Transgressive images from Weimar cinema
"I’m sincere in my preference for men’s clothes. I do not wear them to be sensational. I think I am much more alluring in these clothes."
Berlin in the Weimar years: a city rampant with leather wrapped, cross-dressing S&M fetishists, or not. Depending on whom you ask (or what you read), that image is either an invention or a conflation. There were bars like the Silhouette, where a customer could take a table and watch a parade of men in make-up and dresses and women in tuxedos, but reliable advice suggests most of the night spots were a lot tamer than that. Apparently we can thank films like The Night Porter and Cabaret for seizing on a rumour and treating it as fact. If the Nazis were perverts by definition, it was assumed that for night time amusements they’d prefer watching a couple of transvestites spanking each other rather than a blonde fraulein singing banal operetta, but when you think it through, the latter is darker, stranger and altogether more disturbing. One of the hallmarks of the Nazi leadership was an abject lack of imagination. These were people who dreamed of a world where everyone shared their passion for kitsch, which meant blonde girls in gingham singing folk songs, not sexual ambiguity. Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood’s original book on which Cabaret was based has no scenes set in a cabaret, but can we really blame Michael York and Dirk Bogarde for helping create the enduring image of Berlin C1930? Not entirely. Thanks to the Ross Verlag postcards we have thousands of surviving images that show the photo studios pushed the idea of a city where taboos were broken as a daily habit. Yet, coming from the cinema world, they were images of what the world could be, not what it was. Lya de Putti’s attire may have looked fabulous but it was impractical, and it was easier to imagine a world where women strolled along the Kurfürstendamm in sheer, glistening black rather than live in one where they actually did. After all, for a lot of ordinary citizens struggling with hyperinflation and massive unemployment, to dress like Ms Putti does in this photo was like waving a red flag at a National Socialist rally. The photograph is by M. I. Boris, aka the Bulgarian Boris Majdrakoff, who arrived in New York in the 1920s with a past respectable thriller writers would have dismissed as too unlikely.
Look at contemporary fashion images of women wearing suits and ties and we are meant to think of them as daring experiments in gender reversal, but so many of the Ross postcards show women wearing men’s clothing, or a close approximation, that we realize they were a trend back in 1920s and ‘30s Berlin. What makes us think they are about playing a game rather than making a statement is that so many of the actresses portrayed did not have reputations for challenging convention. From what we know of Carola Tölle, she played solid roles in films that are largely forgotten because there is no compelling reason to remember them. Her private life can’t be accounted for but it appears scandal free.
Henny Porten’s fame and reputation have endured, for her roles as a gentle or long suffering earth mother type. Comparing the photo of her with that of Ms Tölle, we begin to see a pattern, or rather, a style. Only a decade earlier the notion of a woman wearing a suit and tie would have still caused a stir. In 1919 however, German women won the right to vote. What had changed had less to do with Weimar Berlin’s free thinking than fashion designers’ understanding of how to accommodate radical into chic. Ms Porten’s sleeveless waistcoat has a decidedly feminine cut. She is not wearing a business suit. In the 1970s Diane Keaton revived the suited look in Annie Hall. If it didn’t make the jump to the pages of Vogue that was because it was too idiosyncratic: it was one thing to look like Diane Keaton, another to look like Annie Hall. And maybe the crusty old editors at the magazines took one glance, recalled their youth in Vienna wearing Papa’s silk ties and thought it had all been done before.
Having never seen Marcella Albani in a film, commenting on her strengths as an actress is pointless, but in every other photograph of her in the collection she is portrayed as the embodiment of graceful elegance; a woman with a preference for haut couture and intelligent conversation. That doesn’t mean she lacked a sense of humour. When she fronted up to the studio on this particular day, she might well have been bored with the idea of yet another soft focus study suggesting she had just emanated from the mists. Perhaps Herr Binder was bored too and together they concocted an image the very opposite of what was expected. She was an actress; it was her job to be out of character.
Russian born Hella Moja dressed as a baroque era noble (or Mozart) looks to be having the last word on androgyny here, and in a way she is. We know from photographs by Walery and Reutlinger that the Ancien Regime look was popular around the Parisian music halls a generation before Karl Schenker took this portrait. So too were the matador, the Gypsy and even the blacksmith. They were too exaggerated to be subversive, more like fancy dress, and never began with the premise that other women might want to dress that way in the street. Also, it was always more acceptable for women to dress as men than the other way around. How many of the leading male stars were willing to don corsets and bustles?
Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays famously turned up in the U.S and turned women on to smoking. He took his lead from home, where the habit was already associated with modern sophistication, added a bit of volume and general crassness and earned the undying gratitude of his employers. A lot of the Ross postcards show women smoking; by the mid 1920s a cigarette in the hand was a sign of elegance, of adulthood, but not necessarily of rebellion. Ms Haake’s forte was light comedies and socially concerned dramas and she’d go on to a long career, appearing in films into the 1980s. If the idea of a woman smoking was as scandalous in Germany as it was in America, she’d be one who’d put hers out before the photographer was ready with the camera.
Not so Fern Andra, the great, unsung heroine of early cinema. American born but European by preference, she promoted herself as a woman who liked a cigarette and a stiff drink and would be disappointed by any man who did not offer her both. In reality she was an intensely serious worker who understood the dangerous gulf between public image and private life. She paid a price, but not for smoking or dressing in men’s clothing or any of the standard contraventions. As actor, director, producer and even photographer, she controlled her image so closely that when it began to fade no one was on hand to help her revive it.
Which brings us to that most infamous figure of the early screen, the vamp. Her modern history began with the nineteenth century music halls, she came of age with silent film and died with its passing. It was difficult to be a real vamp in the 1930s. The Hays Code in Hollywood was very much opposed to any young woman who thought a man’s marriage was a speed hump not a stop sign. According to the new rules she had to pay for her crimes, which was an obligation no genuine vamp ever considered. The Nazis weren’t keen on her either. For all the bondage and S&M imagery bestowed upon them, publicly their ideal woman was blonde, virtuous and enthusiastic about the outdoor life. She could suffer but never inflict pain herself. The vamp was dark, saturnine and came alive when the sun went down, like Valerie Boothby in this image from Iris cards. Despite her very English name, Ms Boothby was German. Her career was short but included such titles as Girls on the Cross (1929), Adam and Eve (1928) Inherited Passions (1929) and Marriage in Name Only (1930); all which suggest some poor fool learns a lesson about love the hard way.
The vamp and the femme fatale were subtly different creatures; though the man who fell victim to either was seldom astute enough to know that. Both depended on exploiting male vulnerabilities but where the first was essentially amoral the second had principles and objectives. Sometimes she was looking for a way out and figured the man would lead her to it, and sometimes she was genuinely in love with him. If the last scene saw the vamp heading down the street with a man in her arm, you knew they were going back to her lair. If it was the femme fatale on the other hand, she may well have been persuaded that the path to true happiness lay in marriage, children and a home in the suburbs. Lissi Arna is one of the many German actresses of the silent screen forgotten now by all but the most devoted fans of the era, yet throughout the 1920s she was one of Weimar cinema’s most popular stars. Her reputation today, such as it is, rests on several films where she played the prostitute (hard hitting exposé) or the seductress (comedy, melodrama) but as it transpires she made more of the routine romances that were the bread and butter of the film business. The Kiesel Studio was located at Kurfürstendamm 11, meaning the address was fashionable but real information beyond that is hard to find. Alongside the celebrity portraits are many more showing children with oversized Easter eggs, or (that other inexplicably popular genre) dressed as their parents. What we see here is one of those minor shifts in the way women were portrayed that don’t raise the number of eyebrows today that they should. There is nothing vulnerable in Ms Arna’s expression. She knows what she wants and how to get it.
The secret had less to do with women discovering an independent spirit than technicians realizing the power of lighting. Photographers were learning that a shift in angle to throw a shadow could do more than animate a portrait. It could transform Elizza La Porta, generally sensible star of such morally didactic films as The Right of the Unborn and The Vice of Humanity (abortion and drugs respectively) into a siren of the night. Silent Hollywood gave the vamp fame and notoriety but in Los Angeles she was a European construction. Think of the number of famous Hollywood mantraps from the silent era, how many have ‘European’ names, and what their actual names were: Theda Bara (Theodora Goodman), Dita Naldi (Mary Dooley), Olga Petrova (Muriel Harding). She was by definition exotic because part of the danger of becoming involved with her lay in being unable to penetrate her closed, enigmatic mind. In Germany, America was a strange, distant land (witness the popularity of Karl May’s Native American novels), but so too were places just beyond its borders. The Balkans, home of the vampire, Oriental Turkey and the Arab lands, the Russian steppes; they were all breeding grounds for women who could crush a man’s soul with as much thought and effort as it took to flick a cigarette into the gutter. Romanian born Elizza La Porta may not have played the seductress on screen but she knew how to for the Manasse studio. Operated by Olga Solarics and Adorjan von Wlassics, it specialized in glamour photography and in surreal, modernist erotica. After years of relative neglect, the erotica was rediscovered and in the process became representative of decadent Berlin. The studio was equally adept at portraying actresses as sweet and wholesome as a strudel. But any fool with a camera can do that.
|WINGS OF DESIRE|