Kabarett der Komiker. Berlin 1924–1950 (review)
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Reviewed by
Kabarett der Komiker. Berlin 1924–1950. Von Klaus Völker. München: edition text + kritik, 2010. 280 Seiten + zahlreiche Abbildungen. €39,80.

The cabaret, a performance art of small, often satirical forms, is a unique artistic and historical document that mirrors the social, intellectual, political, and moral fabric of its time, even though its fare was written for the day with no eye to posterity. Berlin’s Kabarett der Komiker offered an ambitious blend of variety theater and intimate cabaret, with forays into operetta, literature, theater, revue, and even opera. The history of this longest-lived German-language stage, which was initiated in the early Weimar Republic and fostered by the Nazis during the Third Reich, but then faltered in the early years of the Cold War in West Berlin, promises a study of shifting styles and values. This is above all the story of two men: founder Kurt Robitschek, a Jewish entertainer and entrepreneur with liberal sensibilities, and emcee Willy Schaeffers, who took over the stage under the auspices of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. For both of these men, mediating between art, politics, and commerce was no easy task; [End Page 469] their struggles are a fascinating story. (Actor Hans Schindler managed the transition years of the mid-thirties after Robitschek’s escape in early 1933 until his own death in 1938.)

Opened in December 1924 by Robitschek together with actor Paul Morgan, the “KadeKo,” as it was popularly called, embodied the cosmopolitan spirit of the Kurfürstendamm, with a whiff of Viennese elegance. In 1928, the enterprise moved into a stylish and well-appointed hall in the new Mendelssohn complex on Lehniner Platz, next to what is now the Schaubühne. Stars including Max Hansen, Claire Waldoff, Karl Valentin, and Ilse Bois joined international artists and new talents in ever-changing monthly programs that culminated in short operettas, one-acts, and parodies. The list of performers who appeared here is a catalogue of theatrical, cinematic, and musical luminaries, and much of the book, at least at the beginning, is devoted to short sketches of famous and forgotten personalities. But reconstructing the repertoire of this stage is difficult, as printed programs listed the names of performers but not their actual performance material, which was generally written for the day and not preserved or published for posterity. At times, titles of songs can be gleaned from press reviews, but we have little documentation of the lyrics; most of the operettas and parodies written for the stage are lost in the wake of exile and war. To recount the history and substance of the enterprise, Klaus Völker relies on documents from his personal collection: program booklets (Die Frechheit, of the Weimar era, virtually doubled as a literary journal), ephemera purchased from the estate of Willi Schaeffers, and the reviews and cabaret history of poet and critic Max Hermann-Neiße (whose collected works Völker edited, alongside penning his illustrated biography). The story thus becomes a lengthy recitation of names who performed in each program, but seldom do we truly appreciate the fare itself: what were the stage routines about, what humorous techniques did they employ, and how did they use satire to negotiate the changing times? One wishes for more samples of representative lyrics and more descriptions of the plays enumerated here. Above all for the thirties, the author could have drawn on surviving scripts of the shows by Günter Neumann or the parody troupe Die Vier Nachrichter as well as the surviving Gestapo files to flesh out his story. Employing a journalistic rather than critical tone, Völker often relies on second-hand judgments, presumably derived from uncredited newspaper reviews, and the overabundance of enthusiastic adjectives soon becomes wearisome. Kurt Robitschek is idealized as a liberal hero; his ruthless self-promotion, his notorious, programmatic rejection of politics in favor of commercial entertainment, and his ongoing feuds with the press are downplayed, while the chronicle of the Schaeffers years during the Third Reich is an uneasy mixture of admiration and moral condemnation. Though the stage lost the irreverence and individualism that had marked it during the Weimar era, there were still, as Völker...


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