Two so-so dancers, one of whom was also a mediocre poet. Why bother with this essay? Because they are a spectacular example of moxie triumphing over actual talent.
Anita Berber and Sebastian Droste were Weimar Republic cabaret performers. The content of their act seems a little silly, not unlike other cabaret acts that came before. But, whip out a dick or display a muff and you are assured of asses in seats. They managed to shock the seemingly un-shockable with their naked and kinky, but derivative stage performances. However, their real talent lay in refraction. Refracted through those with greater talent. This mismatched, headline hungry duo impacted only when caught in the orbit of an artist possessed with greater ability.
Anita Berber was born in Berlin in 1899. At age 16 she was spotted in a dance class by choreographer Rita Sachetto, and was soon touring the continent with Sachetto’s dance company. Despite her face, Berber began to get a lot of modeling work, which led to a few small film roles. Notably the pioneering gay flick “Different From Others” from 1919. She entered into a sham marriage with the screenwriter, she a lesbian and he a homosexual. The union lasted two years. At the time of her divorce she was a highly paid Berlin cabaret performer. This was the roaring 20’s and she typically danced in the buff.
She dated a series of beauties, including Marlene Dietrich, then entered into a relationship with Susie Wanowski, who would manage Anita’s career for the next two years.
It was not long before Berber’s offstage behavior eclipsed her act. She would club all night, her striking bob dyed flame, snorting cocaine from her cameo ring, wearing only shoes, lipstick and a fur. Often with her pet monkey perched on her back, a metaphor come to life. She sometimes clothed herself in an impeccably tailored tuxedo, an image that would remain with Dietrich and be recreated to great effect in her classic film “Morocco” eight years hence.
After appearing in Fritz Lang’s “Dr. Mabuse” in 1922 Berber was out at a gay bar when she encountered a kindred spirit. Fellow dancer and addict Sebastian Droste. They soon conceived of an act titled “Dances of Depravity, Ecstasy, and Horror” which was filled with sadomasochistic imagery, full frontal nudity, and culminated with Droste ejaculating on Berber’s naked, prone form. The act took Berlin, then Europe, by storm, making them infamous.
Anita dumped Susie and married Sebastian, but before the ink on the marriage certificate was dry, Droste stole all Anita’s furs for drug money, and fled to New York with his lover.
Once Droste left Berber in Berlin, she vigorously renewed her lesbian pursuits and before too long was awash in pussy. Then she met American dancer Henri Chattan-Hoffman and fell head-over-heels for him. They began a professional partnership, still suggestive, but much tamer than her partnership with Droste. Lots of nudity, give the public what they want. They toured extensively in support of the new act, but it was not long before it was sidelined by her drug addiction. Her concoction of choice? A bowl of liquid morphine and ether, stirred with a white rose, which she would consume, a petal at a time.
It was during her rose eating days that she sat for painter Otto Dix, who would immortalize her in one of the best known portraits of the 20th century: “The Dancer Anita Berber” ca. 1925. By the end of the decade her drug consumption had increased to an unbelievable amount. More than anyone should be able to survive. She didn’t, ultimately, and was found dead surrounded by empty syringes. The official cause of death was ascribed to tuberculosis.
Berber died penniless, so was interred in a pauper’s grave. Some friends in her artistic circle took up a collection to buy her a headstone, but the maintenance costs ballooned and the marker has long since been removed. She is buried somewhere, but the exact location of her final resting place is lost to time.
Anita is a study in contradictions. Was she outrageous or vulnerable? Gay or straight? Maybe she was all those things. She looks completely different in every photo. Even the famous Dix portrait depicts her as an old woman, despite her never even achieving age 30. She lived so large and so fast she probably knew she would never see her third decade. Berber’s legend has expanded due to books and films about her. She even appeared on a German postage stamp. A plaque now marks her Berlin residence.
Sebastian Droste was born Willy Knobloch in 1892.
After fighting on the western front in the Great War, Willy, like many German (and non-German) gays, headed where the action was. Berlin. In Berlin it was not long before he made a name for himself as a nude dancer with artistic flair. After appearing, wearing nothing but eyeliner and a loincloth, in the silent film “The Tragedy of Power”, his poetry began to be published in periodicals. I have read some examples of his poetry, it ain’t great.
Once he met the much more famous Berber, he felt he was on his way. As soon as they were partnered, things began to click for Sebastian. But he felt he was destined for greater things than being the less famous half of a double act.
After the dissolution of their act and their wreck of a marriage (and his larceny), Sebastian joined forces with photographer Francis Bruguiere and staged a series of photos to accompany a treatment for a film he had written entitled “The Way”. It was a pitch to UFA – the German state film studio. UFA passed, so Droste slunk home to Hamburg. Mere months after returning to the Fatherland, like Berber he died from tuberculosis. Weeks after his demise, Bougiere mounted an exhibition of the sixty expressionistic photos he had taken of Droste. The exhibition was a triumph, and is regarded as one of the best examples of German Expressionistic photography.
The grave of Droste, who was significantly less famous than Berber, is also a mystery.
So, Otto Dix paints Berber and Francis Bruguiere takes some incredible photographs of Droste and voila! Immortality. It took two others, possessed of vision, to elevate Berber and Drost to the status they so desperately craved, even if they are viewed today as only eccentric footnotes.
It takes nerve to expose your body in public, and verve to expect payment for it. But, this had been done, and done better, already. But Anita and Sebastian were persistent. They never gave up. Whether to fuel their drug habits or to insure their infamy one can only guess. Probably both. That we know anything about them today is a stunning case of “right place – right time”.
Our cultural landscape is littered with the remains of the careers of second, third…fourth tier artists. After a generation or two they tend to (deservedly) fade to obscurity. Some art should be forgotten. How did our subjects manage to become indelible? If you know the answer, please, keep it to yourselves.
By Frank Howard