I tip my hat to Marlene

VOLKER KÜHN is an author, cabaret artist, and a director of film, television, and theater, as well as a specialist in cabaret history in Germany. From 1959 to 1963 he did one-night stands as an entertainer across America. He began his professional career in 1963 with a monthly satiric radio show on the Hessian radio station. Since 1970 he has been living as a freelance author and director in the western part of Berlin. He has written a number of books and produced television documentaries about the German cabaret and is renowned as an expert on German cabaret author and composer Friedrich Hollaender. Volker also wrote and directed a play titled Marlene, which starred Judy Winter and ran for more than five hundred performances.

Marlene Dietrich in old Berlin. For many who were with her then, she was a kind of prototype. The young Marlene's experiences mirrored what was going on in Berlin at the time. Things were happening for young people, and she took her piece of the action. She was very young, emancipated, undaunted by authority. She had exactly what they said Berlin had after World War I: a zest for life, being crazy, doing new things, doing things you normally wouldn't do, having no respect for narrow-minded people. In this great conglomerate where the arts had their first big renaissance, here in the Renaissance Theater, Marlene was in the thick of it. She was everywhere that something was happening. They were having fun at parties, and they knew how to draw on life's essence by celebrating. And Marlene played a big role in that. She impressed herself on people, who were enthusiastic about her, because she gave her opinions without any reservations. This was the message of the young people who had broken rank with the kaiser's [emperor's] era and said, now something brand new is going to begin.

I have to say that for the generation that I belong to, the '20s was not just a model, but a yearning. If someone would ask you, if you were born again, when would you like to live? In the '20s, of course. Why? Whether this was true in all cases I don't know, but for my generation, the '20s had everything that was worth living for. Not too limited, not too petty, but high class instead, liberal, somewhat expansive, which a young man wants. You find the boundaries drawn too narrow, with all the little gardens fenced in and always somebody there saying, "Forbidden, forbidden, forbidden." And all of that, according to our notion the '20s, was completely different then. Certainly that is connected to an enormous historical change. You've got to imagine in 1918 this insane first world war was at an end. This was a deep slump for the people, such that we can't imagine. It was the first great battle of materials. It was no longer a case of people. Machines were fighting each other, and there was sacrifice of life that had never happened on such a scale in history. Battles with materials-these tank battles in France, these battlefields. As a young person, I saw Verdun, where the French and the Germans had decided to be archenemies. For two and a half years they battled for five hundred meters. And it went back and forth over a period of years. And there were unimaginable numbers, hundreds of thousands, who bled to death. I don't know the numbers or have exact statistics on how many people died per square meter, I think it was two and a half. On a flatland which is huge. This insanity, which the Germans at home scarcely noticed because there was such hunger. 1917 must have been a terrible year of hunger. It was called the "turnip winter." Ten thousand died of starvation. All these things, this holy world of the Hollenzollerns. They were all monarchists and loved their emperor. At some point that all stopped, when the people noticed that the man was crazy, if he said, "We will accept further proclamations of war." You've got to imagine it. He broke a world war out of its boundaries, because he had his own problems. And the English - they were all related to each other. Then one would only have had to look at a globe, and should have with Hitler, and said, "Look how little Germany is, and look at the rest of the world." And then they said, "Who still wants to? Who wants to declare war against us? No problem." It was a form of complete insanity, where one would say later, you can only have that on drugs. Usually something like that wouldn't occur to an average lunatic.

This situation fell completely apart in 1918. The world concept was destroyed, the good old turn of the century that people remembered as being relatively good to them. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, people started to see the sun on the horizon. Then there was the military surrender, which for some people was terrible, especially the ones who were oriented toward Prussia. It was clear, something new had to come. The new thing was, if you want to call it that, an anarchy in business, politics, culture. It was good for culture, because there wasn't anything there. Klabund, a well-known poet who I think ought to be rediscovered, wrote a poem entitled "Berlin 1918." He describes only red flags, blood everywhere, and so on, and then at the end of every line he writes, "We want to have fun again" [Wir wollen uns wieder amüsieren]. And that exactly describes the mood. And you have to imagine that suddenly everything was possible that had not been before. The moral barriers fell away. Artistically everything was completely new in concept. Cabaret and theater reached back to the attempts by Dadaists in Zurich in the Cabaret Voltaire to put the world into question. That was related to the world war. Many of the people had been soldiers and had seen that it was insanity that had made them delusional. And then they said that the concept of art had to be rethought. Art is "shit" was their attitude. "Meaning is only found in nonsense." All this was no grammar school prank. Behind this there was unbelievable suffering, a lot of personal emotion. The cabaret had the same basis. That was the fantastic part, it was like giving blood to a child born nearly dead; it was barely a living corpse. Everything was caught up in censorship, the usual way of hearing and seeing for people who just plodded along. You had to say, "Well nothing much is going to happen here." When a thought occurred, it was censored, was forbidden. They had to have permission to do anything. All this suddenly ruptured. It was like a pressure cooker, and everything escapes through the pressure valve. The painting scene, music scene - they were all young people, who, don't forget, were in their twenties. A very young Brecht who came from the countryside to Berlin and caused a sensation by being different from the others. He dressed differently, was abusive, had no respect for authority. He'd go to important people, tell a director, "You ass, go away, we'll do it ourselves, you don't know anything." Just being young was valued, like today, but nowadays, being an old man, I'd describe them as too "lazy assed." There's nothing in them that says, "We're going to make this happen." They adapt to the situation and look at where the trend is going. The painter Franz Marc had a nice phrase for it back then, "Tradition, yes, but only where it's a case of creating tradition." They didn't want to pull out the old ones. They said, "We are the tradition, we are building it now, we're incorporating it. We're not going to sanctify everything from twenty years ago." This was the situation. Cabaret played a big role in this. Everyone did everything. German thinking had put things into little boxes for a long time, "This is type 'a' and this is type 'b.' This is serious music and this is popular music, and one has nothing to do with the other." If somebody made music type "b" like Marlene, then there had been the view, "We cannot appreciate it, it is somehow 'yucky.'"

As far as I can judge, Marlene was a real child of these "roaring '20s." In Germany we call it the Golden '20s, which is nonsense. Walter Mehring said, "I don't know what is supposed to have been 'golden' about it." It was terrible but fantastic, because there has never been a time since in which people were spurring each other on and were curious about everything, about everything - social, political, and above all cultural stories. Marlene was actually a Prussian to the end; that always fascinated me, because those two things didn't usually go together. She was living out the Prussian part, that discipline, and its very opposite, which weren't compatible at all. It fascinated me that Marlene was an independent person who was so emancipated that she didn't care a fig about what people thought of her. She lived whatever she wanted to, and that was at a time when she was not yet the big star, when it was not so easy to live that way. For example, the way she got along with colleagues, right at the beginning. There was her friendship with Claire Waldoff, for example, who was a great role model to her. She was another person who said, "I'll live the way I want, and whoever doesn't like it, can leave. And if I have any troubles, I'll plough on through." That was the wonderful thing about this type of woman. They didn't want to be the little homemaker at the stove. They didn't want to just mix in, they wanted to set the accents. Marlene did just that. I've spoken with many who witnessed that cabaret period, especially where they set very clear accents, and said, "I want that; I don't want that." They weren't to be bought, although it is always difficult for actors to be hired for a job, if you want to see it that way. She always said early on what she wanted. Inside of Berlin's artist colony she was a prototype. But that didn't happen in western Germany, because the emperor's influence was still felt. Authority played a big role. We weren't able to shake that off until the '60s. You've got to imagine that in this country. It took a long time for us, because we had questions for our parents, our parents' generation, that never were answered. One day we finally said, "Fuck off" [in English]. That's the way it was. But in the '20s in the cultural scene it was quite different. It was a huge interchange. There was the way the people interacted. The most disparate people knew each other. They also had an amazing amount to do. They put together a cabaret revue sometimes in a week, day, or night. They still had the time to sit down with each other, to fight, to yell at each other on the street, and so on. The film people, the cabaret players, and so on were in lively interaction with one another, in a lively discussion. That also defines this period and, of course, the poor economy. Maybe they are interlinked. I'm not sure, and I wish it would be different. But always where the economic situation is precarious, where there is high unemployment, when people are insecure, that is always fertile soil for a cultural scene that can really spread out, that can really get a head start.

The National Socialists came very early. They were already there by 1922-23, which one always forgets, but nobody took them seriously. That was especially the case in Berlin, which had always been liberal. They thought, that's something for the provinces, they've all got a screw loose anyway, nuts. Then in 1923 there was the march to the Feldherrnhalle [Generals' Memorial Hall]. Then people thought that had to do with all the coups, the right-wingers. Those are the Reich army people, the soldiers who still can't give up, who haven't accepted that they really have lost the war. In any case the first traces were already in the culture. Not so much in the theater, and not so much in Berlin, above all. I think you have to differentiate between the provinces and Berlin. Berlin was always an international city, especially in the '20s. You shouldn't forget. People came from everywhere. Nowadays we are having this debate again. People forget what it meant in the '20s. Berlin got fresh blood. The people came from Galicia [eastern Europe] and here and there. There were so many Russians who came after the Russian Revolution, for example, who populated the Ku-Damm [Kurfürstendamm], so much so, that I'm told they had signs in the stores that said, "German spoken here, too." That was supposed to say in a joking way that all the nationalities were represented. Not only was the city enhanced culturally by this, but was fed by it. The Comedian Harmonists for instance, if you read the biographies of these people, they came from all corners of Europe and came together here and did something brand new. That set the climate of the '20s, in Berlin, too. To make it short, this didn't affect the artists much, except where money was involved. For example, the UFA speaks another language. Why? Because early on there, Mr. Hugenberg, who was a German nationalist, had the final word. There were also already leanings toward the right. That always existed in Germany, and it was perhaps also a countermovement against this unbelievably open society that was developing there. For example, homosexuality was not a topic in the '20s. They were further along in the picture, like with homosexual marriage, than they are now. Things are being discussed now by the party on the right, the CSU, where you have to put your head in your hands and say, "We already took care of that in the '20s. It was only repealed and destroyed by the Nazis." I'm only pointing things out. Like [Magnus] Hirschfeld, the sexual philosopher. These were people who in that time made an enormous impression. In film, however, UFA got its start with the weekly newsreels in the first world war, which we always keep forgetting. But all its themes, this admiration of Friedrich the Great, movies about the Hohenzollerns, that was a little like what the illustrateds did in later years, what's happening in the king's court for example. It was always connected to an ultraconservative position. That started early on. In 1929, with the introduction of sound films, these topics were taken up. Maybe I ought to mention that in 1930, the year in which The Blue Angel was filmed, no, shown, it was filmed in 1929 and 1930. You find out pretty quickly that The Blue Angel was an exception. Not like the other films, like Dawning [Morgenrot], which was a box-office hit. It portrays the soul-searching of a German woman, because she has to take leave of her husband, because he was on a U-boat in the first world war, when this was set, and the U-boat went under. Then these awful words are spoken, "We Germans do not know perhaps, how to live. But how to die, that we know." The main role was played by Camilla Spira. In March 1933 at the film premiere, with Mr. Göring and Mr. Goebbels in attendance, she received a big wreath from the UFA. She looked so "German," with blond hair and blue eyes, like a little Gretel, and the wreath said, "The representative of the German woman." And fourteen days later, they realized, "You have a Jewish father, we're so sorry," and she was shipped off to the concentration camp, to Westerbork. By good fortune she survived. She told me this story, and she told me that naturally she hadn't grasped the meaning of it. But she asked herself later if that was because artists didn't concern themselves much with political things. They said, "This Hitler, he's an Austrian, what do we have to do with that, he wouldn't dare to go to Berlin. We don't have to take it so seriously." The artists were more involved with themselves. Camilla Spira told me she was sitting with an attorney, and he said, "Did you hear? Hitler became the Reich's chancellor." She said, "That doesn't interest me much. I've got to play the White Horse, Baccherelle, and they're doing a new project, and I've got the tryout tomorrow at eleven. I'm still playing the evening appearance. I don't have time to worry about this stuff. In four weeks they'll have a new chancellor, it changes all the time." That was pretty much the mood.

There is a bitter moral to this that I should perhaps mention. Kurt Robitschek was the head of Comedians' Cabaret [Kabarett der Komiker], which was the biggest cabaret in Berlin, on the Kurfürstendamm. He had a comedian who was in the play whose name was Kurt Lilien. Both of them were Jews. In 1932 Robitschek said, "Hey, Kurt, don't you think we ought to look around for a country where we could go if things continue the way they are?" And Lilien said, "I don't know, what you mean. Why?" " "Well, don't you think there could be a situation here in Berlin, in Germany, where we'd have to leave?" And Lilien said, "How do you get that idea? No, I don't believe it." And Robitschek said, "Haven't you read Mein Kampf, that book by Hitler?" Kurt Lilien said, "I don't read bad books." This story is true and in short it has a bitter moral. Kurt Robitschek, who was at least aware enough that he had read Mein Kampf, he was forewarned. In early 1933 he left quickly for Vienna and to America. He went to New York and tried to reopen the Kabarett der Komiker, but it was a total flop. Kurt Lilien, who could not imagine it, who stayed in Germany, said, "I was in the first world war, I was an officer, I have the Iron Cross. Nothing will happen to me." He did not want to accept that suddenly there were destructive [atavistic] conditions in Germany that were unimaginable for a civilized people. He stayed here and ended up in the gas furnaces of Auschwitz.

In this mix of cultural "aliveness," Marlene was somebody who thought not too much would happen in serious theater, but instead when one was a cabaret player, because the cabaret was always the springboard for a theater career. She was in films more than she admitted later on. She was not entirely naive when she made The Blue Angel, but she looked around like the others here and was at every audition. I know that one of her first appearances in the cabaret field was for Spoliansky. Mischa Spoliansky was a very big, popular composer who wrote revues with a heavy jazz influence, played Gershwin, and Cole Porter. Gershwin visited him here in Berlin and was enthusiastic about his playing. He was a piano virtuoso. Around the corner here on the Kurfürstendamm he did a revue that exactly captured the feel of the times [Zeitgeist]. They brought this entire debauched society onto the stage. There was an audition, and Marlene sang there like twenty or thirty others. The director pulled her out right away, saying, "Her voice. She's scratchy. Bring on the next one." Spoliansky didn't know her at all, but found something in her voice. He said, "Leave it... I'll set the key a little lower. I think the voice will sound better when it's lower." And then he played, and it was still not enough. He made it lower again, and then they found something in it and said, "Okay, we'll take her." And that was this revue, that Spoliansky did at the theater in the Kurfürstendamm with Margo Lion. That was her first big appearance, when the best friend sings with the best friend. Everybody knew everybody. Spoliansky was a composer that everybody admired, including me. Friedrich Hollaender followed. He was the son of an operetta composer who was well known at the turn of the century because he had written the Metropol revues. And this Friedrich Hollaender was doing cabaret early on, in 1919 when the war was over, with Max Reinhardt, by the way. Then suddenly it was all young people that they didn't know, who were unknowns, who were making names for themselves there - Walter Mehring, Kurt Tucholsky, then, as I said, Friedrich Hollaender, who then brought Mischa Spoliansky along as a musical director. And then Werner Richard Heymann, by the way, who wrote melodies for UFA, like "The Congress Dances": "It's only once, it'll never come again" [Das gibt's nur einmal, das kommt nicht wieder]. He was also in Die Wilde Bühne [Wild Stage], which is around the corner, too. It was in the cellar of the Theater des Westens [Theater of the West]. It was a cabaret that a woman had, Trude Hesterberg. She was a little like Marlene - they all knew everybody - because she was also a self-assured woman. They had never before known a twenty-three-year-old woman to suddenly say, "I'm going to open a cabaret." And she pulled together all the important authors, who fifty years later not only sounded good but had also mastered the concept of good cabaret. She had the certainty that Tucholsky should do the text, and Walter Mehring, and they had fun. Every evening we had something different. And they were cutting-edge and political and unique. Bert Brecht tried his hand, and the people booed him. And then Walter Mehring got onto the stage and said, "You are going to remember this evening. You will certainly not describe it the way it was. You will boast that you were here on this evening. It was a failure, but not for Bert Brecht [who brought Death of a Soldier to the stage].... It was a failure for the public."

When the Nazis grabbed the power in Germany in 1933, hardly any of the artists could imagine that this entire culture that defined the '20s, which was unusual and new and revolutionary and anarchist, that all that could be extinguished overnight and over twelve years. Don't forget that in May ten thousand artists, the last ones, left this land in the dead of night, and most of these wonderful artists died in the concentration camps in Auschwitz, in Treblinka, and more. For me, as a young man, I've got to say, I had to learn about all that in 1945, that an entire culture was broken off, especially this winking, joking, creative Jewish culture that was in the cabaret in the '20s, that we young people had only read about. All that was gone. The theater had bled to death, and music, too, and painting was gone. You can hardly imagine what kind of effect that had. In the German arts you had to slowly start to put it - into our awareness - how much the culture was in deficit. I think in the fifty years that we have behind us, that separate us from the end of fascism, that we still haven't been able to accomplish a restoration of this culture. We have lost not only the Jewish segment but also the element of politically wide-awake artists, who all had to leave Germany back then.

My admiration for Marlene, I'll say that without any bathos, is such that I imagine if I were in the same situation as her, that I would hope to have the strength to act as she did. There are many people in Germany to this day, two generations now, who don't know anything about it. They said, "Where was Marlene, when things were going so badly for us Germans? She was in the land of milk and honey."

I am quite proud of Marlene, after the fact, because she was one of the few people who left this country, even when she didn't have to, because she had that feeling that as a decent German during this period she could not be part of the culture that was terribly ingrained after 1933, that she did not want to participate in that. I think she rose above this question. It is a combination of decency and solidarity for other people who had to leave, who had the wrong grandmother, so after the fact I say, I tip my hat to Marlene.

The German premiere of Marlene's piece by Pam Gams was here in this theater. But we didn't do the original. We looked at it and thought it was too general. We thought we have to bring Marlene back to Berlin, where she came from, and where she wanted to be at the end. I rewrote into this piece by Pam Gams a brand-new part about the concert in May 1960, when Marlene returned to Germany. She wanted to go to Berlin - it was her Berlin - and then suddenly there were these old unteachable people in the streets saying, "Marlene go home, we don't love you, we don't want to see you." That is the plot for our German premiere here, to show how she is torn internally. On the one side, she really was rejected. They let her know, "We don't like you because you were against us in the war," which is crazy. The others loved her and what she was. I thought, we have to bring this conflict back to Berlin. That's why, in the Marlene piece that I wrote, Marlene plays the big role in Berlin because I thought that was a point where she was especially involved. It was not just one of her many appearances, but rather, for this one she was afraid. But she wanted to win over the Berliners and she succeeded.

I don't think that art is the most important of all things. My generation, and I'm saying this very personally, had to learn that moral concerns actually make the difference in whether art succeeds or not. That's it. Just a few days ago in this theater, I produced and wrote a play about Gustav Gründgens, that is, the man about whom Klaus Mann wrote Mephisto. In there it is said he adapted himself so well that he said, "I speak only German, I'm a German artist, so I'll stay here, no matter what. And I'll work out a deal with those people." And he did that. Artists have a tendency to think that way, whether I play under Stalin or Roosevelt or Hitler or Chiang Kai-Sheck, what the heck, the important thing is that I can play my roles, that / can be me on the stage, that I can show my art. I think Marlene Dietrich is an example that there are other considerations, not only for living, but also for art, because art always has to do with truth. Marlene Dietrich could have continued her career in Germany in the '30s - Goebbels was clamoring for her, Goebbels wanted her back. There were offers. When Marlene left, UFA Studios didn't have a star anymore. There was scarcely anyone in the second or third place that could have substituted for her.
I've got to say, against that background, for my generation, Marlene was a motivation. It can't be just about money, art can't be merely pretty. You need this foundation based on truth, otherwise you can throw yourself onto the garbage heap right away.

  zurück zu Aktuelles