I saw pimps offering anything to anybody, little boys, little girls, robust young men, libidinous women, or (I suppose) animals. The story went around that a male goose of which one cut the neck at the ecstatic moment would give you the most delicious, economical, and time-saving frisson of all, as it allowed you to enjoy sodomy, bestiality, homosexuality, necrophilia, and sadism at one stroke. Gastronomy too, as one could eat the goose afterward.”
Luigi Barzini, “The Europeans”
In 1994, Mel Gordon, professor of theater arts of the University of California at Berkeley, was asked by German punk expressionist Nina Hagen to write and direct a stage show dedicated to the career of 1920s cabaret personality Anita Berber. Described by Gordon as “…the most glamorous decadent (of) Berlin’s Golden Twenties,” Berber had died, abandoned by her public, of various addictions in 1928.
Gordon had little idea that his desire to immortalize Anita Berber would take him to a time and place that would eventually define decadence in the twentieth century.
Hagen and Gordon believed that Berber represented “…the first postmodern woman,” something considerably more than a doomed German flapper. They undertook to celebrate her brief but remarkable life in a stage production which would feature all the trappings of 1920s Berlin…erotic sketches, Weill/Hollander music, dance routines, dildoes, and an evil master of ceremonies. Hagen would perform the lead role, Gordon would write and direct the piece.
The problem: Gordon’s research turned up very little authentic visual Berlin material from the period in question. “I figured two or three days, tops, in the public library would suffice,” Gordon stated. “The researchers for Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (which was shot on location in Berlin in 1971) also reported a remarkable lack of erotic documentation…my mind reeled…did the Nazis or frightened Berliners destroy every suggestive publication during the politically sobering Thirties and Forties? Maybe such print or photographic material from the orgiastic Weimar era never really existed as I imagined them.”
During the fourteen years between the first and second World War (1919 – 1933), “Weimar” Berlin entered into a period of sexual and psychological experimentation that was to know no previous or subsequent parallel. Although the Nazis did their infamous best to eradicate the Weimar depravities that “…misrepresented the honor and purity of the Reich”, they were ultimately unsuccessful.
History has had the last laugh. Nina Hagen’s stage show, although only moderately successful in itself, set Mel Gordon upon the trail of the Berlin the Nazis tried so hard to extinguish – Berlin remembered by such luminaries as Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill (“The Three Penny Opera” and “Mahagonny”), and Christopher Isherwood (“I Am A Camera”.)
“Relying on private European contacts and antiquarian bookstores, I launched a feverish search for all bits of data and representations from pre-Hitler Germany,” recalls Gordon. Within months, he had accumulated an enormous collection of magazines, postcards, playbills, tabloids, guidebooks, street maps, police reports, price lists for a wide variety of sexual offerings…vastly more material than was needed for his Berber requiem.
With the support of Feral House Publications, Mel Gordon has assembled Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin, a collection that goes considerably beyond a mere coffee-table history social and sexual excesses. This handsome book functions as a highly effective time-traveling device.
Readers should be warned, however, that such travel might be hazardous, as the imagery of Voluptuous Panic far surpasses any carnival sideshow. The book serves as a tour guide, a tour-de-force in human excess. “Berlin means depravity,” remarks Gordon. “Even the alkaline air around the Prussian capital (Berliner Luft) was said to contain a toxic ether that attacked the central nervous system, stimulating long-suppressed passions as it animated all the external tics of sexual perversity.”
With this kind of philosophy kicking off the first chapters, Gordon initiates our tour of Weimar Berlin with historical and political background. His description of Berlin’s economic collapse, which resulted from the disastrous Treaty of Versailles, is telling: “On October 12, 1923, the once vaulted German note plummeted to the staggering equation of 4.2 billion marks to the dollar.” Photographs are provided of children playing with stacks of marks taller than they, along with cartoons of German notes employed as toilet paper.
Most Germans — especially those on fixed incomes and pensions — lost everything. Desperate to put food on the table mothers, daughters, and sons provided the ultimate object in trade: themselves. Since its primary work force had been virtually decimated by the war, Berlin’s primary industry became sex. In time, the city became the European playground where everything (sex included) could be had for practically nothing. Years later, even after the Reichsmark became a stable currency, Berlin maintained this reputation until the Nazis took it over in 1933.