Weimar Berlin’s Morbidly Erotic Fascinations

Written by Richard Byrne on . Posted in Books, Posts.

As a cultural
construct, Weimar Berlin is Atlantis. It’s become a fabulous tale so freighted
with hype, misconception and myth that it has sunken to a point where one questions
if it ever existed at all except in its renderings–Isherwood, Cabaret,
Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Some of Weimar
Berlin has come down to us more or less intact, most notably Threepenny Opera
and scattered songs of its cabaret scene (marvelously interpreted a few years
ago by Ute Lemper and the Matrix Ensemble on their 1997 collection, Berlin
Cabaret Songs
). For the visuals, there’s Otto Dix and George Grosz.
Seven decades later, much of it remains brilliant. There’s a vividness
and acidity to the latter, for instance, which continue to make them useful
antidotes to the Weimar fable. The sleek leer of many of the songs that Lemper
covered on Berlin Cabaret Songs replaces the Broadway turn that Weimar’s
taken in the public consciousness with something smarter and more salacious.

Mel Gordon’s
Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin is another antidote.
In many ways, this eye-popping treasure trove of kinks and sex-killers, porn
and perversion is a catalog of exactly the things to which Brecht, Weill, Dix
and Grosz were reacting. The Weimar Berlin that Gordon describes is one suffused
with sex in all varieties and forms, an uncommonly commonplace Sodom where perversion
was the rule and not the exception. "Directories of nocturnal Berlin (in
adventurous straight, S&M, gay, lesbian, or nudist versions)," writes
Gordon, "could be had at any train station, hotel lobby, or downtown kiosk."
Flipping through Gordon’s "directory," the butch capitalist whores
of Threepenny and the fat leering burghers and crippled veterans ogling
flesh on the canvases of Dix and Grosz leap off the page unmediated by art.

a sort of overall scholarly premise imposed on this fascinating stuff. In fact,
it’s Voluptuous Panic’s one maddening weakness. There’s
no doubt that economic depression and postwar politics played a vital role in
creating the "panic" that Gordon so lovingly catalogs. Yet there are
moments (especially in the first few chapters) when Gordon feels that he must
do more than dynamite the Atlantis of Weimar Berlin. To say that his text paints
history with a broad brush is charitable. He uses a paint roller, especially
when he talks about the breakdowns in Weimar politics and economy that saw the
currency drop from an exchange rate of seven to a dollar in January 1921 to
4.2 billion to a dollar in October 1923.

For instance,
this is Gordon essaying the radical responses to the aftermath of Versailles
in Germany:

Some radicals
opted for a Soviet solution. But Lenin, the supreme revolutionary commander,
already knew what the seditious leaders of Bavaria and Hamburg would soon discover
to their regret: Germans were incapable of fomenting Socialist revolution; when
ordered to storm a railroad station, they would stand in line first to buy tickets.

nonsense. Yet despite the chunks of undigested and overreaching history-babble,
Voluptuous Panic is absolutely invaluable as a puncture in the curdled
romanticism and political overreading that has surrounded Weimar culture.

Gordon started
collecting the images when he wrote and directed a show for Nina Hagen about
Weimar dancer Anita Berber, and the sheer volume of stuff that he has assembled–photos,
kitsch art, magazines, cabaret programs–is staggering. He’s compiled
tables of different types of whores, gays and lesbians, and bullet reviews of
various gay and lesbian publications that sprung up in Berlin during the 1920s.

Most amusing
of all is the "Map of Erotic and Night-Time Berlin" at the end of
the book, complete with capsule reviews of the various nightspots. One such
place, dubbed "The Cabaret of the Nameless," was a Weimar Gong Show
organized by promoter Erwin Lowinsky, who lined up horrifically untalented and
mentally ill "performers" to entertain his patrons and stopped the
performances of anyone with a shred of competence. "Only the most pathetic
and hopeless creatures," observes Gordon, "were encouraged to complete
their numbers."

The detail
in Gordon’s compulsive listmaking is absolutely fascinating. The table
of whores, for example, consists of 17 discrete types with various additional
nicknames. Among these are included such charming streetwalkers as the "Gravelstones"
(described by Gordon as "Unattractive sex-workers on Oranienburgstrasse.
Included women with missing limbs, hunchbacks, and other deformities…")
and the "Munzis" (Gordon: "Pregnant girls and women who waited
under the lampposts on Munzstrasse for ‘old money’ clients in search
of this erotic specialty"). Especially early on in the book, when Gordon
essays prostitution and gay and lesbian life in Weimar Berlin, each page holds
manifold, cynical delights: a cartoon of an androgynous Berliner pausing before
the "Damen" and "Herren" doors; hilariously posed photos
of "Nacktkultur" ("nudist") calisthenics; an uproarious
two-page spread depicting a "Herr Bauer" and his "Shoe-And-Wheel
Masturbation Machine," which consisted of two sewing spools, a bicycle
rim, leather straps and used women’s shoes in a pleasure-inducing device.

grows much darker as you delve deeper. Gordon proves once and for
all that violent sadomasochism was alive and popular in Berlin long before the
Nazis came along. Some of the stuff is quite unsettling, especially the stomach-turning
incest/child flagellation paintings of Maurice Carriere. As chilling as the
last chapter on the effect of the Nazis’ seizure of power on Berlin’s
sex industry is (nightclubs shut down and turned into swastika-bedecked Nazi
headquarters), the chapters that immediately precede it on drug use and sex-murder
are in their way just as disturbing. One pair of photos shows an exhibitionist
of the era–the first photo in his outward and very normal appearance, and
the other with his coat stripped open and his cock hanging glum and flaccid
underneath. It’s not the cock that chills the marrow; rather, it’s
the hard glassy stare in the first photo and its ever so slight softening in
the other. It’s a look that you see often in Grosz and Dix: men hardened
by life and slightly softened only by kink.

Much of what
comes off the pages of Voluptuous Panic is redolent of the early 20th
century’s mania for explaining sex through pseudoscience. Berlin sexologist
of the era Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, quoted by Gordon, hypothesized that "happy
marriages are not made in heaven, but in the laboratory." But what’s
most startling about Voluptuous Panic is Weimar’s modernity. Much
of what the 20th century considered "modern" in regards to sex was
well in place in Berlin in the 1920s. Lipstick lesbians, erotic drug imagery,
morbid fascination with graphic sex crime: they are all here waiting to be rediscovered,
decades before the "sexual revolution" made them commonplace outside
this unique city and period.