Valeska Gert was born 1892 in Berlin as Gertrud Valesca Samosch “into a family that never had anything to do with art.” She looked at her dancing as a means of expression and a way of coping with her sensitivity, very personal yet always with a reference to society. Her combination of dance, pantomime and theater, which she called “grotesque dance”, was radically different, stirred up, shocked and fascinated.
“Then as now, her aesthetics were modern”, stated Schlöndorff in his commemorative address at Valeska Gert’s funeral. “She couldn’t be classed with any specific genre, not even with the Avant-Gardists. She railed at the Expressionist artists whose whimsical stage setting only covered up the old-fashioned play and at the Realist artists by stating: ‘Only the grotesque and realistic artist is in truth the real one.'”
In the early 1930s, the Jewish Gert began to repeatedly travel abroad for her work; not because of the always increasing hostility and prosecution by the Nazis, but mostly because of the ‘poisoned’ atmosphere. In 1939 she finally immigrates to America where she had to start from scratch as a dishwasher. In the early 1940s she opened, against all odds, the “Beggar Bar” in New York – a mix of bar (however without alcoholic drinks) and cabaret.
In Schlöndorff’s documentary film NUR ZUM SPASS – NUR ZUM SPIEL. KALEIDOSCOP VALESKA GERT, shot in Gert’s house in Kampen on Sylt the year before her death, Valeska Gert recounts her eventful life. Since her return to Germany in the 1950s, she operated the cabaret “Ziegenstall” (lit. Goat Pen) in her house in Kampen. A synopsis of the film by Volker Schlöndorff:
Nur zum Spaß, nur zum Spiel.
A portray and biography in 16mm color by Volker Schlöndorff – including original shots by Kinski / camera Michael Ballhaus as well as previously unreleased archive footage. /
In the twenties, Valeska Gert was known for her performances as “Grotesque Dancer” with Anita Berben in Berlin, at the Proletkult in Moskow and in the Paris Théatre [sic!] des Champs Elysées. She appeared in films by Pabst and Renoir, it was rumored that she had been S. M. Eisenstein’s love of his life, she ran a night club in New York during the war, a cabaret in Berlin in the fifties, and finally a bar popular with artists on Sylt. /
She recounts, with matchless quick-wittedness and the Berlin cheekiness of the twenties, her scandals and the people she met. In front of the camera she reenacts, together with the young actress Kinski, her grotesque dances and pantomimes. /
Hanna Schygulla said about her that only from her she would have took acting lessons.
The incomparable Valeska Gert definitely stemmed from the twenties. Igor Luther, [camera man] saw her in a talk show. I could not believe that she was still alive. The last time I had seen her was in the Cinémathèque [française] next to Greta Garbo and Asta Nielsen in FREUDLOSE GASSE (Joyless Street), a film from 1927. She must have been beyond eighty, ran a cabaret in Berlin, lived on Sylt and had a part in Fellini’s JULIA UND DIE GEISTER (Juliet of the Spirits), but her fame resulted from her performances with the scandalous nude dancer Anita Berber during Berlin’s early twenties. She called this mix of Agitprop, Kasperletheater (puppet theater), and heinous pornography >grotesque dance<. She mimicked coition, death, birth and abandonment in expressionistic costumes which her mother tailored for her.(Schlöndorff 2011, p. 237f.)
Volker Schlöndorff met Valeska Gert at the shooting of his film DER FANGSCHUSS (Coup de Grâce, 1976), where in the evenings, after the shooting, she talked about her fascinating past, “her career in the twenties and thirties in Berlin, Paris and New York.”
I decided to make a film about her, and in January of the same year I drove to the Island of Sylt to meet her. At the end of a dirt road, at the outskirts of Kampen, far away from the expensive villas and summer residences, I found a small cottage. Two letters drawn on a trashcan revealed: here lives Valeska Gert.