An Interview With Kalanag Biographer Malte Herwig

“Kalanag Is the Stuff Hollywood Is Made of”

After seven years in the making, today is the official launch date of Malte Herwig’s comprehensive biography in German, Der grosse Kalanag [The Great Kalanag], published by Penguin Random House in Munich with a first run of 10,000 copies. Malte is an academic with a doctorate in literary studies, a historian, an author of several acclaimed books, and a journalist. On a whopping 480 pages he narrates and analyzes the wily and agile life of Helmut Schreiber (1903-1963), an always-on-the-go amateur magician who became an eminent official both in film and magic during the Third Reich, seeking the bubble reputation and rubbing shoulders with the Nazi top brass including Adolf Hitler himself more than once. After the Second World War, with both a questionable denazification document and an occupational ban for the film industry in his hands, Schreiber reinvented himself quickly and mysteriously as “Kalanag,” the illusionist. Henceforth, he successfully toured the world with his magical musical revue of stunning size while at the same time making his shady past disappear in the wartime ruins.

Malte dug deep into archives and sources, as not only the 50 pages of footnotes in his book attest to. He also managed to track down a number of contemporary witnesses of Schreiber’s doings. In this interview Malte speaks of his personal approach to Kalanag, the great support he has received from the magic community, and his biggest discoveries on his quest. An English version of his book may appear in the future, as the worldwide rights are currently put on sale.

Photo: (c) Christina Körte

Malte, when and where was your first encounter with Helmut Schreiber-Kalanag?

Ten years ago, I came across the Hamburg Magic Circle on the internet. „Magic Circle“ – I thought that sounded secretive and mysterious. So I got in touch with Thomas Gundlach, its chairman, and asked him whether I could stop by one day. He immediately replied and invited me to the next public performance in their own Magiculum theater. In the bar I noticed a photograph on the wall of a man who looked a bit like Heinz Erhardt [a portly, famous German post-war comedian], and I was immediately informed that this was the famous Kalanag! I had never heard the name before and started my research about him that same night. The rest is history.

What was it about Schreiber that fascinated you most and finally led you to write his biography?

I’m a historian, and I have dealt with German history in the 20th century time and again because its aftermath is still perceptible today. But my background is in the arts, in literature, and the feuilleton. I’m fascinated by Kalanag not only because he was an interesting artist, but also because of his incredibly tantalizing political biography. During the First World War, he performed magic as a 13-year-old in military hospitals. He has lived through the Roaring Twenties in Berlin. He has built his career in the Third Reich, and he became globally famous after the Second World War as the illusionist from „Wirtschaftswunder [lit. economic miracle] Germany.“ Kalanag’s life is a parable about German history in the 20th century. He is the magician of „the Zero Hour“ after Germany’s collapse, which in itself is probably the greatest illusion of all.

Budding magician Helmut Schreiber
(Photo: Archiv Stiftung Zauberkunst)

How important was it for you that Kalanag was a magician and a magic official? Or would you also have dealt with him, with a similar vita, if he had been, say, an entrepreneur, a conductor, or a civil servant?

I have to admit that I would never have had the necessary patience to write a 500 page biography of a department head. I have spent seven years working on this book. Having said that, you do not only want to entertain your audience, but yourself as well. Besides, I believe that the enthusiasm you feel during your work will transfer itself onto others. You cannot create this artifically or by simply claiming it. It needs to be authentic. For me, it has been an adventurous ride, and that‘s what I want it to be for my readers, too.

What were your first steps into researching Schreiber’s life?

My first visit was with Michael Holderried, who unlocked his barn for me where all the wonderful original Kalanag illusions are stored. This warmed my reporter’s heart. I love this kind of research that leads into barns and attics, and Michael was a wonderful first guide into the Kalanag kingdom. Then came Uwe Schenk and Michael Sondermeyer with the Kalanag estate kept in their Stiftung Zauberkunst [German Magic Arts Foundation], then Wittus Witt with his extensive magical knowledge. I was also in close contact with Richard Hatch and Bernd Heller, whose early research on Kalanag had lead the way. Further precious support on Kalanag’s doings in Austria and Switzerland came from Magic Christian in Vienna and Rico Leitner in Zurich. As an outsider, I have received a level of help and generosity from the magic community that is truly without match.

You have started early to track down contemporary witnesses of Kalanag, like dancers from his Revue. Were you successful?

That was actually the toughest part of my research. But as a veteran reporter, I have some practice in tracking down people, and again I had a lot of support from magic circles to get in touch with them. My talks with former employees and with other witnesses like David Berglas, Paul Potassy and Siegfried are among my most precious experiences during this project. Of special importance were my encounters with Kalanag’s two daughters, half-sisters both named Brigitte [!]. That’s why I never let up. I would literally walk to the end of the world in order to speak to interesting people!

Please tell me more about those daughters with the same first name!

I‘m likely the only person who has met both of them. These encounters are among the most touching experiences I have had during my entire research. The older Brigitte was already in her nineties when I met her, but what a lively and special woman! I tracked down the younger Brigitte shortly before the end, even though I had been told time and again that she had passed long ago. Which goes to show that you should never give up! I’m narrating both meetings extensively in the book.

Kalanags wife and show partner Gloria de Vos with their daughter, Brigitte
(Photo: Archiv Stiftung Zauberkunst)

Amazing… Do you also happen to have any news on the missing Nazi Gold and the role Schreiber played in it?

Had I found the Nazi Gold, I would be speaking to you from my estate on the Seychelles or at least from the Philippines, like good old Paul Potassy, who produced some gold coins from his mouth during our Skype talks. But in fact, after years of research, I have discovered detailled information about Kalanag’s accounts and even about the mysterious keys Gloria had found after his death, which I had initially considered mere concoction by Punx. I lay open all these information in the book. Treasure hunters to-be may use them as a map and take it from there.

Is there a guiding theme in your biography, maybe a sentence that best describes, in your opinion, Helmut Schreiber’s many deceptions as a man and a magician?

„Simsalabim – Here I am again!“ That’s the magic formula by which Kalanag had reinvented himself and his life. The „Simsalabim,“ which he took from Dante, is a part of it as well as the „Here I am again!“ He was a tumbler, a comeback kid, and a careerist. From the very beginning I was intrigued by the question how Helmut Schreiber-Kalanag had used his talent as a magician in his real life. I find the German term „Täuschungskünstler“ [lit. deception artist] very fitting. The magician Kalanag has deceived his audience on stage–in civil life, Helmut Schreiber the man has deceived the Allies, the Nazis and those closest to him, his friends and family. And he did it so cleverly that most of them, but not all, were willingly and happily deceived. Now that is the true art of magic!

Helmut Schreiber and his wife paying a visit to Adolf Hitler in his mountain retreat, the Obersalzberg
(Photo: National Archives at College Park, Maryland / photo by Heinrich Hoffmann)

Your book is published by Penguin Random House and targeted to a broad audience. Which appetizers do you have in store for the magic community?

There are insights into his magic notebooks (also within the photo section), backstage views and a lot more. I was able to virtually draw everything out of his estate. I also show how this boy from Swabia has managed to build such an impressive global career. There’s a lot you can learn from that, even today, good or bad. Another thrilling story is the magicians‘ duel. For the first time I narrate in detail the acrimonious feud between Kalanag and Marvelli, which was carried out in the Third Reich and afterwards with all means you could imagine.

Another dark chapter… So what’s your biggest discovery in the life of Kalanag?

His personality. Helmut Schreiber the man had completely vanished behind Kalanag the magician, with all his brisk patter and his breath-taking speed magic. I am convinced that he wanted it that way. He himself, his character and his most inner self were meant to remain secret. And yet I have gotten very close to him, mainly through the conversations with his two daughters.

This book isn’t a novel, but a true story. For a novel, Kalanag’s life would have been too elusive to be believed. (M.H., page 420)

So according to your research, how much truth or illusion is included in Schreiber’s own autobiographical writings?

Kalanag has taken a handful of truths and a big can of fiction and has mixed them well. At first, I didn’t believe any of his writings, then I started digging for proof and checking his stories for plausibility. I’m showing in the book how he purposefully stylized himself, following the literary tradition of Robert-Houdin and other famous predecessors. As is the custom for any decent magician, Kalanag’s memoirs are part of a grand illusion.

Always on center stage: Kalanag with his Mystery Girls
(Photo: Archiv Stiftung Zauberkunst)

Have you had any touchpoints with magic before your project? If so, has your view on magic changed through your book?

As a teenager I had read a few magic books and had owned a magic kit. I’m reasonably proud that I managed to teach myself the front and back palm back then. But for me, those were only tricks. I did not have a feeling for the art. Today, I’m lacking the manipulative skills, but after seven years with Kalanag and many interesting encounters with magicians, I have gained enormous respect and appreciation for the art of magic, her traditions and values. I think this is shining through in my book, which is not only telling about the „Great Kalanag“, but also about the fascination of the magical arts.

Final question: Is an English edition of your book already in the making or an option?

Currently, my publisher Penguin Random House is offering the global rights for the book. I feel that the thrilling story of Kalanag the magician and his times is not only of interest for a German audience. Kalanag has worked his magic before Hitler, and then he has literally conquered the world. It‘s a story full of achievements and setbacks, a story about truth, lies and treason and about the fact that all of us are sometimes willing to be deceived. Kalanag is the stuff Hollywood is made of.

Thank you very much for this talk, Malte, and best of luck with your book!


(German interview and translation into English: Jan Isenbart)

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No, Helmut Schreiber did not lie. He was much too clever to do so. He pretended, deluded, suggested, chatted away, manipulated, and twisted the facts until you came to a different conclusion on your very own. (…) For Helmut Schreiber the magician, the world was anything that it could be. Truth had many facets; after all, everything was just a matter of perspective, wasn’t it? Only those tell lies who commit themselves to something. (M.H., page 44)

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Here’s a link to Malte Herwigs Website (in English and German). To find him on Twitter und Instagram (in German), look for @malteherwig.

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Malte’s YouTube trailer for his book:

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From the Penguin Random House press release:

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