Jewish Journal

‘The moon is high over the roofs of Charlottenburg…’ interview with Helen Schneider

Ian Shulman

September 30, 2012 | 11:03 am

phot. Mayk Azzato

The moon is high over the roofs of Charlottenburg...’ begins the story a tall slim lady, while the guitar behind the stage starts playing a sweet jazz melody. You are in Charlottenburg, you are in Berlin of the early 1930s. This slightly mannishly, yet extremely elegantly dressed charming woman carries more natural 1930s’ vibe to the stage then ‘Cabaret’s Sally Bowles, which she played once in Berlin. She is a New York-born actress and singer Helen Schneider. She’s going to tell you the story of Heinz Jakob, or simply ‘Coco’ Schumann - a young guy so eager to become a part of the Berlin music scene. Being half-Jewish and playing swing, Coco didn’t get much time to enjoy the stage - when he turned 19 his ‘stage’ was moved to Theresienstadt ghetto. Schumann played swing together with other musicians in a band with a weird and bitter name - ‘The Ghetto Swingers’. He survived Auschwitz and a personal encounter with Dr Mengele. He returned to his Berlin to continue living there and playing swing there. He also returned there to write a book on his life, which became a plot for the show ‘Der Ghetto Swinger’, staged in Hamburger Kammerspiele in fall 2012. Helen Schneider talks about Coco, twists of fate and returning to Germany.

The question I wanted to start our interview with was if ‘The Ghetto Swinger’ is a Jewish show. But after I entered the hall and have seen a huge Star of David on the stage, the answer seemed logical to me. But what’s your opinion?

No, I don’t think it is a Jewish show. I rather think it is a show based on a terrible thing what happened to the Jewish people here. The show is actually about two things which are interesting to me. One is the burning flame in this young man, a burning flame for life. This flame still burns in this man’s eyes. I met him: he is 89 and still has this flame which kept him alive. It is also a story about music; the magic and the power of music not only for this fellow, but for all people in general, and how a music can carry a soul through very tough times. Of course, it is based on a Jewish story, but what’s so fantastic about the show is that on my opinion it’s specific to the mankind in general.

How did Coco Schumann himself reacted on the show? Did he see it?

Yes, he came to the opening night. He was thrilled, which made us all thrilled. We were very true to his beautiful book, a part of which was what we have taken for the script with Gil Mehmet, out director, conceiver and author. It was his idea to play this story. He had a burning desire to put the story on stage for over ten years, and I understand why. He is also a musician. Director, but a great musician. ‘The Ghetto Swinger’ is not a story of a virtual person. It’s a story of a simple guy who loves music so much and has a special kind of aura. He made his own fate because there were always people there to help him.

How would you describe your role in the show? You are playing many different characters - from Coco’s mother to the nurse from the US army, but I have an impression that they all are somehow connected.

I believe that the connection is a ‘big umbrella’ over them. I am the storyteller, I tell the story. And like any good storyteller does, I speak from the characters when it’s needed or when it’s impossible to tell the story in any other way. Sometimes I function in a kind of directing capacity, but essentially I am the storyteller.

What was your way to playing in the show?

Gil Mehmet and I worked together last summer on an extraordinary production of ‘Sunset Boulevard’. I played Norma Desmond, he was the director and I thought his work was remarkable, incredible. I got to like his work and him very much. Together with the head of Hamburger Kammerspiele he came to me and asked me to do this role. I didn’t know what the role has to be, the piece haven’t been written yet, but there was a general idea of ‘a storyteller’ and that I would sing, Later I got the book. It was not only my experience with Gil Mehmet, but firstly my interest in the story itself which brought me to the stage.

Was it your first ‘Jewish’ role?

No, I played Hayyah in ‘Ghetto’ in New York. It’s a remarkable work written by an Israeli Joshua Sobol. I performed with the original Israeli director and a marvelous cast. My mother died young, my father remarried and married a ghetto survivor from Poland. When i did ‘Ghetto’, she was my first hand contact, who knew about it. After I was done with this piece, I promised myself I will not get involved in this topic on stage again, because it was so difficult to get through. However, here I sit. I did it and I’m very glad I did. I don’t think that unnecessary emotions flow from the stage. On contrary, I think the play is quite factual and presents without a lot of extraneous emotions - I think it brings emotions from the audience. Gill was very strict about it - the story was supposed to be clearly told and nothing else. I think it’s a remarkable presentation, and the team is strong. We all have our weaknesses and strength, but it was a group all together because we met in the middle with music. They are actors who can sing and musicians who can act. And it all meets in between. They are all with a tremendous desire to make this this thing work as well as with a tremendous responsibility.

I got the same impression. It seems like there are a lot of things in your career which connect you to the topic of pre-war Germany. I mean your role in ‘Cabaret’ and your involvement in Kurt Weill festival. Can you elaborate on this connection?

I’m an honorary chairwoman of Kurt Weill festival and a great fan of Kurt Weill. Indeed, I’ve been cast in these roles, like the one in ‘Cabaret’. It’s interesting to me, I’m not exactly sure why I have a characteristic which interests directors for these roles. ‘Cabaret’ was clear to me because I think I have this 1920s sensibility. Before ‘Cabaret’ I had done a 1920s one-woman show in New York, which was successful for me and I took it to California. When I was still young and doing rock, I was told: ‘Oh Helen, you would make such a fabulous Sally Bowles, what a shame you don’t speak German!”. So I said well, let me meet with the director. We met, liked each other immediately and I was sent to Berlitz in New York. That was the beginning of my never-ending battle with the German language. And then came ‘Ghetto’. ‘Ghetto’ follows me over years. I was continuously asked to play the role, and was continuously refusing. since the role is extremely hard to get through. So now, in five years, I thought: “Somebody wants me to do it. So I will!”. And I did it. Obviously, it’s some fate which wants me to be involved in this topic. I was born in a Jewish family and raised in a Jewish faith. I believe that Judaism is a religion and not a race, and I do not practice any form of religion, yet I was raised Jewish.

How exactly did you happen to make a significant part of your career in Germany?

It’s a one hundred percent accident. I was working in the United States being managed by a very powerful manager. In the 1970s a producer for television series heard my very first LP, found me, tracked me down in New York and invited me to Germany. I did the show which was very successful for me. I was seen then and invited to do a big national show in Germany. I was having big success here while having some troubles in the United States, so I came to Germany and made a contract. To make a very long and weird story shorter, I had a huge hit in rock in the 1980s, and then i stopped in the middle of the 1980s and started acting in New York. I reinvented myself as an actress who can sing. Finally, it was also because my name was so known here, and in my business you are lucky to have a career anywhere. Five years ago I moved to Germany, but I never called Germany my home before I started to live here, in Berlin.

What was the motive behind your transformation from a rock singer to an actress? You look quite different on these two stages.

My transformation was very organic for me, because my career has always followed my personal interest. I also get older like everybody, so my desires and my interests changed, and my work reflected that. One thing relates to another. I also once had the main role in a film in the States, and I realized that I was looking for acting for all of my life. So I had to stop everything and switch to acting, and that’s what I did. Then I had to keep music and acting separately, so I have done some more acting work in the States. As for my jazz stuff, I got a phone call from a producer almost out of the blue, and I made my first jazz record. It was all very natural and organic movement for me.

Some of you recent works combine jazz standards with classic rock.

I had a beautiful trio in Germany, we were considering ourselves ‘musicians without borders’ and jazz is the core element of our music. One of the records was a tribute to my mother, there were songs I learned from her when I was a child. These are jazz songs, but they were pop songs for her generation. Before I started with the record I was asked how would I picture jazz and I thought of my mother. My father loved Bert Kaempfert music, so I ended up doing a hommage to Bert Kaempfert for my father. Then I was doing a show ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash’, where I first met with country music in my life. I was never singing country before, I just never took it serious. But then I realized it was an incredible interesting genre which I loved. So the next record we will be doing with the trio is going to be my tribute to country music. How marvellous that I am almost 60 and I found a genre of music I never sang before and I enjoy it.

There’s a quote attributed to Coco Schumann saying that he was introduced to swing by Ella Fitzgerald...

If I understand the story correctly, Ella came to Germany when Coco was already a part of the music scene there. She came to sing in Berlin and they met at a club, in a particular place where it was a tradition to gather after the show. Everybody said that Ella never sang anywhere off stage. But Coco says that Ella decided to sing and she invited Coco to play with her. And it is possible that the early records of Ella were of the great influence for him.

Who introduced you to music at the very beginning?

I’m a classically trained pianist. I played piano my whole life, but in between I fell in love with blues and rock and ran away with a blues band to the mountains of New England. I’ve been working ever since.

That’s an interesting part! I was carefully watching the play tonight and at the same time tried to trace the reaction of the audience. It might be a tricky question, but do you think such play would be possible in Germany a decade or several decades ago?

Hard to say. I am not a German, I don’t have a lot of experience with German mentality either. I know that the ‘Ghetto’ was presented here in Germany in the early 1980s. So judging from that, I guess my answer is ‘yes’.

The cultural scene of the pre-war Berlin was so beautifully portrayed in the show. Do you think this phenomena belongs to the past? Could it come back during the today’s Berlin renaissance?

I don’t have an answer to this either. There are renaissance for different music and also for different cities. Berlin certainly has a renaissance, but I think it has more to do with the art world then the music world at the moment. Indeed, Berlin is having a massive renaissance. One can say its’ like 1920s for art as it was for music back then. Every city has an event flow.

You was mentioning that even though you’ve been working in Germany for a while, you don’t feel any German.

Well, originally I’m German. My grandfather was German. He was a violinist for Odessa symphony. When the Bolshevik revolution broke up, his father, who was a wealthy grain handler in Frankfurt, sent him to New York, so that he finds his way. Unfortunately, he didn’t; he died selling ties in the streets of New York, a man in an utmost poverty. He arrived in the USA in 1919, so that’s not a war story. But that’s how I got my name, Schneider, from this grandfather. My mother’s family are all Russian, and they came to the United States in the early 1800s, I guess they fled the pogroms. Many immigrants came to the United States because they were running away from something in those years. That generation didn’t have a desire to keep the next generation connected to the past. And some things got lost. It is a sad story I think, but it has to do with this emigration wave of leaving something and wanting to start something new. So they spokek English trying to avoid speaking the old languages. My father still spoke some Yiddish, but my mother did not. I am a fourth-generation New Yorker. So the past is lost, it’s a terrible thing, but it’s the way it was. It’s a twist of fate that I have this career in Germany and that I came here. Coco believed he has a guardian angel; sometimes I think something wanted me to come back here and to develop some relationship with this country and also with the material I play. I honestly think it is so strange that I came back. I think it’s my generation’s job to mend the fences. Because otherwise you can’t go on. The history is there to remember, but one has to move forward. I think it’s people like me who come back, without a direct pain for what has happened. I don’t have this. I know what happened, but in my mind I am an American and I don’t mean it to sound so stupidly naive I’m not, but I don’t come with this first generation agony of what happened here. I was very happy to put my generation and the first generation of Germans together.

It’s also funny how young Germans of the 70s or the 80s were all striving to leave Germany for the USA. For them it was probably strange to see an American coming to work in Germany.

I am in show business. I am an entertainer, but in the end it’s stupid to separate entertainers from other professions - in the end we are all entertainers. I would be happy to be anywhere with the career. If somebody sends me to Mars and ask to learn Marsian, I would do that too, but I’m happy to work in Germany. I also worked in other countries apart from Germany and the USA, but they mostly happened to be German speaking countries. The door is always opened for me here, so here I am. And I’m comfortable in Europe, whether it has something to do with the past life or not. I feel at home here, and I finally can speak the language, which is nice, because you get the window in the soul of the country when you speak the language.

Do you have different ‘at home’ feelings in Europe and in the USA?

As years go by, I started to feel more comfortable in Europe. There’s a special kind of culture here, an attitude about tradition, and after all it’s just easier for me here. There were times when i would go home after working here and say ‘wow, I belong less and less to the United States then to Europe!’

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