“The future used to be better too”: Against the grain, anarchic and very close to the people – Karl Valentin is timelessly present with his sayings and skits and partly red-hot.
“Everything has already been said, just not by everyone” – Karl Valentin described the course of conferences and debates in a timeless and topic-neutral way. The Munich comedian coined philosophical wisdom for many situations in life. “I’m happy when it’s raining, because if I’m not happy, it’s raining too” – with this Valentine’s saying, the Mayor of Krün, Thomas Schwarzenberger, commented on the federal government’s decision to hold the G7 summit again in summer 2022 in its territory small Upper Bavarian community.
“The stranger is only a stranger in a foreign land” is also very topical in times of refugee flows and xenophobia – and the acrobatic twisted saying is often quoted: “I would have liked to, but I didn’t dare to.” Operators of an Internet portal with a collection of quotes had to pay for this more than ten years ago – a Munich court ruled at the time: copyright infringement. According to Gunter Fette, lawyer and supervisor of the Valentin estate, the saying was also used by a sex shop. Even if that was a very good fit there, he warned me.
Surreal wit and anarchy
Meanwhile, Valentin’s words are partially free. In Germany, copyright protection applies up to 70 years after the death of a person. February 9 is now the 75th anniversary of the death of Karl Valentin, who died in 1948. But be careful: His partner Liesl Karlstadt was a co-author in many cases, she died in 1960, the protection here does not expire until 2030.
Surreal wit and anarchic thinking characterize the style of the lanky, skinny comedian, who some have declared to be the mastermind of absurd theater. The everyday philosopher, filmmaker, poet and “word cracker” has written over 400 stage plays, scenes, couplets and lectures. With his bitter black humor he makes people laugh – which often gets stuck in their throats. The writer Samuel Beckett remarked after attending a Valentine’s evening that he “laughed a lot and with sadness”.
It is also the petty bourgeoisie and the hardships of the little people that Valentin caricatured. The “Buchbinder Wanninger”, which is referred to endlessly on the phone, is still one of Valentin’s best-known sketches – even if it is now more of the electronic operator menus that get callers’ last nerves.
On June 4, 1882, Valentin was born in the Munich suburb of Au, the son of a mover from Darmstadt and a woman from Zittau. After school he completed an apprenticeship as a carpenter, but the enthusiasm of the young Valentin Ludwig Fey – his real name – for this profession was limited despite his skills. He learned to play the zither early on. In 1902 he attended a variety school and performed as a “folk singer”. He stole a nail from the last master, as he described his departure from the carpentry trade, hammered it into the wall “and hung the golden craft of carpentry on it forever”.
Bertolt Brecht learned a lot from Valentin
Nevertheless, he made many props himself throughout his life. From 1903 onwards, Valentin built a monstrous piece of music, the “Living Orchestrion”, from more than twenty instruments. According to his own statements, he chopped up the apparatus after an unsuccessful tour.
With Liesl Karlstadt, real name Elisabeth Wellano, he celebrated success far beyond Bavaria’s borders in the 1920s. He gave guest performances in Zurich, Vienna and especially Berlin. Valentin turned down offers from the USA, where he was courted as the German Charly Chaplin. The trip to America was unthinkable for him – he was too scared. In 1931 Valentin ran his own theater in Schwabing, but after three weeks he gave up in frustration due to official requirements.
Valentin is not a jester, but a serious man, it is sometimes said. In the opinion of Bertolt Brecht, Valentin was not joking, but was one himself: “This person is quite a complicated, bloody joke.” Brecht, who learned from Valentin, saw him as “one of the most haunting intellectual figures of our time”. For Kurt Tucholsky he was a “rare, sad, unearthly, wildly funny comedian who thinks on the left”.
Not petty art, Valentin is great art
“He inspired many,” says Sabine Rinberger, director of the Valentin Karlstadt Museum. “He’s always valid, that’s what makes Valentin so strong.” His bizarre ideas are exhibited in the rooms in the tower of the Isartor in Munich: Wanninger’s old-fashioned telephone, the “winter toothpick” with fur trimmings, the “old box” that was also young at one time, a melted snow sculpture that was used as water in a Reindl (high German: roaster) can be admired, and the nail on which Valentin hung the carpentry profession.
In the post-war period, his profound humor was no longer so well received. A revival followed in the late 1960s – albeit more abroad than at home, according to lawyer Fette, who is already working for the third generation of heirs. Valentin was sold around the world, from Rio de Janeiro to Helsinki, from Kazakhstan to Mexico, from Lisbon to Ljubljana – and also in Africa.
At the moment, Valentin is very much in demand, as the museum director Rinberger and lawyer Fette note. For the first time in a long time, “Valentiniade”, a play by and after Karl Valentin, can be seen in Munich’s Residenztheater. “His sayings are more relevant than ever,” says Fette, citing two of them: “The future used to be better too” and “Hopefully it won’t be as bad as it already is.” Fette: “Valentin is not minor art – he is great art.”
Karl Karlstadt Museum