The Joker of Vienna

The Joker of Vienna

In one sense immortal after the dramatic monologue Der Herr Karl (1961), Helmut Qualtinger died in 1986 soon after giving a memorable film performance as the heretical monk Remigio da Varagine in The Name of the Rose. Apart from his career as writer, actor and cabaret singer, though, he was also a genius mimic and hoaxer, sometimes at a serious personal cost, at least before he developed his art of mischief.


One thing he craved professionally as an adult was to be taken seriously as a writer. His case echoes in part the jailing of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton in 1962 for their campaign of altering London library books with funny collages and false blurbs. Reports on their trial included a banner headline in the Daily Mirror (“Gorilla in the Roses” referred to a monkey’s head pasted to the cover of the Collins Guide to Roses) and news of it even made it as far as the pages of the Reader’s Digest. As Orton’s biographer John Lahr wrote

Rejected by the literary world, they made a spectacle of published books and the public that evaded them. They turned the library into a little theatre where they watched people reacting to their productions. It was one way of getting into print and making their statement.


Qualtinger’s desire to turn the world into his playground began much sooner. Quasi, as he was later known, was a lonely child but he got a puppet theatre as a present and entertained other kids with it while on holiday in Styria. There he’d perform fairy tales but, like the anarchist he already was, he omitted the moral lessons at his own whim. Back in Vienna, some envious classmates ambushed him on the street, smashed the lot and broke his hand in the struggle, having earlier warned him not to bring it to school anymore.

Not yet seventeen, he made his first real public appearance in Vienna in May 1945. He wore a large red star pinned to his chest and a red armband with Cyrillic letters sewn onto it. This was part of an attempt to pass himself off as a ‘culture kommissar’ while improvising Russian-sounding gibberish and carrying a poorly forged letter of recommendation. He was still only sixteen, after all, and was soon imprisoned for three months for commandeering a villa in the suburb of Währing as a base for his proposed communist theatre. By the time his mother returned to Vienna and got him out, his weight had dropped to seven and a half stone.

Nonetheless he wasn’t finished pretending to be a Russian. When a friend couldn’t get paid by a newspaper editor, Quasi ‘borrowed’ a Russian officer’s uniform and marched boldly through the American sector of Vienna towards his quarry. Improvising more Russian mutterings, he confronted the editor in his office. The guy quickly grasped the mentions of Siberia before paying up on the spot.

In 1951 Qualtinger pilfered some stationery from the Austrian branch of the international writers’ association PEN. On it, he notified the press and radio about the imminent arrival in Vienna of the famous Eskimo author Kobuk, whose Greenland trilogy Nordlicht über Iviktut was being filmed by MGM as Of Ice and Men.

On the rest of Kobuk’s impressive CV, it is something of a pity that the masterpiece sometimes rendered as The Burning Igloo was actually two separate classics. These were Brennende Arktis (‘Burning Arctic’) and Einsames Iglu (‘Lonesome Igloo’) but how nobody in Vienna copped on to the incongruity of the title of Kobuk’s drama, The Republic of the Penguins, remains a mystery.

At any rate, a crowd of reporters gathered on 3 July 1951 at Vienna’s Westbahnhof. Instead of the great Kobuk, it was Quasi himself, concealed by a fur jacket, a fur cap and sunglasses, who got off the train. Asked for his first impression of Vienna, he broke the spell by answering the throng in Viennese dialect. “Haaß is’!” (‘It’s hot!’).

Quasi mirror

Perhaps his most god-like prank played out over thirty years later in America. Quasi, still in Vienna, phoned the celebrated Austrian psychiatrist Friedrich Hacker, who spent most of his time in California. Pretending to be Ronald Reagan’s private secretary, Helene von Damm, who was also Austrian, he told Hacker that the President had suddenly gone mad and needed his help. Hacker got on the next plane to Washington and reported to a mystified Frau von Damm at the White House.

Our last anarchic moment does not really involve Quasi at all, except that he got on the phone to God about it afterwards, in total admiration. It concerns the aftermath of an evening at the Gutruf bar, when his friend Otto Kobalek turned up at a performance of Waiting for Godot. In the theatre Kobalek suddenly appeared on stage, with a plastic bag in his hand. It held a copy of an old futuristic novel, set in that same year. The future had finally become the present.

Waving the contents of the bag, he addressed the astonished actors and audience. Godot ist da. Sie müssen nicht mehr warten (‘Godot is here. You mustn’t wait any longer.’) Then he vanished back into the wings. A tickled Qualtinger called Samuel Beckett himself in Paris with the news. Beckett turned out to be very happy to hear it and sent his warm regards, as he too had always been waiting for this to happen.

PS … for more on Der Herr Karl, go to …