When Art Porn Works: “Ecstasy in Berlin 1926”

Once again, I’m trying to inject a little sex into this increasingly less sex-oriented sex writer’s blog, and am posting one of my Adult FriendFinder magazine porn reviews. This is one of my rare straight-up raves — and as is so often the case with my porn reviews, it’s simultaneously a review and an analysis of what makes porn work. Enjoy!


Ecstasy in Berlin 1926, DVD
Produced, directed, and edited by Maria Beatty
Available at Bleu Productions and at Last Gasp.

Yes. Oh, dear Lord, yes. This is what I’ve been waiting for, what I’m always waiting for and so rarely get. “Ecstasy in Berlin 1926” is art porn that’s actually both artistic and pornographic. It’s smut that’s exquisitely framed and impeccably timed and created with a passionate creative vision… and that is, at the same time, filthy and nasty and explicit, catering to my most perverted and degenerate voyeuristic lusts.

The movie is set in Berlin in 1926. A blonde beauty, sensual and delicate and a bit like Jean Harlow, injects herself with an unnamed drug, and slips into a fantasy about a dashing brunette woman who appears from nowhere and kisses her passionately, a gloved hand at her throat. The fantasy lover takes control with an increasingly firm hand, slicing the blonde’s lingerie off with a straight razor, and caressing her breasts with a touch that’s both sensual and sadistic.

As the blonde woman sinks deeper into the drug, the fantasy changes scene. Her lover is now clad in a corset and severely high laced leather boots — boots for the blonde to grovel at and worship with her lovely mouth. At this point, the fantasies become increasingly intense and perverse, as the submissive girl is bound with ropes, flogged, spanked, paddled, caned, whipped, chained up, and more — all flawlessly pictured in her mind’s eye.

The film is the love child of Maria Beatty. Beatty has produced and directed a number of erotic videos for her company Bleu Productions: most of them featuring lesbian SM, and many of them quite extreme. I’ve been a fan of Beatty’s for years, and her kink videos The Black Glove and The Elegant Spanking are among my favorites. She has an eye for the perfect moment, the pose that perfectly captures the moment of submission or pain or taking control. “Ecstasy in Berlin 1926” is a beautiful example. When the blonde is bent over her mistress’s lap, or on all fours in front of a mirror, or on her knees with her face on the floor and her ass in the air, the position is always classic, an iconic example of that pose, perfectly blocked and framed to make a delicious picture for the viewer.

But unlike many other “perfect moment, perfectly framed” porn directors (like, oh, say, Andrew Blake), the performers in Beatty’s movies aren’t merely standing and modeling. They seem like they’re really there. The tongue on the boot, the paddle on the bottom, the lash on the back, the look of concentration on the dominant’s face, the look of fear and bliss on the submissive’s — all of these feel genuine. The performers aren’t thrashing and screaming, to be sure, but they seem very much intent on what they’re doing, and deeply satisfied by it. Maria Beatty is herself a lifestyle submissive, and she’s clearly devoted to making videos that capture both the intensity of her fantasies and the truth of real SM play. And when she’s at her best, her videos are an exceptional blend of artistry and authenticity.

And “Ecstasy in Berlin 1926” is definitely one of her best. Filmed mostly in black-and-white and sepia-tone with only occasional color, the movie’s perverse pleasures are expertly filmed and deftly framed, giving it an air of luxurious decadence. Watching it made me feel like a wealthy sybarite in an elegant bordello, with lovely and expensive girls performing a series of degenerate sex acts carefully staged for my benefit. It looks like a German art film of the 1920s, like a dirty movie by Murnau or Fritz Lang, or like vintage porn photographs come to life. (“Ecstasy in Berlin 1926” was, in fact, inspired by a series of vintage girl-girl kink photos, and one of the extras on the DVD is a gallery of those photos.)

There are a few things you need to be prepared for. One of them is the slow pace of the film, the long, lingering buildup before you get to the “good parts.” Personally, I think this is one of the movie’s strong points: I think foreplay and teasing and excruciating anticipation are “good parts,” some of the yummiest good parts, and one of my biggest complaints about mainstream porn is that it rushes straight to the fucking or the whipping without giving me time to get excited about it. But even if you do get impatient with the teasy buildup (which you can, of course, fast-forward through), I think you’ll appreciate the movie’s patience. Because once it gets to the juicy bits, it stays with them. It doesn’t jump from fetish to fetish or from shot to shot like a music video on speed; it finds a groove and stays with it, letting your eyes linger on the leather boots being lovingly tongued, the chains being carefully wrapped around the naked torso, the bare bottom being paddled again and again. When you come to a bit that you really like, you can relax and trust that you’ll be able to watch it for a little while.

You also need to be prepared for the complete lack of dialog. The movie is silent: there’s music, but no conversation at all. Again, I personally think this is a huge plus; most porn actors can’t act for beans, and most porn dialog makes me want to crawl under the sofa and die from embarrassment. In “Ecstasy in Berlin 1926,” there are no awkward, wooden, ineptly written, clumsily memorized speeches to distract you — the focus is entirely on the image. If what you like in an adult video is the image, this movie will come as a huge relief — but if you’re a fan of dirty talk, it may be a bit disappointing.

Finally, you should be prepared for the somewhat abrupt finish. This is my only actual complaint about the film. The blonde girl’s fantasy scenes follow on one another with grace and heat, expertly edited and overlaid, building from firm but gentle dominance to increasingly intense scenarios of blissful pain and submission. But then they just kind of stop. There’s nothing to mark the last scene as the last scene — nothing but the credits. I don’t insist on a classic Big Porn Finish, a final orgy scene with six guys shooting on the star’s face and boobs. But I do like some sense of closure, something to give shape and context to all those beautiful dirty images, something that tells me to breathe again, or to come. This video doesn’t have it, and it’s a bit… well, anticlimactic.

But this is a minor nitpick, really, like ragging on Dickens for having a spelling error. I love this film, and I recommend it passionately. “Ecstasy in Berlin 1926” is that rarest of all rare creatures: art porn that works, where the filthiness makes the art more beautiful, and the art makes the sex more hot.

Copyright 2005 Greta Christina. Originally published in Adult FriendFinder magazine.

When Art Porn Works: “Ecstasy in Berlin 1926”

12 thoughts on “When Art Porn Works: “Ecstasy in Berlin 1926”

  1. 1

    While I admire sex-positive feminism minus Camille “Haglia” (hence my nickname sexposfemme) and consider you, Susie Bright, Betty Dodson, and Annie Sprinkle heroes, I’m having difficulty these days understanding how porn and stripping is empowering to women. The reason I find it perplexing is because it dovetails seemlessly with patriarchal and Eurocentric beauty standards that many feminists have been against. It couldn’t dovetail more seemlessly. I’m a stripper and while I consider some things about it empowering (the sexual expression, the solidarity of the dancers, the bawdy exchanges, defeating the double standard, the confidence boost, the independence of money making) I don’t see how it’s empowering to women as a whole. A 400 pound octogenarian can never be a stripper, and the industry to her would just serve as a sad reminder of that fact. And because the power is in the beauty of the woman, said octogenerian is admittedly powerless. It’s as if she might as well not exist. And many strippers are afraid of getting older for that very reason. There may also be a racial caste system where nonwhite dancers have more difficulty finding positions at more upscale establishments. There’s definitely anxiety among most black dancers about hiring and profits.
    Same with porn. Yes women like to masturbate to porn, especially bisexual women, and it’s great to empower us in that respect. But the cult of youth and beauty undercuts. That’s why Annie Sprinkle was seemingly more political, more thought-provoking as she got older and curvier. Her early films seem like conformity, although I appreciate the need to establish street credibility. Her later work like Sluts and Goddesses, telling women of all ages, colors, and sizes that they are goddesses as long as they have pleasure in various ways? Much more intriguing.
    Four bogus excuses come to mind:
    1. Choice- As in stripping, porn, and prostitution are empowering to women because they represent the freedom to choose any profession. If feminism is all about choice, I’ll be the last one out the doors so I can gladly lock them. No movement has meaning that is merely predicated on choice. People already know they have choices, that’s the point of therapy. That’s not political, it’s not opinionated, it’s not conducive to leadership.
    2. Nature- As in nature is hierarchical, beauty fades, get over it. Now how empowering is that? It’s laughable that someone, would say this and still call herself a feminist. First of all nature is hierarchal but only species by species, not girl by girl for example. Beauty standards vary from culture to culture, and in some cultures men are the beautiful displays. Besides, disease is natural, rape is natural, homophobia and racism might be natural. Nature does not an empowering movement make.
    3. Art- just because it’s art doesn’t make it empowering. It’s art for art’s sake.
    4. Gay men- Don’t let the joie de vivre fool you. Gay men are not necessarily the epitome of empowerment. Just because gay men do something doesn’t mean women should. There are many gay men who are deeply depressed, on drugs, or suicidal. It’s sad that a cult of youth and beauty exists in the gay community.
    Sex-positive feminists have addressed this issue at times. In The Sexual State of the Union, Susie said looks i.e. age, weight, have nothing to do with erotic appeal. But she didn’t explain how that could be true and she seems to be laboring under a delusion. In the stripping world it’s practically immoral to be above a size 12.
    You’ve come the closest to really addressing the issue. I’m appalled by the silence of sex-positive feminists, when if you follow the arguments of the movement to their logical conclusion, the connection with patriarchy is so obvious. It’s one thing to empower women to choose their sexual partners and be sexually free to view sex acts, participate in them and have a deep abiding acceptance of their chosen sexuality. It’s quite another to have them struggle to remain in the fleeting, elitist position of disposable sex toy.

  2. 2

    I think these are some valid questions, SPF. Off the top of my head, here’s how I’d respond.
    1) I think it’s important to make a distinction between the very idea of porn, and porn as it’s commonly practiced in contemporary society. Too many anti-porn feminists look at the most visible, most easily accessible mainstream porn (especially video porn); see it as sexist (which a lot of it is); and leap from there to condemning the very idea of porn as sexist. (And sometimes they leap from there to trying to flat-out ban it.)
    The fact that a lot of porn is sexist doesn’t make porn inherently sexist. We live in a sexist society, and a lot of a lot of things are sexist. A lot of movies are sexist; a lot of TV is sexist; a lot of pop music is sexist; etc. That doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently sexist about movies and TV and pop music. I’d argue that there’s at least as much, if not more, of a rigid standard of female beauty on TV than there is in porn. And it has a far greater impact on our culture than porn does.
    2) I think it’s important to remember that not all porn is mainstream porn. Not even all video porn is mainstream, Jenna Jameson/Vivid Video/Andrew Blake/AVN porn. Yes, an awful lot of porn is sexist, especially in the “rigid and narrow standards of female beauty” aspect of sexism — but not all of it is, and the further away you get from the most visible, most mainstream porn, the less rigid it gets. Ditto racism.
    Remember the thing they used to say in the ’60s and ’70s: “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own”? That’s a lot of how I feel about porn. If you don’t like the porn, go out and make some of your own. And there are indie pornographers who are doing exactly that… many of whom do have broader standards of beauty than the mainstream producers. Once you step away from the mainstream, porn doesn’t dovetail with patriarchal and Eurocentric beauty standards nearly as seamlessly as you’re claiming.
    3) I think it’s important to remember that this is not a simple, either/or question. There are nuances, complexities, shades on the spectrum. It’s possible to like some things about porn, dislike other things about it. It’s possible to acknowledge that some aspects of being in the sex industry are empowering, while others are disempowering.
    And it’s possible to speak out for the wonderful, awesome power of good porn to enliven and arouse and open up our sex lives, while still speaking out against the sexism, racism, rigid body standards, narrow and inaccurate vision of sexuality, etc. etc. etc., that is so common in mediocre porn (and even somewhat in the good stuff).
    4) Perhaps most importantly: I think it’s important to consider the alternatives. Do we really want the kind of feminism that snipes at other women for making choices we wouldn’t make? You start sniping at porn stars and strippers for participating in the patriarchy, and soon you’re sniping at married women, women with children, women with jobs, women who shop at the supermarket, even just women who like to have sex with men, for participating in the patriarchy. And soon feminism becomes one big argument about who’s more pure than who. Been there, done that. No thanks.
    The fact is that we live in the real world. The real world is sexist, and any time we participate in it, we make compromises. You can go the separatist route and try to make a private Utopia. There’s a case to be made for that.
    But it’s not what I want to do. Fucked-up though it is, I want to engage with the larger world. And because I’m such a sexually motivated person, I want to engage with the world about sex. When we step into that world and start making a space for ourselves in it, demanding our share of the bandwidth and trying to shove it in the direction we think it should go… yes, I think that’s empowering. Even — and maybe especially — when the world we’re stepping into is sexist and hostile and wants us to shut up.
    (Oh, BTW: Nature is darned well hierarchical person by person. That’s exactly how natural selection works. Individuals who survive and reproduce fertile offspring get their DNA replicated; individuals who don’t, don’t. I’m not sure I agree with people who claim that standards of beauty are just natural selection at work — there are, as you point out, too many different standards in different cultures/historical periods for that to be completely true. It’s also true that the fact that something is in nature doesn’t make it right; and humans do seem to have an unusual capacity for transcending nature and choosing our behavior. But Nature is not a feminist, and feminists seriously need to remember this. Denying reality because it isn’t what we want it to be doesn’t help our cause.)

  3. 3

    You brought up some very compelling thoughts which is why I like to hear from you. Thanks for clearing up the nature/nurture issue.
    To your first point:
    1) The idea of porn- the idea of communism is a utopic charge, but the reality is what counts.
    Sexist world- I think this was the best point. College is sexist, racist, homophobic, the corporate world is sexist, racist, homophobic, etc but people still consider these empowering avenues for women, minorities, and gays. But that’s because social change is possible in a way that it’s not in porn. Affirmative action is not applicable to the looks industries. The EEOC will not sue a porn production company based on race/age/weight discrimination and Jesse Jackson is not interested in getting black strippers hired at upscale clubs. People get away with saying things at strip clubs they wouldn’t in a board room or at a frat party, for example, some have heard “it’s getting dark in here”. How much pull do non-mainstream sex radicals really have?
    2) Agreed.
    3) I have to let that one marinate.
    4) I think there’s middle ground between conformity and blind advocacy, which would be opinion. A movement can’t survive without one.

  4. 4

    “1) The idea of porn- the idea of communism is a utopic charge, but the reality is what counts.”
    But even the reality of porn isn’t as uniformly bleak as you seem to be presenting it. There are a lot of indie porn producers who are saying “fuck you” to the conventional beauty myths… and even some more mainstream producers, like Nina Hartley and Veronica Hart and Candida Royalle, are pushing the envelope, even if they’re not doing so as much as you or I might like.
    If that weren’t true, then I might be inclined to say “okay, this porn thing is a failed experiment, the utopian ideal is great but there’s no way it can not be sexist in reality.” But not only can it be — it sometimes is.
    And again — is the beauty myth really more prevalent in porn than it is in TV and movies? And if not, why should porn be singled out?
    “But that’s because social change is possible in a way that it’s not in porn.”
    I don’t think that’s true. Not only do I think social change is possible in the porn world — I think it’s already happened, and is continuing to happen (although certainly not at the pace that I’d like it to). Again, I’ll talk about indie porn — and one of the great things about the Internet is that it’s now possible for almost anyone to be a porn producer. And even in mainstream porn, I think the presence of strong, feminist women in positions of power in the industry *has* made a difference.
    I often look at this from a “harm reduction” standpoint (probably because my partner and so many of my friends are in public health, and I look at everything from a harm reduction standpoint). Can we make porn perfect? Almost certainly not. Can we make it better? Yes, I think we can.
    Now, the $64,000 question: Is it worth it? Can we make it better enough to be worth the time and effort we put into the fight? I don’t know. I care a lot about porn, so I tend to think so. If you don’t, or if the things that bug you about it bug you so much that you can’t overlook them… then maybe porn (or at least mainstream porn) is something you’ll want to stay away from. That’d be a valid decision… as long as you accept that going the other way and deciding to enjoy porn despite its flaws is also valid.
    “I think there’s middle ground between conformity and blind advocacy, which would be opinion. A movement can’t survive without one.”
    Agreed. I think porn is worth fighting for — but a big part of that fight is speaking out when it stinks.
    But I think there’s a big difference between saying something like “the majority of mainstream heterosexual video porn is sexist, racist, and body-fascistic”… and saying “porn is sexist, racist, and body-fascistic.”
    And it’s not just that the second statement is more general and the first is more specific (and in my opinion, more precise and more accurate). The first is a criticism of a specific way that porn often plays out in our current world… and as such, it acknowledges exceptions to the rule, and the possibility of change. The second is (or sounds like, anyway) a criticism of the very concept of porn, regardless of how it’s executed, and without any hope for it to ever be any different.
    (It’s the same point I keep making when I write about atheism and religion — there’s a difference between going off on the intolerant, close-minded, bigoted religious right… and going off on religion.)

  5. 5

    BTW, I haven’t been responding to your comments about stripping because I think porn and stripping do play out differently… and porn is what I’m more familiar with. Yes, I’ve worked as a stripper… but not for very long, and only at one place. And the stories you’ve told here about it — especially about the racism — give me chills.
    What I will say about stripping is this.
    In San Francisco at least, the government HAS gotten involved in labor disputes at strip clubs, and HAS cracked down on unfair labor practices by club owners.
    And a big reason this has happened is that the strippers in San Francisco are proud, vocal, and organized — in other words, empowered — and have been for years. They’ve spent a lot of time changing public perceptions about strippers in the city, and getting public opinion on their side. They weren’t ashamed of being strippers. They weren’t afraid of speaking out publicly about being strippers. And they didn’t throw up their hands and say, “The government will never do anything to help us.” They saw themselves as citizens and workers, and acted accordingly.
    Would Jesse Jackson or the EEOC ever get involved in a discrimination case in the sex industry? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. What I do know is that they definitely never will until strippers see themselves as powerful, and bloody well take their case to Jesse Jackson and the EEOC — again and again, until they get heard. (Personally, I doubt they could win on age and weight, but they might be able to on race.)
    And again, I’ll bring up the TV and movies analogy. There’s probably just as much race/age/weight discrimination in the entertainment biz as there is in the sex biz. And whole of course I’m not defending it — I bitch about it a lot — but I also don’t think TV and movies are an irredeemable tool of the patriarchy.
    “Empowered” is not an either/or thing. It’s not like either you’re empowered or you’re not. It’s a spectrum, a matter of greater and lesser degrees. And I’m very reluctant to tell someone else that their work isn’t empowering and never can be, just because I personally see the down sides as being bigger than the pluses.

  6. 7

    “How do you see stripping and porn as playing out differently?”
    Interesting question. There are a lot of differences, of course — the difference between providing sexual entertainment in person versus producing an entertaining image being the most obvious one.
    But in looking at the question of which form of sex work is easier for an individual to make an impact on, I’d say the big difference has to do with economies of scale.
    To produce porn, your initial investment doesn’t have to be very big. And with the internet, you don’t need a huge amount of money to distribute your product. You need more money if you want a high-gloss product and access to mainstream distribution networks… but if you’re willing to forgo those, you can get started relatively cheap.
    Now, whether you’ll sell anything is another matter. Competition in porn is fierce, especially online. But I think the success of, say, Suicide Girls shows that a small indie porn site can go seriously big if what they’re offering is something people want to see.
    Which means (a) porn is easier for an individual to break into, and (b) it’s safer to take risks in, since the investment is relatively low.
    But to start a strip club, you’re talking urban real estate, either purchased or rented. That’s a big-ass expense, and it’s one that never goes away — large mortgage or lease payments keep coming back month to month.
    So (a) it’d be practically impossible to start up a funky indie strip club, and (b) strip club owners tend to be less willing to take risks, and more likely to play to the widest possible audience.
    I’m sure there’s more to it than that. But that’s what leaps to mind just off the top of my head.

  7. 8

    “And again, I’ll bring up the TV and movies analogy. There’s probably just as much race/age/weight discrimination in the entertainment biz as there is in the sex biz. And whole of course I’m not defending it — I bitch about it a lot — but I also don’t think TV and movies are an irredeemable tool of the patriarchy.”
    But you also don’t see the entertainment world as a tool of feminism and women’s empowerment, the way sex-positive feminism proports sex work to be. I can considering something empowering to women even if it’s somewhat racist, after all, feminism was extremely racist but was still empowering to all women. But something that places women’s worth in their appearance and creates a hierarchy accordingly and innately? Not too sure.

  8. 10

    “But you also don’t see the entertainment world as a tool of feminism and women’s empowerment, the way sex-positive feminism proports sex work to be. (snip) But something that places women’s worth in their appearance and creates a hierarchy accordingly and innately? Not too sure.”
    My answer to this is my answer to so many things; the answer that’s become such a mantra in my life it’s almost a running joke:
    It’s not a simple matter of either/or.
    I think there are very few, if any, cultural institutions or professions that are either completely empowering or completely oppressive, in terms of feminism or anything else.
    And I think that’s super-duper true for both the entertainment industries and the sex industries. The entertainment biz isn’t always a tool for women’s empowerment… but it certainly can be. It sometimes is. (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” leaps to mind.) I think it’s better now than it was forty years ago, largely due to the efforts of women in the industry. And I think all of that is true for the sex industries as well.
    I’m also not sure it’s true that sex-positive feminism sees sex work as empowering universally and across the board. I think a lot of pro-sex-work writing stresses the empowering aspect of it as a way of trying to counterbalance the overwhelmingly negative view of it that most people hold. And I think that’s shifted in the last few years: there’s more of a willingness recently among pro-sex-work writers to acknowledge the aspects of sex work that suck.
    I also don’t think it’s true that porn places women’s worth *solely* in their appearance and creates a hierarchy accordingly and innately. Even in the most mainstream of mainstream video porn, where appearance is extremely highly prized and the standards of beauty are ridiculously narrow and rigid (a fact I complain about a lot in my writing about porn), appearance isn’t the only quality that’s valued. The ability to project sexual enthusiasm on camera is every bit as important. You aren’t going to get very far in the porn industry without it, no matter how pretty you are.
    And again, as you get further away from the mainstream and more into the indie porn world, you see a greater emphasis on that energy and enthusiasm, and a broader, more inclusive vision of what makes women (and men, for that matter) attractive.
    I’m not saying that porn and the other sex industries don’t have serious problems. I’m just saying that those problems aren’t the whole picture. Again — and here comes the broken record — it’s not a simple matter of either/or.

  9. 11

    I think sex work tends to be really rough on the ego because it’s show business, and show business is really rough on the ego. What you’re selling is very closely identified with yourself. So if it’s rejected or criticized, you don’t have that layer of insulation. It’s hard to think “I did a bad job” rather than “I’m a bad person”.
    One way to survive is to become very harsh and bitter, which unfortunately perpetuates the antagonistic relationship.
    This is actually why (in my observation) much of the kinkier sex work is psychologically safer. All participants understand that customers are looking for a particular scene, one that they can’t get everywhere. So the attitude is, that if person X can’t (or doesn’t want to) provide the scene you want, you’ll have to look elsewhere. There’s nothing wrong with person X, he or she just isn’t the right person for you.
    Although I’ve never called up an escort service for a date (and I really should read Paying For It if I ever plan to; while I’ve hung out with a lot of sex workers, we didn’t talk about sex work much), I’ve amused myself thinking about what kind of person I’d ask for, and even though I’m mostly straight, gender doesn’t make the essential requirements list. Opinionated without being objectionable is required. As is mannerliness and poise. Genitals? Surprise me. Just forewarn me about food allergies and handicaps I need to allow for.
    All other things being equal, I greatly appreciate tight abs, a bubble butt and a taste for spanking. But not at the expense of a bubble head.

  10. 12

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