" Grünbaum was Simply More Brilliant"

Die Presse (03/06/2006)

Marie-Theres Arnbom explores the life of the cabaret artist

The book lying on the marble table in front of Marie-Theres Arnbom was published some months ago; yellow strips of transparent markers are sticking to the pages. The jacket cover depicts a gentleman with round glasses surrounded by a crowd of cooing women whom he appears not to notice. His name is Fritz Grünbaum, a legend of cabaret.

Cultural researcher Arnbom, specializing in studies of the middle class, has been tracing his life for the past two years. While working on projects in the past, she often stumbled across Fritz Grünbaum and would have liked to have read a book about him. But since there weren’t any, she decided, without further ado, to write one together with Christoph Wagner-Trenkwitz. The research project - a detailed account of Grünbaum’s works and the times in which he lived is still going on.

The lack of any legacy or collected works on or by him was aggravating for the researchers, but eventually, some things were found in an archive on censorships in Lower Austria. Every text by Grünbaum intended for publication was hoarded away in this archive. Arnbom found earlier texts never seen before and was able to explore an entire body of work by Grünbaum, including ten shootings which Grünbaum made after the 1930s. Three short films, in which the Comedian Harmonists played a part, are considered missing.

At the age of nineteen, Grünbaum moved from Brünn to Vienna in order to study law. After completing his studies, he almost ended up landing a job with the police in Moravia. In October 1906, he made his first appearance in the operetta, Phryne, on the stage of a pub called Hölle, or Hell. After this debut, he stayed on in Vienna. One year later he appeared in the Chat Noir, located in Berlin The cabaret scene in Berlin and Vienna were comparable to each other; the only difference was that considerably more Viennese went to Berlin in order to appear on stage than vice versa. Arnbom: Apart from Fritz Grünbaum, Paul Morgan was also considered a superstar in Berlin, who together with other Viennese, founded the famous ‘Kabarett der Komiker’ in Berlin’s Friedrichstraße.

In Dialogue with Farkas
The cabaret celebrated its first climax in Paris. From there, the trend caught on in Berlin and eventually in Vienna. There it was not only strongly influenced by the French but also by the Hungarian cabaret. Hungarian artists often made their appearances in the Budapester Orpheum in Vienna The famous constellation of the Doppelconference (dialogue between the smart one and the dumb one) for which Grünbaum and Karl Farkas became well-known after 1921, originated in Budapest. With the opening of the Hölle in 1906, which provided a place for cabaret performances in the basement of the Theater an der Wien, cabaret came into its own in Vienna. There were many places where ambitious men talked, where overly wound-up women singers gave their best to performing bizarre chansons. Some of the places had to be closed, others continued. The cabaret, "Simplizissimus," was in existence then, much like the "Ronacher," the "Apollo" and the vaudeville cabaret, "Gartenbau."

The few people who knew Grünbaum described him as a charming contemporary, says Arnbom, but he knew also how to get into a fight. In 1910, when an officer in the audience of the "Hölle" called out anti-Semitic insults, Grünbaum went over to the man and punched him one and then continued the program. The officer demanded, however, a duel, in which Grünbaum, a delicate man, was wounded.


From Enthusiasm over the War to Pacifism
In 1914 the star let himself be won over by the delirium of the war. In 1916 he fought on the Italian front. Disillusioned, he went back to the stage, and the one-time war enthusiast turned to pacifism. Also, the audience had drastically changed. Before WW I the cabaret was almost only for the wealthy. During the war, however, the borders became blurred with the upper echelons sitting next to the workers in the audience, and after 1918, war profiteers conquered nightlife for themselves. Women also took up cabaret not only as girls who decorated the stages with their ivory but also as gaudy and contrived, operetta divas, like Mella Mars with her four-cornered bangs.

Cabaret was always political. The more difficult times became, the more one had to say. Humor took on considerable sophistication, and with razor-edge sharpness, one satirized those in power, quoted Heine, Goethe and Schiller. Thus, Grünbaum was able to fascinate entire ballrooms of people, tore away at the Nazis with his war of words which finally led to his undoing in 1941 in Dachau. What made him better than his colleagues? Arnbom: He was simply more brilliant.