Karl (Helmut Qualtinger) just started working at a local deli. He is accompanied by a young apprentice into the storage cellar. While the apprentice is supposed to show him the ropes, Karl tells him about his life, starting with the end of World War One until the end of World War Two.
I wasn’t exactly new to Karl as a play (I saw a stage version a few years ago and I knew excerpts from the original), but I had never watched the original Qualtinger performance in its entirety. Since it’s one of the most important cornerstones in post-war Austrian culture, this is certainly a shame, so it’s a good thing I finally rectified it. And not just because of its cultural importance, but mostly because it’s quite excellent.
Karl is an important figure in Austrian culture. When the monologue was shown for the first time, it blew up the Austrian tendency after World War II to pretend that we were never actively involved in the war, and anyway it’s over now, let’s never talk about it again. And then along came Karl, an opportunistic, weasly man who will bow to anyone. He is always looking out for himself, changes political affiliations as it brings him advantages, cheering for the socialists and Hitler alike, as long as he gets something out of it. The reactions in the 60s were explosive. Complaints were made even before the hour-long program was over. Critic Hans Weigel noted that “Mister Karl wanted to step on the toes of a particular type and an entire people screamed in pain” (“Der Herr Karl wollte einem bestimmten Typus auf die Zehen treten, und ein ganzes Volk schreit ‘Au’.”).
That the play works so well is not only due to the fact that Merz and Qualtinger knew where to put their fingers, just where to rub the salt in and how to make Karl an utterly despicable human being. There is also Qualtinger’s soulful performance of Karl. Instead of making me want to quit watching this asshole, it kept me glued to the screen. And it gave you an inkling about how charming Karl can be, how he manages to get away with his spineless fuckery.
The play does suffer a bit from the fact that by now it’s so well-known in Austria that even if you haven’t seen it, it feels like you know it perfectly already. When something is copied and referenced so much (although, if I look at the political situation in Austria, we haven’t learned the lessons from Karl, they really aren’t present enough), the original does lose a bit of its impact and power.
But only a bit. When Karl talks about participating in an attack on and humiliation of a Jewish man during World War 2, because it was just what everybody did, I still got chills. There’s a perfect representation of Arendt’s banality of evil. And it has lost nothing of its acuteness.