“So, how are you enjoying the worst Christmas time since the Second World War?” someone asked me on Twitter during the Winter holidays. In all honesty, I have switched to autopilot shortly after this trip through the tunnel called Corona started and I anxiously try to distract myself. In this culturally canned state of being, my media consumption has gone through the roof and one day, when I was once again browsing through Netflix, I was pleasantly surprised to find Paolo Sorrentino’s wonderful film Loro there!
What fascinates me about this film is not so much its brilliant depiction of Silvio Berlusconi’s character, but rather the phenomenon of the party girls at the infamous Bunga Bunga parties. These secret parties were organised by the power clique surrounding Berlusconi and his protégés in order to be among themselves. Only very young and exceptionally pretty women were invited. Women who thought they would profit from being present, without knowing for sure that they would; pretty women, behaving like the typical whores they in fact did not want to be and who also did not get paid like whores do. Yet, they did everything that was expected of them, including create the illusion of voluntariness. I am talking about the depiction of a culture and of media in which you can only climb the ladder by being sexually available: It is like a condicio sine qua non. At the same time though, this thoroughly whorish society despised professional prostitution, maybe out of fear for its similarity, for fear of it mirroring their own behaviour.
Throughout history, whorish societies such as the one surrounding Berlusconi have been a recurring phenomenon. I noticed this when, in my corona tunnel, I was putting together a courtesan advent calendar for my Twitter account, featuring 24 famous historical courtesans. Because the threshold to prostitution was so low, the lines between power and promiscuity were particularly blurred in certain times, such as the Cinquecento/16th century in the strongholds of the Italian Renaissance. As a result, there were exceptionally many courtesans: women that were unthinkable a hundred years before and a hundred years after, such as Giulia Farnese, Tullia d’Arragonza, Imperia Cognata and Veronica Franco. These women partied with patricians, kings, cardinals and Borgia popes alike; their hedonism exceeds our imagination. At the same time, however, they were the most educated and emancipated women of their time.
Similar female figures we encounter in the ca. sixty-year period of the Parisian Maisons à Partie, the salons of the courtesans of 2nd French Empire, the Belle Époque: Women such as Marie Duplessis (“La dame aux Camélias”); Cora Pearl; Marguerite Bellanger (mistress of Napoleon III. and model for Manet’s “Olympia”); Valtesse de la Bigne (“Nana”); Caroline “La Belle” Otéro, and first and foremost the Marquise de Païva, who later became Pauline Reichsgräfin Henckel von Donnersmarck. The titles she gathered throughout her life are a clear indication of the social rise of this courtesan, née Esther Lachmann, who had once left the Moscow ghetto and eventually became the crème de la crème of the Parisian high-society. A biography like hers was only possible during specific times in history; today it would not be.
What are the internal and external preconditions for such a whorish society?
First of all, emancipation needs to have progressed to such an extent that it is no longer permissible for men to simply take sex. In other words: Rape and the kidnapping of women need to be socially outlawed, whereas the elaborate courting of a lady, even with money, needs to be considered honourable. Society as a whole must be liberal or secularized to the extent that sexual relations outside of marriage are not immediately punished by death or banishment of those involved. A certain tolerance for the inevitable must prevail, even and especially when members of the higher classes are involved.
Second, money must be available – a lot of money – and it needs to be in the hands of a very specific social class: a rational social class, self-confident, but without great overall social ambitions, without distant historical goals, without utopias and ideals, without illusions. An establishment of heirs and nouveau riches, through whose inner constitution a rupture, a disillusionment has somehow passed, who do not expect much more from the state than merely the preservation of power, and from their power they expect nothing more than undisturbed sensual pleasure. One should not be deceived by ambitious power politics and an overbearing desire for pleasure; both are symptoms of the blackest depression. Instead of striving to win a kingdom of heaven through religious zeal or a place in history through heroic deeds, all that remains is the modest desire to pass their earthly existence in lust: life as “nothing but the fattest possible last meal” (Egon Friedell).
Promiscuity as an act of subversion
Obviously, these men are decadent; the powerless but more or less emancipated women can neither love nor desire them for their own sake. Nevertheless, they cannot be ignored or defeated. They obsessively cling to all the resources of power. It is impossible to bring them to justice by reason. Still, there is also no point in attacking them openly. So, only subversion remains as a means to wrest some freedom and life from them. Whereas male parvenus try to flatter and intrigue, women use the phenomenon of sexual desire, which, uninhibited by sacred shyness and inner decency, breaks its way completely headless and overpowering. The lust of this power elite is anything but naive and banal, it is in its deepest reason the lust for destruction. Lust – as a tendency – is always also the lust for downfall, for the destruction of the ego and superego, of the personality. For true lust always has the tendency to absolutize, to eroticize everything in the world, to make it the means of horniness, or it is not true lust. Absolute lust is inhuman by its very nature, which is to say: beyond compassion. If the power elite is ruled by its urges, then these urges can be ruled by clever women. Their only, but decisive advantage is to feel less blind lust, also lust for power, than the men, and therefore to be more reasonable, more human. A dangerous game.
The Bunga Bunga girls in Sorrentino’s Loro are not fools, they only pretend to be. They do this because they know that in Berlusconi’s regime they have no fair chance of an acting or television career. But even the chance of lasting protection is an illusion that is cruelly punished.
In these bleak Corona times, Berlin likes to reminisce about its last whorish decade, the 1920s. It was the time of legendary film parties in Grunewald villas, the parties of the disreputable “Bock von Babelsberg,” aka Joseph Goebbels. Speedy, the protagonist in the novel of the same name by my partner Florian Havemann, is one of the party girls. The novel is set both in the 1920s and in the Nazi era, when Nazi officials put an end to the party. Speedy wants to protect her husband, the New Objectivity painter Rudolf Schlichter (in the novel his name is Schlechter) and somehow keep their shared home, his studio, so that he can paint. By sleeping with rich and influential men, she makes sure that Rudolf does not go crazy for fear of political persecution. She lets them take care of her, yet not without her own lust and daring pleasure.
Even as a prostitute to the establishment it is possible to live up to moral standards: It is possible, if people who you are trying to protect are involved; It is possible, if your personal life is threatened, your own small world filled with the love and sincerity that are the source of your human dignity. Nothing is more irritating to the destructive cynics of power than a demonstration that there is no value except lust without consideration of losses. So that no conscience stirs and asks, what is the price.
In the novel, this strange, brave couple is exposed, and Rudolf Schlechter, who puts up with adultery, is sent to prison for an “un-national-socialist lifestyle”. Speedy first manages to get him various prison facilities, and finally even gets him out of prison – with the only means available to her as a penniless woman. A true story.
Good old BRD
I read Speedy more than 10 years ago, at the time still unpublished, like a protective spell against what I might have to expect from life in case I were to dive into the secrets of Berlin nights. But Germany is not a decadent party empire, not the brothel of Europe; there are no elitist sex parties here, where the beauties of the art world and the demimonde mingle with ministers, not even in Berlin. Our film people are well-behaved civil servants who lazily collect grant funds and are too lazy to party. Our potentates are not so potent that they don’t have to fear for their reputation. In Germany, sex parties take place only for a petit-bourgeois milieu, in stuffy swinger clubs and nice dominatrix studios, with house rules, and luxury prostitution for the rich coyly and hidden in hotel rooms, individually, secretly, for a fixed fee.
I can only love it. Because, entre nous, I don’t consider myself tough enough for such dangerous drug parties with such dangerous men. I am glad that my clients are mostly not felons or criminals against humanity. The women in Loro stand through everything, every humiliation, laughing, dancing, without falling out of character, because they do coke uninterruptedly. But I can’t do that, because I write. To scream you have to be able to feel weakness and deep sorrow. Everyone knows that that’s exactly what cokeheads don’t learn. That’s what coke is for. Authors who are cokeheads are then surprised, after years of their emotional and cerebral self-destruction, that everyone has become so serious. And that wouldn’t be worth a party in the history of the world to me. Sottovoce: I am probably less a courtesan than a writer. But please keep that between us, really, êntre-nous.