Upstairs, Downstairs, Inside, Outside: Fritz Gareis Breaks the Third Wall but Leaves Social Hierarchies Intact

Fritz Gareis Jr.’s Bilderbogen des kleinen Lebens is an innovation, insofar as it seems to be the first regularly appearing continental European comic strip with speech balloons, but otherwise it isn’t particularly innovative in formal or aesthetic terms. As noted earlier, the strip always consisted of six discrete panels—three rows, two columns—from its very first appearance in Götz von Berlichingen to its final appearance under Gareis’s hand less than two years later.

There was, however, one exception. On 31 July 1925, Gareis depicts “Ein Hundstag bei Riebeisels” (a dog day at the Riebeisels’). You might not associate Vienna with extreme heat, but I’ve been in Vienna during a heat wave, and it is hot. I discovered, and drank a lot of, Almdudler, which is Austria’s national soft drink, and I can only describe it as ginger ale made with way better herbs (32 of them!) than ginger. Almdudler turns sixty years old in 2017; in other words, the poor Riebeisels didn’t have this option. So what did Austrians do in the heat, pre-Almdudler?

"A Dog Day at the Riebeisels'." Götz von Berlichingen 1925/07/31, p. 5.

“A Dog Day at the Riebeisels’.” Der Götz von Berlichingen 31 July 1925, p. 5. ANNO / Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

Well, this wasn’t a kids’ newspaper, so in the first panel a wilting Frau Riebeisel can say, “Most of all I’d like to run around naked”; to which her sweating husband replies, “Open everything up, so a breeze blows through.” In the next panel, they’ve both stripped down to their underwear, to their Czech housekeeper’s shock (“Jesus Maria,” she cries, hiding her face; she’s not that kind of Bohemian). “Oh, that’s pleasant,” exults Frau Riebeisel. Herr Riebeisel—as Gareis shows repeatedly throughout the series, he fills out his exquisitely tailored suits so well because he’s built like a Charles Atlas bobblehead—has other things on his mind: “You shameless thing, don’t you see those lackeys ogling you from across the way?” (As it happens, Frau Riebeisel never particularly minds being ogled; and her husband’s jealousy is predictable, but given his roving eyes, and hands, he’s in no position to talk.)

It’s in the centre row that things become interesting: reading the third panel by itself, as in all of the previous and subsequent strips, is difficult, as we see Frau Riebeisel holding on to the tablecloth with one hand (a water pitcher is about to pitch over) and the housekeeper with the other: “For God’s sake, hold on tight, Kati!” Kati’s response is partly unintelligible due to her Czech accent, but she is holding on to Herr Riebeisel’s lower half by his boxer shorts in a most unseemly manner, and she clearly isn’t confident that his underpants are substantial enough to keep him from plummeting to injury.

"A Dog Day at the Riebeisels'." Der Götz von Berlichingen 1925/07/31, p. 5 (detail).

“A Dog Day at the Riebeisels’.” Der Götz von Berlichingen 31 July 1925, p. 5 (detail). ANNO / Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

The Czech domestic—in the parlance of the time, the “Bohemian serving-girl” (das böhmische Dienstmädl)—was a cliché of Viennese urban life, and a stock comic character in novels and on the stage; before the dissolution of the Hapsburg Empire, half of Vienna’s residents came from the Imperial territories other than Austria, and Czechs were the largest minority in the city—Vienna was the second largest Czech city in Europe after Prague (“Viennese Melange”). While a few Czechs held influential positions, most of them were tradespeople and servants. Even after the Empire fell and Czechs in Austria became foreigners, the Austrian census of 1923 still counted 80,000 self-described Czechs in Vienna; of course, it was mainly the influential ones who had left (Bock). Particularly for a family as dedicated to keeping up middle-class appearances as the Riebeisels, employing a Czech would have been de rigeur—and with many of Vienna’s Czechs in reduced economic circumstances and political precarity, probably reasonably affordable.

In later, post-Gareis strips, the Riebiesels’ housekeeper is named Božena; it isn’t clear whether she’s the same character with poor continuity, or a different, identically-appearing woman with the same Czech accent. Given the Riebeisels’ own constant financial straits, either way it’s surprising how little turnover there is in their domestic help. There was one previous servant, however: in only their fourth appearance, on 23 November 1923, the still childless Riebeisels briefly engaged a hoyden from the Austrian countryside as their “new girl” in “Riebeisels haben ein neues Mädchen.”

"The Riebeisels have a New Girl." Der Götz von Berlichingen 1923/11/23, p. 4.

“The Riebeisels have a New Girl.” Der Götz von Berlichingen 23 Nov. 1923, p. 4. ANNO / Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

The moon-faced Johanna, whom Frau Riebeisel praises as “still unspoiled” (noch unverdorben), hails from picturesque Stinkbrunn (which seems to have been a real place name in the late 1700s, but here is likely fictional); she is graced with a thick rural accent and enormous hands that rival Popeye the Sailor’s. Her cooking is inedible, her attempts at cleaning destructive, and her small-town prudery cannot tolerate either the Riebeisels’ displays of affection or their taste in statuary. By the final panel, she has given her notice, and the Riebeisels are happy to see her go: “Adieu, you bumpkin!” Herr Riebeisel shouts after her. This seems to have been a lesson for them: from that point on, all of the family domestics—including the wet-nurse they briefly hire for their infants on 22 February 1924—appear to be Czechs…as are their boyfriends, who pop up regularly.

But back to our original story: where is Herr Riebeisel’s upper half? It’s in the fourth panel—for the only time in the entire series, the gutter between two panels is a physical object in the Riebeisels’ world: it’s the wall with the window in it, and Riebeisel is leaning precariously out the window, half-inside, half-outside, brandishing a seltzer bottle—favourite weapon of silent film comedies—at the voyeurs across the street. “You brazen monkeys, stop gawking over here so impudently, or I’ll!—” he shouts.

"A Dog Day at the Riebeisels'." Der Götz von Berlichingen 1925/07/31, p. 5 (detail).

“A Dog Day at the Riebeisels’.”Der Götz von Berlichingen 31 July 1925, p. 5 (detail). ANNO / Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

The neighbours, looking through a telescope and binoculars, are unintimidated, perhaps because a seltzer bottle isn’t much use in a street brawl. “How lovely!” says one; the other responds, “Enchanting!” Presumably, they’re gazing at Frau Riebeisel, and not at her surprisingly muscular husband. (Vienna was pretty cosmopolitan—read anything by Arthur Schnitzler, particularly Dream Story or La Ronde—but I don’t think Gareis is going there.) Below, a policeman calls, “Quiet up there!”

In the bottom panels, things return to standard practice, artistically. “You’d do better to arrest these impudent voyeurs,” Riebeisel says, dousing the gendarme with seltzer, because that’s obviously the brightest thing to do. “Calm down, darling!” calls his wife, as the still-staring neighbours exclaim, “Fabulous! How charming! I could eat her up!” The bedraggled policeman tells Riebeisel, “You’re coming with me!—”

In the final panel, however, this threat is averted by the Riebeisels’ son Hansl, who appears out of nowhere to disperse the spray from a wall fountain at the Riebeisels (including his sister Gretl, likewise appearing for the first time in this episode, and Kati the housekeeper) on one side, and at the lone policeman on the other. “We know how to cool off better!” he boasts.

"A Dog Day at the Riebeisels'."Der Götz von Berlichingen 1925/07/31, p. 5 (detail).

“A Dog Day at the Riebeisels’.”Der Götz von Berlichingen 31 July 1925, p. 5 (detail). ANNO / Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

How we got down to the street, or why, is unclear, particularly given that there’s an angry cop waiting down there; but it seems that he is held at bay by the stream of water. He can’t even finish saying, “In the name of the law!”—which seems a bit much to proclaim when you’re hauling in someone for spritzing you with soda water. At any rate, as far as the narrative is concerned, we seem to have reached a sufficiently happy ending, ambiguous as it is (and there are many episodes where Herr Riebeisel ends up in worse trouble, with order naturally restored by the beginning of the following week’s strip).

To my knowledge, there is no record of Fritz Gareis’s working methods. Did he write his own scripts? Did he write the script first, or work out his ideas visually and then write the dialogue? Did he have the idea to use the gutter between panels as a window, and then create the plot around that idea—which might explain its rather disjointed conclusion—or did he come up with the plot and, as he was drawing, realize that he could use the page in this way? Whatever the order of creation, this gag remains unique in the strip’s history.

Again, there is a lengthy article by Eckart Sackmann and Harald Havas about the Riebeisel strip in the 2009 volume of Sackmann’s Deutsche Comicforschung. Gareis’s entire run of Bilderbogen des kleinen Lebens is available in digitalized form at the website of the Austrian National Library/Österreichische Nationalbibliothek. And Almdudler, incidentally, is certified suitable for vegans.

 

Bibliography

Bock, Katrin “Die Tschechen in Wien.” Radio Prag/Radio Praha. 30 April 2002. http://www.radio.cz/de/rubrik/geschichte/die-tschechen-in-wien

Sackmann, Eckart, and Harald Havas. “Bilderbogen des kleinen Lebens: Familie Riebeisel.” Deutsche Comicforschung 2009. Hildesheim: Comicplus+ Verlag Sackmann und Hörndl, 2008. 51-61.

“Viennese Melange.” Demokratiezentrum Wien. April 2006. http://www.demokratiezentrum.org/en/knowledge/stations-a-z/viennese-melange.html

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