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: