Thanks to our collectively hazy sense of history, the seductive influence of Hollywood images, and of course the unforgettable face (and crash and burn career) of Liza, Liza, Liza, most people cannot help but imagine Weimar Germany with Liza’s Sally Bowles in every frame.
As iconic as Cabaret may be, it’s far from an accurate or complete picture.
Richly illustrated and told with a storyteller’s (rather than a scholar’s) panache, Mel Gordon’s Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin (Feral House $42) supplies a broader panorama. And the truth it shows is so much stranger than any two-hour film can be.
Opening with one visitor’s hostile assessment — “A disgusting city, this Berlin, a place where no one believes in anything” — Gordon’s wanderings through the city (aka “Europe’s illicit playground”) highlight all the weird, wonderful and perverse sexual experiments that began with the collapse of Germany following WWI.
The author covers a huge range of sexual possibilities, from the kinds of prostitutes — such as “half-silks” (amateurs in need of quick cash), “kontroll-girls (legal sex workers), nuttes (boyish teenage girls), gravelstones (unattractive or physically deformed women), and gougnettes (expensive lesbian call girls) — to the city’s theme restaurants and nightclubs (from nudist cafes and sex-show clubs to, naturally, cabarets of varying kinds and qualities).
Since Berlin was “the paradise of international homosexuals,” Gordon illuminates the sheer outpouring of male and female queer appetites, interests and types.
Transvestism flowered as well, with both drag king and queen performers and clubs opening (and closing) with regularity.
To complete the tour, Gordon discusses criminality, the occult, sexology, algolagnia (“craving of pain”) clubs, and drugs — all integral parts of the nightlife mixture before the swift changes that came with Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.
Gordon also gives readers a walking tour via a map-like directory of erotic and nighttime Berlin that describes specific lesbian and gay bars as well as nudist spots, Nazi hangouts and “underworld venues” like Red Mill Cabaret (“the lowest of the low”) and Sing-Sing (“designed like a hideous prison restaurant-cum-execution chamber”).
Whether you’re beefing up your knowledge or planning a decadent theme party, Voluptuous Panic is just the thing.