HOTREVIEW.ORG - Hunter On-line Theater Review
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 business indeed.

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 mélange.

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.