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Cabaret in Austria is an art form that is much more widespread than one might think. It was born with specific political and social aims and, even today, continues to have a strong relevance throughout the country, as well as influencing, in its own way, the seventh art. But when exactly did cabaret originate in Austria?

The floor to the artists

Fritz Eckardt, Edith Leyrer, Michael Niavarani, Lukas Resetarits (father of actress Kathrin), but also the much younger Thomas Stipsits and then, last but not least, him: the great Helmut Qualtinger. What do all these people have in common? Simple: in addition to all being established film and theatre actors, they also act, or have acted, for years as popular cabaret artists. Because, in fact, cabaret in Austria is a much more widespread art form than one would think, born with specific political and social aims, which, even today, continues to have a strong relevance throughout the country, as well as influencing, in its own way, the seventh art. But when exactly did cabaret originate in Austria?

Already after the end of the World War II, one felt the need to have a say about the unusual political situation in Austria at that time. In spite of the dramatic consequences of the war – as well as the inevitable psychological impact on all citizens – and the desire to make a new start and turn over a new leaf, one had the feeling that a so-called ‘latent fascism’ was still alive and pulsating within society. However, following the declaration of neutrality (in 1955), two parties were founded (the SPÖ and ÖVP, which still exist today), which, although in opposition to each other, managed to create an apparently balanced atmosphere, as a result of which was created the so-called ‘Reizklima’ (an ideal, inspiring climate) in which the desire for a new start was the most important thing. Yet, on closer inspection, the situation was not so idyllic. And this was realised by some personalities from the cultural scene, who immediately felt the need to have their say, in order to make the population laugh and reflect on their situation, while at the same time opposing a kind of quite unproductive ‘cultural traditionalism’.

So it was that cabaret was born in Austria and, among its most prominent exponents at the time, we find not only Helmut Qualtinger (probably one of the most memorable figures in this regard), but also personalities like Gerhard Bronner, Carl Merz, Georg Kreisler and Michael Kehlmann. These artists used to joke about the way of life and mentality of certain upper classes, which suggested rigid attitudes that were too tied to the past. They were mainly lashing out against the Viennese upper class, which contrasted strongly with the urban and provincial proletariat. No need to say that it was a great success among audiences and critics alike, and soon it became popular in Vienna, in the major theatres (such as the Burgtheater, the Volkstheater and the Theater in der Josefstadt, just to name a few) and in pubs.

The language used during the performances was often strong, irreverent and full of meaningful metaphors. Capturing the attention of all spectators with their over-the-top manner, therefore, the main purpose was to make them reflect and react. A trend, this one, that had such a strong relevance as to influence – besides, obviously, the seventh art itself – even some exponents of theatre and literature. It is no coincidence, therefore, that following the birth of cabaret in Austria, numerous cultural movements and groups of artists came into being soon afterwards, intent on cooperating with one another in order to create something new and finally shocking. Among the main movements in the theatrical field, we cannot fail to mention the so-called Austrian Social Theatre, whose main exponents, Thomas Bernhardt, Elfriede Jelinek and Peter Turrini, often collaborated with their cabaret colleagues.

The same applies to the Wiener Gruppe (the Viennese Group), which opposed the centralisation of culture exclusively in the Austrian capital forgetting the suburbs, and the much more extremist group of the Wiener Aktionisten (the Viennese Actionists), whose aim was to completely shock and disturb the audience with a series of striking performances, complete with the use of real props (including animals, blood and excrement, for example) and whose leading exponents include Hermann Nitsch, Otto Mühl, Günther Brus and Rudolf Schwarzkogler.

In any case, we are talking about a decidedly sensational phenomenon – this of cabaret in Austria – that has become, over time, a sort of trademark within the cultural life of the country. And what does cinema, for its part, do? Simple: it lets itself be carried away by the verve of the cabaret performers by producing, from time to time, film adaptations of some of the most important works. An example? While we have just stated that among the leading exponents of cabaret in Austria we could include Helmut Qualtinger, we cannot fail to mention what is considered to be one of his most important works, namely Der Herr Karl (Mr. Karl), which was born as a novel written by Qualtinger himself together with Carl Merz and became immediately an impressive play with irreverent language and strong influences from the most sophisticated Viennese dialect, starring a true anti-hero as the perfect incarnation of the upper-classman solely interested in his own benefit, constantly power-hungry and with a strong resentment and great intolerance towards the ‘others’. After such a success, Qualtinger’s work became a film, Der Herr Karl, directed in 1961 by Erich Neuberg, in a new, interesting fusion of arts, a proof of a considerable cultural fervour in a country that has witnessed a lot in the last decades.

Bibliography: “I paesi di lingua tedesca”, Destro A., Bologna, Il Mulino, 2004; “Buergelisches Schocktheater”, Landa J., Atenaeum Verlag, 1988; “Mein Nestroy” von Peter Turrini, Pavido M., 2009
Info: the page of Der Herr Karl on iMDb