The grotesque burlesque of Valeska Gert

In the charmless wastelands surrounding the monolithic o2-world arena in Berlin, wedged between a railway line and the East Side Gallery — the longest extant part of the Wall — lies Valeska-Gert-Straße. It honours a woman who was a pioneering performance artist, Dadaist dancer as well as an actress whose film appearances ranged from early silents to Fellini and Fassbinder.

Born on this day in 1892, Gert first made her name in the early Weimar Republic with interpretive routines which expanded the vocabulary of dance just as Expressionist painters were doing in figurative art. Like an Otto Dix painting come to life, Gert could be by turns grotesque, intense, mocking, pathetic or furious, performing with an anarchic intensity and artistic fearlessness which also recommended her to the Dadaists.

Throughout the 1920s Gert appeared alongside screen sirens such as Greta Garbo, Louise Brooks and Asta Nielsen in early silent films. Once the Nazis came to power, however, Gert – being Jewish – was banned from performing and left Germany, settling first in London, then in the US. There she maintained a fractious friendship with the playwright Tennessee Williams; as a bar owner in New York she employed him as a busboy, eventually sacking him after an altercation in which bottles were thrown and the police summoned. Amends were clearly made as later, when Gert performed in Provincetown, a white-jacketed Williams would act as her MC.

After the war Gert returned to Germany and enjoyed a late film renaissance, appearing in Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits as well as films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Tin Drum director Volker Schlöndorff. Her last years were spent on the upscale island of Sylt where she ran a bar called Ziegenstall (“Goat Stable”), claiming, “the guests are like goats! They bleat and get milked.” Gert continued to give cabaret performances but it was a rather solitary existence. Shortly before her death,  Schlöndorff made a documentary about her in which she claimed “I only want to be loved on the stage, but in life I don’t really care”. Such was the degree of her isolation that when she died in 1978 it took around four days for anyone to realise.

Here Gert appears alongside Louise Brooks, playing a forbidding reform school headmistress in P.W. Pabst’s 1929 film Diary of a Lost Girl:

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9 comments

  1. Giuliano

    Many thanks for this post on Valeska Gert (it came up as part of a google search on Gert). A name I came across yesterday in a wonderful lecture on Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (Gert told the Eisenstein scholar Naum Kleiman in Berlin that Eisenstein was one of the five men she had ever loved in her life).
    It would be fascinating to find out if there are any extant documentary clips of her eccentric dance routine.Congratulations for the site – your entry on Gert entry has encouraged to read more of your posts.

    • Thanks for the comments. I haven’t come across any footage of Gert performing, and the Volker Schlöndorff documentary (which I haven’t seen) apparently uses another dancer to recreate her routines. As with Anita Berber we really only get a glimpse of her in feature films made by others; it appears her own shows went sadly undocumented.

  2. Pingback: Oh baby « Strange Flowers

  3. there is a wondeful book by Susamnne Foellmer about gert
    it has all her recorded dances ( Death, Canaille,Die Kupplerin) on cd in it… absolutely wonderful!

  4. Pingback: A German miscellany « Strange Flowers

  5. Paul Cornwell

    Valeska Gert gave a dance recital at Terence Gray’s Cambridge Festival Theatre (date unknown c1934-5) when Joseph Macleod became the new supremo following Gray’s departure In 1933. I have been unable to find any records of the performance. Paul Cornwell

  6. Hi! The fragment is also on a DVD in the Valeska Gert Soure Book, published by Hybriden Verlag Berlin – it has all the excerpts of the show in Hamburger Bahnhof, also the two videos Baby and Death by Ernst Mitzka.

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