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BArch Bild 183-85946-0003 / Christa Hochneder

Susan and Rebecca outside the Volksbühne.

Well, as Peter has already explained in his blog, our trip to Germany didn’t go exactly to plan. We had intended to take Peter to visit theatres in Berlin, Dresden and Bautzen, to see some of the places and meet some of the people that feature in my research. Unfortunately, illness meant that Peter wasn’t able to join us, and he’s been catching up on what he missed from the transcripts and translations of the interviews that we conducted in his absence. So this diary of the trip is as much for you, Peter, as for other readers. And to help you combat the frustration at having missed out, let me just say that Berlin can get very cold in December, and that freezing temperatures seem even chillier when you are standing shuffling from one foot to the other in a cemetery, waiting for that elusive perfect shot and the next opportunity to wrap your hands around a cup of hot coffee. I think that may have been the afternoon that our fantastic film assistant, Rebecca, asked why on earth I couldn’t have written about the GDR in summer…


Roter Salon at the Volksbühne.

Our first trip was to the Volksbühne (above), a very imposing theatre on Berlin’s Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, a square named after the German Spartacist leader who was murdered by right-wing paramilitaries in January 1919. We arrived just as the Volksbühne was celebrating its 100th anniversary, and were rather puzzled to find – a couple of days later – that a lorry had been parked outside the entrance. This being the Volksbühne, it was not just a lorry but an artistic installation: it turns out that the lorry contained debris from the house that the Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels had been born in. Other cities had refused to host the installation, but it seems typical of Berlin and of the Volksbühne that they would choose to do just that.

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Archive materials at the Volksbühne.

This is to get ahead of ourselves, though, as our purpose on that first day was to visit the archivist, Barbara Schultz, and to look at some of the materials that I had used during my research. We were lucky enough to be able to do this in the Red Salon (Roter Salon, above right), one of the Volksbühne’s studio venues, and I have to admit that it was a bit of a thrill to be on stage rather than in the audience, and to think of some of the great GDR performances that had been on there. There was the added excitement of the fact that the theatre was busy preparing for its next premiere, and there were rehearsals taking place throughout the building – so we caught snatches of songs and saw glimpses of weird and wonderful sights on our way up to the Red Salon. And once we were there, Frau Schultz brought out some great materials from the archives – wonderfully presented albums of publicity materials and newspaper reviews, and photographs, all relating to productions of Moritz Tassow – banned at the theatre in 1966 – and Leonce and Lena – which escaped a ban in 1978, despite a highly subversive staging. Frau Schultz shared some of her own memories of the GDR with us too; she recalled one time when she went on holiday with her parents, when the tour guide summoned all the Party members present to a Party meeting.

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Susan filming at the Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof.

After a quick lunch stop, we moved on to the Brecht cemetery on Chausseestraße, trying to make as much of the short daylight hours as we could (this may be going to be a noir film, but there are still limits). Already on this trip we were starting to count the bits of footage we’d missed – as we entered the cemetery, we saw a black-and-white cat playing with a mouse. Perhaps it was just as well: the cat-and-mouse cliché doesn’t capture the complexity of the censorship negotiations that interest us. We did get some wonderful shots of the gardeners who had arrived to sweep the piles of autumn leaves off the graves of Brecht and Weigel. They are in good company in the cemetery: many of the leading lights of East Berlin’s cultural establishment are buried there, such as the composers Hanns Eisler and Paul Dessau, the directors Erich Engel and Ruth Berghaus, and the writers Heiner Müller and Christa Wolf. Visitors to the cemetery had left vast numbers of pens on Christa Wolf’s grave, while Heiner Müller had attracted a more eclectic collection of gifts – a miniature bottle of whisky, a cigar, a couple of biros, and what looked suspiciously like a pomegranate. For me, the visit was an opportunity to think back to my first visit there nearly twenty years ago, when I had just read my first couple of Brecht plays but had no idea that Brecht or the GDR would become part of my professional life.

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Plaster cast of Brecht’s face on display at the Berliner Ensemble.

Visiting the cemetery was also an opportunity to recall some of the literature connected with it. Brecht was always keenly conscious of his relationship with readers not just in the present, but in the future after his death. In the dark days of exile, thinking ahead to posterity was an article of faith that the battle against Nazism would one day be won. In one poem, the speaker – a stylised version of Brecht – claims not to need an epitaph, only then to ask that if his readers need one for him, then it should record that he made suggestions, and they accepted them. Such an inscription, the speaker argues, would honour them all.[1] The modesty seems disingenuous, and although the poem expresses the desire for reciprocity between the speaker and his audience, it positions posterity very clearly as the junior partner. Heiner Müller was having none of this: his version of the poem opens with a relentless attack on his own authority as a writer: ‘But of me they will say He / Made Suggestions We / Did not accept them / Why should we’.[2] Yet even as he rejects Brecht’s ideas for an epitaph, Müller’s poem employs the fractured syntax and rhythms that are so characteristic of Brecht’s poetry, acknowledging and demonstrating what he has learned from Brecht. Other writers, such as the GDR singer and poet Wolf Biermann, have written about the cemetery itself; for Biermann, visiting the cemetery with his girlfriend was a reminder of ‘How close some dead people are to us, but / How dead some are to us who are still alive.’[3] In that sense, Brecht was still very much alive in the GDR.

Coming soon: Dramaturge Maik Hamburger and the Deutsches Theater.

[1] BFA 14: 191-2.

[2] Heiner Müller, ‘Aber von mir werden sie sagen’, in ‘O Chicago! O Widerspruch!’, ed. Leeder and Wizisla, 119; Heiner Müller, ‘But of me they will say’, in After Brecht: A Celebration, ed. Karen Leeder (Manchester: Carcanet, 2006), 80.

[3] Wolf Biermann, ‘Der Hugenottenfriedhof’, in Alle Lieder (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1991), pp. 215-16.

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