Anita Berber: Dance Hard, Die Young

A black-and-white head shot of Anita Berber: young and beautiful, with a curly bob. (I may ask the guy who cuts my hair to try and reproduce it.)

Unlike the “Blond Hans,” who made regular appearances in Sigrid Schultz’s letters and memoirs, Schultz mentioned Expressionist dancer, cabaret artist, and actress Anita Berber (1899-1928) only once. A year after Berber’s death, Schultz described Berber as “the wild woman of inflation days—who burned away her great dancing talent with dope and wild parties, portraying her feverish time in a mask of green and purple make-up.”*

Berber made her debut at the Blüthnersaal, one of Berlin’s major performance venues, on February 24, 1916, at the age of sixteen, as a part of a performance by Rita Sacchetto’s dancing school.** Sacchero’s pieces alluded to classical antiquity in their titles and relied on a modern movement vocabulary and scanted costumes.

Anita Berber in one of her more sedate costumes, with knickers about the knees and a draped top that suggests it will drop and expose her breasts if she moves.

She quickly made a name for herself in Berlin and was working in movies by 1918. Dancing on her own, or with her second husband and dance partner, Sebastian Droste, Berber’s work moved beyond the mild titillation of Sacchero’s choreography, creating works that were overtly sexual and often transgressive. She appeared as a dancer and actress in at least twenty-four silent films between 1918 and 1925, occasionally nude and always provocative.

Berber’s costumes ranged from cross-dressing tuxedos*** to complete nudity. She wore heavy dancer’s make-up, which appears as jet-black lipstick and charcoal-circled eyes in the black and white photographs of the period, though Schultz’s description suggests a more colorful palette.

Berber standing astride wearing a tuxedo and carrying a cane. She has dramatic make-up and wears a monocle in one eye.

She was as famous for being a wild child as she was for her art. According to her contemporary, actor and choreographer Joe Jencik, “The public never appreciated Anita’s artistic expression, only her public transgressions in which she trespassed the untouchable line between the stage and the audience.” Her bisexuality, heavy alcohol consumption, and drug use were the fodder for gossip columns, as was her generally scandalous behavior. In addition to taking cocaine, opium and morphine, she reportedly combined chloroform and ether in a bowl, stirred them with a white rose, and then ate the rose petals. It is hard to know which details are true, or what they meant. Berber was a proto-performance artist who often fused her life and art in dramatic gestures on and off stage.

Berber was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1928 at the age of 29 while performing abroad. After collapsing in Damascus, she returned to Germany, where she died.

She is best known today because expressionist Otto Dix painted her portrait as a sensuous lady in red.

Otto Dix portrait of Anita Berber, with a sensuous red dress and a matching bright red bob.


* Hyperinflation hit Germany in 1923, creating an economic frenzy that paralleled the social frenzy of Germany’s Jazz Age. In the summer of 1922, the exchange rate was 400 marks per dollar. By January 1, 1923, the mark’s value had dropped to 7,000 marks per dollar and sank at an increasing speed thereafter. By mid-November, the rate was 1.3 trillion marks to the dollar. It was 1925 before the economy settled into a brief golden age before the Great Depression.

**Rita Sacchetto (1880-1959), whose work was inspired by that of American dance pioneers Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller, was a leader of the expressive dance style that [bloomed] in Germany during this period.

***Well before Marlene Dietrich did the same.



I don’t know whether Sigrid Schultz met Anita Berber, or even saw her perform.

And speaking of Sigrid Schultz, The Dragon From Chicago is available for pre-order wherever you buy your books.  You can get a signed copy for yourself or your favorite wild child from my neighborhood bookstore, the Seminary Coop: .  Use the special instructions box to tell me how you want it signed.





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