Lolotte Valon was the sensation of Vienna. At least, of that snobbish, sophisticated Vienna that sets the tone for bad morals and even worse taste. Lolotte Valon had suddenly appeared in Vienna – no one knew where from – and this new apparition turned the strolling habitués of the Graben on their heads. Lolotte Valon was – there was no denying it – a triumphant beauty. Her golden red hair presented a striking contrast to her large sea-green eyes, which were framed by almost unnaturally long black eyelashes. The bright red lips of her mouth spoke of unrestrained avarice and unbridled hunger for life. Her figure was boyishly slim and, along with her soft, serpentine movements, emanated the kind of sensuality that turns men into slaves.
One hundred years ago today, German performer Anita Berber and partner Sebastian Droste presented an evening of dance at the Konzerthaus in Vienna. This is the most banal description of what would prove to be one of the great scandals of the day, an event that even now is striking in its conceptual extremity. Equally forward-looking, this stage show was just one part of an ambitious multi-platform project under the banner of Tänze des Lasters, des Grauens und der Ekstase (Dances of Vice, Horror and Ecstasy) which had considerable thematic overlap with the performers’ lives.
In case you’re new to Berber, here is a primer on her life presented at something like the pace with which she burned through it. Born in Leipzig in 1899, Anita Berber began dancing and taking acting lessons at around 14, made her stage debut in Berlin at 17, started modelling at 18, at 19 made the first of what would eventually be 24 films in just five years, and became a drug addict at 21. Berber was married and already separated at 22, remarried at 25. On stage she performed with or without clothes, with or without partners Sebastian Droste and Henri Chatin-Hofmann, drawing on an Expressionist aesthetic and themes of transgressive sex, psychological terror and drug use. Decline set in around the middle of the decade, accelerated by drug and alcohol abuse, and Berber didn’t survive the twenties – history’s or her own.
While Berber is most closely associated with Weimar Berlin and our careworn clichés of the time – divine decadence, dancing on the edge of the volcano – a significant amount of her career played out in Vienna. She had performed in the Austrian capital on multiple occasions prior to her 1922 sensation, alongside Tilly Losch among others, and shot the majority of her films there (usually smaller parts, reflecting her reputation as an unreliable player).
Berber and Droste, who trailed bedlam and bad debt in their wake, turned up in October 1922; shortly after arrival Berber checked herself into a sanatorium and Droste was stealing money to buy drugs but, hardly a criminal mastermind, he was soon under arrest. By the time of their performance he was on a suspended order to leave the country.
Her beauty alone would have been enough to attract attention, but it was something else Lolotte did that made her the talk of the day in Vienna. On the street she wore gossamer silk dresses that revealed her shoulders and part of her marble white bust, with a sable fur wrapped loosely around her body in place of a fur coat. And she was always accompanied, either on her arm or leisurely trotting behind her, by a small black grizzly bear. If one were to add that Lolotte Valon was never to be seen without her monocle, that in the street she smoked something from a little gold pipe that, the aroma suggested, was mixed with opium, you can well understand why the gentlemen and ladies would form a guard of honour whenever the exotic beauty came along.
The scandal of the occasion is pre-programmed, but for Droste, and even more so for Berber, this performance is not just about titillating the bourgeoisie. It is the apotheosis of their vision, which for them forms part of a lineage extending back to the gothic novel. It feeds on the idea that we are drawn to things that are objectively horrific, and that they can be refashioned as entertainment. The Grand Guignol theatre in Paris was still running at the time, in Germany you have the novels of Hanns Heinz Ewers with their extremes of sexuality and dread, while in Vienna, just a few years previously, Sigmund Freud had presented his theory of the uncanny, combining the sensations of compulsion and repulsion. Berber and Droste take all of this, distending and magnifying it, while borrowing from the stylised Expressionism of early Weimar cinema.
Berber may have been chaotic, but for her, it was always about the art. “We dance death, illness, pregnancy, syphilis, madness, dying, infirmity, suicide, and no one takes us seriously,” she complained. “They just gawp at our veils, trying to see what’s under there, the swine.” She always fought against this reduction to T&A; literally, on occasion. She had little impulse control at the best of times, but she was never more aggressive than when her art was disrespected. In 1930, Czech critic Joe Jenčík published a valuable documentation of her dances. Unfortunately Berber didn’t live to see it; she would doubtless have been pleased that someone took her so seriously. Tellingly, it contains a chapter called “Atelier or Boudoir”, crystallising the central dichotomy in her career.
Viennese audiences may have anticipated levels of sensuality permissible in a male-female dance partnership, perhaps a roll call of “great lovers of history”, but Droste and Berber were more like twisted siblings, a kink-positive Hansel and Gretel. Their dances came with names like “Cocaine”, “Suicide”, “Mad House” and “Byzantine Whip Dance”. It wasn’t just this, or the nudity, that shocked the audience on 14 November 1922 (although the extent to which Berber danced completely nude has always been overstated). In Berlin, at least, the disrobed performer had been a stage feature since Olga Desmond presented herself as a “living sculpture” in faux-high brow performances at the Theater am Nollendorfplatz in 1906. No, even now Berber and Droste’s act isn’t something to be neatly filed under “isn’t it cute what people used to find shocking”. One of their set pieces had Berber supine beneath a gallows as Droste ejaculates in his death throes. You’d still think twice about taking Nanna to that particular matinee.
All of this is provocation enough, but remember – this isn’t Berlin, it’s Vienna; it isn’t a murky basement, it’s the Konzerthaus, which is in the first rank of classical venues in the city alongside the Musikverein and the Staatsoper. The evening’s pianist, Otto Schulhof, accompanied the likes of Jascha Heifetz, Pablo Casals and Eugène Ysaÿe throughout his career. The pair’s dances of utter abandon were set to pieces by Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saëns; the use of the “Moonlight Sonata” to accompany a scene of suicide prompted one Viennese critic to propose a “Beethoven Protection Law”. In Catholic Vienna, Berber appeared as a nun while Sebastian Droste appeared as his namesake saint. If there was any precedent for this collision of high culture and shock value it was the premiere of Paul Hindemith’s outrageous one-act opera Sancta Susanna in March of that year, which brought crucifix-humping nuns to the august Frankfurt Opera.
One day Lolotte Valon appeared at the Tabarin accompanied by a Hungarian gentleman, and danced. She danced with such sultry abandon, so wildly, so furiously that all the guests got up and even the waiters forgot to encourage the guests to continue drinking. Of course, when the dance was over, she invited one or another of the guests to a further dance, and now at last the beau monde discovered that the beautiful young woman’s name was Lolotte Valon and that she came from somewhere in the East.
Berber and Droste’s performance, and the pair’s utterly dysfunctional offstage behaviour, preoccupied the Viennese press for weeks. The very day after their Konzerthaus appearance, Droste was arrested for robbing a pair of German countesses of jewellery and money; Berber openly shot up in cafés. They got into contractual wrangles about further performances, they were banned from the stage yet performed anyway, and stole all the while. Droste was finally expelled in early January, a few days later the police came for Anita. In her hotel room, she greeted them naked, tore up the warrant, impertinently addressed them with the informal “du” that she used for everyone she met. Berber left the city but with Viennese irreverence, parody versions of the pair’s act soon appeared in the city’s entertainment listings: “Anitta Gerber in Her Gruesome Dances”, “Annita Sperber and Sebastian Drosinger”, or simply “Anita Berber II”.
Berber and Droste would never perform together again (they may have been married, by the way, but it says something for the chaos of their lives that we can’t say with certainty). But their Viennese legacy transcends the newspaper clippings, caricatures and court records that documented their time in the city. For it was here that their grand project of a Gesamtkunstwerk took brief form. Somehow in among the turmoil they found time to shoot a film of their stage show, directed by Fritz Freisler. It premiered in Vienna in March 1923, but tragically the film Dances of Vice, Horror and Ecstasy is lost to us.
Luckily there is a more durable record – a book that bears the same title as the performance and the film, which was published in 1923. Droste and, especially, Berber were at the height of their infamy and notoriety, and they might easily have cashed in with a trashy memoir, and it would no doubt have been highly successful. But what they actually came up with was a high-brow production featuring photos by Viennese photographer “Madame d’Ora”, Dora Kallmus, whose lens captured everyone from empresses to drag queens. Here the few nude and near-nude studies find a sympathetic setting. Berber shows her range in a series of choreographic studies, including this image which appears to have been taken on the very day of her and Droste’s performance. Elsewhere, drawings by important Austrian Expressionist Felix Albrecht Harta are joined by Berber’s own naïve images, presumably self-portraits, including the cover graphic.
Apart from serious-minded essays by a journalist and architect respectively, much of the text is taken up by Berber and Droste’s own poetry. These verses may not be in the first rank of Expressionist literature, but they have an authentic intensity, staccato dispatches from disordered minds consumed by drugs, dread and exultation.
Overall, this was certainly something your Weimar-era sophisticate could leave out on their Bauhaus coffee table to be admired. It was published by Gloriette, a bibliophile Viennese press which also issued a one-act play by Lina Loos and Die freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street) by Hugo Bettauer. Later filmed with Greta Garbo and Asta Nielsen, with a small part for our old pal Valeska Gert, its treatment of prostitution typified Bettauer’s frank approach to sexuality. In another book for the press, Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City without Jews), he confronted the rising antisemitism of Vienna head on.
When Lolotte Valon’s public dance performance was announced one day, it proved a big sensation for those who had nothing better to think about, and the main hall of the Konzerthaus was filled. Lolotte Valon danced naked, or at least almost naked. Two rosettes of diamonds on her breasts, a veil around her waist – that was her entire costume. And the smartest bon vivants declared that they had never seen greater harmony in a body, never seen lines more beautiful and more perfect.
But it was not just in the Gloriette catalogue that Bettauer and Berber crossed paths. Even before Berber’s expulsion, Bettauer had pseudonymously enlisted her in a literary project that tracked her movements in something like real time, an extended blind item that was serialised in the newspaper Der Tag and later became a novel. In Der Kampf um Wien (The Battle of Vienna; extracted here), Berber appears as “Lolotte Valon”; the text takes significant liberties with her life in the course of fictionalisation. Perhaps refusing to believe that such an agent of chaos could be of self-willed origin, here Bettauer makes “Valon” a tool of a Hungarian agitator who is seeking to make Vienna part of a fascist empire. Leaving aside the observation that this has no basis in Berber’s life, it was an extraordinarily prescient vision, particularly as the term “fascist” had presumably only entered public consciousness a few weeks earlier with Mussolini’s March on Rome. But Bettauer was not just an early chronicler of fascism, he was an early victim as well, slain by a far-right assassin in 1925.
Back in Berlin, Berber’s solo act came into its own, as Germany’s economy spiralled into hyperinflation. But this identification fixed her in time, and her own nefarious reputation was subject to inflation. Just about any outrage or excess could be believably attributed to her; Bettauer at least had the excuse of fiction. Yet you don’t need to sensationalise – sticking to the verifiable facts provides sensation aplenty.
The most famous image of Berber – Otto Dix’s portrait – is also the most telling account of her decline. In 1925, Berber is garishly made up for the dark shadows of Expressionist performance, a perhaps unwelcome reminder of the desperate excesses of the hyperinflated early 1920s. Dix, meanwhile, represents the “New Objectivity” which would dominate in the latter part of the Weimar era. As their trajectories cross over in the middle of the decade, there is an electric confrontation of styles. Berber is cruelly subjected to the unforgiving glare of the new sobriety in German art; the lights have come on in the club, everyone’s gone home, the fever has broken.
Berber kept performing with ever-diminishing returns. Her 1926 “Dances of Eroticism and Ecstasy” sought to replicate the Vienna sensation, but the moment had passed. Sebastian Droste died the following year, and afterwards Anita remembered him with surprising fondness in a newspaper interview. Exhibiting an equally unexpected level of self-awareness, she noted that no one had lived as feverishly and avidly as they had, and declared: “the naked dancer Anita Berber is dead”.
If this was a wish to leave not only her career but her tumultuous life behind, it came true the following year, 1928. Six years to the day since she electrified and horrified the good burghers of Vienna, she was laid to rest in a cemetery in Berlin, just a few streets from where I write this exactly 94 years later. A park across the road, another former cemetery, now bears her name and, in an impressive example of nominative determinism, has become a drug hot spot. Just as fitting, Berber also shares her name with a Berlin nightclub.
My own modest existence came about on another 14 November in the intervening 100 years. And not to overburden you with commemoration, but my small press Rixdorf Editions last week celebrated its fifth birthday. Sadly there will not be a sixth, but if you are at all curious to see what I got up to over there, you can pick up the books at the anniversary/closedown price of just five euros here, and read my thoughts on the whole adventure here.