In a small theatre in Berlin in the summer of 1928, the curtain rose on a bare stage, the spotlight falling on the actor and singer Kurt Gerron. As his large body moved in time to the music of a small orchestra, his voice boomed out:
Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear
And it shows them pearly white
Just a jack-knife has old MacHeath, babe
And he keeps it … ah … out of sight ....
This was the opening night of one of the greatest theatrical productions of the twentieth century, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Three Penny Opera. This was also to be a great moment for Gerron himself, cast as police chief Brown, famously nicknamed Tigerbrown. The initial shock with which the play was greeted rapidly transformed into enthusiasm. The crowd demanded encores, and ‘Mack the Knife’ was to become one of the greatest songs of the Weimar stage. Fourteen years later, Kurt Gerron was to sing those famous lines one last time, this time before a movie camera and a circle of Nazi officials. In Theresienstadt, for a propaganda movie made by Gerron himself under orders of the SS, for a last time the original Tigerbrown belted out the story of murder and terror in a German town – before he, too was shipped to Auschwitz, another of the countless actors, musicians and entertainers lost to Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’.
A cabaret artist, theatre and film actor and important director of theatre and early sound movies, Kurt Gerron was one of the most successful entertainers of the 1920s and early 1930s. Born on 11 May 1897 to a middle-class Berlin Jewish family, his father was a confectioner, and his mother a housewife and educator of their only son. After serving in World War I, Gerron decided to study medicine, and was a supporter of the leftist November revolution. After completing medical school in 1920, he decided instead to dedicate himself to acting, convinced that 'doctors and actors have something in common: the observation of people'. A year later, he joined Trude Hesterberg’s cabaret ‘Wild Stage’, the first in a long line of illustrious cabaret groups that he joined. Soon after that he met and married Olga Meyer, with whom he had a life-long relationship. In 1926 he began a tumultuous working relationship with Bertolt Brecht, and frequently performed with his friend Willy Rosen, writing anti-Nazi or socialist-influenced skits.
1927 saw Gerron’s first film role, with film taking on an increasing importance in his career: that year alone he took part in more than 20 films. After the success of Three Penny Opera, he became increasingly well known, by the early 1930s having established a reputation as a movie director; he was also cast in the 1930 classic Blue Angel, the movie that started Marlene Dietrich’s career. Wealthy and successful, Gerron lived well in Berlin in the early 1930s, refusing to acknowledge the growing danger of the Nazi Party, though he staged political theatre explicitly mocking Hitler and the SA (Brownshirts).
As soon as the Nazi party came to power, Gerron’s career came to an end in Germany. Forced to break off work on his current film, he went into exile, first in Paris for two years, and then in Vienna. Austria was increasingly under Nazi control, however, and in October, 1935 Gerron and his wife moved to the Netherlands, a popular destination for many German refugees because of linguistic and cultural similarities, as well as a relatively generous policy toward German and Austrian immigrants. In particular, these Hitler-refugees went to work re-invigorating the Dutch film industry. A record number of movies was made in Holland between 1934-1940, many under Gerron’s direction.
When Germany finally occupied the Netherlands in May 1940 there were thousands of émigré Jews there, and one of the strongest resistance movements in occupied Europe. The Nazis, however, were able to rapidly crush the resistance, and the Jews of Holland began to be targeted and deported as they had been in Germany and eastern Europe. During the early years of occupation, however, German policy was relatively lenient, and Jews were allowed to pursue entertainment and theatre performances. Here, as in 1920s Berlin, Gerron was involved in émigré German cabaret, performing with old acquaintances including Max Ehrlich, Eva Busch, Camilla Spira and Rudolf Nelson. Gerron was also one of the few German émigrés allowed to appear in Dutch theatre pieces, as he had mastered the language. The respite came to an end on 20 September 1943, when Gerron was sent to Westerbork with his family.
Arriving at Westerbork relatively late, he was quickly incorporated into the already successful cabaret group, for their third performance in October. (This was to be the actress Camilla Spira’s final show). He composed and performed a solo piece shortly after arriving, but soon thereafter, in late February 1944, he and his wife were sent to Theresienstadt, where he was considered to be a ‘privileged Jew’ due to his fame and his military service. The Czech ‘show camp’ was to offer the final stage of Gerron’s career. When he arrived, it was in the process of a beautification program in preparation for a visit by the Danish Red Cross; Gerron and his wife were assigned an apartment, and he was given a part in the local cabaret, soon receiving permission to found his own, named ‘Karussell’. His cabaret was a success, popular with the SS and the camp commander. The program included songs from Three Penny Opera, French and Yiddish songs, and songs composed by the many musicians imprisoned with Gerron in Theresienstadt.
The success of the Nazi deception of the Red Cross encouraged the next, even more perverse plan: a propaganda film about life in the camp. Of course Gerron, one of the best-known German directors before 1933, was the obvious choice for film-maker. At every moment of filming the SS was there, controlling discussions between actors, staff and director. Gerron and the other workers were never given a copy of the script, nor were they ever allowed to see the film that was being shot. He would simply be told what was to filmed next, and expected to produce it. One of the few survivors of the film-making remembered the impossibility of the situation, as the SS ordered Gerron to shoot a scene of Jews laughing uproariously at a theatre performance. The Jews, understandably, had no desire to laugh. Terrified of the consequences of disobedience,
bathed in sweat, Gerron urged us, implored us, begged for discipline, for us to follow orders, absolutely ... and he began a contagious, irresistible laugh, during which he wobbled his fat belly, so that we really had to laugh, even though the situation for him and for us was anything but funny ... Thus he stood before us, pale, sweaty, laughing loudly, with a wobbling belly. And thus they filmed peals of laughter from three thousand cheerful country-dwellers enjoying their glorious summer variety show.
The film also included scenes from his cabaret, and his final August performance of ‘Mack the Knife’. Gerron, his wife Olga, and all the others who had worked on the film were transported to Auschwitz in the October transports, and the movie was completed, edited and cut without the presence of the director. Former inmate Vlasta Schön remembers his disbelief at being on that fatal list, standing 'at the ramp. The train was ready to leave. Gerron fell on his knees and asked for permission to stay. He said “I made this movie for you!” The SS boots kicked him inside the wagon.' Kurt Gerron was killed on 15 November.
The actor and director’s long and distinguished career was largely overshadowed by the controversy over his final film: he was criticised for betraying his people, and for being the main force behind this propaganda. More recently, however, he has begun to be remembered for his remarkable life and contribution to Germany’s cultural legacy. In 1999, a full-length documentary movie was made about him by Ilona Ziok, titled Kurt Gerron's Karussell, and there has been increasing interest in his films and songs.
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