Or: Walking a Political Tightrope Over The Abyss
The fame and success of Weimar cabaret were founded predominantly on its socially critical and culturally opositional quality. Most of this work was produced by left-wing authors, who after Hitler’s seizure of power had to flee into exile in order to save their skins. After 1933, cabaret did not die out in Germany, but it was only the innocuous entertainment version that was allowed to flourish, interspersed here and there with a few tits-and-bums shows.
Despite the system of repression that was erected by the Nazis in both the political and the cultural spheres, pockets of resistance continued to exist right up until the Second World war. One of the most notorious Nazi butchers, Julius Streicher, issued a warning: ‘Should it happen again that a cabarettist makes fun of a political leader, we shall close the shop on him. I shall annihilate any such impertinent prattler. If I again hear reports of people circumventing the rules which the Fuhrer does not want ignored, I shall take them to task and there will be serious consequences’.
One such impertinent cabarettist was Werner Finck. Born in 1902, he had initially tried his luck at becoming an actor in legitimate theatre. ‘I went to audition for the role of Hamlet and immediately got an engagement – as a light comedian’, he recalls in his autobiography, Alter Narr-was nun (Munich: 1972, all quotes are taken from that edition). From 1929 to 1933 he ran the Katakombe, a typical literary cabaret of the period. The theatre survival after 1933, but contrary to the general trend of the period, it became more rather than less political. The critic Frederich Luft remembered: ‘Finck made political cabaret when all others made only just cabaret. People went there to see how he would manage to get his neck out of the noose again. It was an exhilarating experience, observing him venture on to the high wire without a safety net underneath’.
Finck described the transition from Weimar to Nazi cabaret: ‘Instead of walking down into a cellar, our guests had to step up on to the first floor – an unusual case of a catacomb situated above floor level. Here we made literary-political cabaret. I knew a few things about literature, but next to nothing about politics. I only knew that in a cabaret one had to be a leftist. So I became a leftist, at least in the evening. My heart was beating right, my mind was going left, if it didn’t go idle. But soon, politics became the focus of my life. One didn’t have to think for long before it became obvious in which camp one was standing. If you didn’t know, the Nazis made it clear to you. What a wonderful Nazi I could have become! They probably would have liked to recruit me for their cause. That they didn’t succeed, wasn’t my fault. The Stahlhelm-Zeitung wrote about one of my performances: “This man belongs to the most corrosive figures of Berlin asphalt culture. He is not ashamed of drawing Germany into the mud, of ridiculing our national and religious sentiments’ (p. 59-60).
After 1933, Jews were systematically removed from public position, and artists had to produce an Ariernachweis, a proof of their Arian pedigree. To Finck and many others it came as a surprise that no Jewish blood could be traced in his family. Luckily, the church that kept the records of the Lewinsky branch of his family had gone up in flames! So the changes of 1933 did not affect him immediately. ‘I could keep my union card, just that from now on it had a swastika stamp on it. I was even invited to be a joker at lottery evenings of the National Socialist Workers’ Party. But for the Katakombe the time of subtle allusions had arrived. You hit a tiny bell with an even smaller hammer, but it could have the effect of an oversized alarm clock. Quite the opposite of today, when you hit a massive bell with a sledgehammer and people ask ‘Wasn’t there a tinkle somewhere?’ The atmosphere of our cabaret was kindled by the fear of the audience, which erupted in liberating laughter and brought me one reprimand after another. The spies in the auditorium always knew what to write down. They had a good ear and were quick to understand. Especially when apeal of laughter or a roaring applause greeted my speeches, they knew immediately: ‘Hey, that was something!’ One evening I asked one inconspicuous note-taker: “Am I speaking too fast? Do you follow me – or do I have to follow you now?” (mitkommen can mean to be led off to the police station – p.62).
Most of the wordplay, allusions and double entendres, which Finck quotes in his autobiography, are impossible to translate into another language. His quips were subtle and extremely clever. For a while it was impossible for the authorities to nail him down on any of the jokes he made about Hitler, the Nazi party, or the profiteers of the political change. However, when legal measures failed to be a convenient tool, the Nazis had other methods to employ. “One day – I was just shooting a film at the Ufa studios in Babelsberg – two gentlemen appeared on set and presented their Gestapo passes. They were kind enough to wait until the end of the take and apparently enjoyed looking at the sets. When I came down and asked them if I could offer them a lift in my little Fiat, they suggested that it might be better if they took me for a ride. So I found myself in this black Mercedes being chauffeured to the Gestapo headquarters. The officers there were very courteous, requested my biography, took my personal details and asked me a few questions. After half an hour I thought that the humbling was over and that I could leave again, but they carried on questioning me. My call at the Katakombe was drawing near; so I wanted to say good-bye, suggesting that the rest could be dealt with the next day. Little did I know that at that point the cabaret had already been closed down. Finally, the officer in charge came out with the truth. Most courteously and in a rather embarrassed manner he informed me that he had to arrest me. I was taken across to the prison wing. When I entered, a giant of an SS-man pounced on me and asked: ‘Do you carry any weapons?’ ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Does one need one here?’…“ (p.69).
Finck’s witticisms did not go down too well in jail and soon he found himself in a concentration camp. Here, he met Carl Von Ossietzky, the winner of the 1935 Nobel Prize for Peace. From his deathbed the pacifist journalist said, half-jokingly: ‘Who would have dreamed that one day we would find ourselves in the same camp?’ Finck was lucky enough to be spared the tortures that killed Ossietzky soon afterwards. But in an ingenious fashion, the camp commandant tormented Finck in other ways. He was ordered to perform one of his parodies of the Habima theatre, which in 1928 had caused quite a stir in Jewish circles. But Finck declined the request, saying that he had forgotten the text and that probably he would remember it again only when the Jews were no longer persecuted and killed. On Whitsuntide he had to perform some sketches to uplift the spirit in the camp. “Comrades,” he said, “I have been asked to cheer you up. My humour will help us along with it. Gallows and humour have never stood so close together. If you look around, you notice that the exterior is acting as a further incentive: high-voltage barbed wire, with a tension as highly charged as your expectation. And then the guards up there with the machine guns. What are their bullets compared to our jokes that hit much harder? If we were in Berlin now, yes, we would be afraid. Whenever I stood on my little cabaret stage, I always had this scary feeling of being sent to a concentration camp before much longer. But now, I don’t need to fear this any more. Because I’m in one!” (p.71-72). The performance was a great success with the inmates, but the commandant was not entirely happy: “You’ve done a good job. But why didn’t you offer some of these funny jokes that got you here?” Finck swore that he had never over-stepped the mark any further than on that day. ‘What a lair,’ the commandant laughed, and heartily let his riding-crop dance on Finck’s back.
A few months later, he was unexpectedly released. A lady friend from the Prussian State Theatre had interceded on his behalf with Goring, who often suspended Goebbels’s orders in order to prove his superiority in their power struggle. Finck was banned from any professional activities and had to sell his house to survive. A special court retrospectively tried to justify his spell in concentration camp. But no hard proof of unpatriotic or regime-critical activities could be assembled. So eventually it was the year of the Olympic Games when Germany demonstrated openness and liberality to its foreign guests – he was readmitted to the cabaret state. His comment on the pseudo-tolerance of the government was acerbic: “Yesterday the Katakombe was closed. Today we’re open again.‘ He received a few admonitions from Goebbel’s office, but for the time being he could continue his comic routines. ‘The men from the censorship office were in rage about me, because they could not get me between their claws. My Little Olympia Sketch was observed with great displeasure in Nazi circles, and the Ministry of Propaganda followed with suspicion my every move in this game of Russian Roulette. I kept the bank in this word game, playing my cards carefully and setting the highest stakes’ (p.76-77).
An interview he gave to the Berliner Tageblatt on the question “Do we Have Humour?” (Finck’s answer: “Of course! Asking such a question proves it”) led to the ban of the paper. Next came the closing down of his cabaret. The reason for it: “The scene, where I had to bend over to be able to walk through a low door frame, was accompanied by my comment ‘Now I have stopped so low, and yet once again I nearly collided with the limits set from above.’ And when I finally ended my conférance, I looked at my watch and apologized: ‘I’m sorry for having talked over my time [über meine Zeit]. I better stop. I don’t want to talk about my times [über meine Zeit].” Soon afterwards, Finck was expelled from the Actors’ Guild, and without a union card no theatre was allowed to offer him employment. The interdiction came at a time when Goebbels had declared in the Völkshce Beobachter: “Yesterday we saw ourselves forced to take a series of measures concerning political humour. Naturally, the German people have lots of humour, but even this has limits!”
When war broke out, Finck ended up in Wehrmacht uniform, playing the role of an intellectual Schweik in wireless operation unit. After the liberation from Nazi rule he founded two cabarets in Stuttgart and Hamburg, did a number of solo stand-up turns, and then withdrew from the cabaret scene, because it no longer allowed an effective platform for political satire: “The dilemma is that nobody takes you seriously any longer. Everyone laughs, even the targets of your satire.” He remained a popular television comedian, occasionally brushing with the censors when he did a solo show, but on the whole producing humanistic-humouristic sketches from the ‘radical center’, as he called it.
He died on 30 July 1978 in Munich.