Thursday, 11 October 2012

Nazi Burlesque in Brisbane

A few weeks ago a journalist asked me to comment about a Nazi themed burlesque act that has been performed in Brisbane. It’s is not the only one that is going around at the moment, perhaps the trend is inspired by the film “Burlesque Assasins” - somewhat like a spoof on Inglourious Basterds (sic) - about burlesque girls who hunt down Nazis after the war, I have not seen this film so I will not make any comment about it.

The show was performed by a dancer called Ali Darling, we have many mutual friends and it is clear that she is a kind and caring person but I was so shocked by the way in which she has treated this sensitive subject. I’m sure this is a case of a lack of awareness on the part of the artist. There is a Youtube video of the show so you can watch it and form your own opinion.

I’m not saying that the subject is off limits, it just has to be treated with thought and consideration. The masterful comedian Mel Brooks directed the film “The Producers” in 1968 (I prefer it to the later stage play and film versions) about producers who wish to create a flop show so that they can write it off on tax, so they decide to make a musical about Hitler. To their surprise the show is a success; they are baffled that a fluff piece about one of the worst murderers in history is received with joy by the public. The Producers does not degrade the subject by dealing with it directly but rather comments on the way in which audiences are willing to buy just about anything given the right package: it's a sharp social commentary. But Brooks is a great Master and very few should even attempt to tread where he triumphs.

The Sunday Mail article mentions that I have a German heritage. It’s true but I have greater connections than this. For the last three years I have made an annual European tour and each time I have played in Germany. I’m always interested to know what it is like to be German today, how it feels to live in the shadow of the sins of others. My friends have told me that they still suffer stereotyping and prejudice because foreigners believe that they are Nazis which angers them greatly because there are still gangs of neo-nazis terrorizing the people of Germany today; they are victims in many ways. I feel it is so important for outsiders to respect the pain that Germany still suffers and it is not fair for any of us to perpetuate this hideous stereotype.

I must also say that Germany has one of the best education systems in the world and their people are taught the truth about WW2 from the time that they start school. There is no doubt that the youth of Germany are very well informed and are amongst the most liberal and forward thinking people I have ever met.

This month I visited two sites of Nazi crime, the Dachau concentration camp in Germany and the town of Oradour in France. Over 200,000 people were imprisoned at Dachau and 30,000 people died there, shot, beaten, starved, demoralised, worked to death, experimented on, and some gassed, incinerated in the crematorium and thrown on the ash heaps. Oradour was a peaceful, country town where on June 10th 1944 an SS unit took the town unexpectedly. They looted the town, put the men into barns and shot them in the legs then burned them alive. They put the women and children into the church and shot them in the legs, they shot the children, they shot the babies in their prams and burned them all alive in the chapel. Over 640 men, women and children were killed, leaving only about 6 survivors.

Just thinking about these places brings tears to my eyes again, we can never imagine what it is to be victim to such evil, sadly it continues in different forms around the world today. It is our duty to remember and respect the victims. Knowledge of the past and respectful remembrance is the only way we can stop such evil growing within our society; we cannot afford to be blind.

The thing that most concerns me about the Nazi werewolf burlesque is that it depicts a Nazi character injecting her victims with a large syringe. I'm not sure if the artist is aware of the atrocities of Nazi scientist Dr. Josef Mengele (one of many) who performed unspeakable crimes against humanity in the name of medical science. He and his Nazi colleagues administered all kinds of "experiments" which included many injections, live human dissection, freezing and gassing people alive and countless other inhuman acts.

He mercilessly slaughtered men, women and babies who belonged to the social and genetic groups whom the Nazis wished to exterminate. If the use of this novelty syringe was an intentional reference it was carried out in very poor taste, not funny. 

Some have defended the act by saying that it is a “burlesque” therefore it is protected by a license of parody. I fail to see anything morally or politically valid in its content and I do not find any of it funny, I doubt that many audience would laugh even if they did enjoy the show. In the video you can see an audience member participate by raising his hand for the "Heil!" commands in the soundtrack, I am so very disturbed by this. In my opinion it does not play as a comedy and really doesn’t have the substance to count as performance art, it’s a striptease with Nazi accessories. There are many grey areas within the arts but this act is pretty straight down the line to me, a sassy little striptease with some sexy "Sieg Heils" and pasties. To me this does not constitute a piece of thoughtful, political commentary.

People have also commented that because it is burlesque it's just fun and other issues don't factor. I think this article brings an important message, being a performer of any kind brings great responsibility, burlesque included. You are responsible for what you say with your shows and people are watching, and even if there were no Holocaust survivors in the audience, its attention getting nature meant that many people ended up hearing about it and being hurt by it. Like painters, authors and rock stars what is said on the burlesque stage can carry a great weight.

As the article says the artist is happy with her work and intends to continue performing it, this is her right but it is also the right of others to protest and people have complained that the act disturbs and saddens them. The Qld Jewish board of deputies feel that she has disrespected the memory of victims and survivors of the Holocaust; they have my sympathy. I think that this article may have greatly upset the artist who could not have been aware of the storm that this act would whip up, I feel for her, she could not have known this would happen.

The Sunday Mail article...

A NAZI-themed striptease being performed in Brisbane clubs has been slammed as "repulsive" by Queensland's Jewish community amid warnings it's becoming part of a trend towards shows glorifying the Third Reich.
The controversial burlesque show features a syringe-wielding, scantily-clad Nazi doctor with a swastika armband conducting scientific experiments on a pair of hooded girls.
Performed to a crowd of hundreds at the recent Dead of Winter festival at Brisbane's Jubilee Hotel, the show is the brainchild of burlesque artist and model Ali Darling, 24, who adapted it from a Rob Zombie short film.
Queensland Jewish Board of Deputies president Jason Steinberg said featuring swastikas and other Nazi iconography in a burlesque performance was disrespectful and repulsive.
"It is offensive to the Jewish community - also it would be offensive to the majority of Queenslanders," he said.
"It shouldn't be acceptable in this day and age for someone to use Nazi symbols in a way that glorifies that era."
He said there were still Holocaust survivors living in Queensland, and it was inappropriate for images from that era to be used in a burlesque show.
Ms Darling said she had been performing the show, entitled Werewolf Women of the SS, for about six months, and it had become one of her "signature acts".
"It's a pretty popular show and I will be expanding it because it's going to go into my stage production."
She said the show was satirical and highly stylised, and although she had "absolutely" had negative feedback about it, she'd had an equal number of people praising the performance.
"I get as many people loving it as hating it, which is fine with me. I like getting in people's faces," she said.
Ms Darling, who also has an act featuring a real pig's eye and another where she tears pages out of a Bible with her teeth and spits them at her audience, said she knew of a few other burlesque dancers with similar performances around Australia.
Brisbane cabaret performer Bertie Page said she had noticed a disturbing trend towards Nazi-themed burlesque shows.
"I've noticed it around the traps, it seems to be somewhat of a trend at the moment and I find it really quite concerning," she said.
Swastika-themed burlesque costuming has become available on the internet, and a recent film Burlesque Assassins features a group of dancers as Nazi-fighting killers.
Ms Page, who has German heritage, said she was worried such performances could give burlesque a bad name, and said the use of the swastika was an "indisputably terrible thing".
"The minute you put on that swastika you are representing a power that is bought at the expense of others' lives," she said.
Lola Montgomery, a performer who is completing a PhD in burlesque, said she did not think there was a trend towards Nazi-themed burlesque, and saw such performances more as isolated incidents.

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