July 2017, arsenal cinema

A Tribute to Valeska Gert

DIE FREUDLOSE GASSE, 1925

Dancer, actress, cabaret star, bar owner, and book author Valeska Gert (1892–1978) was "one of the most influential artists of the modern era" (Wolfgang Müller), whose interdisciplinary grasp of art and disdain for standard boundaries were way of ahead of their time. Valeska Gert celebrated her biggest successes in the Berlin of the Weimer Republic. By creating a blend of dance, pantomime, and acting which she referred to as "grotesque dance", she produced what Kurt Tucholsky described as "likely the most impudent of things ever to be done on stage". She danced such themes as "baby", "death", "political assembly", "nervousness" and the everyday professional life of a prostitute in "Canaille": "As I didn't love the citizen, I danced the roles of those he felt contempt for, the whores, the procuresses, those on the slide, those at the bottom." ("Mein Weg", 1931). Her anti-bourgeois lack of inhibition and the wildness of the musical dance numbers she performed polarized audiences and took Valeska Gert all the way to the big international stages. As a Jewish avant-garde artist, she became unable to perform on stage after the National Socialists came to power and emigrated to the US in 1939, where she created a meeting point for New York bohemians in the form of the "Beggar Bar". After returning to Berlin in 1949, her cabaret bar "Hexenküche" was unable to replicate her previous successes and she withdraw to the island of Sylt in the 1950s, where she ran the "Ziegenstall" bar until her death. From July 6-27, we are showing a selection of the films Valeska Gert appeared in between 1925 and 1976. Although she usually only appeared in supporting roles, her expressive appearances, in which she always conveys an image of the independent woman, left a profound impression on the films.

SO IST DAS LEBEN / TAKOVÝ JE ZIVOT (Carl Junghans, Germany/Czechoslovakia 1930, 6.7., with a live piano accompaniment by Eunice Martins, with an introduction by Wolfgang Müller (Die Tödliche Doris) and Valeska Gert's performance "Baby", a 1969 video by media artist Ernst Mitzka) Combining montage principles from the Soviet revolutionary films with a soberly precise depiction of a milieu, SO IST DAS LEBEN describes the social reality of a small family in Prague. While the father, a coal worker, drinks away the rent money in the pub where his lover (Valeska Gert) is employed as a waitress, the daughter loses her job as a manicurist and the mother (Vera Baranowskaja), who works as a washerwoman, desperately attempts to halt their social decline. Shot on original locations in Prague and without explanatory intertitles, this tragedy unfolds over seven days and seven chapters.

Opening film: PETT AND POTT: A FAIRY STORY OF THE SUBURBS (Alberto Cavalcanti, United Kingdom 1934, 6.7.) This film by the British General Post Office emphasizes the advantages of a telephone line by way of neighborhood families Pett and Pott. While Mrs. Pett already makes eager use of the phone to better organize the household, the Pott family have decided on a housemaid (Valeska Gert) instead, a decision they’ll soon regret.

NANA (Jean Renoir, France/Germany 1926, 10.7., with a live piano accompaniment by Eunice Martins) Inspired by the naturalism of the films of Erich von Stroheim, Jean Renoir’s adaptation of the novel by Émile Zola tells the story of an ambitious theatre actress who offers her services as a courtesan to the Paris upper class and meets a tragic end. In this first French film to be shot at a Berlin studio after the First World War, Valeska Gert plays the title figure’s maid, Renoir's then wife Catherine Hessling.

DIE FREUDLOSE GASSE (Joyless Street, G.W. Pabst, Germany 1925, 11.7., with a live piano accompaniment by Eunice Martins) In G.W. Pabst's social drama, Valeska Gert plays a procuress who profits from social misery in Vienna's Melchiorgasse during the period of hyperinflation of 1921, acting alongside Asta Nielsen as fallen working class girl Mizzi and Greta Garbo as a civil servant's daughter. Gert's character Mrs Greifer runs a fashion salon with a night club and sleazy hotel attached, where women can pay off their debts with sexual services.   

TAGEBUCH EINER VERLORENEN (Diary of a Lost Girl, G.W. Pabst, Germany 1929, 18.7., with a live piano accompaniment by Eunice Martins) Thymian (Louise Brooks) is about to receive confirmation before she gets pregnant by Meinert, the temporary worker employed at her father's pharmacy. The family council decides to send Thymian to a reformatory headed by Valeska Gert, who runs a tight ship, not only setting the rhythm for how the soup is to be spooned out and the early morning exercises are to be conducted, but also entering into a veritable ecstasy when the gong sounds.

MENSCHEN AM SONNTAG (People on Sunday, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Germany 1930, 19.7., with a live piano accompaniment by Eunice Martins) Shot by a directorial ensemble with non-professional actors, the film is a collage of documentary footage and improvised fictional scenes, depicting how five young Berliners spend their weekend. In a guest appearance, Valeska Gert poses for a portrait photographer at Wannsee, with the moving image freezing after a few seconds.

DIE 3-GROSCHEN-OPER (The Threepenny Opera, G.W. Pabst, Germany 1931, 23.7.) Bertolt Brecht’s beggars' opera and gangster ballad features music by Kurt Weill and Ernst Busch as a singer of street ballads and leads the viewer into London’s seedy underbelly at the end of the 19th century: it’s here that beggar king Peachum (Fritz Rasp), his wife (Valeska Gert), and corrupt police chief Tiger Brown (Reinhold Schünzel) conspire against Peachum's recently married daughter Polly (Carola Neher) and her new son-in-law Mackie Messer (Rudolf Forster).

GIULIETTA DEGLI SPIRITI (Juliet of the Spirits, Federico Fellini, Italy/France/West Germany 1965, 13.7.) Just after her 15th wedding anniversary, Giulietta (Giulietta Masina) questions her role as a wife when she realizes that her husband is having a relationship with a women twenty years younger. Looking for both herself and spiritual guidance, Giulietta finds Master Bhishma (Valeska Gert), a white-haired oracle who embodies "the secret of both sexes" and instructs her in the karma sutra sitting in the bathtub: "love is a religion".

LA BONNE DAME (Pierre Philippe, France 1966, 12.7., with an introduction by Erika und Ulrich Gregor & 26.7.) This comparatively obscure film showcases Valeska Gert in a rare leading role as a Parisian lady who murders her handsome young tenant. We are presenting LA BONNE DAME once in the French original version (12.7.) and once in the German dubbed version (26.7.).

ACHT STUNDEN SIND KEIN TAG (Eight Hours Don't Make a Day, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany 1973, Part 1 & 2: 7.7., Part 3 & 4: 8.7., Part 5: 9.7.) Recently restored, RWF's nearly eight-hour television series about the daily routine and private lives of three generations of a working-class family features Gottfried John, Hanna Schygulla, Luise Ullrich, Werner Finck, Irm Hermann – and a guest appearance by Valeska Gert in the third part as an unwanted granny with dyed red hair and a bun.

DIE BETÖRUNG DER BLAUEN MATROSEN (Ulrike Ottinger, Tabea Blumenschein, West Germany 1975, 12.7.) There appear: a siren (Tabea Blumenschein), a Hawaiian girl, two sailors, an old bird (Valeska Gert), a young bird, a queeny Greek God, an aging American star, a Russian silent film mother, and a nymph from the German Romantic era (Ulrike Ottinger).

DER FANGSCHUSS (Volker Schlöndorff, West Germany/France 1976, 27.7.) tells of the unhappy love affair between an impoverished countess and a Prussian officer before the backdrop of the clashes between international mercenaries and Soviet revolutionaries in the Baltic region in 1919. In her final acting role, Valeska Gert channels her best aristocratic ball memories as Aunt Praskovia.

NUR ZUM SPASS, NUR ZUM SPIEL – KALEIDOSKOP VALESKA GERT (Volker Schlöndorff, West Germany 1977, 26.7.) For his portrait film, Volker Schlöndorff visited Valeska Gert in Sylt together with cameraman Michael Ballhaus and interviewed her in her "Ziegenstall" bar. There she shows a number from her "Hexenküche" cabaret once again and performs the role of Ilse Koch, the "Kommandeuse" from Buchenwald. The film contains rare archive material, including excerpts from short dance films with Valeska Gert from the 20s. (hjf)

July '17