A One-Woman Dynamo Onstage And Off
THERE is a poster in the foyer of Die Distel, east Berlin's premier political cabaret theater, with a drawing of Karl Marx. The solemn father of communism is shrugging his shoulders: "Sorry guys, it was just an idea."
The poster was printed a year before the fall of the Berlin wall, but, quite understandably, did not appear in Die Distel's foyer until afterward.
The woman I am meeting in the same foyer also did not appear at Die Distel until after the dramatic events of 1989. She could not. In spite - or rather, because - of her fame as the doyen of East German political cabaret, she was officially banned from performing at the high-profile venue.
Gisela Oechelhaeuser is today Die Distel's artistic chief. She has been doing political cabaret for more than 25 years, working in small clubs and heading a theater school during her long stretch in Communist Party-enforced obscurity.
Upon leaving Leipzig University with a doctorate in philosophy, Dr. Oechelhaeuser saw for herself two career paths: academia or political cabaret. In the end, it wasn't really a difficult choice. "I wanted to give what I was thinking to other people," she offers simply. "Theory wasn't enough. Art is much more concrete than science or literature - more effective, too."
Oechelhaeuser is a high-octane, sharp-witted woman who grasps not only an interviewer's query but any subtle nuance behind the question. She takes an intensive English class for several hours every morning, rewrites and rehearses her show in the afternoon, and performs in the evening, six days a week.
"Gisela is absolutely the energy behind Die Distel," says fellow ensemble player Michael Nitzel. "She takes in everything around her, and you just have to go with her. She's a dynamo."
Wolfgang Bahro, the only "Wessy" (slang for west German) in the four-player Die Distel team, has worked extensively with both west and east German political kabarettists.
The occupational hazard, Mr. Bahro says, is that success is often accompanied by an unwitting accretion of the very thing they are supposed to be inveighing against: money, "two homes, two cars" as he puts it, and somewhere along the way performers lose that hard-hitting political edge. Not so, Oechelhaeuser. According to her colleagues, the more successful she is, the harder she seems to work to put across her ideals.
"Gisela is definitely the most important figure in the business today," Bahro says.
Indeed, although Oechelhaeuser laughs heartily and often, she views the social function of a political kabarettist with utmost earnestness. "We are like a psychotherapist or priest," she remarks. "I want to give the people in the audience the opportunity to know how many possibilities for their lives there are - to broaden their vision."
Before 1989, an East German political kabarettist had a strict censorship committee to contend with. Oechelhaeuser's eyes light up with mischievous amusement as she recalls the mental gymnastics she and her colleagues used to go through in trying to think up ways to get pointedly sardonic observations about life under communism past the censors.
With all that gone, some of the west German cultural critics and commentators I spoke to expressed the view that the main topics left for Oechelhaeuser and her colleagues at Die Distel are largely centered around the past - life in the shadow of the omnipresent Stasi, or secret police, being the biggest issue. These commentators say such east German cabarets as Die Distel have little direct relevance for them.
OECHELHAEUSER strongly disagrees. These kind of superficial - as she views them - perceptions prove all the more to her the vital need for her work today.
It annoys her as well as makes her profoundly unhappy when west Germans automatically assume that now, with the country reunited under a democratic system, easterners should just forget the past, forget who they are and just become westerners.
"Look, I am what I am," Oechelhaeuser says, with considerable feeling, tapping the table with her forefinger for emphasis, "which is that I sat in a Red [communist] school, in the first row, and I have lived here in east Berlin; I have borne kids here; and I am the age of 50 and have had to live here all my life. That is my history. And I am absolutely so sad when it's said that all these years I spent in this country are now thrown away, as if they never existed.
"That's what the west Germans say to us: `Forget about history; now we have the future, the Federal Republic of Germany, and you are also a member of that republic and should become more like us.' But it's wrong, tragic, and simply not possible to throw the past away."
One of the important themes in Oechelhaeuser's cabaret show is, in fact, the German tendency, as she describes it, of "disowning the past."
Cabaret colleague Wolfgang Bahro, who has joined us in the tiny office where we are talking, listens to her comments. "Gisela is absolutely right," he says. "As a Wessy, I know that nobody, or very few people, in west Germany are interested in discussions about the Stasi or the [Communist Party] or the Politburo, because they think it's not their history, and they don't want to be involved in that history. But, of course, the east is part of Germany, and the west should realize that. We have got two hist ories now - Nazism and communism."
Carrying the idea further, he refers to the end of their show, when the ensemble sings a particularly witty ditty about this very subject, to the tune of the Beatles hit, "Yesterday."
The typical east German today denies having ever belonged to the Communist Party; yet, as the lyrics remind the audience, there were, until the fall of the Wall, nearly 2-1/2 million party members. The song is sung as if the singer was the only person in the whole country - the one lone soul in a vast sea of "resistance" - who had been a Communist. Parallels with an analogous situation in 1945 are not lost.
`AFTER the war," Oechelhaeuser explains, "suddenly everybody was an antifascist. Nobody was a Nazi. So everyone asked, `Where are the Nazis?' It's the exact same thing right now in east Germany. That's why we do the song in our show, so that people will remember `yesterday.' We must learn from history."
But neither Oechelhaeuser nor her kabarettist colleagues hold out a great deal of hope for the lessons of the past to sink easily into the minds of the vast majority.
Bahro, for example, recalls the 1970s American TV miniseries, "Holocaust," which attempted to depict the horrors of the death camps during the Third Reich. Bahro was shocked - not by the series, which he felt was tame in comparison to what actually happened - but by the reaction of his fellow countrymen.
"So many people phoned the TV studio and said, `I never heard about all this; I didn't know it was so terrible, that it was so bad,"' he says. "That is what shocked me: the idiotic stupidity of the people. After the war, there has been so much material concerning that period, if someone wanted to learn about it. So I just couldn't understand, as a German, that there has to be, first, an American serial to show the Germans their history. I think that's absolutely disgusting. And now the exact same thing h appens again. Maybe there will have to be an American movie about communism and the history of East Germany. And everybody will say, `I didn't know that!' This is the mentality of the German people."
Tens of thousands of east Germans have long since abandoned their homes for the west. Oechelhaeuser also sees it as an important part of her job to convince the rest that, rather than leave, they should stay and help change their society into an intelligent as well as humane kind of democracy, as she herself is trying to do.
"My mother always used to say, `Where God put me, I stay,' so I stay where I'm needed," she says with determination, "and I'm working like a lion. But you feel very happy to know that you are needed."