A review in “Die Welt”

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The Bad German

“I want to remain German – though it’s not as if I have ever had any choice”, Hölderin wrote

to his friend Böhlendorff on December 4, 1801, “even if heartache or starvation were to

drive me to Otahaiti”. However, the very same Friedrich Hölderin noted in his epistolary

novel “Hyperion” that the Germans “have always been barbarians, and have become even

more barbaric through hard work, science, and even religion”. So which is true?

Both, naturally. It follows that Tessa Keimes too, must remain a German – whether she

wants to or not. Tessa Keimes is very much the blonde-haired, blue-eyed actress from

Cologne, Germany, who, starved of her passion, had been driven to New York. Cinema

lovers might know her from the thriller “The Good Shepherd” (2006), and now she will be

performing at the New York Fringe Festival with her solo show “The Bad German”.

On the one hand, the title implies that unfortunately, she is not among the good, the decent

Germans; on the other hand, it hints at the fact that she finds it difficult to be a German, that

she is bad at it. So, in her American English, without any trace of an accent, she tells the

audience about what it was like to grow up as a member of “the generation of the

grandchildren”; as a child who was never quite sure whether grandpa had been a Nazi; and

what a shock it had been to her as a teenager when the nuns at her Catholic school had

taught her about Mengele’s human experiments in Auschwitz. And since we are in New

York City, she does not recount her life story with dripping melancholy, but strictly according

to the rule: never ever miss a joke!

Keimes acts out how, while on her first long stay in America, her fellow students had

greeted her with a cheerful “Heil Hitler”. And she mimes her giggling girl classmates who

wanted to know whether it was really true that German men – how disgusting – were


Somehow, the uncircumcised penises, explains Keimes, were even worse than the

Holocaust. The whole time she lived with the fear that she might have inherited the “asshole

gene” and could turn into a Nazi monster as soon she let things slide on the inside. Tessa

Keimes has learned much from Jewish stand-up comedians such as Sarah Silverman.

Some of the funniest moments in her solo show deal with her contact with Jews – for

example when she retells her attempts to waitress in a kosher restaurant as a German


Or how she discovered that Jewish men, too, were battling with feelings of guilt, all of them

linked to their mothers. Essentially, however, what Tessa Keimes does is not comedy. For

that, she dares to stray too far into an uncomfortable area – her punch lines hit where it

hurts the most.

Finally, she very movingly describes her first chance encounter with a survivor of the

holocaust, who, against all expectations, did not want to devour her, the blonde German.

The American audience reacted with applause, laughter and emotion. However, this

observer cannot help but wonder how Tessa Keimes would be received with a German

version of this solo evening. Would the audience in Berlin be able to see something of

themselves in this expat and laugh along with her?


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