You’ll hardly ever run into a description of German New Wave wunderkind Klaus Nomi that doesn’t contain a reference to Weimar Germany. It would seem like a serious oversight not to mention Nomi’s embodiment of Weimar cabaret mannerisms, fitted for a space-age late-20th century. But the influence was far more than a stylistic borrowing. Nomi wasn’t just “the most German act ever,” as blogger Debris Slide writes; “Weimar Republic comes to Danceteria, except with spaceships” may also have been the most historically gay act in modern pop.
The Weimar Republic is well known as “a period of remarkable artistic energy,” writes Andrew Dickson at the British Library, “a roaring surge of modernist art, theatre, design, dance and film.” It was also a time when “the constraints of 19th-century manners and mores were torn down.” Hidden sexualities could emerge in public in Berlin, thanks a relaxed policing policy, as historian Robert Beachy shows in his book Gay Berlin. The fine arts and culture of Weimar flourished alongside the cabaret scene, whose camp showed up in everything from German Expressionist film to avant-garde opera.
“I think there probably had never been anything like this before,” Beachy tells NPR, “and there was no culture as open again until the 1970s.” Klaus Nomi arrived in the 70s with his cabaret space alien act to announce that the creative and personal freedoms of Weimar had returned, and he was their avatar, freely mixing opera and pop with astonishing facility, incorporating mime and vaudeville. “The influence of playwright and theatrical icon Bertolt Brecht would come to serve as a definitive touchstone” for Nomi’s career, writes Evan Zwisler at Flypaper.
“One of the ideas that Nomi incorporated into his own act was Verfremdungseffekt (or, ‘the distancing effect’)”—drawing heightened attention to the performance as performance, a significant feature of nearly all avant-garde theater in the early 20th century. Klaus Nomi was also the most Modernist act ever, at least in pop music. He would have fit in with a Dada cabaret revue of sixty years earlier. I’m not sure what it says about Berlin in the 70s that Nomi only truly found himself while onstage in New York. He moved to the city in 1972 after working as an usher in Berlin opera houses, where his astonishing soprano went unappreciated.
Nomi became “a quietly revolutionary part of the New York City art scene,” notes Zwisler, inspiring Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. He appeared on Saturday Night Live with David Bowie in 1979 and in the 1981 documentary Urgh! A Music War. Had AIDS not claimed his life in 1983, Nomi’s fame may have spread even farther and wider. As it stood, however, the year before his death, it had at least spread to his home country, where he was welcomed by TV host Thomas Gottschalk on the German program No Sowas!, performing with Kraftwerk, the biggest German pop cultural export to date.
See Nomi sing the aria from Camille Saint-Saens’ “Samson and Delilah.” Then, we have a rare treat: the very Caligari-like cabaret of Kraftwerk, at the height of their austere synth pop fame. Nomi returns to sing “Total Eclipse” from his first album. You can read an English translation of Nomi’s between-song interview with Gottschalk here. The host wraps up this segment by saying, “he is already a big name in America, and now we present him here in Germany.”