Reading is a dangerous pastime; it encourages us to be fantasists. Women who read Jane Austen novels believe that there is a Mr Darcy somewhere out there waiting for them. Men who read Andy McNab novels imagine they’re shooting terrorists with AK-47s while they’re driving their people carriers through suburbia. And as an avid reader of pre-war spy thrillers I like to believe that the 39 steps are in fact the stairs of my parents’ house in Bromley. I was therefore terribly excited when I was invited to attend the cabaret in the small Bavarian town I was living in.
It was the equivalent of Suburban Man being sent to Afghanistan with nothing more than a sawn-off shotgun and a pair of briefs or a Generic Woman waking up to find the world has turned into a world of walled gardens and ribbon shops. It seemed clear to me that I was going to uncover a sordid underworld of decadent beauty against the backdrop of an ultra-conservative society.
I went to the cabaret in mid-December. The snow was falling thick as my flatmate and I walked through the old town’s narrow, cobbled streets to get there. The snow was falling so fast that we couldn’t see in front of us, and the cold was so bitter that my eyes ached. So it was a relief when we finally got there. It was warm and homely with chattering locals holding their flagons of beer as they greeted friends with hearty embraces.
I was horrified.
When we think of ‘cabaret’ in Britain, we usually envisage a European sex club operating at the turn of the 20th century. But this was exactly the same kind of welcoming Bavarian atmosphere I had experienced everywhere else in the town.
I was hugely disappointed. I wanted to leave there and then – and I would have done, had it not been for the blizzard outside, or for the fact that I’d already spent €20 for the privilege of sitting there.
So I grudgingly took my seat and waited for the show.
Now, often when people have attended an unusual, cultural event, they have to tell you how it moved them, how it changed their life or, how it was “fascinating”.
I’m not going to lie. I’m not going to say that I enjoyed it. I didn’t find the cabaret moving, nor did I find it fascinating. I had thought I was going to get a sordid European sex show and was instead faced with intellectual, political satire.
Cabaret, astonishingly, does not necessarily imply the use of pom-poms and leotards, nor does it entail the presence of vivacious young women. In fact it’s quite the opposite; most German kabarett usually involves an old man sitting at a table ranting about politics in his own regional dialect.
Now, I’m not against intellectual rants. I’m actually a huge fan. But to try to understand another country’s humour is difficult at the best of times. Trying to understand the nuances of a German sub-dialect whilst understanding the regional political issues which are the subject of the satirical rant is nigh on impossible.
But, I wasn’t going to let my fantasy be so easily crushed. I had gone there to find at least some trace of counter-culture, and I was going to do my damndest to find it!
What I discovered was a fascinating tale of censorship and oppression in Southern Bavaria.
The city of Passau in Southern Germany is a remote, idyllic, Bavarian gem on the Austrian-German border with a population of around 50,000. Its claims to fame are modest yet not insignificant. It is where the Danube joins with the rivers Inn and Ilz before it majestically cuts down through central Europe. It is believed to be where the Nibelungenlied, the equivalent of The Canterbury Tales in German literature, was commissioned. And it has the largest church organ in Europe. It’s all rather traditional and all rather twee. Also, as one might expect from a city with the biggest organ in Europe, it’s also quite religious. So religious, in fact, that in the 1970s some of the town’s cabaret artists were censored on the grounds of blasphemy.
In 1975, two young cabaret artists got together in the city and set up a group. Their names were Bruno Jonas and Sigi Zimmerschied. In the same year they performed a show called the Himmelskonferenz in a beer hall in the city. The show had Jesus smoking a joint on stage, had the Holy Spirit being tipsy and the Virgin Mary pregnant again because Peter had refused to give her the pill. Unsurprisingly the whole thing caused a bit of a stir – the two artists were forbidden from performing for six months and were denied a voice in the regional press. Eventually, they were let off the hook on the basis of freedom of artistic expression.
The idea of censoring comedians for being blasphemous seems unthinkable in Britain, especially in the 21st Century. But these actions by the Church in Bavaria are by no means a thing of the past.
Only last November did Zimmerschied find himself in yet more trouble with the Church. He was supposed to be playing a priest in a new German film called A Really Hot Number. The film centres around three village women in the Bavarian Forest who, after losing their jobs when the only shop in the village shuts down, resort to desperate measures and set up an erotic hotline. Some of the film’s scenes involving Zimmerschied were supposed to be shot in a small village church. However, the Bishopric of Regensburg forbade the scenes from being filmed. The reason they gave was that “a house of God, as a liturgical place, in which the holy mass is celebrated and where believers pray, cannot be associated with telephone sex.”
Obviously the Catholic Church in Germany hasn’t lost its sense of humour.
Intrigued by these stories of contemporary censorship and how dangerous the Church clearly viewed, and still views, these cabaret artists, I decided to catch up with Sigi Zimmerschied and find out what cabaret was really about. My experiences all that time ago in the snow had obviously not done justice to what was clearly still a strong voice of dissent.
I met Sigi in the town’s cabaret venue. He was a large, burly man, with a face which seemed to have its own gravitational field, and out of which two keen, black eyes defiantly poked. My eyes weren’t as keen. I had accidentally burnt my right one the night before with a faulty lighter, and now had an eye patch on. He welcomed me nonetheless and I took my seat as he ate his schnitzel.
I asked him what cabaret was – eye patch still on, face twitching from the pain in my eye.
“Cabaret is a classic educational form,” he answered. “It is a reflection on current politics expressed in a very concentrated structure.”
Wait… Wasn’t this cabaret stuff supposed to be funny, or at least entertaining? When I went there the audience seemed to be having a great time; in fact, they had been crying with laughter.
But no, apparently it’s not all about the gags. In a documentary about cabaret which I later stumbled across, one veteran Cabaret star, Dieter Hildebrandt, was eager to point out that he didn’t care if he made a joke, all he cared about was whether there was a ‘pointe’. A pointe is an awkward word to translate; meaning both ‘punch line’ and ‘point’. So, in other words, Dieter was trying to say that cabaret was less about the laughs and more about edification.
Sigi seemed to be of the same opinion. He made it clear that there was a definite pedagogic element to German cabaret:
“In Germany and Austria we like to have a representative, someone who says things for us that we don’t want to say, or can’t say, or aren’t allowed to say. The German cabaret audience is looking for a representative for political content. There is a Kommunikationslosigkeit – an inability to communicate. People can’t articulate themselves when it comes to pressing topics. Fear’s a very important part of it.
“And the actual pedagogic or ‘didactic’ exercise of cabaret is to break down fear. Irony can break down fear, or anxiety or trepidation.”
But why was this cabaret – this intellectual, political satire, so unique to Germany?
Sigi explained that an Italian journalist had said there was no such thing as cabaret in Italy, the reason being that every Italian was his own cabaret artist. The same was true of the British; they didn’t have such a thing as cabaret, instead getting it off their chest by talking about it down the pub, and the French didn’t have the same kind of cabaret as the Germans because they were always on strike.
We like to think, nowadays, that the world has got smaller, that national boundaries are no longer important, and that which binds us together is stronger than that which tears us apart. And it is. For the most part it is. I can talk to my friends in the USA, the UK, Germany and Martinique absolutely free of charge. Not only can I hear them but I can also see them. I can get back home to London from Madrid at the weekend for less than the cost of the train journey to Barcelona. These developments have of course made the world smaller.
But – and this is a big but – it is unethical to allow cultural homogenisation, blindly to allow the disintegration of the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies which make this world so interesting.
In Germany, cabaret is under threat from an Anglo-Saxon import: stand-up comedy. New German comedians like Berliner, Mario Barth, whose set is devoid of any intellectualism whatsoever and focuses purely on his girlfriend’s stupidity, are drawing huge crowds. In fact, as of 2008 Barth holds the world record for the number of people watching a live comedian – around 70,000 people. The long-running, televised cabaret show, Scheibenwischer, hosted by Dieter Hildebrandt, was axed in 2009. Cabaret is, essentially, endangered.
When you think about the stories and the mark which this art form has etched upon German history, small, local tales, like the censorship of Zimmerschied and Jonas in Passau in 1975, it just seems incredibly sad that globalisation is wiping away the remnants of Old Europe.
But this isn’t anything new. The German Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse was writing about this back in the 20s. His most celebrated work, Steppenwolf, contains a short musing about it. He writes:
Were we old connoisseurs and venerators of that erstwhile Europe, of that old, real music, of that old poetry, were we merely a small, stupid minority of complicated neurotics, who tomorrow would be forgotten and laughed at? Was that what we called ‘culture’, what we called ‘spirit’, ‘soul’, was that what we dubbed beautiful and sacred, was that merely a spectre, already long dead and only held up as real and living by we few fools?
And I guess this is why I like to imagine I’m in a pre-war novel. I guess that’s why despite not enjoying the cabaret when I first saw it, I’ve since become fascinated by it. Just as Generic Woman doesn’t want to accept that every man in the world is essentially a cad, I don’t want to accept that this culture around us is slowly dying away.