Saturday, September 28, 2013

Mack the Knife

Doesn't this guy look like a low rent Bobby Darrin?  I can imagine him standing in front of a mirror, slicking back the hair, while humming Mack the Knife.

Interesting fact about that song.  It was from a German musical called Three Penny Opera written by Bertolt Brecht with songs by Kurt Weill. The first production was staged in Berlin, in 1928.  The part of Mackie Messer, AKA Mack the Knife, was played by Harald Paulsen.  But it wasn't Paulsen who sang Mack the Knife,  it was Kurt Gerron, who played two roles, Jackie "Tiger" Brown, the police chief of London, and Mackie's best friend from their days in the army, and The Street Singer, who opened the play with Mack the Knife.

Kurt Gerron had originally intended to go into medicine, but the first world war changed all that. (Gerron was drafted into the German army while in his second year of medical school. After a severe wound which made him unfit for combat, he was certified as an army doctor.)  After the war, Gerron changed his career choice and went into theater.  In the amazing art's scene of Wiemar era Germany, Gerron was a cabaret performer, actor, singer, writer,  and director, both stage and screen.  For American film fans, he's probably best know as the magician in The Blue Angel (1930), the film that made Marlene Dietrich an international star.  The Blue Angel also starred silent film star Emil Jannings, as Professor Immanuel Rath, the school teacher who has his life destroyed by his infatuation with Lola Lola.  It was Jannings' first major sound film.

In 1933, Kurt Gerron was forced to emigrate.  The Nazis had come to power, and Gerron was Jewish.  He and his wife, Olga, went to Paris, and then  moved to Amsterdam where Kurt Gerron continued to work in films, both as actor and director.   Peter Lorre and Josef von Sternberg, who had directed Gerron in The Blue Angel, begged him to abandon Europe for Hollywood.  They had secured him work, and Marlene Dietrich who had started a fund to help German artists who wanted to leave Germany, was ready with the cash needed to move.  Kurt Gerron declined the offer.  He thought of himself as European, he didn't speak English, and Amsterdam had been good to him.

In 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands.   Unable to work, Gerron and his wife did what they could to survive.  In 1943, they were arrested by the SS and transported to Westerbork Concentration Camp.  Soon afterwords, they were sent to Theresinstadt Concentration Camp, also known as Terzin.  Theresinstadt was a very unique camp.  Designated as a transportation point for other camps, without the hardware of extermination, it was, nevertheless a deadly place to be.  Malnutrition and disease were major killers of camp inmates.  It was also the model camp, used as a showplace for Red Cross inspection tours as proof that Jews were well treated by the Germans.

Not long after his arrival at Theresinstadt, camp commandant Karl Rahm ordered Kurt Gerron to put on a show.  Perhaps it was for morale, propaganda, or maybe Rahm was a fan.  Who knows.  And so was born Kurt Gerron's Karussell.  Backed by  Martin Roman's Ghetto Swingers, a top flight jazz band made up of camp inmates, Gerron would sing Mack the Knife, night after night.  It was entertain or die.  I imagine it was some of his best work.  And then came the next order.  Kurt Gerron was to write, produce, and direct a movie to be called, The Fuhrer Gives A City to the Jews.  Gerron threw himself into the work.  He finished the film in 1944.  After the final edit, he, his wife, and the entire cast and crew were deported to Auschwitz.  On October 28, 1944, Kurt Gerron and his wife were sent to the gas chambers.  He was 47 years old. The next day, with the Russian army on the horizon, Heinrich Himmler ordered the closing of the Auschwitz gas chambers.  Of the cast and crew, only Martin Roman and guitarist Heinz Jacob "Coco" Schumann survived the war.

In 1928 when Kurt Gerron cemented his place in German theater, Emil Jannings, his future Blue Angel co-star, was in Hollywood.  That year, he won the first Best Actor Academy Award.  With the coming of sound, his Hollywood career came to an end.  Unable to speak English well, and with a heavy accent, he returned to Germany.  He was also an early and enthusiastic member of the Nazi party.  As the Russian army was closing in on Berlin, Jannings fled west.  He carried his Oscar and presented it to American officers to prove his connection to the United States.  It didn't really work.  The Allies had already decided to not prosecute cultural figures for war crimes, but he did have to go through a public de-Nazification hearing.  His career was also over.  He wasn't welcome in the German film industry or in German theater.  He left his beloved Germany, moved to Austria, became a citizen, and died of liver cancer in 1955.

Karl Rahm was arrested by the Russians, tried in a Czech court for crimes against humanity.  In 1947 he was found guilty.  He was executed four hours latter.

When Rahm ordered the deportation of the children of Theresienstadt, Czech writer Ilse Weber, who specialized in poetry and songs for children, asked to be included.  She, her son Tommy, and the other children were gassed on arrival at Auschwitz.  She was 41 years old.

Anyone interested in hearing the songs of Kurt Weill should listen to Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill.  Cut three is Die Moritat Van Mackie Messer.  Mack the Knife.  It's in German.  The original German lyrics and an English translation are included in the CD insert.  They are not the lyrics sung by Bobby Darin.  Weill and Brecht both moved to the United States before the war.

Pianist Martin Roman died in 1996.

Coco Schumann is still alive and still performs.  He's 89 years old.

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