Gerhard Polt – perspectives from the boat rental guy

Gerhard Polt  Photo: © Herlinde KoelblGerhard Polt  Photo: © Herlinde KoelblCabaret artist Gerhard Polt celebrated his 70th birthday on May 7, 2012. An unorthodox exhibition at the Literaturhaus in Munich portrays the Bavarian comedian and philosopher of life in a style that reflects his own: hilarious but not necessarily dignified.

Polt is sitting on a beer garden chair in the snow wearing a wool hat and down jacket. Behind him is a small boathouse next to Schliersee (a lake). “Laziness is when you've got nothing to do. When I'm just sitting here, I think. Many of the thoughts are incomplete. It's thought work. New thoughts come in all the time. Now I have to process that one as well…” With a straight face that could be mistaken for boredom, Polt waxes poetic about his dream job: boat rental guy.

Contemplating contemplation

Polt always leads into the abyss of everyday life.  Photo: © Oda SternbergOnce again, Polt shows us that, in a society in constant motion and in constant pursuit of the most absurd goals, there is nothing more subversive than spending a bit of quiet time thinking about things that nobody else would waste a minute on. He even thinks about thinking about things. In an interview for Die Zeit, a newspaper, Polt recalled how as a kid he admired the local boat rental guy. “He radiated this overwhelming sense of calm and serenity. Whether it was raining or not, whether loads of people came or nobody came, he was there. If nothing was happening, he would just sit for hours staring at the lake. This stoic demeanor – fantastic.”

A long dock divides the room down the middle. On the platform are two rows of listening stations, TV screens and other exhibits. Behind them on the walls are clips from TV appearances, theater pieces and films. Armed with audio guides shaped like cudgels, visitors meander around on the dock. It is no coincidence that the space at the Literaturhaus is set up in a minimalistic style. None of the objects is highlighted over another. The most noticeable piece is perhaps the Baby Jesus vending machine with the caption “Free today. Ask at the Vatican Bank.” Almost all of the exhibition pieces for the satirist's 70th birthday are from his vast archive of skits, from old ones to current ones created just for the occasion: Polt as the Pope, Polt as a Bavarian politician, Polt as a German tourist, and of course Polt about Polt. It would be difficult to portray the open book that is the artist better than this. He speaks for himself.

Braucht's des?!

The exhibition is called Braucht's des?! (You need that?!), a quote from a Polt skit, of course. The comedian is not a fan of awards and honors. “Every award searches relentlessly for its recipient,” is one of the wonderful quotes emitting from a listening station. In 1980, at a cabaret awards ceremony, Polt filled his allocated 10-minute speech time with an eloquent silence. It was a protest against ZDF, a broadcaster that had censored Polt's piece on perjury-plagued minister Friedrich Zimmermann one year prior to the event. Curator Sandra Weist admits that Polt was skeptical when she presented the idea of the exhibition to him, but he ultimately submitted, saying, “Better to be shown than stuffed.”

The show dispenses with chronology and other traditional elements of a curriculum vita. Polt's short, hand-written résumé itself reveals what he thinks about such documents: “…after some time lingering about, particularly during my childhood, I decided to pursue the career of an applied comedian. I still perform this profession at times. That's about it.”

Almost like in real life

Gerhard Polt and the cabaret artist Dieter Hildebrandt  Photo: © Oda SternbergThe Bavarian “cabaretist”, “applied comedian”, actor and philosopher of life got his first break at the end of the 1970s with a TV skit series Fast wia im richtigen Leben (Almost like in real life). He and his partner Gisela Schneeberger led viewers into the abyss of everyday life: landlords who wouldn't open the door because the potential tenant was a “negro”; two neighbors having a conversation consisting only of flowery niceties; directions on how to get from the city to the country (“Come out sometime, so you too can say you've seen a butterfly”) that turn into a series of horrible industrial parks that were once the countryside. Indeed, many of the most bizarre skits now look more like prophecies.

Diese unsere Welt (This our World) is a skit about a talk show on the subject of cars and the environment. The only environmentalist in the group can't get a word in edgewise while the host and the two other guests tirelessly promote the idea of more automobiles and roads. “The habitat of the automobile is being continually encroached upon,” says the one. “The natural biotope of the highway crow is of course the highway,” says the other. With such disturbing portrayals of the state of things, viewers should be either depressed or infuriated, but then they catch themselves laughing, all of which creates a bit of distance and makes it easier to deliberate on the absurdity of one's own life. In this way, Gerhard Polt is a role model for applied life. He stoically absorbs the daily madness of our society. He is a modern-day Diogenes whose cumulative wisdom flows into this one grand statement: “It doesn't get any better than being the boat rental guy.”

Jonny Rieder
is a freelance writer in Munich.

Translation: Kevin White
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
May 2012

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