THEATRE / It looks as though they're here to stay: East German political cabaret could have been buried in the rubble of the Berlin wall. But a new target has replaced the Stasi: indifference to the past. Linda Joffee reports

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The Independent Culture
THERE is a poster in the foyer of Die Distel, east Berlin's premiere political cabaret theatre, 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 Wall but, quite understandably, did not appear in Die Distel's foyer until afterwards.

The woman I am meeting in that 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 doyenne of East German political cabaret, she was officially banned from performing at the high profile venue. Today, Dr Gisela Oechelhaeuser is Die Distel's artistic chief.

Oechelhaeuser has been doing political cabaret for over 20 years, working in small clubs and heading a theatre school during her long stretch in Communist Party purdah. Upon leaving Leipzig University with a doctorate in philosophy, she 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 says. 'Theory wasn't enough. Art is much more concrete than science or literature - more effective, too.'

Oechelhaeuser, who sports a somewhat incongruous fluorescent red stripe of hair on an otherwise serious blonde head, is a high-octane, sharp-witted woman - 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 Michael Nidzel, one of the four ensemble players who make up Die Distel. 'She takes in everything around her and you just have to go with her. She's a dynamo.' Wolfgang Bahro, who has worked extensively with both west and east German political kabarettist and is the team's only 'wessy' (slang for west German), notes that Oechelhaeuser, despite her success and the money that comes with it, has lost none of her edge. 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 sums up unequivocally.

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.'

Ask her if she believes political cabaret contributed significantly to the fall of the Wall and she replies, without hesitation: 'Every form of critical thinking helps to disturb the walls in the head. For most of the East Germans, (it) was the only place where you could actually speak about certain problems and ask questions.'

In the days before 1989, an East German political kabarettist had a strict censorship committee to contend with. Oechelhaeuser's eyes light up 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. Codes were devised. A fly buzzing around conveyed the role of the Communist Party; the 'old man' meant the Politburo.

With the 'fly' and the 'old man' gone, some west German cultural critics and commentators believe that the main topics left for Die Distel to deal with are anchored in the past - life in the shadow of the omnipresent Stasi, the secret police and so on. While this is interesting for west Germans, these commentators believe east German political cabarets have little direct relevance for them. Put this to Oechelhaeuser and her whole body shakes in dismay. It distresses her that west Germans automatically assume that now, with the country reunited under a democratic system, Easterners should forget their past and transform themselves into Westerners.

'Look, I am what I am,' Oechelhaueser says, 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.'

One of the important themes in Oechelhaeuser's cabaret show is the German tendency, as she describes it, of 'disowning the past'.

Wolfgang Bahro, who has joined us in the tiny office where we are talking, interjects: 'Gisela is absolutely right. As a 'wessy' I know that nobody, or very few people, in west Germany are interested in discussions about the Stasi or the Politburo, because they think it's not their history and they don't want to be involved in that history. But we have got two histories now - Nazism and Communism.'

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' '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 2.5 million Party members. The song is sung as if the singer was the East's sole surviving former Communist. Parallels with the situation in 1945 are not lost. 'After the War,' Oechelhaeuser explains, 'suddenly everybody was an anti-Fascist. 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 Oechelhaeuser and her kabarettist colleagues hold out a great deal of hope that the lessons will be learnt. Bahro recalls the 1970s American television mini-series, Holocaust, which attempted to depict the horrors of the death camps during the Third Reich. Bahro was shocked - not by what he saw, 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. That's ridiculous; I think that's absolutely disgusting. And now the exact same thing happens again. Maybe there will have to be an American movie about Communism and the history of East Germany.'

Tens of thousands of east Germans have long since abandoned their homes for the West. Oechelhaeuser 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. 'My mother always used to say, 'Where God put me, I stay', so I stay where I'm needed.'

(Photograph omitted)