Matt Forney
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The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin’s Priestess of Depravity by Mel Gordon

anita-berberThe Weimar Republic is a name that is synonymous with degeneracy. The decade between the end of World War I and the rise of Adolf Hitler played host to some of the most insane bacchanalia since the fall of Rome. The Roaring Twenties had nothing on the end-of-days orgy that was republican Germany.

The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber will give you a taste of what this degeneracy was like.

Anita Berber was an actress and dancer who rose to fame in the first half of the 1920’s for her shocking and uninhibited “naked dances,” her torrid affairs with men and women, and her complete lack of decency or shame. Her fall was just as rapid: following the Great Inflation of 1923, Berber’s brand of erotic dance was no longer popular, and she spent the remainder of the decade trying to stay relevant and feed her cocaine addiction before succumbing to tuberculosis in 1928. In spite of Mel Gordon’s overly academic prose, Berber’s story makes for an interesting read.

That’s a far bigger detail than you would think, given the raciness of what The Seven Addictions is about. Gordon takes us not only through Berber’s life, but explains the context in which her brand of decadence rose to prominence. Interwar Germany had seen its culture completely destroyed. The Kaiser had abdicated, Deutschland’s vast colonial empire had been dismantled and a large chunk of its territory seized, and the Versailles treaty had reduced the country to a vassal of Britain and France. A great cultural vacuum had opened up, and Anita Berber and her contemporaries rushed to fill it with sleaze and sex:

Walter fidgeted at the invitation. It was an eerie and disturbing challenge more appropriate for his lust-smitten characters than its real-life neurotic creator. The big-eyed girl kicked off her shoes and waited for his response. The pudgy novelist hesitated, then leaned over to kiss her softly on the neck. Anita sprang to life. In a flash, she shed her dress and sauntered naked to his bedroom. Walter meekly followed. There the child-vixen unbuttoned the writer’s jacket and shirt. She spread her china-white body over the bed and he covered it with a row of kisses. But before the unlikely Lothario sexually embraced Anita, taking the willing 16-year-old’s virginity, she made him promise to bring an armful of flowers to her ballet debut. Walter agreed. The Swiss writer of historical romance fell into the ballerina’s net.

The Seven Addictions takes us from the “Dresden Madonna’s” childhood origins, her initial entry into Berlin’s arts circles, and the scandals she was constantly kicking up. The book also includes a wide variety of racy photos from the various stages of Berber’s career.

Unfortunately, this is where Gordon’s overly cautious approach fails him.

A story like this really has to draw the reader in with violent and energetic prose. Gordon’s consistently detached tone makes it seems as if he was as bored as if he’d been asked to recite names in a phone book. It’s only the sheer weirdness of Anita Berber’s story that kept me engrossed in the book:

As the evening’s petty flirtations turned to suggestive whispers and drunken groping, Anita stood up and enacted a passionate tango with Mia, an attractive strawberry-blonde and the partner of a notorious lesbian named Ellen. While the crowd gathered around the inebriated dancers, Anita methodically palmed the girl’s nipples until the giddy blonde nearly collapsed in orgasmic surrender. Ellen rushed to support her unsteady lover and commanded Anita to sit down. The air crackled with tension and sexual provocation.

Additionally, Gordon takes some bizarre detours from Anita Berber’s story, detracting from the overall narrative. For example, he devotes an entire chapter solely to the exploits of one of her lovers, Sebastian Droste, with whom she terrorized the theater scene in Vienna for a short time. Additionally, the final section of the book is taken up by English translations of some of Berber’s and Droste’s poetry and dances, and frankly, they’re awful.

The Naked Dance loses its allure when you’re reading it on a piece of paper.

Aside from all these issues, though, I was compelled to keep reading. Whatever her faults, Anita Berber was at least interesting: the tales of her run-ins with the Berlin press, her revolving door of lovers, and her self-destructive end make for a good bedtime story. If you’re interested in learning more about the culture of Weimar Germany or you just like tales of sex and sleaze, The Seven Addictions is worth your time.

Click here to buy The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber: Weimar Berlin’s Priestess of Depravity.

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