Experimental Kitchen

We don't have a lot of Germans in this paper. We like the Germans, though. We even like the name German. And we really like hot Germans with names like Ute (Ooo-Tah). So when we got to speak with German cabaret star Ute Lemper, we tried not to dummschwallen (talk out of our ass). But we weren't always successful, which rather reminds us of the 19th century French performance "fartiste," Le Petomane, who excelled at that sort of thing.

OC Weekly: I've heard that Germans don't have a sense of humor. Ute Lemper: That's my whole shtick! That I'm basically self-ironic, and I'm using the clichs that exist in the world among the countries—the Americans against the French, the French against the Portuguese, the Spanish against the Italians. The biggest and most imposing clich is about the Germans—the authoritarian female and the harsh accent. That's all part of my shtick because I'm not that at all. But I made a conscious decision against that. It's quite easy for Germans to underdevelop a sense of humor. Knock, knock . . .

Who's there?

Interrupting cow.

Interrupting cow . . .

Mooo! . . . Hello? [laughs] My son told me that joke in the car two days ago! Okay, you passed the test. Back to the clichs . . .

Yes. It's a form of identity to despise the other and give yourself the justice to be what you are inside your own clich. It's bread for the media. In Europe, there's so much smack and trash and mudslinging from one country to the other it's a sport, basically. It's very ridiculous and dangerous, really, because these clichs stay in young people's minds, and they take it in quite easily. It breeds hostility. That's why I like living in New York better than any place in Europe. Everyone here is from everywhere. Everyone has an accent and is a foreigner, and all these stereotypes don't mean anything because New York is so beyond clichs.

I read a quote attributed to you in which you said that you didn't like Germany and thought it was full of "stupid, ugly people."

That's a stupid exaggeration—I would have never said that. I was very critical of my own background—with the way I grew up—and I did not find my surroundings open or tolerant enough. My spirit couldn't run free. I was uptight in that place, and I found a vaster freedom abroad.

What do you get from singing the songs made famous by strong German women like Marlene Dietrich and Lotte Lenya?

I've formed my style in the expressionist kitchen of the Weimar Republic—inside 1920s Berlin when art was really political and tried to attack the establishment and it was very spicy and sexually driven. It was breaking down all the taboos of homosexuality, emancipation, the justice system, abortion—all of these issues were approached. It was a lush game of eroticism at the same time. For me, it was a great repertoire to live in, in my own language, and it formed my style. There's a little piece of Berlin in everything I sing. I'm not a sentimental performer; I am a realist performer—eroticizing about the anti-hero. Mama Dietrich was the femme fatale, the loner, the island, and she'd bring horror to the man—that was her shtick. Lotte Lenya came from the school of Brecht, a much more intellectual approach, and she was his perfect character because she wasn't beautiful and she didn't have a great voice. She was kind of a loser, but then again, she had this great directness and honesty. They were both pretty opposite from where they came from and where they ended up. Dietrich became imprisoned in her own myth, and Lenya just got crazier and crazier.

You've also sung with Pink Floyd, Nick Cave and Elvis Costello, and you've starred in bit roles in films like Peter Greenaway'sProspero's Books. And you starred in the European production ofCabaret and the West End production ofChicago. But you were also in that goddamnedCats.

That was very long ago! It was a very bad thing to start out in. I had just come from acting school and felt I wanted to go into theater, and there I was, a cat onstage for eight shows a week for a whole year, two and a half hours of dancing my butt off. I'm not made for that. I need to reinvent myself every night. It was the hard lesson of "American marketing theater." I really suffered under it. If I had continued like that—show after show—I don't think I would be in this business anymore. I would rather have become a construction worker—or worked for Lufthansa!

What are you into now?

I was very excited with my last album [But One Day], in which I wrote some of my own music. I am completely involved in that now, just writing my own words and music. Being continuously creative. I want the next album to be entirely my own stuff. I find it very satisfying. It's much more poetic and political.

But One Day was really mellow and often sad. Where does that anguish come from?

I always have to dig into the deeper zones; it just seems that's where I want to go. I'm a quite satisfied and happy person. I have great children and a great relationship, and I try to find harmony in my life. But in my art, I go underneath that. Onstage, I dip into tragedy. After Sept. 11, all the Berlin songs I had been singing had so much more meaning—living for today because you don't know what will happen tomorrow. The French have always had that in their songs and poetry. It was new for the Americans, I think.

Americans divided into two camps: "Kill them all" and a more humanitarian, John Lennon sentiment about realizing we're just like everyone else in the world, so we better come together.

And it didn't do any good. The clich of the Middle Eastern people has gone terribly wrong, and we've created a new enemy. But Americans had no option. They believed what the media told them. The poor people who live out in the Midwest don't hear any other viewpoints other than what they are fed, which is fear. I saw Bowling for Columbineagain the other day, and it's so amazingly true. You can't watch the news anymore after watching that movie. It's all so paranoid—an enemy around every corner. On the other hand, they are all crazy with this holy war out there. I don't know what the solution is. Maybe in the next election, we'll have a better chance.

Are you addressing this in your new show?

Right now, I'm taking an interesting journey throughout the world. There will be Berlin in there, but I also touch on some of the stuff I've learned about that has to do with the chaotic zones of the world. I sing some Middle Eastern songs—the same song in Arabic and Hebrew; it's a musical vision of opposition. I sing some songs in Yiddish, which I enjoy tremendously. Some Edith Piaf, some Jacques Brel. They're all songs that look at the outcast and the anti-hero. I'm trying to bring cabaret into this millennium—not the standard Broadway show, where you sing Ellington and Porter and what you sang in your own Broadway show—but the school of the Berlin cabaret, which has nothing to do with your private life or your personal anecdotes. It's always a political journey.

And that begs a very political question: What the hell is the deal with sauerkraut? It's god-awful. [Laughs] I hate sauerkraut! The word says it all—it's a sour experience, a bitter pill! You're supposed to eat it with pig hooves and pig tongue and ears—it's terrible. Here in New York, it's not so bad—if you put it on a hot dog, I guess.



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