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Throughout his life, Helmut Qualtinger confirmed himself as one of the most brilliant minds in the post-war art scene. And his very personal way of pointing the finger at a hypocritical and conservative society has inspired – and continues to inspire – many other young artists.

Der Herr Helmut

Vienna, July 3, 1951. Numerous journalists, gathered at the Westbahnhof – the West Station – await the arrival of a famous Eskimo poet – Kobuk – who has come to the Austrian capital in order to present his newest novel: Heia Musch Musch. When the train arrives, however, it is the actor, journalist and author Helmut Qualtinger who steps out of the coach. Many of the journalists present do not realise the true identity of the man, who has just stepped off the train wearing a hat and fur coat, despite the summer heat. And when a radio journalist asks him what his first impression of Vienna is, the man replies: ‘Haass is’ (‘it’s hot’). Only later would it be discovered that, in fact, the poet Kobuk was never supposed to visit Vienna, but this was simply a joke played by Qualtinger himself, who would finally achieve national fame after this episode. But who was, in fact, Helmut Qualtinger?

He would never, ever become a doctor. And the same applies to journalism – which, however, will always be pursued as a parallel activity. Because, in fact, the great Helmut Qualtinger had a too lively spirit and a too sharp mind to live ‘quietly’, without ‘shouting’ to the world what he thought of his beloved and hated Austria. And likewise, a figure like him, with his extraordinary charisma, his imposing physicality and that spirit always ready for a joke, could certainly not ‘sit on the sidelines’.

And, indeed, it was not many years after his birth before Austria – and, later, the whole world – noticed Helmut Qualtinger. Born in Vienna on October 8, 1928 and raised in the Landstraße district, his father – Friedrich – was a mathematics teacher and fervent National Socialist, while his mother – Ida Ladstätter – was a housewife. Despite his upper-class origins, Helmut was always used to pointing the finger at the hypocritical and puritanical section of society that had allowed a man like Adolf Hitler to rise to power.

And so – with a marked aptitude for acting and writing – already in his high school days Qualtinger founded, together with his friend Walter Kohut and the actor Philipp Zeska’s son, a small youth theatre, the Mozart-Bühne, where he was able to get noticed by writer Heimito von Doderer, who immediately encouraged him to pursue a career as an actor and author.

Thus, his medicine and journalism studies did not seem destined to be completed, although Qualtinger himself continued to write articles for almost the rest of his life. Soon, his love for art took over. And his passion exploded in the most spectacular way. One of the founders of cabaret in Austria – where, even today, this art is still widespread – Helmut Qualtinger began to study acting at the Max Reinhardt-Seminar and at a very young age began to collaborate frequently with fellow cabaret performers and authors Carl Merz, Gerhard Bronner, Louise Martini, Michael Kehlmann and Peter Wehle.

Already since 1945, Qualtinger was active on stage, first at the University of Vienna (within the cabaret revue Die Grimasse), then inside a sumptuous villa, which he occupied in order to establish a small theatre. Following this act, he was arrested for three months by the Soviet occupation forces, as he used to often present himself on stage with a Soviet star on his chest, claiming that it was a friend of the then mayor who authorised him to start all those shows, the cause of many protests against the institutions themselves.

And if, in 1949, Jugend von den Schranken, his first play, which was entirely dedicated to the difficult situation of young people after World War II, was finally staged in Graz, it has to be said that this official debut aroused the most disparate reactions at the time. If, in fact, this play was widely acclaimed by public and critics, on the other hand, there were also those who harshly criticised his depiction of a decadent and delinquent youth society, to the point of shouting heavy insults at the author during the show (even claiming that he deserved the death penalty) and causing the play to be immediately cancelled the day after its official premiere.

Yet, it was not such an episode that stopped Helmut Qualtinger’s long and prolific career. Throughout his life, the actor played over and over again in film and television – for example, in Wolfgang Liebeneiner’s 1. April 2000 (1952), Axel von Ambesser’s Die schöne Lügnerin (1959), Michael Kehlmann’s Radetzkymarsch (1965) and in the series Die Alpensaga (1976), directed by Dieter Berner and written by Peter Turrini together with Wilhelm Pevny – and performed on numerous Austrian stages, including the Volkstheater in Vienna – where he starred in Eine Wohnung zu vermieten and Der Talisman (both by Johann Nepomouk Nestroy) – the Theater in der Josefstadt – in Friedrich Schiller’s Der Parasit and Ferenc Molnar’s Liliom – and the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, where he starred in Heinrich von Kleist’s Der zerbrochne Krug.

And yet, despite his multifaceted nature and despite such a rich and prolific career, even today when one thinks of Helmut Qualtinger in Austria, Der Herr Karl, his most famous play (of which a television adaptation, directed by Erich Neuberg, was also made in 1961) still springs to mind. Der Herr Karl (‘Mr. Karl’), written together with his friend Carl Merz, consists of a monologue recited by a certain Karl, who works in the basement of a small grocery shop and who – addressing an imaginary colleague – recounts his life before and after the war. Apparently a good person, Karl later turns out to be a dangerous follower of the Nazi dictatorship, as well as a hypocritical and conservative man, a perfect representative of Austrian society of the time.

As a result of his controversial play, Qualtinger also gained great popularity in Germany and his fame began to spread even abroad. This notoriety would also grow further when he starred in 1986 in the feature film The Name of the Rose – based on the novel of the same name by Umberto Eco and directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. For the occasion, Qualtinger, already seriously ill, played the role of the monk Remigio de Varagine, but died – due to cirrhosis of the liver caused by excessive alcohol – on the 29th of September of the same year.

Two marriages, one son (the painter, musician and cabaret artist Christian Heimito Qualtinger, born in 1958) and a rather controversial career. Throughout his life, Helmut Qualtinger has confirmed himself as one of the most brilliant minds on the post-war art scene. And his very personal way of pointing the finger at society has inspired – and continues to inspire – many other young artists. A sign that this particular image of a good grumpy man, now intimidating, now even reassuring, has remained impressed in the hearts of Austrians forever. Just like the marble bust depicting him on his honorary grave in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof.

Info: the page of Helmut Qualtinger on iMDb; the page of Der Herr Karl on iMDb