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Karl Valentin

Karl Valentin (born Valentin Ludwig Fey, 4 June 1882, Munich - 9 February 1948, Planegg, Germany) was a Bavarian comedian, cabaret performer, clown, author and film producer who had significant influence on German Weimar culture. Valentin, as a star of many silent films in the 1920s, was sometimes called the "Charlie Chaplin of Germany".

Early work in the cabarets and beerhalls of Bavaria

Karl Valentin (pronounced Falenteen) came from a reasonably well-off middle-class family; his father had a partnership in a furniture-transport business. He began his career as a carpenter's apprentice (which proved useful in the construction of his sets and props later in life). In 1902 he began his comic career, enrolling for three months at a variety school in Munich, under the guidance of Hermann Strebel. His first job as a performer was at the Zeughaus in Nüremberg. A three-year break followed, in the wake of his father's death, during which time he constructed his own twenty-piece one-man band (with which he eventually toured in 1906).

Soon Valentin was performing regularly in the cabarets and beerhalls of Munich. He developed a reputation for writing and performing short comic routines, performed in a strong Bavarian dialect, usually with his partner, Liesl Karlstadt. Valentin also made numerous films, both silent and with audio; but it was as a stage performer in cabarets and beerhalls that Valentin built a reputation as one of the leading comic performers in Germany during the Weimar Republic.

Work with Bertolt Brecht

In 1923, Valentin appeared in a half-hour, slapstick film entitled Mysteries of a Barbershop (Mysterien eines Friseursalons).

The film was written by Bertolt Brecht, directed by Erich Engel, and also featured Valentin's cabaret partner, Liesl Karlstadt, and an ensemble of stage, film, and cabaret performers then in Munich, including Max Schreck, Erwin Faber, Josef Eichheim, and Blandine Ebinger. Although the film was not released after it was completed in February 1923, it has come to be recognized as one of the one hundred most important films in the history of German filmmaking.

The previous year, 1922, Bertolt Brecht, had appeared with Valentin and Karlstadt in a photo of Valentin's spoof of Munich's Octoberfest. Brecht regularly saw Valentin perform his cabaret routines in Munich beerhalls, and compared Valentin to Chaplin, not least for his "virtually complete rejection of mimicry and cheap psychology."

Brecht wrote:

But the man he [Brecht writes of himself in the third person] learnt most from was the clown Valentin, who performed in a beer-hall. He did short sketches in which he played refractory employees, orchestral musicians or photographers, who hated their employer and made him look ridiculous. The employer was played by his partner, a popular woman comedian who used to pad herself out and speak in a deep bass voice. When the Augsburger [Brecht] was producing his first play, which included a thirty minutes' battle, he asked Valentin what he ought to do with the soldiers. 'What are the soldiers like in battle?' Valentin promptly answered: 'They're pale. Scared shitless.'

That anecdote has become significant in the history of theatre, since it was Valentin's idea of applying chalk to the faces of Brecht's actors in his production of Edward II that Brecht located the germ of his conception of 'epic theatre'.

Valentin's unique performance style

Valentin's naïve sense of humour produced sketches that in spirit were loosely connected to dadaism, social expressionism and the Neue Sachlichkeit. His art centered mostly around linguistic dexterity and wordplay—Valentin was a linguistic anarchist. His comedy would often begin with simple verbal misunderstandings, on which he would insist as the sketch progressed. The notable critic Alfred Kerr praised him as a Wortzerklauberer, or someone who tears apart words and language to forcefully extract and dissect its inherent meaning. His sketches often parodied and derided "shopkeepers, firemen, military band players, professionals with small roles in the economy and the defence of society".

Younger artists, from film-maker Herbert Achternbusch to Christoph Schlingensief ("Valentin is one of the greatest for me!"), trace their artistic roots back to the Munich cabaretist and clown, Karl Valentin.

Works cited

  • Benjamin, Walter. 1983. Understanding Brecht. Trans. Anna Bostock. London and New York: Verso. ISBN 0902308998.
  • Brecht, Bertolt. 1965. The Messingkauf Dialogues. Trans. John Willett. Bertolt Brecht: Plays, Poetry, Prose Ser. London: Methuen, 1985. ISBN 0413388905.
  • Calandra, Denis. 2003. "Karl Valentin and Bertolt Brecht." In Popular Theatre: A Sourcebook. Ed. Joel Schechter. Worlds of Performance Ser. London and New York: Routledge. p.189-201. ISBN 0415258308.
  • Horwitz, Kurt "Karl Valentin in einer anderen Zeit," Stürzflüge im Zuschauerraum (Munich, Piper Verlag, 1970), pp. 16-17
  • McDowell, W. Stuart. 1977. "A Brecht-Valentin Production: Mysteries of a Barbershop", in Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Winter, 1977), pp. 2-14.
  • McDowell, W. Stuart. 2000. “Acting Brecht: The Munich Years," in The Brecht Sourcebook, Carol Martin, Henry Bial, editors (Routledge, 2000) p. 71 - 83.
  • Schechter, Joel. 1994. "Brecht's Clowns: Man is Man and After". In Thomson and Sacks (1994, 68-78).
  • Thomson, Peter and Glendyr Sacks, eds. 1994. The Cambridge Companion to Brecht. Cambridge Companions to Literature Ser. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521414466.
  • Willett, John. 1967. The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht: A Study from Eight Aspects. Third rev. ed. London: Methuen, 1977. ISBN 041334360X.
  • Willett, John and Ralph Manheim. 1970. Introduction. In Collected Plays: One by Bertolt Brecht. Ed. John Willett and Ralph Manheim. Bertolt Brecht: Plays, Poetry and Prose Ser. London: Methuen. ISBN 041603280X. p.vii-xvii.


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