the shutter click that immortalized Anna, Marlene & Leni
Berlin in the late 1920s was a surreal place. For the Weimar Republic’s greatest artists and bohemian visionaries, the city offered safe harbor and a space in which to experiment freely. At the same time, Berlin symbolized all the stuff that hedonistic dreams are made of, or depending on how you look at it, the death spiral of a decadent, self-destructive society.
After years of penury, of scraping by to do one’s part to support the German struggle in World War I, then grappling with the shameful fallout of Germany’s defeat in 1918 and the financial burden of owing millions of dollars in war reparations, Berliners simply longed to forget, to keep moving, to live for today only (and for the long night to follow). By 1927, Germany’s economy had picked up and Berlin, like many cosmopolitan cities around the world, had embraced the freewheeling ethos of the American Jazz Age with feverish abandon.
Every night was a cabaret, an avant-garde play, a supper club soirée. All the men were pretty and the women were strong, and if it mattered to you whether the sexy young thing who just joined your table was a man or a woman or something else on a gender fluid spectrum that didn’t yet exist, well, then you’d come to the wrong place. “The only rule was that if a man beckoned a pretty girl, she must prove when she came to his table that she really had breasts,” Hollywood biographer Charles Higham wrote of this period in Berlin. “Often, the unwary male could find himself caressing the leg of a well-known athlete dressed in convincing drag.”
Anna May Wong arrived in Berlin amidst this backdrop in April 1928. Frustrated with Hollywood’s typecasting, she had sailed for Europe with her older sister Lulu in tow to make a film for UFA, Germany’s premiere motion-picture company. Anna May’s presence in Berlin caused an immediate stir. Society hostesses and public intellectuals alike, Walter Benjamin among them, were dazzled by her beauty and wry repartee. Aspiring actresses jockeyed to brush arms with AMW at parties on the odd chance that some of her superlative Americanness might rub off on them.
The most famous of these instances has been enshrined forever in a series of pictures made by a…