Thursday, April 20, 2017

Me and Ruth

Berlin in the 20s
I’m in good standing with Ruth,
because my Ruth does 
what’s good for me
 in the month of May.

Lacks a certain pizzazz, I know, as poetry.

Sounds better in the original German.

(And why is that now a permanent joke line carved into the American consciousness – that brilliant take-down by Molly Ivins of a Pat Buchanan speech?)

same spot, if I'm not mistaken, today

     In German, it goes

ich steh mit Ruth gut
Weil meine Ruth tut
Das was mir gut tut
im Monat Mai.

You’ve got to hear it sung.  Especially by Max Raabe.

Have a listen here. 

I’ve been listening for the past week to music of the 20s and 30s, ever since we took in Max Raabe’s latest concert at Davies Hall, the San Francisco Symphony Hall, where he shows up every year.  We haven't missed one of his concerts since we started going four or five years ago. I thought he’d wear thin by now, but I enjoyed the latest concert as much as ever. How he manages to keep up the energy I can’t explain. Professionalism, probably. Prussian discipline and order. He puts on a perfect show every time.

We usually have music going in the background at our house.  Maintaining our gay credentials, I call it.  Schnitzel goes better with candles on the table, music in the background. Usually something like fado or chansons. Something not too starchy.

At some point, though, Taku started playing his favorite female singers of the thirties.  Japanese ladies, with these awful vibratos. Drove me up the wall. I was about to put my foot down when I realized he really liked this music, so I gave in. Twenty plus years together. I know not to fight every battle.

To my surprise, I got accustomed to these voices and began to appreciate the musicality of the pieces. Noriko Awaya, for example, singing “Wakare no blues (Farewell blues)” from 1937, in that typical Japanese iambic rhythm, ta DA ta DA ta DA.  

Wasn’t long before Taku started feeding me other singers of the thirties, German, French and American, and we were off and running as a household with a distinctive musical bent.  Wouldn’t have surprised me to see the dogs doing the Charleston.

At some point, some Australian friends of ours who had lived many years in Germany brought the Comedian Harmonists to my attention, and from there I found my way to Max Raabe, who credits them for his inspiration in reviving the musical tradition of the twenties and thirties, both in America and in Germany.

As a kid I remember my grandmother’s stories of her days in Berlin when she would press her nose against the windows of the shops in Unter den Linden, looking at all the dresses she couldn’t afford. By the time the movie Cabaret came out I had a fully developed fantasy of my grandmother as Marlene Dietrich living it up in the naughty days of the Weimar Republic. Marlene Dietrich and my grandmother could not be more different. She may have been naughty in her youth but by the time I knew her, Grossmutter was all about punctuality, tidiness and responsibility – the more bourgeois side of German values.  No matter. Fantasy is its own justification. Imagining the cabaret scene in Berlin in the 20s and 30s gave me a filter to process the ugly truth with that the Germans had given the world reason to despise them. Pride in being German didn’t come without effort, growing up in post war America.

Then came the Berlin years, when I got especially close to another bourgeois but loving Berlin lady, my Aunt Frieda, and began to think in terms of emigrating and making my life there. Fate would have it otherwise – I got distracted and ended up spending twenty-four years in Japan instead – but I also got to watch (from faraway Japan) the wall come down and Berlin gradually return to its glory days as the fun capital of Europe. The cabaret scene is up and running again, and some have made a place for the likes of Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester. Not everybody’s cup of tea, by any means, but they have a decent following all the same.

Max Raabe doesn’t like it when people refer to the music he does as nostalgic. For him, it’s classic. Witty, charming, musical, lively, fun. And to that I would add ironic and absurdist. Camp, even. It’s a reflection of a response to the harsh realities of life, an energy that fights back by insisting on ploughing on through the crap and making not just the best of things but a celebration of life while you’re about it.

I see why people dismiss the nostalgic.  Nostalgia, like sentimentality, is one of the less worthy emotions. For all the signs of decadence, it comes across today as innocent and often naive.

Take a look, for example, at this piece called “Das gibt’s nur einmal” (It only happens once), from the 1931 film Der Kongress Tanzt.  It was done in three languages. Leading star Lilian Harvey was able to manage it in French (Le congrès s’amuse) and in English (Congress Dances) as well. Super romantic plot. Pretty little girl working as a glove-maker catches the attention of the Russian tsar when he’s passing through for the Congress of Vienna in 1814. She tells her co-workers the tsar plans to come and carry her away. They scoff. He then sends his carriage round and what you have is a 1931 Cinderella story par excellence.  Have a look here.  

To see the impact the song made in its day, here’s an even better band and vocal version of the song, in Swedish.   By Zarah Leander.

There’s a goldmine of interesting history if you dig in the background of these pieces, the absurdist Ruth rhyming song, and the fluffy Once-in-a-Lifetime pieces. It happens that the lyrics to both were written by the same man, Robert Gilbert.  That’s zheel-bair, the French pronunciation of Gilbert.

I can't find a clear explanation for why the song was banned in 1937, so I have to assume it was because Gilbert’s real name was Robert David Winterfeld.  He was the son of another composer, Max Winterfeld, who took the name Jean Gilbert, probably to hide his Jewish origins. The Winterfelds came from a long line of cantors, so there was always music in the family. Both made it out in time. Father Jean Gilbert eventually became conductor of the Buenos Aires Radio orchestra; son Robert made it to America where he lived for ten years, joining forces with Alan Jay Lerner at some point and eventually writing the German translations of American Broadway shows.  I saw his My Fair Lady at some point in the 60s, in Berlin.  Take a moment to listen to Audrey Hepburn standing up to her boyfriend, Freddie, for not having the guts to declare his love for her. Only in German, this time. Here she is singing “Show Me” (Tu’s doch!).  Having struggled with the art of translation - when do you remain literal, when do you use cultural analogues in place of the original - I was astonished at the brilliance of Gilbert's translation from Cockney to Berlin street-slang.

But back to earlier days, when Jews were still a big part of German culture. I've mentioned that it was the Comedian Harmonists who led to my discovery of Max Raabe, the artist who has now revived many of their songs. The group had three members who were Jewish and were forced eventually to disband and find their way to safety. Their lives were saved, but they never managed to revive their career in America. Americans found them just too German somehow. The parallels are embarrassing in the way we can’t seem to admit Syrian refugees into the country because, as our manipulators are quick to tell us, there might be bad guys among them. In those days it was an inability to separate out the purveyors of a rich German culture, which many Jews manifested, from the thugs of a terrorist regime. They were all lumped together. Today it’s our inability to distinguish between victims of terrorism and purveyors of terrorism, all the more cruelly ironic given our responsibility for helping generate the Muslim rage behind the terrorism in the first place.

I’m getting political here. The goal of folks like Jean Gilbert and his son Robert was to generate entertainment precisely to take our minds off the ugliness of politics, racism, and war. But sometimes there is no way out but through the political. I mentioned Zarah Leander a bit ago, the singer of the Swedish version of It Only Happens Once. A vivid example of how hard it can be to be neutral in the face of evil.  Zarah was a major success in Germany in the 30s and stayed on, in sharp contrast to the likes of Marlene Dietrich, who left. Actually, Marlene was also non-political at first, and found herself in Hollywood not as a refugee, but as a normal German entertainer who realized when the attacks on the Jews began in her homeland that it would be better for her career if she didn’t go back. Although her mother stayed on in Berlin all through the war, Marlene Dietrich became known as a traitor to Germans for not merely leaving her country but actually singing to the American troops, following them even into Italy right behind the invading forces. Marlene Dietrich and Zarah Leander were both ambitious career-oriented singers and actors who got caught up in different ways in the war. Marlene became a fierce defender of western democracy, however, and turned her back on the Nazi regime in her homeland. When she went back after the war she was never quite able to pick up where she left off. She spent her later years in Paris, returning to Berlin only to be buried next to her mother when she died.

Zarah Leander tried to follow her country's example of maintaining neutrality by never actively saying anything pro-Hitler. She was used, however, by Josef Goebbels, who although he resented her and called her an enemy of the Reich at one point, cast her in Die Grosse Liebe (The Great Love) – about a soldier who chooses duty to his country over the love of his sweetheart), the best-selling film of the Nazi era. The story is subtle propaganda about keeping a stiff upper lip during wartime. Goebbels was Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, and that included watching over the film industry. Watch Zarah singing Davon geht die Welt nicht unter (That's not the end of the world), and tell me that's not a magnificent piece of war propaganda. In Zarah's defense, I feel obliged to pass on the anecdote that Goebbels once confronted Zarah with the question, "Is yours not a Jewish name?" Her response: "And what is Joseph?"

Dietrich and Leander make an interesting pair, Dietrich arguing that by taking sides against the Nazis she was in fact more of a German patriot than all those who called her a traitor. I find her ability to continue to support the American war effort all the while Americans were dropping bombs on her mother in Berlin a stunning example of personal courage to know and to do what she believes is right. Leander showed less courage, perhaps, but she managed to keep her friendship going with gays and Jews in the Weimar period for all her prominence as an “artist of the Reich.” She remained her own woman, in other words, until her house was bombed in 1943, when she gave up and went back to Sweden. She returned to Germany after the war but her career was done for. Too many people continued to see her as the “Nazi Greta Garbo.” For her part, Leander continued to maintain till the end of her days that she was only interested in performing, that bringing light into the darkness was the job of any artist.

The lesson would seem to be, if you’re interested in seeing a morale to this story, don’t cooperate with the losing side. And the bad guys will, sooner or later, turn out to be on the losing side. 

Max Raabe, photo by Olaf Heine
Marlene Dietrich and Zarah Leander represented the romanticism of the Weimar era, for those who like to swoon now and then.  For those who prefer yucking it up, there was the other end of the spectrum, the absurdist, slapstick German humor. We don't seem to have much interest in reviving the swooning, but Max Raabe does at least bring along with his jokes the elegant Fred Astaire look of the era. He and his band members always appear in tuxedos, his female violinist in a floor-length gown. 

And he’s not alone. There are others joining in, complete with cross-dressers and 20s headbands and beads and the flapper look.  First off, here is an original version of the Ruth song from 1928 by the Odeontanzorchester. And here is Max Raabe look-alike Hans Daffke doing it today with his Salonorchester Alhambra. And Cabaret artists look-alikes Robert Kreis und die Jazz Sextanten coming to you from on board the good ship Gustav.

The 20s and 30s are back with a vengeance.

Here’s Robert Kreis again, this time singing about Amalie, who likes to take a “rubber gentleman” with her when she “takes the waters.”

And here’s the same song, Amalie geht mit dem Gummikavalier ins Bad, performed by Max Raabe.

It may come as a surprise that Disney was in on this frivolity.  Here’s Max Raabe and his orchestra doing “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” (in German: Wer hat Angst vor dem bösen Wolf?): 

Not that you couldn’t find it in French, if you poked around a bit: "Prenez Garde Au Méchant Loup!" 

OK, I’ve pretty much beaten this drum to distraction, I admit.

But before we go, here’s Das Gibt’s Nur Einmal (It Only Happens Once) once more.  This time in the version my husband listened to as a little boy when he couldn’t sleep at night because of an asthma attack. He credits this to his love of the singers, both male and female, of the 30s, which led to our listening to this music every night at dinner time.

Or maybe you’d like to hear it on Ichikawa Deuts-Day, where they do it in the original German.

Give or take.

photo credit: Max Raabe by Olaf Heine 
photo of the Red City Hall tower taken from Schlossplatz in 1928

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