Josephine Baker in Berlin

In December of 1925 the American cabaret performer Josephine Baker brought her show ‘La Revue Négre’ from Paris to Berlins Theater De Westens.

Throughout the early 1920′s, Jazz was rapidly replacing the more traditional musical forms in Cabaret and Revue but it was not until after the stabilisation of the currency in 1924 that many Berliners had the chance to experience it live.

Josephine Baker became an almost overnight phenomenon from which it was said “the women of Berlin were never the same again.”

The black performers touring Europe at the time were perceived as both reinforcing and subverting racial stereotypes with Baker at the forefront. Typical examples being her intentionally ludicrous ‘Dance of the Savages’ which she performed in just a loin cloth and the blatant cliche of her most famous performance wearing a skirt composed of just bananas.

Another troupe performing in Berlin in the same year as Baker were  ‘The Chocolate Kiddies’ performing music by Duke Ellington at the Admiralspalast.

The newspaper reviews of both shows were astonishing, describing the black performers as primitive and primeval whilst, at the same time, utterly modern.

” They are a cross between primeval forests and skyscrapers; likewise their music , Jazz, in its colour and rhythms. Ultramodern and ultraprimitive”

” They have brought us our culture. Humanity has returned to its origins in the steps, the shaking and loosened bodies. Only that can help us, we who have become too erratic. It is the deepest expression of our innermost longing”

Josephine Baker replied in her memoirs:

” In Berlin’s journals and newspapers they wrote that I was the embodiment of the German ‘expressionism’ of today, of German ‘primitivism’ …. what is the meaning of all that?”


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5 Responses to Josephine Baker in Berlin

  1. Judy Sutcliffe says:

    Look for this book about theater 1920s in Berlin, Aus grosser Theaterzeit: Erinnerungen an das Theater der Zwanziger Jahre. Published by Alano Verlag 1994
    Alano Verlag & Stefan Weidle, Kongressstr. 5, D-52070 Aachen. ISBN 3-89399-206-5. It was written by Rudolph S. Joseph, who was assistant producer to several renowned theater owners/directors in the 20s in Berlin. He was only in his 20s. He and brother (director) Albrecht escaped the Nazis in 1932 or 33, came to US. Rudolph started the film division for Pratt Institute in Santa Barbara. Later he was invited by city of Munich to found the International Film Museum in Munich. Later, in his 80s, he returned to Santa Barbara, where I knew him. Weidle published his charming story of Berlin theater life in the 20s and two or three books written by his brother Albrecht, film editor in LA. Both now dead.

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  4. I.M. Spence-Lewis M.D. says:

    The artistic leadership of Josephine Baker is remarkable for any age and nation. I saw
    one of her last shows at Tivoli in Denmark with my son. We were fortunate to be allowed to meet her immediately after the performance. Baker held the audience in awe with her costumes and elegant use of her dramatic purple feather boa. Her fluid well placed movements and rich voice belied her age.

    I have read about her. However literary comment, however effective, is not the same as seeing her exotic shows and hearing her songs in person. I was also told about her by Conductor Rudolph Dunbar (during the 80′s in London) who knew her while she performed in Paris.

    Her performances in Berlin contributed to the introduction of Jazz in Europe. Jazz during WWII in Germany was regulated to radios and clubs playing the music secretly.
    The artistic expression of Jazz at that time was considered subversive to the German
    war movement and an enemy plan of the “Jewish” and Allied Forces to subvert German culture.

    During WWII the German High Command invited her to work for Nazi interests. She denied the request and instead furthered her work for the French underground and liberation. Bakers military activities during WWII earned her the French military honor Croix de Guerre. Individuals of the German High Command are known to have visited Paris to view her performances.

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

    Revue. Musik, Gesangtexte und Szenarium: diverse Komponisten und Autoren. Choreografie: Jacques-Charles
    Tryout 1925, Plantation Club, New York NY. UA 2.10.1925, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris. B-E 1926, Brüssel. D-E 14.1.1926, Nelson-Theater, Berlin
    Musiknummern: Danse sauvage u.a.
    Notiz: Der Jazz hatte den dominierenden musikalischen Anteil, ferner war von den 12 ausschließlich farbigen Musikern (für die Pariser erstmals) Charleston zu hören, u.a. fast nackt getanzt von der 19-jährigen Josephine Baker, die das Zentrum der acht, ebenfalls ausschließlich farbigen Chorus girls war. Die Szenographie schuf der expressionistische Maler Fernand Léger.
    Literatur: HENRY LOUIS GATES, KAREN DALTON, PAUL COLIN: Josephine Baker et la Revue nègre. Lithographies du ‘Tumulte Noir’, Paris, 1927, Paris: La Martinière 1998. RUDOLPH S. JOSEPH: Aus großer Theaterzeit. Erinnerungen an das Theater der Zwanziger Jahre. Aachen: Alano 1994. AVANT-GARDE PARIS AND BLACK CULTURE IN THE 1920, New York: Thames and Hudson 2000
    Die Revue nègre kam im Nelson Theater heraus, im Theater des Westens folgte am 3.11.1928:
    [Kabarett-]Revue in 24 Bildern. Musik: Friedrich Hollaender. Gesangstexte und Buch: Günter Bibo und Charlie Roellinghoff. UA 3.11.1928, Theater des Westens, Berlin (bis Dezember 1928)
    Inhalt und Musiknummern: Berlin erwacht – Flughafen – Auf zur Südsee – Tropenkoller: Sei doch heut’ allein mit mir; Frau Käthe zieht sich an – Urwald (Musik: José Padilla) – Raub der Käthe – Abschied von der Südsee – Im Paddelboot über den Ozean: Lasst den kleinen Frauen ihren Willen – Dauville: Zehn kleine Niggergirls – Corn Dance – Wir sind der wilde Völkerstamm – Finale I: Keinen Abend ohne Frack * Vor dem »Café der Nationen« – Dinge, die unmöglich sind: Autoladen; Eheberatungsstelle; Finanzamt – Wa-Wa, wir machen Revue – Am Scharmützelsee: Kali-Fox; Und immer noch spiel’n ‘se Blues (Musik: Marek Weber) – Kinder, spielt mir doch eine weiche Tangoplatte – Chansons [Josephine Baker]; New York; Oft genannt, nie gesehen – Tüll und Taft – Finale II: Berlin im Licht. Ferner: Meine Frau isst Aal so gern
    Kommentar: UA mit Josephine Baker, Lea Seidl, Ellie Hoffmann, Else Berna, Paul Heidemann, Willy Schaeffers, Curt Fuss, Martin Kettner, Albert Paulig, den Palace Girls, den Weintraub-Syncopators [d.s. Friedrich Hollaender (Kl), Stefan Weintraub (Schl), Paul Aronovici (Trp), John Kaiser (Pos), Horst Graff (Klar, A.Sax), Freddy Wise (Klar, T.Sax, B.Sax), Cyril 'Baby' Schulvater (Banjo, Git) und Ansco Bruinier (Trp, Tb und Kb)], sowie dem Orchester Marek Weber.

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