?From the great beyond into the present? ? an interview with Jo Lendle

Hanser publisher Jo Lendle talks about gentle adjustments of languages and marketing strategies.... more more

GoetheInstitute

15/03/2005

Fighting in the sandbox

A look at the Berlin theatre landscape by Peter Kümmel

Theatre director Christoph Schlingensief (homepage) is in a great mood. He was just invited to show his play "Kunst und Gemüse" (Art and Vegetables) at Berlin's Theatertreffen (Theatre Meeting), the self-congratulatory German theatre festival. Shortly, he'll be flying to the Reykjavik Arts Festival in Iceland where he'll build an animatograph, the first part of a walk-in artwork whose other components will be produced in China, Brazil and Namibia. The MoMA in New York is also interested in a co-operation.

Schlingensief says the theatre scene in Berlin reminds him of the German film culture in the 1990s: everything obsessive and Fassbinder-like was driven out, and management took over. Suddenly, everything had to 'count'. In Iceland, says Schlingensief, the opposite is the case: where the old and new worlds crash up against one another, the earth's plate is so thin that the spirits can still crawl out. Berlin prevents the spirits from getting out, says Schlingensief. He quotes Heiner Müller (short biography), who once said that the city is built on sand, and sand pulls everything down. Berlin sucks you dry. It demands the most, and then forgets it right away.

The German capital has recently given the impression, however, that the sand only conceals the remains of the Wall and an underworld where ghosts from the East and West scurry about. When discussing theatre personnel, the attributes 'East' or 'West' prefix all names. Talk is of East director Frank Castorf, West author Botho Strauß, or the East stage of the Deutsches Theatre.

The man personifying this climate is Thomas Flierl, Senator of Culture and representative of the PDS, the successor to the former East German communist party. Some say Flierl wants to reinstall the East's old boy network in the Berlin cultural scene. Others say he's just making up for injustices that occurred at the time of German unification.

Flierl appointed East German Michael Schindhelm General Director of the Opera Foundation. He got rid of West German Volker Hesse as Artistic Director of the East Berlin Gorki Theatre and replaced him with Armin Petras, who was born in the West, moved to the East and is now back in the West. He wanted to replace Bernd Wilms (West), the artistic director of the Deutsches Theater with the East author Christoph Hein, but failed. Instead of Hein, he actually wanted to get Dramatic Advisor and Dramatist Thomas Oberende, born in the East and now living in West German Bochum, but that didn't work either. In the end, Flierl had to accept the resolution of a 'search commission' and extend Wilms' contract against his will.

The extremely stubborn Cultural Senator has doggedly created the impression that he is not a politician. There is too much art to his politics, and too much calculation to his creativity. Flierl says: "I believe in reason, but the advantage I offer is that I am, to a large extent, identical with what I do. That's the only way I can carry on. I have neither a party mandate, nor a historic mission, nor some other obsession."

In reality, Flierl's sentences are longer. The Senator speaks like an erudite chained to his post. He controls his rhetoric to the point that there is absolutely no space for double meanings or misunderstandings. His sentences could not afford to be shorter, they need a huge turning radius so that their delicate East West load doesn't tip. Flierl presents himself as a man acting within 'structures' to defend art against those structures: "Everyone wants cultural managers at the top of cultural institutions, rather than creating conditions that would make it possible for artists to occupy those positions."

Flierl does have one mission. He wants people with "East West competence" to occupy the significant positions. What this phrase means becomes clear when he explains what appeals to him about Armin Petras: "He possesses cultural patterns and has inter-cultural translation skills that others don't. He has an 'in-between' biography, but this is a productive challenge for him, not an 'Eastification'. We have to draw people of this calibre to Berlin."

Why? To mediate. The experience of loss that the East has borne – the complete devaluation of biographies, knowledge, and past histories – will face the West one day, says Flierl. "The old East Berlin was abolished with great triumphant gestures by the subsidy culture of the West. Today we realise: The subsidy culture of the one side had a structure complementary to the other side."

Flierl's theatre policies are not those of a theatre aficionado. He prefers dramatists like Christoph Hein (more) and Thomas Oberender (homepage), who are both story tellers and analysts. He is less interested in colourful stage life than the wills and biographies behind it. He doesn't attach much importance to that bauble named clarity. He is something like a new publishing director determined to set a new style in his own edition. It might be called Edition Double Take.

When looking for a candidate, Flierl is in fact looking for himself, his twin, his double: "One set of my grandparents went to the West, the other to the East, that was what you might call the historical precondition of my existence. The various paths between my social democratic grandfather and my critical socialist father – this difference enriched me. It gave me an experience of the united Germany even though I was in East Germany. At the end of the 1980s, I was able to go to the West through my work. What did I do? I went to the wall and looked at the East."

East-West Competence?

Volker Hesse (West), artistic director of the Maxim Gorki Theatre (East) is outraged when one denies him these skills. He was staging plays at the Gorki in the months following the fall of the Wall, "and I saw how people in the canteen were practically going at each other's throats, saying to each other: You pig, you wrote the rehearsal protocol. In the end phase of the GDR at the Gorki Theatre, there was a remarkably sensitive spirit of resistance against the communist regime. But sadly, some people were also caught up in the system. History took place here. I was deeply disturbed by the dark and fatal sides of people that came to light, but also impressed by the qualities they showed."

Hesse experienced Berlin as a city of sand. He came with top references and sank in. Under his direction, the Theater am Neumarkt in Zürich had been named theatre of the year. With the play "Top Dogs" (by Urs Widmer), Hesse breathed new life into the genre of documentary theatre. He began in Berlin in 2001 when the gold rush was already over. "The hope that Berlin would bring the best and most experimental people together disappeared in the undergrowth of West Berlin corruption and East Berlin obstinacy. Today many journalists in Berlin are writing to survive. They have to yell pretty loud to be heard in all the noise. That creates a climate of discussion which I didn't know in Zürich. In addition, the debate about closings never reached a satisfactory end. This enormous pressure heightens the competition between theatres."

The fight for press, audience and political attention, for plays, actors and themes: it's an abrasive, "tainted" climate among the current artistic directors, says Senator Flierl. In this climate, says Volker Hesse, he had wanted to turn the Gorki Theatre into a "madhouse in the court of power", and he was successful. Flierl's under secretary and theatre adviser often said to Hesse: "Hesse, you must stay". Then Flierl told him he didn't want to extend his contract. Hesse said, "Flierl talks a lot about open discourse between politics and art but he doesn't practice it himself. He has no understanding of theatre. But he refuses to delegate." Hesse reflects that maybe, he should have been more aggressive. "I never participated in the Berlin stage fights. Peymann's scolding bores me. I'm too melancholic for all that."

At the moment, there's a festival going on at the Gorki Theatre on forty years of East Germany. Even Armin Petras is taking part. In the repertoire one finds this quote from him: "Utopia is always 1 idea which begins at the beginning. A country that is just 40, is full of it: full of beginnings, full of ruins, full of plans. Maybe the collapse of this country is the best thing it ever did, and with it, the disappearance and memory, the chance of trying everything again..." Petras can do that now, as Hesse's successor.

Claus Peymann (West), former head of the Burg Theatre in Vienna, now artistic director of the Berliner Ensemble (East), doesn't say anything about the theatre landscape in Berlin. He only talks about things that work well, in other words about his theatre. Peymann gave a press conference recently, at which he refused so resolutely to talk about cultural policy that this became the only point of discussion. After discretely pushing himself and his Berliner Ensemble (biggest audiences! the true national theatre!) into the spotlight, he got a bit feisty. Berlin? City of moneybags! The Deutsches Theater? Over-funded box of pralines! The Volksbühne? Not a theatre but an entertainment company!

About artistic directors who don't themselves produce, he says: "They speak the language of managers and journalists. Burgtheater, Deutsches Theater, Thalia Theater – everywhere managers; that's why these theatres are all the same. I belong to the portrait gallery of great theatre people who believe that a theatre has to be directed from the stage."

About Flierl, hardly a word. Just this: anyone who goes near the Berliner Ensemble is going to get their fingers burned. Peymann says his future will depend on the future Senator of Culture: the present one "is not to be reached" with recommendations from experts. When Peymann is in a good mood, he can slap the whole world; today he's in a good mood. Of all artistic directors in Berlin, Peymann has undergone the most complete transformation into a Personality, a performer of his own life's achievement. While elsewhere he opposed power, here in Berlin he is being allowed to bark, to sink in the sand. The papers don't take him seriously. He, the worldly one, has travelled one station too far.

Berlin, the city for which he is made, leaves him stranded in its cold centre. While working in Stuttgart, Bochum, Vienna, 18 of his productions were invited to the Theatertreffen in Berlin! But since Peymann has been working in Berlin, no more invitations.

Bernd Wilms (West), Peymann's closest neighbour is the artistic director of the Deutsches Theater (DT, East). Wilms sits within spitting distance of the Berliner Ensemble on Schiffbauer Damm; on whose desk there is no room for Flierl's East-West reforms. Wilms stands strong in the storm. One of his productions, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf", was invited to the Theatertreffen and now he together with four other directors - Barbara Frey, Dimiter Gottscheff, Michael Thalheimer and Jürgen Gosch – are striding confidently into the future. He could say a lot about the powers at play in Berlin, having headed the East Gorki Theater (East) and now the Deutsches Theater (East), but he doesn't want to. In the magazine Spiegel he wrote: "East Germany is gone, the reality is gone, the loss of reality is overwhelming. But the easiest condition to idealise is the one that cannot be tested against a reality."

Wilms is what Peymann would call a director manager. His theatre is doing well, with proven directors and top actors but there is no trace of the 'East West competence' that the Cultural Senator is looking for. The atmosphere between Peymann and Wilms is cool; their repertoires are too similar and they sometimes fight over actors. In the words of the Cultural Senator: "It doesn't make much sense for these stages to be in direct competition with each other and at the same time, for them to be driving up the cost to the public purse in their negotiations of financial conditions."

Wilms has managed his theatre very responsibly and the coolness with which he 'thinned down' the DT – the ensemble is being reduced from 67 to 40 – is that of a man at a desk. Wilms' desk is a bastion that symbolises well the transformation process in Berlin's theatre scene: the legs are jacked up as though they'd been designed for the eventuality of a flood. The artistic director Wolfgang Langhoff once sat at this desk, a short man. Langhoff, tired of endless attacks by the communist party, gave up in 1963. All of his successors, among them his son Thomas, bent over this desk, which is indeed, very low. Bernd Wilms had it raised by 10 centimetres. Berlin's theatre god is not a god of small things.

In West Berlin's Charlottenburg, on the Kurfürstendamm, one finds the Schaubühne under the direction of Thomas Ostermeier (more) for the last five years. An order of serious young people who swore an oath to theatrical fervour against a backdrop of naked concrete. That's how they started. And for the last five years, they've been fighting against cuts and the loss of relevance. But with Ostermeier's "Nora", they finally scored big; the production was an international success.

Ostermeier's Schaubühne has nothing to do with the good old barter system. The audience pays money and the players provide honest, naked skin, sweat and maybe some illuminating hysteria. And always: a moment when one sees the figures to their very core, an x-ray. If one were to direct this penetrating look at Berlin, what would one see? A paranoid East Cultural Senator, as the West press wrote?

"Why should Flierl be paranoid? I think the people who accuse him of thinking in terms of quotas are paranoid. The staging of the 'Flierl Case' was part of a culture war driven by papers from the East and the West. In their stubbornness and blindness, both sides of this war are identical – and very German."

Ostermeier supported the choice of Christoph Hein: "He would have been an interesting counterpart for us – over there, the theatre of a grumpy old poet, here that of young ones." The option of putting a West Theatre in the hands of an East Director in Berlin, has never been considered, says Ostermeier. "That shows that the East Berlin intelligentsia is still on the defensive. What happened was an attempt to highlight a couple lines of tradition in Flierl's own country. That's understandable and honourable."

Ostermeier, who grew up in a Bavarian (West) hut says, "in Flierl's own country" when referring to East Berlin. He also says: "My own biography is basically an mixed biography: I started at the Baracke of the Deutsches Theater (East) and was trained at the Ernst Busch theatre school (East). I belong to the first generation that could overcome this East-West thing."

He was 20 when he learned to be 15 and 30 when he understood what it means to be 20 – as Arthur Miller wrote in his autobiography "Timebends". Obviously Berliners experience their own city in such bends. Suddenly the city feels 16 or 25 years younger and builds the Wall again; only then, do they begin to understand their unity.

Of course, it's all about Ranking. Even the senator admits that. Why did he look for new heads for the Gorki and Deutsche Theatres? Because, in part at least, "these theatres serve an important function in the city but are not recognised to the same extent beyond."

The theatre that seems to occupy the most certain position in theatre history is the Volksbühne (East) on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz under Frank Castorf (East). It's also the one that is suffering the most from fatigue. It is bored by the myth that surrounds it, almost bitter about its uncontested significance in the world. The most famous theatre in Berlin doesn't want to do theatre any more: it holds the theatrical arts for permanent death masses and evening after evening, surrounds its corpses with poignant processions. But after the thousandth such ritual, the procession loses credibility.

And now what do we see? The Volksbühne recently had a premiere of Botho Strauß' "Groß und Klein", directed by the man of the house, Frank Castorf. Actually impossible: the amorist of the West theatre presented by the post-amorist of the East. It had been planned differently. Swiss Stefan Bachmann should have staged the play but the Volksbühne ensemble protects its house like an immune system gone awry: it rejects all "foreign forces". All directors who have worked there recently failed. Johan Simons delivered something piteous, Marthaler got sick – and Castorf had to take over. Bachmann gave up – and Castorf had to take over. It's said that the house argued over whether it was necessary to play this West author Strauß. So, the Wall hasn't fallen. But it's also said that the East Director put a lot into his staging of the West Author – so the Wall is being torn down every evening.

Carl Hegemann, Castorf's dramatic advisor and partner, is a man from the West who has a symbiotic relationship with his boss: "We develop our things independently of each other and then are shocked how well they fit together. I'm writing an article now about a new production that we haven't discussed yet. And as a rule, my articles correspond in a bizarre way with what he has in mind."

Hegemann says the old points of orientation have been turned on their heads. Where he lives, in Charlottenburg (West Berlin) is now the deepest East. The former East - Hackesche Höfe for example - has become totally Düsseldorfish, and that's where the East artist Castorf lives.

What does he think of Senator Flierl? Lots, says Hegemann. "Strangely, his failures engenders trust. Flierl, who is permanently risking failure, is much more sympathetic than his mayor, who doesn't seem to know what kind of a job he's doing."

Is Flier's campaign for "East-West competence" plausible? "In the East, there is still the trauma of conquest by the West. It will be strange if, suddenly, all the East German directors, with the exception of Castorf and one other, are gone and West Germans – some of them questionable choices who would never have gotten such a job in the West - occupy all those positions."

Hegemann says his own theatre, the Volksbühne, is in a strange dilemma: "There is the danger of choking on success. For example, if we're always doing guest performances, astounding intellectuals from all over the world. While in Berlin, we can't astound anyone any more. Our methods are established here. 'Living without belief' was our central theme five years ago and now the Gorki Theatre is doing a series on belief. These days, everything gets relegated to committees and they working on it."

Observers claim that the directors enjoy fighting among themselves and consider a hard head like Flierl, playing the catalyst, a nuisance. They can now pretend to do the "political theatre" that has disappeared from the stages, join the fight against the meaninglessness of the self and lament the predatory power of the free market – all with dramatic gestures and in their own self-interest.

But if this were the truth, it wouldn't be the complete truth. Why, we ask Thomas Ostermeier, is he so committed to theatre if he really believes people to be such problematic creatures, on whom such artistic exertions are probably wasted?

"I think it's good," says Ostermeier, "for the animal lurking in us to be represented again and again in art. One must look the animal in the eye in order to tame it." Then he says: "But also because it's just hot. Einar Schleef once said to me: Na, Thomas, it's boring back home, no? Private stuff sucks. That's why we do theatre!"

*

The article was originally published in German in Die Zeit, on 3 March, 2005.

Peter Kümmel is the theatre critic for Die Zeit.

Translation: nb.

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