowsky and more threateningly with Marlene Dietrich. Her dances featured semi-naked slave girls bound by strings and herself towering over them with a whip, a tad more extreme than girlfriend Marlene’s Blue Angel. The clubs were in Friedrichstrasse, which was notorious for mixed gay and tranny clubs. Anita played a role in the first ever coming out movie Anders als die Anderen (Different form the Others), made in 1919, the year the Weimar republic was established. Anita died in 1928, four years after chancellor Gustav Streseman came to power in a democratic parliament which famously could not prevent the onset of the Great Depression (and therefore massive lack of champagne) in 1929, swiftly followed by the rise of the Nazis to power.
Anita Berber lives on in the portrait of Otto Dix, a masterpiece which mythologises her and is frequently misunderstood by a contemporary audience who see an unfortunate prostitute rather than the glittering bisexual über glamorous doyenne of a fabulous clubscene. We can only envy this today in a much more policed and controlled environment than when my bumbly granddad was on the beat. I know today that my gran was never at risk of losing him to Anita. I on the other hand could have lost myself to her completely.