Thursday, October 23, 2008

Anita Berber: Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy

Anita Berber (1899-1928) was a dancer in pre-Nazi Germany, famous/notorious for a life of bisexuality, drugs and semi-naked performance.

With her sometime husband and dancing parter Sebastian Droste she published in 1923 a book of poetry, photographs, and drawings called Die Tänze des Lasters, des Grauens und der Ekstase (Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy), based on their performance of the same name.

In Berlin, "Berber was known to dance in the Eldorado, a homosexual and transvestite bar, where Rudi Anhang, dancer and jazz banjoist, accompanied her. Berber's speciality was a depraved dance number entitled 'Cocaine', performed to the music of Camille Saint-Saens. She also did a piece called 'Morphium'" (Kater).

Another dance, first performed in 1919, was Heliogabal where she played a sun-worshipping priest ‘Exquisite, entirely attired in gold, her metallic body lured the sun’ (Elegante Welt, 1919, cited in Toepfer).

In 1925 she was the subject of an expressionist portrait, entitled The Dancer Anita Berber, by the painter Otto Dix. It's not particularly flattering, making her look much older - and judging by photographs - less attractive than she actually was.

Death in Vegas dedicated a song to Anita on their 2004 album Satan's Circus.

Berber's reputation still manages to wind up present-day Nazi sympathisers. While researching this I came across one such scum-site praising Hitler's cleansing of 'decadent' Weimar Berlin, and stating that Berber 'Typified the Jewish mindset. Her stage acts revolved around masturbation, cocaine, and lesbian love' (yes they're still out there, though apparently there's now one less to worry about in Austria).

Sources: Michael H. Kater, Different Drummers: Jazz in the culture of Nazi Germany; Karl Eric Toepfer, Empire of Ecstasy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910-1935.


Anonymous said...

if you're still interested in anita berber and/or the political aspect of cabaret, you might want to check out "Cabaret Performance: Volume II: Europe 1920-1940," edited by Laurence Senelick (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993). it has a few pieces about and some photographs of anita berber, including a longish description of her dance "cocaine." however, the section on cabaret dance (which, unfortunately, is not that long) devotes more pages to valeska gert (born gertrud samosch), the creator of the expressionist/dadaist dance-pantomime. apparently, when she asked bertolt brecht what he meant by epic acting, he replied, "what you do."


siderealpress said...


I hope you wont mind my blatent piece of self promotion, but readers of your Berber piece may be interested to know that I have just published the first full translation (by Merrill Cole) of 'Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy'in a small edition of 300 numbered h/b copies.

It includes the wonderful D'Ora images which, where I can find them, I have licensed form various collections, and these have all be restored to make them look their best.

There are also a few extra bits and pieces - an into by Cole, and essay by Mel Gordon (Berbers biographer) and a few other D'Ora images (one hand mounted on the cover).

The website is:

I have also added my own essay on Berber/Droste/ the book etc here:

If you would care to mention it somewhere I would be terribly grateful.

Thanks so much!

John N. Smith