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  • Writer's pictureRhiannon Ling

Valeska Gert: The German Punk

Valeska Gert (January 11, 1892 – March 15, 1978)

“Does Valeska Gert dance? That she can is beyond doubt. That she can do much more besides is also beyond doubt…No, she doesn’t only dance. She pours out a cornucopia of people before the stalls…A great routine, an excellent dancer, an exceptional woman.”

Kurt Tucholsky wrote this of Valeska Gert in the February 17, 1921 edition of Die Weltbühne. 100 years later, I listened as the brilliant Janet Collard waxed poetic about her hero, a German performance artist turned Mother of Punk. I was riveted by Gert’s talent, spontaneity, commentary, and lack of care when it came to social norms. She’s been on my list to cover for a while, and I am so glad that day is today.

Valeska Gert was born Gertrud Valesca Samosch on January 11, 1892, the daughter of upper-middle-class Jewish parents in Berlin. Though wickedly intelligent, it became clear early on that little Gertrud had no interest in school: it was in artistry that her passion lay. At the age of 7, she began studying ballet; in her teen years, she dropped out of school to focus full-time on her craft. By 1915, at the age of 23, she was studying acting with Maria Moissi, a member of the Deutsches Theater. Only a year later, she had her stage debut: a balletically-designed performance entitled Tanz in Orange (Dance in Orange).

Or it was supposed to be balletic. Gert—soon to be appearing under her stage name—received choreographer approval the night before, dancing elegantly at final rehearsal. When it came time for the curtain to rise, though, she performed a wildly exaggerated style of ballet, a character-driven satire that has been dubbed “a spark in a powder keg.” It was in direct opposition to Ausdruckstanz, the current style of German expressionist movement that prized aesthetic and beauty over commentary. Gert’s teacher was horrified, and she was expelled from her school.

That was not an issue for her. Gert was soon offered a place at Falckenberg’s Munich Studio Theatre. A school created by the founder of political kabarett, Gert’s mind would be molded here, working with “anti-realist, socially critical expressionists” who did not shy away from controversy or confrontation. Here, she learned to turn her training in character acting and traditional dance to a commentary on mass culture, social constructs, modern urban problems, and bourgeois moral hypocrisies. This, she would continue for the rest of her life.

From 1917 through the 1920s, Gert would appear onstage at the Munich Kammerspiele, the Deutsches Theater, and the Berliner Tribuene. She featured in a variety of silent films by G.W. Pabst, as well: notably, these included The Threepenny Opera, Diary of a Lost Girl (opposite Louise Brooks), and Joyless Street. Her star was rising with such rapidity, and she was gaining such renown, that when she first met Bertolt Brecht and asked what epic theatre was, he responded, “It’s what you do.”

She became known for her avant garde performances, magnetic stage presence, and intellectual artistry. Following her debut of the daring “Pause,” she was invited to perform from Paris to Moscow and everywhere in between, a true birth of a star.

“Pause” was a sort of anti-daring daring. In a cinematic world that thrived on “speed, business, activity…nervosity,” Gert would enter the stage in front of the cinema screen in between films, and would simply do nothing. She would be still, silent. She would meet the audience’s gaze, daring them to look at her, daring them to look at themselves. From what we, as a contemporary audience, can understand, it was highly affecting.

“Affecting” is a grand word for Gert’s art. She made it her goal to embody characters that the elite despised. It was her life’s work to bring awareness and humanity to those confined to the fringes of society. In Canaille, for instance, she portrayed a prostitute pre-, during, and post-appointment, which resulted in the police being called for her performing an orgasm onstage. She found herself invoking the poor, the queer, the banished. It was her joy, and, in some ways, her downfall.

In 1933, Gert was banned from the stage. She was one of the artists singled out in Joseph Goebbels’s The Eternal Jew, and her exile became imminent. She left, as one would rightly assume, to England; in 1934, she starred in Cavalcanti’s experimental short film, Pett and Pott

In 1936, she divorced her non-Jewish husband of the time (no, I literally cannot find his name), and promptly married an Englishman to assist with her British survival. That did not last very long, as, by 1938, Gert had made her way to New York City. She briefly tried her hand at Hollywood; she found it unwelcoming, unreceptive to her unconventional thoughts and unconventional looks. Upon her return to the East Coast, she struggled to make ends meet: she lived off the welfare of the Jewish refugee community, worked as a dishwasher, and posed as a nude model to survive. Thankfully, something was looking up, at least for a bit.

In 1941, Gert opened the Bettlerbar (Beggar’s Bar) in the West Village. Acting as artistic home for so many until its closing in 1945, it featured the likes of Judith Malina, Oskar Maria Graf, Marion Palfi, and Lisette Model on its small stages. Gert employed icons like Jackson Pollack and Tennessee Williams, both of whom quoted her as inspiration (though the latter was fired for refusing to split tips). To this day, the memory of Bettlerbar is considered a comfort to queer, Jewish, feminine artists everywhere.

In 1945, it was forced to close. Anti-Germanic, anti-Semitic, anti-gay sentiment had grown feverishly in America, and the public’s fear found its way to Gert. She attempted to open a separate bar in Provincetown, to no avail. In 1947, she returned to Europe. There, she would find better luck, with Café Valeska in Zürich (1947), Hexenküche in Berlin (1950), and Ziegenstall in Kampen on Sylt (1951). These cafés became legion in post-war German society, noted for crafting an artistic gathering place that offered “freedom from taste.”

And there Valeska Gert stayed. She designed, she performed, she unconventionally mothered. In 1965, she made a triumphant return to film with Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits. In 1978, she was signed by Herzog to play the real estate broker in Nosferatu. She died two weeks after signing it, on March 15, 1978. She was 86 years old.

Following her death, hundreds of letters streamed in from punk artists. In turns out, unbeknownst to Germany of the 1970s, Gert had been given the honorific of “Mother of Punk.” Die Tödliche Doris (a punk performance collective) loved her, their founder describing her as radical and unstoppable. Young, radicalized artists across Germany found in her a like mind and a comforting, kick-in-the-ass spirit.

Valeska Gert has evaded worldwide recognition until fairly recently. Only within the past twenty years has Germany honored her contribution to art and society, giving her an exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof in 2011; only within the past ten has the rest of the world begun to catch up. Her fame was stilted due to several things: her lack of category, her inability to fit into a box, her pride in identity, her love of those on the outside.

I say let’s tear down those stilts and build a stage.

“I performed theater, I longed for the dance; I danced, I longed for the theater. I was in conflict until the idea occurred to me to combine them: I wanted to dance human characters.”

- Valeska Gert, Ich bin eine Hexe, 1968 -

“If an artist penetrates deeply into his time he will uncover its underlying significance and he will also create something that is eternal and universal for all mankind. Our works … will appear timeless to future generations only if they are profound enough. They will deliver a message which passes from generation to generation and which reveals that we are all human, we all have to follow the same laws, we all have to fight, we all have to die.”

- Valeska Gert, Radio Leipzig, 1930s-

A genius interview from her later years can be found here.

Sources/For More Info:The Constant Scandal: Valeska Gert” from What’s Her Name, “Germany’s forgotten performer Valeska Gert helped inspire punk” by Gavin Blackburn, METROMOD’s Archive, “Valeska Gert” from Kuenste in Exil, “The Forgotten World of the Badass Valeska Gert” by Elyssa Goodman, “Dancing Out of Bounds: Valeska Gert in Berlin and New York” by Sydney Jane Norton, Ich bin eine Hexe by Valeska Gert

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