One of the many highlights of our film trip to Germany was the morning we spent at the Berliner Ensemble. This is the theatre that Brecht founded in East Berlin in 1949, after the Second World War – it was the place where he staged legendary productions such as Mother Courage and her Children, with his wife, the actor Helene Weigel. And although Brecht was the chief director of the Berliner Ensemble until his death in 1956, it was actually Weigel who was its first artistic director, all the way until her death in 1971.
We went to the Berliner Ensemble to interview the actor, director, and playwright Manfred Karge, whose work has been enjoying a revival in the UK – his play The Conquest of the South Pole was on at the Arcola Theatre in London in April and May, while his Man to Man has been staged recently at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff and in Colchester. Manfred trained in the GDR, and he landed his first professional job as an actor at the Berliner Ensemble. He started on 1 September 1961, less than three weeks after construction work had begun on the Berlin Wall. Actors who had been working in East Berlin while living in the West were put under huge pressure to decide where their loyalties – and the future course of their lives – should lie. And East Berlin’s theatre managers had to work hard to fill the gaps in their ensembles if the new season was to go ahead, so new opportunities opened up for actors like Manfred, who had only just finished at acting school.
The room in which our interview with Manfred took place was full of memories for him, as it was Helene Weigel’s old office (see left). It overlooks the courtyard, and he told us how he used to hurry across the yard, being sure to look extra-busy in case Weigel was on the lookout. It was here that Weigel wrote many of the letters that now survive in different archives, giving us an insight into what it meant to manage the Berliner Ensemble in the 1950s and 1960s. And it’s clear that she had no easy task: in the early days, the Berliner Ensemble didn’t even have its own building, but had to share with the Deutsches Theater round the corner, fighting for access to rehearsal space and the workshops where the sets were built. It wasn’t until 1954 that the Berliner Ensemble moved into its own premises at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, the very theatre that had seen the world premiere of Brecht and Weill’s smash hit The Threepenny Opera in 1928. It was – and is – a listed building, with an ornate, baroque-style interior that contrasts with the clean, sharp lines and sparing, purposeful use of detail in Brecht’s own productions. One of his first actions on moving in was to instruct one of the technicians to paint a bold red cross through the Prussian eagle above the former royal box (below right).
Some of the problems that Weigel had to deal with will seem only too familiar to theatre practitioners today. The Berliner Ensemble faced budgetary cuts in the early 1950s, and in April 1952 she warned the authorities that she would have to plan the budget again from scratch, as the cuts had been so extensive. The official reading the letter was short on sympathy, scribbling at the bottom: ‘Hopefully the Berliner Ensemble will learn the lessons of the year 1951!’ The financial pressures continued in 1953, and Weigel was frankly unimpressed by the ‘paltry guidance’ offered by an accountant sent by the authorities (perhaps to ensure that those lessons were finally learned). The Ministry of Culture recorded Weigel’s complaints:
The accountant only offered [them] one day’s training each month. His suggestions regarding savings so far were:
- Save on pencils
- Don’t use metal bulldog clips – staple the files together instead
- Save on scrap paper
- Use dim lighting in the toilets
She considers the last suggestion to be misguided, and in any case she considers this guidance to be insufficient.
In addition, of course, Weigel had to steer the Berliner Ensemble through the cultural political minefield that was the early GDR. Whilst Brecht did have friends in prominent positions – including the first President of the GDR, Wilhelm Pieck – there were plenty of well-placed cultural politicians who were suspicious of him: suspicious of the fact that he had spent much of his exile in the United States, not in the Soviet Union, that he had never actually joined the Communist Party, and that he had taken a deliberately unheroic stance when he appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1948 (for some wonderful video footage of this, click here). Even his legendary productions at the Berliner Ensemble sparked controversy: Mother Courage was deemed too depressing, the demonstration scenes in The Mother (below right) took the excitement and pathos out of revolutionary events, and in 1953 Brecht complained that his stagings had hardly any resonance in the press any longer. Theatre students at the prestigious German Theatre Institute in Weimar were actively discouraged from going to see Brecht’s productions in Berlin. In this context, Weigel played a vital role – in 1951, for instance, she was the one who defended Brecht’s methods when they came under attack at a cultural policy conference on Formalism, a term increasingly used to cover art that did not conform to the regime’s preferred aesthetic of Socialist Realism. And she played the role to perfection, using her ‘ignorance’ of theatre theory to disarm Brecht’s opponents and take some of the heat out of the debate.
In the years after Brecht’s death, Weigel continued to demonstrate her skills as a tactician and as artistic director of the Berliner Ensemble, as well as its lead actor. As Manfred Karge began to branch out from acting into directing, he experienced the benefits of Weigel’s patronage and diplomacy at first hand. Together with his friend and collaborator Matthias Langhoff – the son of Wolfgang Langhoff, the former artistic director of the Deutsches Theater – he set about to stage Aeschylus’s play Seven against Thebes. The BE had decided in 1967 to stage the play as a contribution to the reception of classical drama in the GDR, but by autumn 1968, when Karge and Langhoff started work on the production, it had suddenly acquired a new, provocative set of resonances. By this time, Warsaw Pact troops had invaded Czechoslovakia and forced a halt to the Prague Spring, an attempt to create ‘socialism with a human face’. So Aeschylus’s depiction of the fraternal conflict between Eteocles and Polyneices, and Polyneices’ invasion of Thebes, suddenly suggested parallels with the conflict between Czechoslovakia and its ‘brother’, the Soviet Union. Rather than playing down the parallels, Karge and Langhoff actively exploited them, supplying the play with a new ending in which the chorus – the women of Thebes – denounces its earlier failure to speak out against injustice and oppression:
This is how I should have spoken when the enemy
With his horses and chariots, arms and battle-cries
Swore devastation and death upon the city…
Full of shame, I discover my own guilt
The lie became truth, I went along with it silently,
Nurtured the unlawful regime through silence
Until my silence turned against me.
Now I wish to talk, even if it causes distress
To banish the shadow that hangs over us
To search for the truth that lies buried
To demand the answer, whatever it may be.
When I showed this material to Manfred back in 2004, when we first met, he was astonished. He hadn’t remembered the text being so provocative, and he was amazed – and I suspect rather proud – to see how courageous he and his colleagues had been back then. When I interviewed him again in December 2014, he said he could hardly believe that they had written exactly what they wanted.
When news of Manfred Karge and Matthias Langhoff’s plans reached the Berliner Ensemble’s Party management and the authorities, they were shocked. Arno Hochmuth, the head of the Central Committee’s Culture Department, warned the Minister of Culture that the entire concept obviously amounted to a lecture on the need to unite socialism and ‘democracy’, adding an exclamation mark. According to the Berliner Ensemble’s chief director, Manfred Wekwerth, comrades in the theatre’s Party management had proved that the play’s ending and the production concept provided a platform for ‘oppositional behaviour’ on the part of the directors and Hilmar Thate, the actor playing Eteocles. By the time Wekwerth wrote this, the authorities had ordered a stop to rehearsals, and the theatre was divided on whether the production should go ahead.
It was at this point that Weigel came into her own, giving the two young directors her personal assurance that the production would go ahead. By exploiting her personal contacts, Weigel forged an alliance to counter the production’s opponents, including the theatre’s own Party management committee. She even courted the support of her longstanding acquaintance Alfred Kurella, who had been a key opponent of Brecht’s during aesthetic debates in the 1930s. Kurella was a member of the Politbüro’s Ideological Commission and was known for his aesthetically conservative views, so he was an unlikely and therefore ideal ally for the purposes of saving the production. I found a copy of a letter in the Berliner Ensemble archive from Weigel to Kurella’s wife, sending her the recipe for the lemon cake that Kurella had enjoyed so much, indicating that Weigel and Kurella had not only met during the crucial phase of negotiations over Seven against Thebes, but that Weigel had clearly used her culinary skills as well as her personal charm to win him over. She succeeded in convincing Kurella that Karge and Langhoff had been entirely misjudged. In fact, Kurella informed the Ministry that they were genuinely trying to adapt the play well and stage it correctly, and he even accused the regional Party authorities of deliberately misinterpreting the production’s political thrust. By sacrificing sections of the script, including the provocative ending, Weigel saved the production. Manfred is still full of admiration for her negotiating skills.
Looking back on theatre censorship now, Manfred emphasised that it wasn’t so much the explicit bans or attacks that posed the greatest difficulties. If you were feeling brave and were clever enough, he argued, then you could find a way round them (sometimes, at least). In his view, ‘what proved far more difficult were the many, many implicit bans, the ones that went unspoken’. He cited the example of his friend, the playwright Volker Braun, who found that a lot of his productions never went ahead.
It wasn’t that they were banned; it was that the director would suddenly be taken ill. The theatre would need renovating. Or it was being refurbished. And so on. […] It all happened beneath the surface. And then self-censorship would come into play too; people getting cold feet and backing off.
Even so, he pointed out that many plays did see the light of day, adding: ‘in spite of everything, I’ll come back to what I said at the start and repeat: it was a great time to be working in the theatre.’ It was easy to understand this view, sitting in Helene Weigel’s old office, with the plaster casts of the Berliner Ensemble’s great actors – and its founder Brecht – displayed on the wall.
After speaking to Manfred, we were left free to roam the public spaces of the theatre and to film the auditorium. With our work done, where better place to head than the Berliner Ensemble’s canteen – even if Weigel’s lemon cake was not, sadly, on the menu.
 Letter from Helene Weigel to the Staatliche Kommission für Kunstangelegenheiten (Haushalt), 4.4.1952, with handwritten note from the recipient. BArch DR 1/6098.
 ‘Kontrollbericht, 16.4.1953’, BArch DR 1/5864.
 Bertolt Brecht, journal note dated 4.3.1953, Große kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe, 30 vols, ed. by Werner Hecht, Jan Knopf, Werner Mittenzwei, Klaus-Detlef Müller and others (Berlin and Frankfurt am Main: Aufbau and Suhrkamp, 1988-2000), 27 (1995), p. 346.
 Laura Bradley, Brecht and Political Theatre: ‘The Mother’ on Stage (Oxford: Clarendon, 2006), p. 82; Hans Lauter (ed.), Der Kampf gegen den Formalismus in Kunst und Literatur, für eine fortschrittliche deutsche Kultur (East Berlin: Dietz, 1951), pp. 64-8.
 Aeschylus, Sieben gegen Theben, unpublished adaptation by Manfred Karge and Matthias Langhoff (1968, with amendments to 23.1.1969), pp. 28-9. Quoted in Laura Bradley, Cooperation and Conflict: GDR Theatre Censorship, 1961-1989 (Oxford: OUP, 2010), pp. 98-9.
 Arno Hochmuth to Klaus Gysi, 29.11.1968, BArch DY 30 IV A 2/2.024/74.
 Manfred Wekwerth to Paul Verner, 26.12.1968, BArch DY 30 IV A 2/2.024/74.
 Interview with Manfred Karge, 19.3.2004.
 Helene Weigel to Sonja Kurella, 25.2.1969, BEA file ‘HW Allg. Briefwechsel ’69’.
 ‘Ergänzung zur Notiz über Berliner Ensemble’, 21.3.1969, BArch DY 30 IV A 2/2.024/74.
 Interview with Manfred Karge, 19.3.2004.
 Interview with Manfred Karge, 6.12.2014.