On a Sunday afternoon recently I was surfing through one of those interminable fund-raising events on a PBS channel, when I tuned into the first moments of a recording of a Max Raabe performance in New York City. Although much of it was sung in German, the style was of the 1920s and 30s European and American popular music of the pre-World War II period. The titles and tunes on the program were sometimes familiar, sometimes not, but the whole experience was a revelation in memory of one of the high points in the cultural life of Europe and America before the destructive, post-World-War II transformation in our popular culture. (Raabe also takes contemporary pop songs and performs them in the style of the 1920s and 1930s.)
This transformation was brought about through the surrender of the style of Euro-American ordinary life to the political rush to create a new world order — of ethnic denial, overseas military intervention and the virtual obliteration of the strong ethnic heritages of the multiple European groups that had settled the United States for hundreds of years. (Some members of my mother’s family, for example, had arrived in America before the Revolutionary War.)
In the Chicago, Wisconsin, and Upper Midwest of my childhood I remember the German, Scandinavian, Finnish, Dutch, Polish, French, and Italian settlement areas and neighborhoods with their specialized stores and restaurants. There were schools, churches and newspapers where other European languages besides English were used.
But in spite of these differences there was a popular culture of music for singing and dancing, literature, films, and art that brought us together. The music in particular came from that diverse European tradition. Even Jewish songwriters and performers tended to cater to European tastes—although some had clearly anti-European agendas which became increasingly overt over time. A number of them emigrated to America to work in the 1930s.
Watching Max Raabe for the first time, I wanted to see and hear more of his songs and orchestral accompaniments and to reflect upon the contemporary, living, European culture that these represent and which, similarly, should still be available to those of us of European background and to others who would also like to experience our heritage.
1. Max Raabe and Palast Orchester: Dance & Film Music of 1920s [Palace Orchestra]
This DVD presents a striking assembly of “classic” popular songs from Germany, and more generally from around the world, in the period of the Weimar Republic, following World War I, up until about 1935. Max Raabe is a magician of music whose singing — and leading the orchestra — completely entrances the approximately 20,000 persons attending the performance out-of-doors in the Waldb?hne [forest theater] in Berlin. The audience’s reactions are also captured in the DVD. Raabe’s droll comments in German, and occasionally English, introduce his soaring singing, and even whistling, the precious melodies and words that are a legacy of living European and American culture that will never be relinquished in spite of the cultural chaos following World War II. Each of the members of the orchestra projects a unique contribution, including the female violinist, the only woman in the band of about twelve musicians. Their program here includes, “Hab keine Angst vor dem ersten Kuss” [“Don’t be afraid of the first kiss”], “ J’attendrai,” “Vivere,” “ Paddlin’ Madelin’ Home,” “ Dream a Little Dream,” and “You’re the Cream in My Coffee”: altogether thirty-two songs.
2. “Heute Nacht Oder Nie”: Live in Berlin [“Tonight or Never”]
The title of this DVD is the opening song of the performance before a packed audience in the Admiralspalast, an enormous theater, in Berlin. The setting contrasts with that of the previous DVD, which was filmed outdoors. The title song is supposed to have come back to Raabe’s memory while he was on a walk and would not give him peace until he had sung it in performance—by then more than 300 times. According to the program notes with the DVD, in English the lyrics, written by Marcellus Schiffer go:
Tonight or Never
I Would Like to Sing
Only for You
Until Early Tomorrow Morning
Just the Melody
Tonight or Never.
One of the striking things about the performance is the versatility of the orchestra. At times some of them leave their wind and brass instruments aside and pick up violins that they all seem to play very nicely for the particular musical piece, either in a trio with the female violinist or as a larger group. Moreover, besides with violins, sometimes in a trio with Raabe, or as a chorus, they produce beautifully harmonized renditions of the sung music.
Along with the title song, the opening segment includes, “Ich Steh Mit Ruth Gut,” that Raabe translates as, “I’ve got a sweet tooth for Ruth,” “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” “I’m Singin in the Rain,” that Raabe describes as a dance-band version, later made famous in Gene Kelly’s big-band dance movie; “Du Bist Meine Greta Garbo,” meaning, “You are my Greta Garbo,” that Raabe says illustrates the danger of comparing a woman one loves to another woman; further on, the band performs in a joking style Frank Churchill’s, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” with members of the orchestra impersonating the “three little pigs,” who, as everyone knows, get the better of the wolf.
An intriguing piece of “business,” during one of the songs, was the launch of a miniature Zeppelin that flew with remote-control guidance from the stage to the back of the theater over the heads of the audience who looked up at it with sometimes wondering eyes. Nearly at the conclusion Raabe sings his sign-off song, as in the other DVDs, “You’re the Cream in My Coffee,” by Lew Brown and then finally actually concludes with, “Gib Mir den Letzen Abschiedskuss,” “Give me the Finishing Farewell Kiss,” by Al Hoffman that you feel is a kind word of departure to the audience. (Encores follow and the riotous applause and shouts of “bravo!” let you know that the audience is truly loath to leave!”)
3. Palast Revue
This performance was recorded in the Festspiel Haus in Baden-Baden, in southwestern Germany, one of the renowned resorts for the German and other European elites in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The theater, as previously in Berlin, was enormous and on this occasion appeared to be full, with the audience shown, filing in at the beginning, and a jolly spokesman, running up the stairs to his seat in the champagne lounge, where he commented on the events to come.
A striking difference from the program in Berlin was that several of the musical pieces of the evening featured a group of excellent women dancers, who on one occasion, like the Rockettes of Radio-City Music hall, danced in a line and kicked high in the air. In another number out of old-time burlesque they danced, very scantily clad, holding and rhythmically waving enormous white, ostrich-feather fans. (This reminded me of the stories I had heard of the famous burlesque-star Sally Rand of the American 1930s and her notorious “fan dance.”) At the end of their routine they surrounded Max Raabe and hid him from sight with their fans before prancing from the stage — leaving him alone in the spotlight and sheepishly brushing back his tousled hair.
Unexpectedly, the women also later danced, in “Schwanensee,” “Swan Lake,” an excerpt from the famous ballet sur la pointe of their dance shoes with excellent technique. Another very special moment was Raabe’s first singing, “Ich Tanze mit Dir in den Himmel Hinein,” “I Dance with You Right up to Heaven,” after which he climbed the stairs in the center back, to the place where the lady violinist waited for him, took her in his arms and danced with her off the stage and then was seen with her on a screen, back above the stage, the two together, dancing and seeming to float upward through white clouds and blue sky, right up to heaven, as the orchestra continued playing his song — it was breathtaking magic in stagecraft.
Altogether there were twenty-seven different numbers in this virtuoso review. It is not possible to comment on all of them. As in Berlin, the orchestra did a rousing version of “Wer hat Angst vor dem Bo?sen Wolf?” “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” with orchestra members this time imitating the three pigs with fake pig snouts on their faces. The encores included the usual sign-off, “You’re the Cream in my Coffee,” but this time it was followed by a concluding hymn-like song in Spanish, with an Italian flavor, “Donna Maria” sung by the men of the orchestra and Raabe, A cappella, that brought the audience to its feet with cries and screams of appreciation as the curtain closed.
I did a final search of Amazon.com to see if I might have missed another Max Raabe performance on DVD. (There is a DVD of a performance in Rome, but I discovered it is not compatible with DVD players here.) Instead I found a VHS version of a full-length movie in English, Invincible [in German, “Unbesiegbar”], in which Max Raabe plays the role of master-of- ceremonies, singer, and band-director in a weird 1932-Berlin nightclub, called, “The Palace of the Occult.” The film was written and produced by the renowned Werner Herzog, most noted for his documentaries.
The story focuses on a certain kind of Jewish life in early twentieth century Poland and Germany. It focuses on a blacksmith from a Polish- Jewish shtetl, who is discovered by a talent scout, who has heard of his remarkable physical strength, and persuades him to go to Berlin for a theatrical try-out. The actor who plays the strongman is the Finnish Jouko Ahola. The strongman, depicted actually lived and had the real name Siegmund Breithart, called Zishe Breihart in the movie. In the nightclub in Berlin he is given the name Siegfried and assumes Aryan identity.
The truth is that the actual Siegmund Breithart had been one of the strongest men of his time, a star in the German Circus Busch. He had the stage name, “IRON-KING,” and also produced for sale a “Charles-Atlas” kind of literature to project his image to the public. Breithart lived from 1883 to 1925, when he died of blood poisoning because of an injury, caused by a rusty railroad spike that pierced his thigh accidentally as he drove it with his bare fist through a thick piece of wood he held across his knees while seated. This scene and his death are shown in the movie. His real biography is further summarized in an illustrated essay on the internet by his great-nephew, Gary Bart, a Hollywood producer.
For aficionados of Max Raabe, he appears in the nightclub as the leader and solo-singer in the same orchestra we have seen in the DVDs. During the band’s performance, there is a similar charming sequence, as in Baden-Baden, with scantily-clad ladies, moving in a line across the stage, and then taking up white, ostrich-feather fans in a dance. A difference is that instead of a female violinist in the orchestra, a woman pianist, played by Anna Gourari, has a principal acting role in the story and has a relationship with Breihart as well as being the mistress of the occult master, Hanussen, whom she once describes as deceptive in his occultist tricks.
The Max-Raabe musical segment is very brief in the film but affords, with glimpses of the audience of well-dressed people sitting, eating and drinking at tables, during the performance, and backed by a standing crowd of young men in German military uniforms, a view of the emerging transformation in Germany on the eve of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. It is a “slice of life” that is worth the price of the VHS.
The leading character in the movie is the occultist Hanussen, played by Tim Roth, who is the owner of the theater and, although secretly of Jewish origin, in his own words, aspires to become the head of the “Ministry of the Occult,” in the rising Nazi government. In the film in his stage-act he seems to produce several occult phenomena that lend credence to his claims of mysterious powers. Hanussen, knowing the strongman to be Jewish, also, grooms him to be a star performer, as Siegfried, in the cabaret show. Without going into further details, I think one of the insights to be drawn from the film relates to the puzzling and convoluted relationships of Jews and non-Jews in Europe before World War II.