She never stood a chance: composing for Anita

Standing on the gritty desolation that is today's Alexanderplatz, it is hard to imagine the Berlin that Anita knew, but I did my best to get to know her through the city she loved. I tracked down a nightclub where she danced (it is now a wholefood supermarket); gawped pointlessly at the building in Mitte where she grew up and then happened across Marlene Dietrich, who is buried nearby; I sought out the cemetery in Neukölln that holds Anita's unmarked grave and got into an altercation with a crazy man who objected to my presence there; I immersed myself in the work of Otto Dix (which I loved) and of Georg Grosz (which I didn't), took refuge in the kindlier perceptions of Heinrich Zille and wished I could have been present for one of his drunken evenings with Claire Waldorff in the Nikolaiviertel; I trawled my mind for teenage memories of pre-Wende Schönhauser Allee; I absorbed the rhythms of the dances popular at the time; foxtrot, Charleston, quickstep; I marvelled (not for the first time) at the power of academic histories to suck the life out of even so colourful an age as the Weimar era, re-read Christopher Isherwood's Mr Norris Changes Trains, wrestled with Alfred Döblin and in my more irrational moments wondered what sort of music Franz Biberkopf might have composed; I saw Metropolis and Unheimliche Geschichten about seven times each; I read about Sebastian Dröste's behaviour and discovered that, like Max Liebermann, ich kann gar nicht soviel fressen, wie ich kotzen möchte (Liebermann probably never met Berber but the idea of her showing up at his genteel residence next to the Brandenbuger Tor, perhaps in her famous fur coat, is an enchanting one); I failed, utterly, to understand more than one word in seven of anything that was said to me in Berlin dialect.

My collaboration with the Bubenicek brothers had a curious beginning. Otto happened to hear the premiere of a short comic overture that I had composed for the NDR Symphony Orchestra; he thought it might make an item in a triple bill, we met in a cafe next to the Hamburg opera house - and here we are. Coming to Dix and Berber via a simple comedy piece is somehow apt: Neue Sachlichkeit, insofar as it can be applied to music, is to me a most congenial concept. My instinctive style is very direct, tuneful and simple, and my excursions into atonality or complexity are for expressive rather than theoretical reasons. That said, the oblique operatic habit of using the orchestra as a Greek chorus, commenting on what is not seen or even subverting the overt action, is very deeply ingrained. I composed not my first impressions, then, but what I saw after looking hard - rather like a portrait painter. Anita's group sex activities - surely an expression of an inner coldness and void - are accompanied not by the orgiastic frenzy that first suggests itself but by an icily scored blues sarabande and the music for the portrait sitting is anxious and restless rather than static. Reading Die Tänze des Lasters, des Grauens und der Ekstase, which she wrote and drew with Sebastian in 1923, I have a strong sense of their striving after effect, of wanting the business of being an artist to supply things that properly belong to a decently lived emotional life. Accordingly, the long duet with Sebastian is somewhat overladen with feeling and if it sounds mawkish, well, so it should; self dramatisation generally is!

The past is another country; they do things differently there and if the audience reactions on camera to Anita's famous dance in Metropolis seem absurd to us now, they did not do so when the film was new. Anita was an overstated character in overstated times and I consciously set out to write in a manner that was slightly overcharged, uncomfortable and extravagant. There is even a degree of musical symbolism and in the party scene I twice quote from keyboard sonatas by Scarlatti. Weimar was a time when conventions were ripped asunder; my harmonic language is quite acerbic and acts as a distorting mirror for the inoffensive baroque gestures in Dance for the Androgynous Lady.  

We didn't want to tell a linear story and this work is really a portrait of a state of mind. Anita's mind was a mess: her drug and alcohol abuse are well documented as is her sexual excess, and there are unsettling accounts of her long episodes of logorrhoea. She was, it seems, never at peace. Early on, I adopted some of the less tranquil techniques of movie making; jump-cuts, overlaps and so on. As well as providing flow, they are disconcerting especially when unrelated music collides. This is particularly so in Anita's first madness, when the innocent cancan of the movie set becomes entangled with the ugly nightclub mazurka. Aurally, the point of view shifts the way it does in a movie; from Anita to Sebastian to Henri to the audience, the guiding principle being always how it must have felt not how it looks.

The emotional range of the story is broad and its emotional juxtapositions are often disconcerting. For the score to be coherent across 80 minutes, a robust intellectual structure was important. The music strays out of tonality too often for for a key structure to be of much use but there are several themes that recur throughout the score. They are not Leitmotiv - such a device would impose a tyranny on the choreographer - but they are associated with certain kinds of mood and, in the case of the frequently-heard Charleston rhythm, with Anita herself: it has the rhythm of her name. A majority of the themes in the score originate in the first scene and a fair number of them in the melody you hear at the very outset; it is not stretching a point to see the piece as a set of variations. The score is in a singe span but falls into 24 numbers, each with its own title; Adventures in a Fur Coat, Duet and Robbery, Schürker-Mazurka and so forth.

It was tremendous fun to compose, but it was also exhausting and disruptive. I usually write directly into score with a pencil, using nice tidy strokes, but the manuscript of Anita Berber is a blistered riot of different coloured inks, drawings and the occasional expletive scrawled across the page in large letters. I think her unquiet shade may have got under my normally placid skin! I hope she gets under yours, because hers is an important story for our time. We have become too accustomed to the sight of lives ruined by the search for chimerical fame or by the pressures that come with it; not just the likes Amy Winehouse or Michael Jackson but also the crowd of witless no-hopers who besiege the TV talent shows. Most of them are discarded but others are chewed up by the machine, just like the workers in Metropolis. They don't stand a chance, any more than Anita did. I hope we can find some compassion for her disordered life - and then ask how many more Anita Berbers are being created and destroyed by our pitiless entertainment industry.


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Simon Wills © 2017