Berber, Anita (1899–1928)

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Berber, Anita (1899–1928)

German dancer who epitomized the decadent spirit of the Berlin cabaret scene of the Weimar Republic. Born into a respectable middle-class family in Leipzig in 1899 (some sources state 1898); died of tuberculosis and drug addiction in 1928; daughter of Felix Berber (a concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra).

Anita Berber was born in 1899 into an artistic family in Leipzig. Her father Felix Berber was a highly respected violin virtuoso who served as concertmaster of the renowned Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and founded his own string quartet. Growing up in comfortable and highly respectable middle-class circumstances, Anita studied ballet and showed great promise as a dancer from an early age, but the political and cultural ferment of Berlin cut short her formal training, drawing her to the city in 1918 like a moth to the flame.

When the collapse of the German Imperial regime in November 1918 resulted in an almost immediate relaxation of stage and film censorship, nudity and explicit sexuality quickly appeared in countless presentations. Some of these were attempts to make significant artistic statements, but many were sensationalistic, prurient, and designed to cash in on republican Germany's newly achieved artistic freedom. Energetic and enthusiastic, Berber quickly became a celebrity, first appearing in a Rudolf Nelson revue, dancing the Shimmy dressed in a dinner jacket. Soon, she gravitated toward Nacktballet, instantly becoming a superstar. Emotionally unprepared for stardom, Berber found herself moving in the German capital's fastest, most decadent circles. For many observers, it was difficult to tell where her skills as a dancer ended and her notoriety began.

In chalk-white makeup and generally in the nude, Berber's uninhibited dancing at such night spots as the White Mouse attracted both Berliners and foreign tourists drawn to the open city. Berber became known as the "Queen of the Bohemians" and enjoyed a reputation for promiscuity that was prodigious even by contemporary standards. At the height of her fame, sensationseekers from around the world flocked to the White Mouse on the Behrenstrasse, where Berber offered her strangely fascinating "Dances of Horror, Lust and Ecstasy." She went on to perform in nightclubs in Hamburg, Vienna, and Budapest. Often seen in the company of shady characters from the fringes of "polite" society, she attended boxing matches or the immensely popular fad of the day, the Six-Day Bicycle Races at the Sportpalast.

In the last years of Anita Berber's brief life, she sought oblivion through cocaine, morphine, and alcohol. Henry, her American-born lover during these final years, remained faithful to her, despite her wasted physical state and the appearance of tuberculosis that made her death inevitable. After wandering aimlessly through Europe, she ended up ill and penniless in Baghdad. Berber's Berlin theater friends took up a collection to bring her home to die. Henry appeared late at her funeral, having remembered at the last minute to buy a bouquet of white roses for his Anita. At the time of her death, Berber was 29.


Fischer, Lothar. Tanz zwischen Rausch und Tod: Anita Berber 1918–1929 in Berlin. 2nd ed., Berlin: Haude und Spener Verlag, 1988.

Friedrich, Otto. Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s. NY: Avon Books, 1973.

Gill, Anton. A Dance between Flames: Berlin Between the Wars. NY: Carroll & Graf, 1994.

"Körperspiegel der Geschichte," Der Spiegel. Vol. 47, no. 17, April 26, 1993, p. 224.

PEM (Paul Erich Marcus). Heimweh nach dem Kurfürstendamm. Berlin: Lothar Blanvalet Verlag, 1952.

Senelick, Laurence. "Nudity," in Martin Banham, ed., The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 802–803.

Spoto, Donald. Lenya: A Life. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1989.

"Tanzrevolutionär Praunheim," Der Spiegel. Vol. 39, no. 7. February 11, 1985, p. 175.

Vollmer-Heitmann, Hanna. Wir sind von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt: Die zwanziger Jahre. Hamburg: Kabel Verlag, 1993.

"Von Praunheims Kino des Lasters," Der Spiegel. Vol. 42, no. 11. March 14, 1988, p. 259.

related media:

Anita—Tänze des Lasters, West German film, directed by Rosa von Praunheim , 1988.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia