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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4 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.

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