7. The men of Weimar were wild – but the women often wilder. And Anita Berber might well have been the craziest of them all
Weimar-era Berlin had more than its fair share of crazy characters. But arguably the craziest of them all was a petite, young woman. Anita Berber was, for many, the epitome of 1920s style. What’s more, she also epitomized the liberal and experimental nature of the Weimar Republic. To her fans, Berber was a pioneer. To her detractors, however, she was presented as evidence that Germany had lost its moral compass in the years following the First World War, and her death at the age of just 29 was presented as proof that the nation needed to clean up its act.
Born in Leipzig in 1899, Berber was raised by her grandmother. While her parents may not have been around much, since her father was a top violinist and her mother an occasional actress, the young Anita did at least inherit a love of show business from them. As a result, she moved to Berlin at the age of 16, determined to make it as a cabaret dancer. For a couple of years, she danced in cabaret shows, slowly making a name for herself. And then, when the war ended, and the Weimar Republic was founded, she really exploded onto the scene. By the end of 1918, she was also dancing in movies too, much to the delight of her growing army of fans.
It wasn’t just her dress sense that made Berber so shocking – though her short bobbed hair, often painted red, and androgynous style certainly outraged many conservative Berliners. Rather, it was her habit of dancing completely nude or her determination not to hide her bisexuality. Berber had torrid affairs with artists and actors, both male and female. What’s more, she was a raging alcoholic and rampant drug user. According to the legend, she started each day with a breakfast of chloroform and ether and then would steadily progress to cocaine, morphine and heroin.
Even though she managed to clean up, ditching alcohol altogether by 1928, a few months later she was dead from severe tuberculosis. Weimar Germany had lost its ultimate icon, even if there were plenty of other women determined to take her place. Thanks to her movies, as well as the fact she was the muse and model for some of the era’s leading artists, including Otto Dix, she remains the poster child of the time, a ground-breaking hedonist who to this day continues to divide opinion.