The Group of Dr. A.R. Kwiecinski

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“The Cabaret of Death” - synopsis of a dramatized documentary film

“The Cabaret of Death” - synopsis of a dramatized documentary film

Rubinstein, a homeless street clown, wanders around the Warsaw ghetto during World War II. He dances, sings, tells war jokes, and makes fun of the German guards. He screams at SS-soldiers, causing them to laugh rather than to become aggressive. In quieter moments, crowds surround him. Smiles appear on their faces, which is an unusual sight. The whole ghetto knows Rubinstein. His expressions and his jokes are directed towards the horrifying guards and are quoted by all the people. He screams “You crazy” and “Everybody’s equal”, while walking the streets of the enclosed city, equal in the face of terror, equal in the face of death, equal in the face of illness and in the feeling of terror. “Can this kind of equality be the butt of jokes?” Black humor is accepted by the inhabitants of the ghetto. Rubinstein wanders around the ghetto telling jokes. Dead bodies of people who have died of hunger lie on the streets, covered with gray paper. The Pinkert Funeral Home employees cannot move fast enough to remove all the cadavers. Despite the tragic situation, nobody avoids the laughter provoked by Rubinstein‘s performances . Only one Jew, the proper and determined conspirator of the Jewish Combat Organization attacks “Meshugene”, screaming (at him) that there is „no place for jokes in the cemetery“ which the ghetto is. The crowd defends the comedian. Rubinstein is the symbol of the world which had become invisible from behind the ghetto’s walls. The world which was able to laugh and be joyful. People imprisoned in the ghetto needed such a symbol.

The children of The Holocaust, the commentators of the events, who are older people today, remember Rubinstein. They talk about those moments of laughter and about forgetting the horrors of living. These witnesses talk about the phenomenon of cabarets and comedy theaters coexisting alongside an ever present death inside the ghetto’s walls. We watch reconstructed cabaret performances, “jokes from the gallows”, sketches, songs about food smugglers, songs about freedom, (which was on the other side of the ghetto wall), couplets laughing at the ghetto life. Rubinstein is sent to Treblinka concentration camp. As a member of Sonderkommando (Jewish work unit), he “welcomes” the new transports of people, headed for the gas chambers. Humor in this place can exist only at the level of the “blackest” sarcasm. Rubinstein looks at the crowds of people with “Star of David” armbands, which are moving in front of him and sighs “Stars, stars, stars – the real Hollywood”.

Rubinstein sorts the people’s personal effects and belongings which remain after they have been gassed. A photograph of the famous actor with dedication “To my fan F.G.” falls out of one of the suitcases. He remembers the show, seen at the Viennese cabaret “Simpl” before the war, the fantastic show starring a big cabaret star named Fritz Grunbaum. The photograph invokes the retrospective of Fritz Grunbaum’s pre-war comedy hits which are illustrated by his sketches.

Archival examples of different forms of humor lead into a reconstruction of a cabaret performance at the concentration camp in Buchenwald. Emaciated Grunbaum celebrates the single most tragic jubilee of his artistic career. The Maestro’s birthday is celebrated with a series of songs and sketches within the camp barrack. The acting troupe consists of members who have been banned and deemed (by the Nurnberg laws) to be of “inadequate racial origin”. Jokes are made in self-mockery and bitter style, satirizing the camp reality. Inmates laugh at their own humiliation and of the suffering and sheer poverty of their camp existence. Commentator of the events Volker Kuhn, a German theater director, talks about Fritz Grunbaum’s camp life, the jokes he created and about his suicide attempt and death which ended the life of this famous cabaret star.

We go back to Treblinka. We watch a dramatized scene of Rubinstein’s death, who is a member of sonderkommando and a potential witness. He dies of shot to the back of his head. A symbolic scene takes him into the “film world”. He becomes a “black & white” ghost of the film narration. His status, as the witness-ghost, is highlighted by an archival black & white color scheme. Rubinstein is a timeless symbol of Jewish humor. Our guide through the world of camp cabarets and a good ghost of the art of humor, created in the shadows of the gas chambers.

The scenes inspired by “Black & White” ghost Rubinstein, lead to dramatized camp scenes, reconstructed by the witnesses of the events. We see the most famous, prewar theater, film and cabaret artists in different situations. The artists who create while confronted by death. Wladyslaw Szpilman accompanies Wiera Gran, who sings about longing for freedom. Wladyslaw Szlengel recites his famous poem about God without the armband, with the Paraguayan passport giving him immunity from “The Final Solution of the Jewish Question”. Young prisoner Leopold Kozlowski teaches the Kurowice camp’s Commandant how to play the accordion. He believes in the promise that if he teaches him to play “The Blue Danube” he will survive the camp. The Commandant wants to surprise his SS colleagues at his own birthday party. We watch him showing off and playing the accordion in front of his colleagues. This performance means for Leopold either death or a pass to freedom. Drunken SS-men force the naked Leopold to dance and play the accordion on a table. An interview with survivor Leopold, “the last klezmer of Poland”, follows this sequence.

In the ghetto Litzmanstadt (Łódź) the young poet Abram Koplowicz performs on stage. While he recites a poem about flying freely over the seven miracles of the world, the Jewish police enter. That’s how the transport of children from the ghetto to the extermination camps in Chelmno and Treblinka begins.

Roy Kift, the English writer, talks about the phenomenon of artistic achievements in the ghettos and concentration camps. He talks about the collision of delicate David (art) with stupid Goliath (violence) and about the creativity of both performers and viewers, giving them hope and dignity.

The cabaret “Merry-go-round” in the Terezin ghetto turns out to be the “merry-go-round” of death. Kurt Gerron, the main cabaret performer and Marlena Dietrich’s partner in “Blue Angel”, in fighting for his life, accepts an offer from the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda, to shoot a movie about everyday life in the ghetto. While surrounded by machine guns, he tries to make people laugh onscreen to show what a good life the Jewish people have in the “city gifted to them by Hitler”. In gratitude for the good job he did, the Germans send him to the Auschwitz concentration camp. We “accompany” him on his last trip to the crematoria at Birkenau. Helmut Pabst, ignorant of what awaits him in the crematorium, asks Kurt Gerron for his autograph in front of the gas chamber. Volker Kuhn talks about the betrayal of Kurt Gerron, analyzing the dignity of artists who created art while in Nazi captivity.

Max Ehrlich, film and cabaret star of Berlin, while standing with other Jewish men on the ramp in Birkenau camp and waiting to go to the gas chamber, is recognized by an SS officer. In front of other SS officers, Max is forced to make him laugh in exchange for ticket to “freedom”. The officer ironically asks him “I hope you didn’t loose your ‘vis comica’”. Ehrlich succeeds to make his oppressors laugh by telling them an obscene joke about Hitler. Expecting to die, he “wins” another month of his life.

Volker Kuhn talks about the sense of humor possessed by the Nazi oppressors, which was totally dim-witted and completely lacking any subtlety or irony. He reminisces about Max Ehrlich as one of the most hated satirists of the Nazi regime. He talks about artists creating art against all odds while trying to defend their dignity. Just before going to sleep, the women of the Ravensbruck camp sing the old German song “My thoughts are free”, a famous song about freedom of thought. In the darkness, a choir of skeletons sings about “free thought”, permeating the bars and walls and comforting themselves with the last joy of the living dead: “they can only kill the body”.

Rubinstein’s feet pace on a “star walk”. The alley resembles the aged pavement in front of the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, but the stars are not pink, but yellow with 7 arms. The pavement is in the old Jewish cemetery. Rubinstein as a “black and white” figure is juxtaposed with the colorful scenery of the cemetery full of woodbine. He walks and other figures in “black and white” follow him: Kurt Gerron, Max Ehrlkich, Wladyslaw Szlengel, Fritz Grunbaum, Abram Koplowicz… They stop in front of one grave which has many stones on top of it, as is a Jewish custom. Rubinstein picks up a round stone. Other figures look at the stone in his hand. Rubinstein closes his hand and then, like a magician, blows air on it. He then opens his hand and a beautiful bird appears. It flies away. The bird sits on a barbed wire fence which looks like a musical staff. The bird sings happily.

Credits roll.

2014-02-18 20:25:23

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