History has her own ways of creating, reshuffling, and reevaluating facts. In January 1964, Helmut Schreiber/Kalanag, who had passed on December 24th, 1963, was mourned, hailed, and fondly remembered on the cover of Genii magazine and within its pages (and rightfully so).
Fast forward 57 years: The latest issue of Genii reprints the same cover photo, but this time Kalanag is stamped with a blood-red Nazi swastika across his face. A 37-page story presents selected chapters and unmasking photographs in Nazi company from Malte Herwig‘s detailed Kalanag biography, which was published in German a few weeks ago.
The cover’s subline, “Hitler’s Magician,” feels somewhat ambiguous to me, though. On the one hand, it clearly describes what Kalanag strived for and how he wanted to be perceived at the time: as the Third Reich’s leading and undisputed magician and magic officer, who was on friendly, powerful terms with the Führer and his henchmen. On the other hand, it falsely suggests permanent, personal ties of Schreiber and Hitler, maybe even the status of a court jester or a gray eminence. Among others, the Führer had his deputy, his spokesperson, and his architect; he certainly never had ‘his” magician.
I feel that neither an “all black” nor an “all white” approach will do justice to the man who was both a great showman and a great egotist and opportunist in times of greatest turmoil. Malte Herwig, an Oxford-trained historian, appropriately avoided this ideological trap in his mostly descriptive, balanced, and heavily footnoted biography. Thus, a red swastika pin on Kalanag’s lapel may have been a better and more subtle cover choice.
Here is a lovely DIY illusion which I came across recently over at Magic Center Harri.* It cost me a mere 5 Euros, and I had some fun assembling the pieces (it only takes some cutting and glueing). When you turn the cardboard wheel on the right with your fingers, the right arm holding the top hat comes down on the rabbit, moves up again, and–poof!–the rabbit is gone.
Obviously, this trick is not precision-made from wood or metal, but with a slight bend here and there the cardboard mechanics work pretty accurately. This little illusion will make a nice display on my magic bookshelf. Oh, and I love the way the rabbit is looking up towards calamity!
*This post might be considered as advertising, but if so, it was unpaid and unsolicited. I bought the prop and enjoyed it, so for me this is news from the magic & art department and sort of a mini review.
As some of you may have noticed here, I’m a sucker for exploring the more subtle or hidden features of playing cards, especially of the Court cards. I have opened secret back doors on cards, have pierced pips of selected cards with the sword of a King, etc. This weekend I have finally gotten around to cut and glue together a new (?) form of prediction card. Have you ever noticed that both the Queen of Spades and the King of Hearts have their hands in perfect position to either hold a miniature playing card, an envelope or any other kind of prediction?
There are basically two ways of creating such extra cards: with our without an extra layer. Without is easier and slightly quicker to accomplish. That’s what I’ve done here. Simply take a small but sharp pair of scissors and cut the card around the two hands and arms (but not along the blue line that frames the image). Then cut out a matching mini prediction card (in my case the center pip of an Ace of Diamonds) and insert it between the hands, which you have to bend slightly upwards. The disadvantage of this method: You cannot put the card face down on the table because the cuts will be visible through the back. To avoid this, cut out the hands and arms you need from another spare card and glue them onto the Queen or King. But use glue only on the arms, so the hands are free to receive the prediction card.
To use this card in play, all you need is a sw***h and a f***e. You may even want to present the Queen of Spades as a wrong prediction first. Then toss it aside (and sw***h it), try again, fail again, and then come back to your original prediction and discover that this card is now holding another prediction, which of course then turns out to be correct. It’s a matter of taste whether you want to shove this prediction right into your spectator’s face or show it face down first. If it’s face down, you will have a double effect: first, the surprising appearance of this tiny prediction, and second, the correct prediction on the other side. In addition, you can use the corny joke first that you have correctly predicted the back design of the chosen card… Hey presto!
Just another thought. Have fun trying this or exploring it further!
Juan Luis Rubiales, who has been mentioned on this blog before as a fine caricaturist, is now turning his drafts into small busts to decorate your magic den or bookshelf. Some of the busts, like Juan Tamaríz, Eugene Burger or Harry Houdini look very adorable to me. Some may even have a little magic trick up their sleeves.
Bist du aufmerksamer als ein Hund? Schau genau hin, wie der junge Mentalist Timon Krause versucht, seinen Hund mit Fingerfertigkeit zu täuschen und zähle mit, wie oft du richtig liegst! Du wirst sicher staunen…
Young mentalist Timon Krause will try to fool his dog with sleight of hand with dog biscuits. Are you smarter than the dog? Then watch closely and count your hits and misses! You may be in for a surprise… (You don’t have to understand German to enjoy this test. Just keep watching, it’s short and it’s sweet!)
And here is an older experiment by Radalou. Try to remember the cards as quickly as you can and see some change! (Again, you don’t have to understand German to enjoy this test. Just keep watching.)
Und hier ein älteres Experiment von Radalou. Versuche dir die Karten möglichst schnell zu merken und staune über die Veränderungen!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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)
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)
Here’s a link to Malte Herwigs Website (in English and German). To find him on Twitter und Instagram (in German), look for @malteherwig.
I have mentioned fellow magician, science educator and “Curator of Wonder” Dr. Matt Pritchard here before. Featuring more than 130 interviews (as of this writing) with fascinating professionals from different fields, his Words on Wonder website remains a constant source of inspiration. But now he is also generously sharing a free ebook, Sparking Wonder, which is full of clever DIY science tricks for teachers and magicians alike, plus some notes on presenting them. It has 94 pages, and I enjoyed it a lot! Incidentally, the book contains a selfmade version of the optical arrow illusion I recently described here. The wonders of wonder…
Looking forward to Malte’s book, which will be published in German on March 22! No word out yet about a possible English version.
Am 22. März 2021 strahlt Das Erste zu später Stunde (23:35 Uhr) eine 45-minütige Dokumentation über Helmut Schreiber-Kalanag aus. „Verzaubert und verdrängt – die Karriere des Magiers Kalanag“ ist ein Film von Oliver Schwehm (Lunabeach TV und Media GmbH) im Auftrag des SWR. Zu Wort kommen darin neben Malte Herwig auch der Filmhistoriker und Autor Rolf Aurich sowie Liselotte Littobarski, die ehemalige Sekretärin Kalanags. Sprecher ist der Schauspieler Ben Becker. Nach der Ausstrahlung wird die Dokumentation ein Jahr lang in der ARD Mediathek abrufbar sein.
Let’s be very clear from the beginning: Gender inequality obviously is and remains a big challenge, both in business and other areas of life. But do we really need “a set of gender and race-neutral playing cards, … a neutral alternative and a ranking which is accepted around the world … so everyone can feel comfortable while playing cards,” as promoted by this determined young lady who was brought to my attention via the Genii Forum?
So she proposes to kick out all the white supremacist unequal Jacks, Queens, and Kings and replace them with this neutral trinity of Gold, Silver, and Bronze:
Apart from the rather ugly design (in my totally biased old white magic fart opinion), which I would not want to see pass before my eyes every day when shuffling a deck, I wonder whether this suggestion is maybe a solution for a problem that does not really exist in this very specific context?
Besides, I always cringe when major challenges are poo-pood down into symbolic actions, catchy headlines, or marketable items. Which reminds me of the ulcer of “political correctness” in the late 80s/early 90s, I believe, when it was considered super correct and fashionable in enlightened circles, for example, to stop calling small people “dwarfs” or “midgets” and promote them to “vertically challenged!” (I always thought of this as a cruel joke. Your mileage may vary.)
But okay, let’s pick up this challenge and take it one step further or two! Let’s not stop halfway to full equality, okay? So what about those white naked angels on bikes on the back of our beloved Bicycle card decks?! Let’s also call for yellow buddhas on rickshaws and other spiritual idols on [insert your favorite vehicles here]! And why actually place Tens over Nines or Gold over Silver? Which powerful underground group of supremacist rulers defines these kind of things for all of us?? For a fully equal, truly socialist deck of cards, all cards should be equal, if not identical! (Note: We magicians have actually owned and used these for a long time; they are called force decks.) Also, everyone should be a winner in every game. And get a deck for free, of course!
Addendum: Genii Forum user Jackpot has identified the perfect all-neutral playing cards: double blanks! So let’s play! (Side note: It always cracks me up that these come in Blue Tuck Standard Bicycle card cases – why?!)
Addendum II: As mentioned by Richard Hatch, there is another funding project going on right now for “Queeng Playing Cards” with “multi-ethnic face cards & jokers” displaying men and women in equal numbers: Princess and Prince (P), Duchess and Duke (D), and two Monarchs (M), one female, one male: