Karl Valentin & Liesl Karlstadt

No wonder they both had problems

She wanted him to notice her, he was wrapped up in his anxieties, and at a certain point the bubble of fun burst: the comedy duo Liesl Karlstadt and Karl Valentin were without doubt a dream couple in Munich's cultural history – but what about in real life? What does a couples therapist have to say about their tragi-comic relationship today? In conversation with Munich relationship counsellor Wieland Stolzenburg.

When Elisabeth Wellano (Valentin later gave her a stage name) and Karl Valentin met in the "Frankfurter Hof" (hotel) in 1911, she was 19 and he was 29. They performed as a duo for 26 years. Artistically they were equals. Despite this, Karlstadt remained in the background, allowing Valentinian fireworks to flare. It doesn't sound too idyllic.

As absurd as it seems: they both complemented each other perfectly. Karl Valentin is described as an egocentric individual who pocketed all the profits for himself. Self-centred partners also tend to be dominant – in this case it was Karl Valentin who gave Karlstadt her stage name and set the tone of their appearances. If the other person takes on a submissive role, it works well. Whether they are both happy is another matter.

Liesl Karlstadt was definitely unhappy. She and Valentin had an affair. Karlstadt fell in love. Valentin sent her a bottle of champagne at Christmas 1919 with the words: "And one day when we are two, we'll drink it as I make love to you". He did not divorce the mother of his two children for her, however. And she wasn't Valentin's only dalliance. What about that?

Valentin was either too cowardly or too comfortable to leave the nest he had built for himself. In any case, he did not have the same feelings for Karlstadt as she had for him. She apparently wanted a committed, exclusive relationship. If expectations and feeling are unequally divided, a crisis is on the cards. Especially because Valentin still took what he wanted from Karlstadt: sex. A more sensitive person would probably have resisted the affair to spare her feelings.

Karlstadt almost lost everything to the hysterical hypochondriac. With the patience of an angel, and always good-humoured, she ensured that Valentin, who suffered extreme stage fright, was able to perform at all. Her engagement to the chauffeur Josef Kolb was broken off. And when Valentin's "panopticum" of horror and nonsense went out of business, Karlstadt lost all the savings she had invested. In all those years she received neither recognition nor a "thank you" from Valentin. Did she not notice how badly he treated her?

The person who is worse affected emotionally by the separation is far more willing to compromise and to hang on in there. It's incredible what people will do for love. A lot of people subconsciously look for a partner by whose side they can slip back into a familiar role. That role usually follows us from childhood. We understand ourselves in this role, feel secure in it, "at home", no matter how destructive it is. We often repeat psychological wounds we have not processed in new relationships in the eternal hope that they will finally be healed. I see this phenomenon very often in my practice.

Karlstadt was the fifth of nine children born to an Italian baker. She came from a poor background. She spent a lot of her time looking after her brothers and sisters, and put her desire to appear on the stage on the back burner.

She was seemingly used to putting other people's needs first. At the same time, she undoubtedly hoped to get something back one day, in this case from Valentin. If you look to someone else to make you happy rather than to yourself, you become dependent on that person.

And Karl Valentin liked all the ways she cared for him.

Of course he enjoyed her admiration and solicitude. Who wouldn't? Let's not forget: it also takes someone who allows themselves to be used and sets no boundaries. Liesl Karlstadt willingly pushed her own needs aside and never managed to say "No".

When Karlstadt once again tried to detach herself professionally and privately, he wrote to her: "You must be sure of one thing. You are only the real Liesl Karlstadt when you are at my side." What was he trying to achieve?

This hidden threat was probably because he didn't want to lose his control and power over her. But perhaps he also wanted to test how much power he still had over her.

But at a certain point, Karlstadt was finally exhausted. She suffered a nervous breakdown, increasingly fell into a deep depression and was subsequently admitted repeatedly to the psychiatric clinic on the Nussbaumstrasse in Munich.

Looking after other people more than yourself often leads to depression in the long-term. Particularly if you have not received any appreciation for your sacrifice. Karlstadt no longer had the energy to play the role of the cheery, constantly upbeat person. At some stage, a person's true feelings can no longer be repressed.

On 6 April 1935, Liesl Karlstadt tried to take her own life by jumping into the Isar, but was pulled from the water alive by the Prinzregentenbrücke (bridge) …

An attempted suicide does not mean: "I no longer want to live," but rather: "I no longer want to live like this." Karlstadt had lost all joy in life by completely forgetting about and neglecting herself. We do not know whether Karl Valentin was aware of his responsibility in all of this. But we doubt it.

Following the suicide attempt, he wrote to her: "You will probably never understand not how dear you are to me, but how much you are a part of me. The world is completely empty without you. You showed me such great patience, why couldn't you do the same for yourself … Hold on! Hold on! Hold on while the storm rages on!"

It is difficult to say whether Valentin truly recognised and acknowledged everything that Karlstadt did for him. Or whether he was again gripped by the fear of losing this comfort. Egocentric types generally show no empathy for other people. They often promise the skies to prevent changes to their disadvantage. The letter at least shows that Valentin was also dependent on Liesl Karlstadt.

Mentally ill, Karlstadt ultimately continued to perform with Valentin . She once broke down in tears on stage. From 1939, Valentin turned to the actress Anne-Marie Fischer, who was 35 years younger. 

Basically, what Karl Valentin clearly loved most about women was what he got from them and what they triggered in him, rather than seeing and loving them as people. Karlstadt slowly dried up as a source of inspiration and could no longer cheer him up. His fresh, young stage partner clearly fulfilled his needs better.

In 1941, Karlstadt decided to take a relaxing holiday, and joined the mountain infantry in Tyrol where she was known as Gustav, and gained a mule-driving licence.

Distancing herself from her destructive relationship with Karl Valentin was an important step. In the end, the pain of suffering was so great that she took that step. Following a separation, anyone who has dedicated their life to their partner often asks themselves: how am I going to fill my life now? It's not about reinventing your personality, it's about rediscovering it. Perhaps the new "Gustav" identity helped Karlstadt to forget the old painful personality a little. Getting a mule to walk... it certainly served as a good diversion for her.

After the war, the pair performed together again. The momentum, the joy of performing, and the success of the earlier years had gone, however.

This was quite possibly down to the shift in the relationship between them. But I believe that it was primarily the war and its aftermath that had thoroughly dampened people's sense of humour and lust for life.

Karl Valentin died on 9th February 1948. Nine days before he died, he wrote a poem for Liesl Karlstadt: "Wer da je geliebt hat, wie ich dich / der trägt solche Liebe, innerlich / Als Geheimnis seiner tiefsten Seele / dass Sie ihm an keinem Orte fehle." (Anyone who has loved you as I do / carries their love hidden from view / As a secret of their deepest soul / Everywhere with them, making them whole). A late realisation?

Even if that were the case, in order for them to ever have been able to have a healthy partnership, they would both have had to put a huge amount of work and new ways of thinking into it, and especially into themselves.

Valentin's death came as a huge blow to Karlstadt. Yet she celebrated her greatest successes afterwards. Never again would she appear on stage as a man. And she never married.

She was certainly freer now, and in a position to step out of his shadow. But she had undoubtedly become cautious of men in every respect. She knew how it might end.


Wieland Stolzenburg is a psychologist, coach and author of several books. His special fields are relationships, separations, affairs, fear of commitment, jealousy and lovesickness.

Also interesting: Prepare to laugh! The Valentin-Karlstadt Museum in Munich’s Isartor is a quirky, original place.



Interview: Pauline Krätzig; Photos: Frank Stolle


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