Valeska Gert, the great grotesque pantomime

Valeska very close to the way she really looked

Valeska Gert, 1892-1978, is now probably best known as the "Mother Peacham" in the famous original film of the Brecht Three Penny Opera (Dreigroschenoper). That film, made in the early thirties, was lost for decades, then found and resuscitated. It is one of the few perfect records of an original Brecht work staged by Brecht himself. Valeska Gert started as an actress and cabaret artist and later became a grotesque pantomime, famous in Europe.

Jewish, she had to leave Germany in 1933, emigrating to France, then the US, where she lived precariously, dancing nude and doing odd jobs like washing dishes.

In NY she eventually opened the "Beggar Bar". After WWII, she returned to Germany and managed the famous cabaret "Hexenkuche" (Witches Kitchen). She also opened the most famous night spot on the popular Northern European vacation spot, the Island of Sylt "Ziegenstall" (The Goat's Stable), where she spent her summers. Evidently bisexual (she was married during the 30s), this night spot was famous as the best lesbian gathering place in Europe, though it catered to everyone.

During the 60s, at about the same time that the Countess of Richthofen came to me for photos, Valeska also heard of me from the same people. She heard that I was able to shoot people in action, like I had done with the Countess. Gert's whole "thing" was flowing through emotional qualities in her mime, and had never been successfully photographed without having to stop and hold all her poses, which ruined their spontaneity. So she asked me do photos of her, giving me absolutely free reign. And then, just like Richthofen, she submitted my photos to Fellini, and, from the photos, Fellini used her in his films, notably in "Gulietta of the Spirits". The photo session was absolutely wild. Gert wouldn't come to my studio. So I had to come to her, with assistants, lights, tripods (which I didn't use), and practically a whole studio. When we entered and set up an area of her living room for the shoot, she sat there completely slumped, almost lifelessly drooping and irritable. Ugly as sin the way she sat there, I thought this would be a really difficult, annoying shoot.

As always, when I was ready, I asked if she would like a little makeup. I was discreet. But ostensibly the question was, would she like me to smooth out some of the wrinkles, etc., and make her look a little lovelier, even younger. She then showed a tiny bit of life, saying no makeup and she wanted me to do whatever I wanted to bring out and even highlight the expressions she would do. I hadn't noticed any expression whatsoever so far, but still, I got out my cameras and asked her to sit in front of the lights.

She plopped herself down on the chair in front of the lights, still slumped and lifeless. Then, like magic, as soon as I turned on the lights, she came to life like nothing else I have ever seen. She suddenly became a whirlwind of one emotion after the other, flowing smoothly and freely from the angelic to the grotesque to the diabolical, to every other emotion one would never have ever considered possible. So I jumped into action, shooting first normally, merely capturing the expressions. Then, later in the session, once I was familiar and comfortable with what she was doing, I switched to a camera with a 20mm super-wide angle lens and a Messraster made for that lens, and shot a lot of photos that distorted her face, exaggerating and bringing out the depth of the expressions. Since the photos were all focused with a Messraster focusing device, they are almost all usable, with no outages whatsoever due to lack of focus. And I will slowly post a good many of them as I have time.

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