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Paradise regained
Weimar Berlin's depraved, sin-filled nights tantalize the imagination anew in Mel Gordon's "Voluptuous Panic."

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By Stephen Lemons

Nov. 22, 2000 | A snapshot of Berlin between the world wars includes nudist magazines devoted entirely to children; glittering cabaret shows parading acres of sweaty, perfumed female flesh; and an endless supply of cafes, bars and private clubs catering to gay men, transvestites, lesbians and sadomasochists.

Inflation is so rampant that the local paper currency is good only for toilet paper. Cocaine, morphine and opium are peddled on every street corner. And more than 120,000 desperate women and girls of every age and stripe sell their bodies for a pittance, including mother-daughter prostitution teams and brazen streetwalkers well into the third trimester of pregnancy.


Voluptuous Panic
A gallery of art from the book

Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin

By Mel Gordon

Feral House
267 pages

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Such was the glory that was Weimar Berlin, a burg American writer Ben Hecht called the "prime breeding ground of evil." Most are familiar with its reputation as a crime-ridden sewer of frenetic debauchery through period classics such as Fritz Lang's "M" and Josef von Sternberg's "The Blue Angel," stage productions of Brecht's "The Threepenny Opera" or screenings of Bob Fosse's lurid, leggy movie musical, "Cabaret." However, very few of our assumptions about that decadent interwar wonderland are based on actual documentation of Berlin's whorish past. And most of it has been filtered through the arid prose of academia.

Now with Mel Gordon's new tome, "Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin," connoisseurs of carnal excess have the next best thing to a time machine with which to visit that era of blissfully morbid hedonism.

Drawing from his vast collection of pre-Nazi Berlin memorabilia, Gordon, a professor of theater at UC-Berkeley, has assembled an Encyclopedia Britannica of Weimar smut. This 267-page omnibus of Babylon-on-the-Spree's demimonde is full of antique pornography, guidebooks, magazine illustrations, board games, photos of Rube Goldberg-like masturbation devices and priceless ephemera from bygone restaurants and pubs.

Gordon says his massive, wallet-busting collection began as part of a job assignment from the Goethe Institute, a program supported by the German government to promote German language and culture.

"Back in 1994, I got a grant from them to do a cabaret extravaganza in San Francisco starring Nina Hagen," recalls Gordon. "I decided to do a real, three-ring Weimar production based on the life of Anita Berber, the great sex goddess/flapper of the age. We had a lot to go on, research-wise, except the visuals. I went to the library, and I was amazed to find nothing except old George Grosz and Otto Dix paintings and some rather tame photos which had been reprinted endlessly."

Gordon discovered that even the research done by Hollywood types for "Cabaret" came up with little to back the thesis that Weimar Berlin was the hotbed of vice Christopher Isherwood depicted in "Berlin Stories" (the book that inspired "Cabaret"). Could it be that this fabled city of whores never existed? That it was all an invention of perverse intellectuals? Gordon began combing the antique shops of Germany and Austria as well as those of Northern California, where a number of Germans fled after Hitler's rise to power. Soon he went from having nothing to having more than 20,000 genuine Weimar Berlin relics. Hagen's show was history, and Gordon realized he had the makings of a book on his hands.

. Next page | In Berlin, Gordon found a mixture of ecstasy and terror
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