GHOSTS & THE DEAD MAN
By Victor Beauregard
Berlin--At his death on December 30, 1995, Heiner
Müller was widely considered Germany's foremost dramatist. Be that
as it may, he spent most of his last decade and a half talking--talking
about history, politics, his occasional directing, and, often, the "major"
play he wanted to write about Hitler and Stalin when time permitted.
According to Berliner Ensemble dramaturg Holger Teschke, this text was
never completed, notwithstanding the heralded recent publication and
double premiere (in Bochum and Berlin) of Germania 3: Ghosts at
the Dead Man. Teschke says that Germania 3--which lacks
the unified tone of Müller's other Teutonic collage works--is really
a compilation of material from which the author intended to construct
seven different plays, including the one on Hitler and Stalin. His decision
to publish the variegated scenes amounted to a hasty response last year
to the news that he was terminally ill.
How mordantly piquant, then, that two important German theaters should
have fought over the honor and box-office boon of presenting the premiere
of this supposedly great, integral, culminating opus. And how perfectly,
well, Müllerish that the respectable publisher of the book (Kiepenheuer
& Witsch) should now be defending the work's line-by-line integrity
in court--slapped with a restraining order barring future sales and
a demand for specific textual changes by the heirs to Bertolt Brecht,
the author Müller most revered (he quotes him without permission,
the heirs say) and whose theater he led at his death.*
It's a grave error to believe that the dead are really dead, Müller
enjoyed saying. For one thing, they vastly outnumber the living and
thereby dominate history. For another, they colonize our thoughts, coercing,
controlling, and luring us into the historical vortices that doomed
them. The only possible resistance is to transform monologue into dialogue,
as he tried to do in his plays, forcing ghostly potentates into the
light where they can be seen and challenged. In Germania 3,
this applies not only to Hitler and Stalin--whose linked ideological
obsessions and mass murders set the premises for the contemporary world,
Müller thought--but also to a potpourri of other figures from the
GDR, the Third Reich, Croatia, Nibelung myth, Kleist, Kafka, and more.
"What's a ghost? Unfinished business,"wrote Salman Rushdie in Satanic
Verses; presumably, in using this quote in the program at the Schauspielhaus
Bochum, the dramaturg didn't intend to reflect unflatteringly on Leander
Haussmann's production. "Do it lightly," was Müller's parting comment
about the play to Haussmann. The latter's response: a doleful, four-hour,
concrete bunker of an evening in which deadly literalism conspires with
self-seriousness to immobilize spectators' mental faculties. Unfinished
Haussmann seems to have been guided by a principle of plodding fidelity
to text not only rare in Germany but also inconsistent with all Müller's
theoretical statements about the theater. This author didn't want directorial
slaves but rather dialectical conversation partners who understood that
trying to freeze a text is like trying to step into the same river twice.
It's also redundant: as in the Stalin monologue for which Haussmann
finds a Russian-speaking Stalin look-alike, gives him bloody hands and
spooky backlight, and has others cower before him. And invariably distracting:
as in the numerous scenes in which the director uses technical tricks
to see how close he can come to making impossible stage directions (a
Müller specialty) possible.
Why, when you can gorge visually on headless bodies, skeletons, and
innumerable other candied pleasures of sensationalism, should you bother
cracking your nut over the historical subtleties of, say, Nazi widows
begging a fleeing Croatian SS-man to kill them so they won't be raped
by "Asiatic" Russian soldiers? Yes, Müller wrote such gruesome
images, but the last choice he would have made as a director was simply
to reproduce them physically. Haussmann's single truly original contribution
was the addition of a malevolent and unfunny court jester who acts as
a colluding chorus and whose motley serves mostly to magnify the play's
motley of styles.
The jester's finest moment is also Haussmann's:
departing from the text, he grins and introduces three "Brecht widows"
by name (Helene Weigel, Elisabeth Hauptmann, Isot Kilian) in violation
of an agreement the theater made with the Brecht heirs to keep them
anonymous even in the program. When an actor arrives to rehearse a speech
from Galileo, the bearded women badger him patriarchally with
corrections and line readings until he runs off in distraction.
The fictional site of this anti-rehearsal, the Berliner Ensemble, is
the actual site of Martin Wuttke's Berlin premiere of Germania 3,
and one can imagine the backstage discussions of the Brecht-widows scene
there. In fact, the staging was more respectful than Haussmann's, with
anonymity preserved and the women dressed elegantly in ornate veils
and long-trained gowns, but Wuttke's restraint (with people he must
continue to work with, after all) ought not to eclipse his extraordinary
artistic courage in the production overall. With acute sensitivity to
the spirit rather than the letter of Müller's work, this thirty-seven-year-old
actor with no previous directing experience (one of the theater's three
new leaders) set aside fidelity and homage to begin with, concentrating
instead on carving a comprehensible, apprehensible core from an unwieldy
A raked stage, devoid of furniture, is split into pure black and white
halves, each used to frame elegantly crafted tableaux whose visual power
is heightened by the stark contrast of the other side. On this essentializing
background the action clips along at a pace so snappy that the show
ends after an hour and 40 minutes. With most plays, such a pace would
lighten and clarify, but with material as poetically and referentially
laden as Müller's it becomes, oddly enough, its own sort of burden.
Hell-bent on lightening up, the actors are nevertheless chained to the
gravity of what they must say, and the effort to carry both responsibilities
generates an infectious anxiety that follows them like a tin can.
Wuttke's concept might be described as unembarrassed reductiveness,
employing seemingly simple oppositional contrasts whenever possible,
as if to provide ground beneath the flurry of ideas and anxieties. The
theater building, for instance, is papered with black and white posters
reading NO ONE OR EVERYONE and THERE ISN'T ENOUGH FOR EVERYONE--slogans
from one of Hitler's monologues intended to distill the communist and
capitalist mythologies, and hence their justifications for murder. When
scenes align themselves clearly under this opposition, the emphasis
is helpful, illuminating. When they don't, the inevitable response is
suspicion and pique--as when Wuttke, apparently at a loss to fit several
scenes into his puzzle, simply seats actors in the theater's boxes to
shout overlapping, incomprehensible lines to each other. But the gains
far outweigh the losses.
Müller has a chance to come to words in Berlin in ways he is deprived
of from the outset in Bochum. Internationally famous actor
Ekkehard Schall in a dinner jacket and handlebar moustache, for instance,
stands onstage for ten minutes before turning to speak about his nightly
angst over the "light sleep" of the dead. His words identify him as
Stalin only halfway through his monologue; hence, the audience listens
harder than was possible with the look-alike actor in Bochum,
possibly even speculating on connections with BE politics that would
have made Müller smile.
A similarly light hand is taken with other historical figures, also
to make room for the "content" of the current moment--as when one top-hatted
figure says to another, gazing about the BE, "the mausoleum of German
socialism," eliciting a long laugh from spectators. The figures are
supposed to be socialist heroes Ernst Thälmann and Walter Ulbricht,
on patrol as guards atop the Berlin Wall, but how many spectators, even
from the former GDR, would have sufficient knowledge of those figures
to savor the joke? Too few, thinks Wuttke, who leaves them generic in
a demonstration not only of good theatrical instincts but also of just
the sort of refreshing humor and honesty about self that will be needed
to save this troubled ensemble.
"Who knows?" I thought as the lights went down on Wuttke's shrewd production.
Maybe Müller-the-ghost will turn out to be more effective than
Müller-the-man at ferreting out ghosts among the living. He often
said that dictatorship, with all its attendant pressure of censorship
and whimsical power, offered better conditions for drama than democracy.
Lest we congratulate ourselves prematurely on those pressures disappearing
after 1989, we need only ponder the case of the Brecht heirs, who clearly
keep the home fires burning, and burning.