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Anita Berber Droste and Fritz LangResearch Paper

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Weimar Decadence: Berlin, Berber and Vice

With the disintegrating social order in Germany following the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the threat of revolution overwhelming the political order, Germany in the wake of WW1 was in a position to re-invent itself. A new image of Germany under the Weimar Republic emerged -- one that was liberal, radical, excessive, decadent, and debauched. The Berlin Cabaret and nightlife flourished with women like Anita Berber, the cocaine-addicted, nude-dancing socialite cabaret performer, becoming the poster girl of Weimar culture. The Bauhaus came into existence, modern art and modern psychology found a foothold, and Germany underwent a rapid transformation/degradation as post-War hedonism subverted the social and moral mores of the country that just over a decade later would re-assert its moral principles under the leadership of the Third Reich.

The Berlin nightlife was the other side of the "Neue Frau" or "New Woman" being given a host of new rights -- suffrage, office, equal pay. The liberal principles of egalitarianism opened up the doors to all, not just women, of course. Jews in Germany could now exert more influence in the public sector, in politics, finance, and in the arts and entertainment industries. Like the "New Woman," Jews quickly assumed positions of the highest influence. The Third International Psychoanalytic Congress had already been held in Weimar, Germany in 1911, prior to the War -- but it had set the stage for the "new thought" that would come to dominate the Weimar Republic and represent itself in the "new art" of the era. Sigmund Freud had been in attendance then and his views on sexuality and the unconscious were instrumental and influential in developing the sexually explicit and sexually-charged atmosphere of Berlin in the 1920s, with its ambiguous gender-bending and androgyny. The German artist Otto Dix celebrated the new frontier of sexuality by depicting in iconic fashion the women of the streets and night clubs of Germany's major cities. His Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber (1925) revealed a red-haired, white-faced, heavily made-up women draped in a body-hugging red dress, which she lasciviously clawed at with her left hand, hiking it up towards her groin, her other hand at her hip as though signaling to her admiring public that she was ready for anything and everything. The backdrop of the painting consisting of red and black shades gives the painting an overall hue of crimson ecstasy, as though either Berber were the devil incarnate or she was about to be engulfed by the blood-red flames of hellfire. The passionate color also symbolizes the excess of the era and of Berber's own life, while her face appears pallid, almost skeletal, the eyes overwhelmed by dark mascara and eye shadow, the dancer's lips painted dancer red, pursed, bored, unimpressed by the world around her yet almost predatory in their sharpness.

Dix also painted The Journalist Sylvia von Harden (1926) who assumed the identity of the Neue Frau (first by renaming herself from Lehr to von Harden in order to appear more staunch and upper-class,[footnoteRef:1] then by appearing in the androgynous fashion of the times -- short hair, like a man's; third, by embracing the sexually ambivalent attitudes of the decadent twenties, living openly with a male writer and having a son with him).[footnoteRef:2] Yet, in typical Dix fashion (and typical of the age as well), the subject is exaggerated "and thereby caricatures" the represented person. The hands and fingers of Sylvia are elongated, like the dread fingers of Nosferatu in F. W. Murnau's 1922 Weimar film of the same name. Played by Max Schreck, the vampire Nosferatu in the film has long, icy fingers and a decadent expression that perfectly embodies the wasted Weimar culture of the days. It is this vampirism that Dix echoes in his portraits, whether of Sylvia the Neue Frau or Anita the Dancer. Thus, Dix shows his own attraction to and simultaneous repulsion from his subjects -- similar to the Fitzgerald-Gatsby paradoxical paradigm -- the allure to the splendor and liberality and the disgust with the wasting disease that was the decadent lifestyle. [1: Shearer West, The Visual Arts in Germany, 1890-1940: Utopia and Despair (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 138.] [2: Jill Jiminez, Joanna Banham, Dictionary of Artists' Models (UK: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2012), 262.]

Frtiz Lang's Metropolis (1927) also depicted the Weimar decadence in its futuristic dystopian morality tale about characters in a metropolitan city overrun by lust (inspired by the robot disguised as the humble Maria -- only under this guise she is turned into a lascivious dancer a la Anita Berber, which drives the men of the city mad with desire). The dance scene in the film is especially noteworthy as it depicts the false Maria seductively dancing on stage in an effort to persuade the men in the audience to give themselves over to her, body and soul, so that they will be her followers and willing participants in the destruction of the city. The scene is intercut with the images of the hero having a nightmare in bed and with the images of the men in the audience riveted to the erotic display on stage, unable to take their eyes of the female figure of the false Maria. Lang produces a kind of collage of the men's eyes that fills the screen and represents them at the height of their ecstasy as they are totally subsumed by the sexuality of the dancer. On a macro-level, this was the Berlin cabaret that the Weimar Republic had allowed to flourish in the inter-War years. The false Maria is the femme-fatal, the dangerous woman, whose seductive gestures imperil the lives and souls of the men and the overall well-being of the city. Her gaze is too powerful to resist and in turn receives their gaze, which is unaninously unbreakable, as Lang suggests with his collage-like edit. Lang's animosity towards the cabaret is clearly evident (and the film's resolution makes it doubly clear) -- but so too is his recognition that the dance of the femme-fatal is powerful, seductive, erotic and charged with an unholy spirit that is as capable of alluring as it is of repelling. That the film's heroine is the true Maria (a reference to the Old World Mother of God and of Virtue) reveals the underlying consciousness of the need for moral order, which the liberal Weimer Republic was displacing.

Few attempted to displace it as thoroughly as Berber and her (for a time) husband Sebastian Droste. Mel Gordon describes Anita as the Priestess of Debauchery in his biography of the infamous performer.[footnoteRef:3] Both Anita and Droste intermingled in the homosexual underworld of Berlin and both were known for participating in homosexuality. Their stage act was a literal expression of the inflamed passion and rapture of vice, with dances called "Suicide," "Mad House," and "Morphium." Indeed, the volume of collected works that the two published was a celebration of vice titled Dances of Vice, Horror and Ecstasy and contained images and poetry in which "The holiest thrill of deep ecstasy / The most inflamed trembling of the most abrading horror / The lascivious becoming addicted to the most forbidden vice" is commemorated with reckless abandon and cynicism.[footnoteRef:4] Droste and Berber set about representing man's ascension to states of bliss (by way of sex and drugs). The result was an early death for both -- Droste in 1927 and Berber in 1928. He was 35. She was 29. The poster children of Weimar decadence had essentially buried themselves beneath the vice and anarchy they celebrated with artistic abandon. [3: Mel Gordon, The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin's Priestess of Debauchery (LA: Feral House, 2006).] [4: Sebastian Droste, Anita Berber, Dances of Vice, Horror and Ecstasy (UK: Side Real Press, 2012).]

The spirit of decadence was not confined to them, however. The artist Christian Schad depicted it in Two Girls (1928) in what has been called an example of Provocative Realism. The portrait represents two young women, one sitting on the edge of a bed, half nude, legs spread, one stocking falling down, the other woman reclined behind her. Both women have a hand between their legs and appear to be masturbating while locking eyes with the viewer.

Others, like Hannah Hoch, participated in the Berlin Dada movement -- Dada being the meta-absurdist art movement, best exemplified by Marcel Duchamp's found art entitled "Fountain" which was nothing more than a urinal. This was the level to which society (art world included) had descended according to the Dadaists, who viewed with scorn the self-important airs of the artistic and social world. Yet the Dadaists had no real "solution" to the world's descent into chaos in the inter-War period, nor did they intend to offer one. Their artistic expressions were designed to mock rather than enlighten and for a brief period of time such expression was a welcome voice. But as society under the Weimer Republic continued to deteriorate, due to wartime reparations, hyper-inflation, joblessness,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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