Weimar Berlin's Morbidly Erotic Fascinations

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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.

There's 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.

That's 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.

Voluptuous Panic 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.

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