Stark Political Humor Drives Berlin's Cabarets
A unique German art form returns with a vengeance to expose what it sees as society's paradoxes and problems
BERLIN — THE stage is bare. A balding man with a cherubic face, clad in open-neck shirt, jeans, and sneakers is seated on a stool. He talks in a rapid, snappy style.
The well-heeled audience laughs repeatedly at his clever word play. He recites verbatim from a recent debate in Germany's parliament about the current hatred toward foreigners living in the country. Many quotes; many more laughs. Without the audience realizing it, he effortlessly slips into statements from elsewhere, on the same subject.
It gradually dawns on everyone what they are now listening to. These are the words of Adolf Hitler, penned about 60 years ago in "Mein Kampf," only shortly thereafter to be echoed by large sections of German citizenry during the Nazi era.
"I show how many parallels there are in democratic, or so-called democratic, thinking," says leading Berlin cabaret artist Martin Buchholz. "The exact same terms that Germans used [in Hitler's day], they use for the Turks and other foreigners today. In fact, there is a growing hatred against all `un-German' people."
A good political-cabaret artist, or kabarettist, Mr. Buchholz says, is "an uncomfortable thinker" - uncomfortable for his audiences as well as himself.
"It's much nicer to arrange flowers," he remarks with a wry smile. "Sometimes when I am on holiday, I try to stop - not my thinking - but that way of thinking, that over-critical thinking." But once your eyes are opened to seeing past society's more acceptable facade, he muses, to relax even for a while is nearly impossible. The mask of `pro-Semitism'
While the majority of his countrymen might reject the notion that there is a significant amount of anti-Semitism in modern Germany - pointing out that jokes or caricatures of Jewish people are among the few taboos in public entertainment - Buchholz holds a different view.
"What we have here is anti-Semitism with the face of pro-Semitism," he says. "Because of guilt and partly because of our education, there is this mask of pro-Semitism. And in normal speech, you cannot find anything wrong with what is said. But then I take the common things that are spoken [on this subject] and take them, on stage, word by word - with a little turn - and then everyone suddenly hears, perhaps for the first time ... the undertones that swing the meaning."
Political cabaret is a wholly and uniquely German phenomenon. The staging ranges from nondescript to nonexistent. The emphasis is on the verbal rather than the visual. While the mode is humor, often brutally so, the overriding purpose is to provoke. Complacency and the status quo are invariably the targets. Political kabarettists see themselves in a direct philosophical line from the Enlightenment.
As one kabarettist put it, summing up the general view: "The most important function of political cabaret is to continue the Enlightenment tradition, to believe that if man is given the full information and facts, you can trust his reasoning. This kind of cabaret is to make the people - to force the people - to think for themselves, to see what kind of things are happening around them and to help them work at reaching their own opinion and, most important, to actually speak that opinion."
It is often said that a good political-cabaret show is comparable to reading a week of newspapers. For Buchholz that is an understatement. "My aim is to get my audience to re-read those newspapers, behind the headlines, and to re-hear the words of politicians and so on," he says, adding, "to read them with different eyes and hear them with different ears." The rise of political cabaret
Political cabaret began in Berlin over a century ago, during the repressive early years of Kaiser Wilhelm II's reign, in a reaction against the officially sanctioned theater. It soon spread to other German cities, most notably Munich.
These original political kabarettists hoped to incorporate the humanist principles that surfaced in the French Revolution into the fabric of German society.
Political cabaret flourished in the 1920s - by this point there were hundreds of clubs in Berlin alone - but was finally banned during the Nazi period, only to reemerge after World War II, with particular zeal in East Germany.
The art form was made famous beyond German borders, although in misleading and overly glamorized Hollywood fashion, in the 1970s film "Cabaret," starring Liza Minnelli. During the communist period, East Germany had over 600 political-cabaret venues.
With the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the majority of political-cabaret clubs closed their doors. The Communist Party was finished; the Wall had been reduced to rubble; the enemy was gone. There seemed, for a time, nothing important left to fight against. West German political cabarets, shrinking in number for decades, lost their punch in the 1960s.
But today political cabaret is finding renewed impetus in the city where it was born. In recent months, renowned political-cabaret theaters such as Die Distel, in East Berlin, which suffered a huge drop in audiences immediately following the tearing down of the Wall - before 1989 the demand for tickets was so great that people had a two-year wait - are currently experiencing a burgeoning of fresh audience interest. The theater is once again regularly playing to full houses.
Its equally respected West-side counterpart, Die Wuhlmause, is also enjoying a similar audience boom. Indeed, of the 22 cabaret clubs in Berlin, all six of the solely political-cabaret spots are currently flourishing. Added to these, smaller, amateur political-cabaret houses are popping up virtually every month around town in response to the growing wave of popularity.
The reasons for this are clear for those who live in the city. As Frank Bohnke, a West Berlin investment banker puts it, "The two sides, East and West, are even further apart than before the Wall [came down]. In those days, we in the West didn't think about East Berlin; you never had to fit together. Now we do, and the gap is much wider."
And there is, of course, the disturbing specter of the renewed spread of right-wing sentiments. Political kabarettists repeatedly expressed deep distress at the trend; their work, they say, is all the more necessary today as a counterforce.
"My most important theme right now," says Dieter Hildebrandt, generally considered the "grand old man" of postwar political cabaret, "is to keep this new German democracy, and to tell the people what they have to do to keep it. The German people, you know, have no [historical] tradition in democracy: 50 years is not very long. They know how to do it, but sometimes they don't want to do it."
His kabarettist colleague, Franz-Josef Grummer, agrees. "There are a lot of people in this country at the moment who wish for a furher," he explains. "It comes from the ... mentality that is very strong here: `I need someone to tell me what I should do, then I do it, and I do it as best as possible.' Well, look at just 50 years ago. Everybody did what everybody else told him to do, and he did it the best he could. You know the result." The kabarettist as idealist
Buchholz is typical of many of his breed of kabarettists. A highly educated, self-confessed idealist, he gravitated to political-cabaret work because of his belief in the importance of social change. He spent 22 years as a journalist - crime reporter, movie critic, then political editor of a large Berlin newspaper - while performing cabaret as a hobby.
The hobby eventually took over. He is today widely viewed as one of the most important and incisive political kabarettists around. And he is very worried about his country.
When asked if a reunited Germany is a potentially dangerous thing, Buchholz says candidly, "This is also my fear. I talk about it all the time in my cabaret show. That danger is the very sort of exaggeration I do on stage, to depict the people, the mentality and the roots of that mentality - and also the disturbing possibility that history can be repeated."
He cites a renowned colleague in the early 1920s who proved uncannily accurate in predicting the rise of a fascist German state that would, within two decades, wage war against the rest of Europe. Political kabarettists always satirically exaggerate the present situation, with the underlying hope that such an exaggeration will never occur.
But good political kabarettists, Buchholz says, see the trends long before the general public; and, unfortunately, "these exaggerations not only happen," he laments, "but sometimes in a shorter period than we could ever imagine."
Political cabaret is all the more needed right now, observes Buchholz, by the very fact that it is becoming increasingly hazardous to do.
Apart from a sharp influx of abusive letters and phone calls he has received as a result of the topical social criticism in his shows, Buchholz describes an occurrence not long ago that rocked him to the core: One warm evening, he had the stage door open during his performance. Midway, he was suddenly pelted with stones by a group outside, accompanied by repeated shouts of "Sieg heil!" and Nazi salutes. The audience had the impression that it was part of the show.
A deeply shaken Buchholz hid his shock, while locking the door. He deftly carried on. "But I was very scared," he admits. "The clearer you are in saying things today, the more dangerous it is."