Austria’s Conscience: Gerhard Bronner

With Laughter and an Acid Tongue, the Famed Cabaret Artist Held Vienna to a Higher Standard

Gerhard Bronner’s last official public appearance was on New Years’ Eve at Theater Akzent | Photo: Theater Akzent

Gerhard Bronner’s last official public appearance was on New Years’ Eve at Theater Akzent | Photo: Theater Akzent

Legendary cabaret artist, composer and author Gerhard Bronner died Jan. 19 in a city hospital after suffering a stroke.

For Vienna, it marked the end of a deeply troubled,    but incredibly fruitful relationship.

“A part of the city itself has been lost” with Bronner’s passing, Mayor Michael Häupl commented. In a career that stretched over six decades, Bronner’s carefully observead and bitterly sarcastic humour helped shape Austria’s post-war understanding of itself.

Fortunately, we have a record: the archives of Austria’s state broadcaster, the ORF, brim with Bronner’s 120 television appearances and some 2,000 radio broadcasts.

More important, perhaps, are his comic songs themselves, such as “Der Wilde mit seiner  Maschin’“ (“The wild man with his bike”), which caught the popular imagination and are still recited by Austrians born well after Bronner himself could have been drawing a pension.

Right up until his death, Gerhard Bronner remained a fixture of Viennese cultural life. You could see him regularly in his favourite nest, the Broadway Piano Bar at the inner city’s Bauernmarkt, his beloved cigarette-holder smouldering away in his right hand. His cheeks had become quite gaunt with age now, his spectacles ever thicker, and his wiry hair, once jet black, had formed an increasingly wild-looking white crown high on his head.

But the famous deep and syrupy voice was still there, barely changed, as was his gift for improvisation. He often sat at the bar’s piano and    his friends and admirers with ad-lib reinterpretations of his old classics. Bronner’s last official public appearance was as recent as this New Years’ Eve at the Theatre Akzent in the 4th district. He sang to a full house, a fitting testament to his enduring appeal.

Yet if Bronner did become a part of Vienna, as Häupl says, it was with great reluctance. In his own words, his roots in the city had been “violently ripped out.”

Born in 1922, he grew up in the impoverished worker’s district of Favoriten, the youngest child of a hard-working socialist and Jewish family. With the escalation of the Nazi terror in 1938, he fled the city, a refugee of the Holocaust that claimed every other member of his immediate family. Then only 16, he improvised his way down the Danube to the Black Sea and then onto a transport to the safe haven of the Middle East.

When he returned to Vienna a decade later, he was intent on leaving within a month. It wasn’t to be. Perhaps the roots were stronger than he liked to admit, and as he often said in interviews, with his biting, castigating humour, he was taking revenge on an Austrian society that had so wounded him: In any case, he stayed. And flourished, at least artistically.

Bronner’s great breakthrough came in 1952 with the cabaret “Brettl vor’m Kopf“ (“A plank in front of your eyes“),  written and performed with Carl Merz, Helmut Qualtinger, Georg Kreisler. The review changed the face of the art: It was the first time cabaretists on stage were also the writers, composers and musicians themselves. The cast of that groundbreaking show now reads like a roll-call for the golden generation of post-war Viennese cabaret.

Bronner never forgot that the role of a cabaret artist was to make the audience laugh, his performances were deceptively light-hearted. But they carried just below the surface an acid distain for the moral cowardice of the political elite, and they confronted the audience with what he considered the dangerous self-satisfaction of the Austrian mentality.

In the 1980’s he was one of the most prominent critics of Kurt Waldheim, the former Austrian President who had lied about his service as an officer in the national-socialist Storm Troopers regiment (SA).

It was his disgust at public support for Waldheim and an argument over taxes that led to a second exile from Vienna in 1988, this time to Florida. But 5 years later he returned once more to the city of his greatest disappointments and greatest triumphs. His friends had told him that Vienna needed him. Perhaps they were right.

In recent interviews, Bronner repeatedly complained that the media had gone soft on politicians. Tongue-lashings, he believed, were not just healthy but vital. Paying tribute, Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer called him the “cultural embodiment of Austria’s conscience.”

At his funeral, Austrian President Heinz Fischer praised Bronner for his ability to turn bitterness into wisdom – the bitterer the truth the more artful his irony. “People laughed till they wept.” Fischer said. “And often his pointed remarks would only explode a little later, once they were under your skin.”

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