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A German in Paris: Ute Lemper

by Deuce of Clubs

(First published in Planet Magazine, 14mar1995)


"I hope the darkness of the songs didn't have too distressing an effect on him in the womb," says Ute Lemper in the liner notes to her new CD, City of Strangers, referring to the fact that she recorded the songs while pregnant with her son, Max. With both a new baby and a blossoming career, Lemper's future is brighter than the dark songs she favors. She explained the reason for her love of Weill's tragic songs during the taping of her BBC show at the Royal Albert Hall (accompanied by composer/pianist Jurgen Knieper, who wrote the soundtrack for the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire): "There is a lot of sehnsucht in (Weill's) songs, and what I really like about it (is) that the romanticism is always interrupted, broken, with aggressiveness, and it never gets sentimental." Lemper, an expatriate German, spoke with me from her adopted home in Paris.

Deuce of Clubs: Is the baby asleep now?

Ute Lemper: Noooo! The baby's still awake! We just came home today from Berlin, and so we just arrived three hours ago at the flat, so everything's chaotic and he's still wide awake.

I just had a chance to listen to City of Strangers


— and I really like it a lot.

It is a really beautiful record. We had a great time doing it.

It's very different.


What do you anticipate the reception will be to this?

Oh, I really don't know, and I don't really want to think about it—I mean, in case people don't like it, I don't want to be disappointed!

I'm sure they'll like it.

But I know that we worked really hard on this with Bruno [Fontaine, who produced both City of Strangers and Illusions, Lemper's album of Piaf and Dietrich interpretations] for weeks and weeks we were together every day, just figuring out the arrangements, talking about the songs, doing them over again, doing them over again, fantasizing about which instruments we're going to use, how dynamics should work, which moods of the songs—the psychology of the songs, and trying in an artistic way to—I mean, everything really developed together and [it] was a very tight collaboration with Bruno. Until finally he started then writing the arrangements, we had already rehearsed for nearly two months, every day on the piano. Then he wrote the arrangements and we went into the studio. And the whole recording process was very intimate and tense, because we did it together with the musicians, like a live performance, and this was something I had regretted that I didn't do it in the Illusions album, really together with the musicians. So we were in the same room, and everything was kind of a performance, and this made it very important for the material to be know, to have this live impact and this theatrical aspect. And also, I was pregnant, in my ninth month! Really, it was totally amazing—I don't know how I did it! But it was so much fun, this whole thing.

I think it's going to be a great success.

I hope so, I hope so.

I wanted to ask you about something that you talked about in a video that I saw of a concert that you had done for the BBC of the Weill songs.

Mm-hmm. Yeah.

You were talking about sehnsucht. Now, I don't speak German, but I do know a little bit about that word, and I'm interested in what you said about there being a lot of sehnsucht in Weill's songs. It seems to me that tends to be true of a lot of German art and culture. Why do you think that is?

I don't know about the contemporary music now in Germany, but definitely throughout the centuries and, of course, more interesting for me, the beginning of this century and the Twenties (in) the literature and poetry and maybe paintings, there's always this— sehnsucht, this longing to get somewhere or to get something, or to go somewhere where it is impossible to go, you know. To look for the impossible. The conflict of Faust, the impossibility to be happy; to hold the moment in order to enjoy the moment, to stop time—the Faust conflict, and I mean, this—I think Goethe, he really, he knew, a few centuries ago. And that's true, that maybe this is, this kind of dark spirit.... But also I would say this dark spirit is very much in the Norwegian, like Strindberg, and also in the Russian writers very much. It's not really only the Germans. Everywhere, I would say, that situations were broken and where kind of pressure was put on people. And even then, in freedom, that, I would say, the spirit was in a very deep way realistic, and not religious. That means, I would say, existentialistic. There is nothing— there is just life, and you've got to go with it, and what you make out of it is your thing. But don't expect there is anything else behind it. The longing that there should be something, but maybe the knowledge that there is not, and then the looking for the sensitivity and sensibility wherever—in nature, or in words, or in writing, or in poetry. Or in music, of course.

I think that comes out a lot in "Youkali."

Oh yeah, "Youkali."

That's my favorite Weill song.

That's a French one. Well, especially when Weill was in exile, during his French time, he was of course being totally insulted by the Nazis. He was definitely in one of his sad periods, writing these songs there, and there you can really see [sehnsucht]. Also, the longing, in a way, back to his roots. The melodies sound very Jewish in these five years, during the exile in France, and he kind of turned back to his roots, where his music education came from.

[Lemper's exile in Paris, unlike Weill's, is self-imposed. Having just returned from a visit to Germany, she was in a mood to explain why she is an expatriate.]

Now, fifty years after the Auschwitz liberation, at the moment the TVs and the papers are full of that subject. And it just always shakes me again, actually, I must really tell you. It really shakes me always again...hearing many interviews from people working in Auschwitz, the SS or SA leaders, saying, "Well, we didn't know that any people were killed there or gassed there," or also like doctors saying—it was not Mengele, but some other doctor—saying, "Well, I just had to do this profession because there was nothing else to do, and I had to nourish my family and I would be better off working in these camps because the money was better there." And these were people who had never been in prison, you know, saying these things! I just can't believe—this country really shakes me all the time, and I...I don't want to be there; I really have, deeply, something against Germany, to tell you honestly. I know it would be terrible to say that to any German, but it just comes over me and I just can't stand it! When the German national hymn arises after any football game on the TV, I just get goose bumps and I leave the room—I just can't listen to it.

You know, I really think that the Nazi period has been misunderstood in a lot of ways, especially in that people think of it as a typically German phenomenon, which—obviously, it happened in Germany—but I think people don't realize that what the Nazis were really after was something that, as "Youkali" says, every human heart desires: utopia.


They were trying to build paradise, but in order to do that, they understood that you have to be willing to be ruthless—which is wrong, of course, but I think that people tend to pin it on the Germans exclusively, as though we would never have done such a thing, or that other people have never or would never do such things.

No, that's not true. I think that could have happened in other countries.

And has, many times, in other forms.

But also, there is something authoritarian [in Germany]...the way they followed that without really, you know...the order of it was followed, and the structure and the system of it was accepted as a system, because people like systems in this country.


And whatever it is, you know, today's administration is the same hell like I guess it is everywhere, but it especially drives me crazy in Germany, because people kind of use their power in administrative institutions on other people. There is something, I don't know, but I really just don't like to live in Germany. I just can't stand it.

It's a little....

It really comes over me. I just came back from Germany, now, and it just shakes me every time again. [Laughs] So you just picked me in a bad period now!

Do you find that the World War II-era image of Germans persists, that people think of Germans as inherently "Nazi" or something?

Oh, very much. There's a lot of prejudice around, and that surprises me a lot. I mean, growing up in Germany, you are not aware—at all—of that. You don't know what the British people say about the Germans, or what the French people say. When I was thirteen, going on school exchanges, and going into a French family and they were talking about Hitler, and I just didn't know why they were talking about him, I mean, Hitler was—the way we were educated—was [just] somebody of the past, you know. I'm complaining a lot that my consciousness was not educated much more sensitive to that. It was very superficial, and so I was wondering why these people would talk about Hitler to me. I wouldn't talk about Napoleon to the French people! [Laughs] Hitler was for me somebody of the past, like Napoleon. And so, only gradually...also, being in contact with a foreign country so much, I figured out that there must be something: what is it? What is this thing with the Germans, and what is it with my country? You know, I am the Germans, representing the country when I go to France singing there, and what do people interpret therein and what do they make out of me being a German. What is it? And I figured that there's a lot of prejudice. And people love that stuff; people love prejudice against other countries anyway. Every American, for the French people, is a stupid tourist who likes McDonald's, and every German is somebody who speaks with a very hard voice and has this rough sense of ordnung [the German word for "order"] and system and obeying and giving orders, and also slightly racist, of course. The German, for the British, is the worst. They've got a TV show called The Spitting Image—which is great, I mean, they tear everybody through the mud there, especially the Royal Family—but the Germans always in these things, whenever there's a German appearing there, he has a Nazi uniform on. It's just totally amazing how also—I find this very questionable because kids growing up in that country or adolescents, they really believe that stuff, and that's how hatred and intolerance still is very much created today through these stupid prejudices which are ... well, people love to do that. And they love to do it because they want to be themselves better than other people. But also the Germans have prejudices, but not really that strong, I must say.

I didn't mean to get off on this tangent, but —

But also it puts on me, of course, the question of, you know, being guilty, being German, and so on, and this is the time, you know, coming together with a lot of Jewish people and working together with them, that you...there is this thing where you really stop thinking and I do that. I don't know what to say to it, you's just amazing what the Germans did, and's really horrible that people after that war and after that leadership, these people who did the leadership and who committed crimes went right back into the offices and continued their business.

That's true.

And continued their education and got their sons, and stayed in business. And this is just that thing which drives me crazy. When I ride a German car today, and when I ride to an area where there's a lot of companies which were also dealing throughout the war, I just find it weird that these things are still existing.

Farben and such?

Oh, I. G. Farben, and also these people of the car companies, and I don't want to say names, but chemical companies who [manufactured] the Zyklon-B poison—they are still, you know—this is really amazing!—they stayed in business and they went on producing the same product, just for other purposes.

[Considered the foremost living interpreter of Weill's songs, Lemper not only sings his songs but, during her shows and interviews, makes an effort to convey bits of Weill's story and place in music history.]

Weill really created this new revolutionary—also political— theater, which was already anarchic by that time, which was controversial. There were a lot of people throwing tomatoes when The Threepenny Opera was put on stage, and Brecht was a very political person. When I sang one of the songs of Weill and Brecht in the stage, somebody got out up from the audience and said, "Goddamn it, she's singing songs of this Communist!"

Is that right?!

Yeah! I couldn't believe it! Actually it happened in a very funny place; it happened in the Rainbow & Stars in New York, which is a very [imitates an upper-class British accent] proper and British club, where it was totally absurd to sing Weill and Brecht, you know, which really, their philosophy—Brecht would have turned in his grave if would knew that I sang his songs in that supper club, where people have to pay $50 entrance! [Laughs] So I was really surprised. But Weill, really, I mean, these four years only, for only four years he was with Brecht, they were so creative, and productive, with so many pieces that this was, I would say, his most authentic and rich period of creation, and his works were really full of innovations in these times. In the exile, things were different. They were much more moody, but not at all politically intense, like they were at this time. And also when he was in America, things were much more adapted to the American music tradition, not any more really powerful music, like they were in Berlin.

It's too bad, too, although I like the American stuff, but it's just as you say, the German stuff is so unique. The first time you hear it, or the first few times, you can't really get a grasp on it, the melodies are so inventive—they really meander.

It's really original.


It's something totally unique. The American things sound like things would have sounded before: musicals, swingy stuff, and a little bit of this, a little bit of that. But then later on he really created his own thing in the States, but especially the first—I mean, he died early [in 1950, at the age of fifty], that's another problem. If he would have lived a little longer, he would have maybe really did other great things in the States.

Will Jurgen Knieper be accompanying you in Los Angeles?

Oh, no, no. We don't work together any more since a while. We— I mean, he's living in Berlin and he has started his life new with a new wife and new kids and he prefers to stay home and not to go on tour any more.

I loved that BBC show you two did together. It was just outstanding. I'd like to have seen that in person. I really liked his score for Wings of Desire,, too; that was really something. I wanted to ask you quickly about your film work. Are you hoping to do more films after Pret-a-Porte?

Oh, no, this was just fun. I've known Altman since a while, and he actually has another project for me, that's why he said, "Okay, why don't you play a little bit in this film?" Then it turned out that I was pregnant, so this role really became very funny. [Apparently the memory is too painful for Max, who starts crying.] It just was a really little experience and adventure for me, and maybe this other project will come true, but who knows when, because I know that he has many other projects coming ahead.

You're not looking for a real film career, then?

No. Also because I have my baby now, and I don't want to be away all the time, and it's very valuable to me to take care of him and to have a life just simple, like this. And I was running around the world for ten years straight without any break, without holidays. And this is kind of...I really wanted to take this change and have a little family and son, and it's really nice to have it. So when I will do something...if there's a great thing coming up, if there would be a great film, a great story, and a really nice part, I definitely would do it, and take time off to do it, but otherwise I don't want to do it. I did ten films in these years, most of them French productions—French-Polish, French-Russian—really nice, arty films, but they were just for the purpose of doing them. Like in Moscow, shooting, and in Warsaw [?]. But I'm not really any more ready to do so many, spending time on these things.

I hear you're having a great time being a mother.

Yes, I really enjoy it. He's so sweet, the little one, I can't believe it! I still can't believe it's my own—he looks like a little peanut! [Laughs]

I'm looking forward to the show in Southern California.

Okay, see you soon.

©1995 Deuce of Clubs

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