BERLIN — On posters blanketing the German capital, a warning is emblazoned: “We give a face to the crisis.”
The visage is Nico Semsrott’s, ghost white save the shadow cast on his right cheek by the upturned hood of his black sweatshirt. He glowers. This is the face of a hoodlum — gazing out from placards advertising his campaign for the German Parliament. The election is next month.
But crisis? What crisis?
Semsrott is not campaigning in the United States, where emotions are red hot. This is Germany, where politics is seemingly untroubled. The chancellor, Angela Merkel, is poised to claim a fourth term, polls show. One poster for her center-right party, the Christian Democratic Union, features a young woman lying in the grass, sleeping. “Enjoy the summer now and make the right choice in the autumn,” the flyer counsels, suggesting that voters sleepwalk through the race.
But Semsrott would rather voters snicker than snooze. He is the leading candidate in Berlin for Die PARTEI — the Party for Labor, Rule of Law, Animal Protection, Promotion of Elites and Grassroots Democratic Initiative. More aptly, “The Party.” Founded in 2004 by the editors of the satire magazine Titanic, one of its members, Martin Sonneborn, sits in the European Parliament.
The motto of the satirical faction is “yes to politics, no to politics” — a contradiction that gets to the heart of Semsrott’s mission. He is a professional jokester with an earnest political objective. By luring non-voters to his joke party, he is trying to diminish the share of support captured by Alternative for Germany (AfD), a nationalist, anti-immigrant party that needs 5 percent of the vote to enter Parliament. AfD’s strategy is convincing voters, two years after a massive influx of refugees, that Germany is facing a crisis.
Semsrott uses humor to undermine this claim. He often works through comparison: “If you look at the numbers, it’s like you have 82 German baboons and then two other baboons come in. Those two would have to work really hard to Islamize German society.” Another contrast he likes is between “enlightenment” and “fanaticism.” A human being, he says, is defined by “experience, religion, political views, mental health.” But a “fanatic,” he argues, “looks at the same human being and says, ‘No, he’s a Muslim.’ ”
Drawing on the example of late-night American comedians such as Stephen Colbert and John Oliver, whose sets are also news sources and coping mechanisms for liberals in the era of President Trump, Semsrott’s approach suggests how comedy might be directed toward more specific and immediate political aims. It also challenges long-held assumptions about the severity of German culture.
His work is gaining attention but remains less firmly established than top late-night programming in the United States, where Semsrott spent a year in high school, in Mississippi, getting his first taste of American show business: halftime shows at high school football games. His party isn’t polling above 5 percent, so it doesn’t register in published surveys. But it got about 80,000 votes — .2 percent — in 2013, when it was on the ballot in five of 16 states. This year it’s on the ballot in all 16.
Semsrott attracts large crowds; he is performing in January in front of 2,000 people in the northern port city of Hamburg. But he began with an audience of one: his therapist.
The same dark humor he uses to lampoon the far-right party, and its dire predictions of Islamic takeover, he employs to ward off personal demons. The 31-year-old has long struggled with depression, an experience he said sharpened his sense of tragedy, which is the main motif of his routine.
“I do stand-up tragedy, not comedy,” said Semsrott, who grew up in Hamburg, where his parents worked as teachers. “Laughing distances you and gets you closer at the same time.”
Semsrott was born on March 11, 1986 — a curse, he explained in a performance this spring, as 1986 was the year of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Soviet Ukraine and March 11 the day of the 2011 disaster in Fukushima, Japan.
“I’m really eager to find out what else my life will bring,” he said, deadpan.
His training as a comedian began at Catholic school, he said. “I got my satirical education from professionals. Catholic ideas — that’s satire. Making something up and selling it is satire.”
He chafed at authority and struggled to connect with other people. He considered suicide, completing more than 100 hours of therapy between the age of 16 and 25, he said. “I’ve always just felt lonely — whether in my family or at school.”
He began college in Hamburg but dropped out after six weeks.
“The stage was my last option,” he said.
About a decade ago, he started going to poetry slams and simply describing his depression, finding that audiences were drawn to his blunt accounts of his own feelings. He now visits schools and mental clinics to prompt frank discussion of taboo topics, which he said is not customary for Germans.
“I think the Second World War is certainly one reason everything is so serious,” Semsrott said. “Every society has its dark spots, but maybe Germany more than others. There’s not much irony or play.”
Most commercially successful comedy, he lamented, is slapstick. A hub of this sort of entertainment, Theater am Kurfürstendamm, is one of the oldest and most popular private theaters in Berlin. Still, its communications director, Brigitta Valentin, said the theater struggles to be taken seriously — “not to get an audience but to be respected, because it’s not high culture. It’s entertainment. In Germany, there’s a split.”
The tradition in which Semsrott is rooted dates to the Weimar Republic of the early 20th century, when satirical cabaret wiggled loose from imperial censorship and took on political themes, said Peter Jelavich, a cultural and intellectual historian of Germany at Johns Hopkins University. After brutal suppression under the Nazis, political satire returned in the 1960s and 1970s.
Present debates reflect this anguished history, Jelavich said. A signal example is a provocative poem about Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that last year placed Jan Böhmermann, a television comedian, at the center of a debate over humor and free expression.
Some of Semsrott’s peers try to meld modern stand-up with more classic cabaret — but they have less bite than their American counterparts.
“There’s nothing in Germany that compares to the American late-night industry,” Jelavich said. “There’s also no reason to have it. The politicians are not as egregious and, right now, the stakes are not as high.”
That depends on one’s moral standards, Semsrott said, pointing to problems lurking below the surface, from short-term labor contracts to slapdash efforts to stem the refugee flow. But he isn’t spending much time addressing these problems. Campaigning, he said, might involve being shuttled around Berlin on a rickshaw.
Semsrott’s is a strange, partial faith in politics — in a way, illustrative of uncertain political currents, globally if not in Germany.
“Maybe it’s better Germany doesn’t have someone like [former White House press secretary] Sean Spicer from a political point of view, but wouldn’t it be funny if we did?” he said.
Luisa Beck and Alexandra Rojkov contributed to this report.