Germany and Poland don't have the smoothest neighborly history. But a German cabaret group is sparking interest in the country and winning Polish fans with a program that includes lots of vodka, music and exaggeration.
Few people know that all of the top music hits from the last several decades were actually written by the completely unknown Popolski family, who lives in Poland in near poverty and never managed to attain fame due to a cunning used car salesman who craftily relieved the family of crucial financial documents.
At least that's the story that audiences at the Popolski Rock 'n' Roll Show hear. But the tongue-in-cheek cabaret act goes even further, asserting that Poles not only invented pop music - thanks to Grandpa Popolski - but also made significant contributions to the fields of film, sports, and science.
Exaggeration is key to comedy
"We're really not trying to lampoon the Poles," said Achim Hagemann - aka Pawel Popolski, the eldest of the brothers and main character in the show. "If it had been our intention to make fun of the Poles, we wouldn't have come up with a family that invented pop music, but probably one that owned a car painting workshop."
The Popolski show doesn't harvest laughs by digging up old worn-out stereotypes. Instead, it flips the clichés around: For once the Poles are robbed instead of being permanently suspected of theft.
Comedy, however, lives from exaggeration, emphasized Hagemann.
"Of course, we mess with the Poles a little bit because we exaggerate certain things," admitted the cabaret artist, "like the clothes, which no one wears any more in Poland; we brought them back from the 70s."
Audience free to dance, clap and drink vodka
Around 20 percent of the theater group's audience is from Poland, estimated Hagemann, with many of the faithful fans traveling a long way to the shows in Germany.
And those who have sat for hours in the train or bus might just appreciate that the show's audience doesn't sit in chairs.
"We've performed for a sitting audience before, but lots of people want to move around or dance and clap - and that's a lot easier when they're standing," explained Hagemann.
In a cabaret show that plays around with Polish cliches, it's not surprising that vodka is one of the first to come up. Trays of small plastic shot glasses are passed around among the audience as Pawel Popolski demonstrates how it's done: toast loudly, count to four, raise your glass and down it all in one gulp.
Then the best part: Everyone disposes of the empty cup by throwing it over their shoulder, inevitably hitting the audience member standing right behind them. But as the strong beverage and the first few minutes of comedy have loosened the atmosphere, no one is likely to complain.
"Everyone feels like going to Poland"
Achim Hagemann, tall, blond and wiry, has a diverse entertainment background. He studied classical music in Dusseldorf before working in television for many years, including doing comedy sketches on the show "Total Normal." Later, he dedicated himself to composing film music.
"At some point I had the feeling that I wanted to return to the stage," said Hagemann - and the Popolski Show project was born seven years ago.
"We heard that Poles don't understand the show," said Sylwia Zbijczyk, who recently traveled with 11 other women from Poland to a show in Germany's Marienthal. All of them came dressed in Polish national colors, red and white.
Zbijczyk, however, liked the show: "It definitely won't be our last time here," she said.
"What these brothers do is really cool," said German audience member Ludgar Haas. "We know they're not Polish, but what they do isn't in any way detrimental to the Polish people. It's just the opposite: I think after they see the show everyone feels like going to Poland."
Author: Iwona Metzner / Kate Bowen
Editor: Chuck Penfold