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Culture

Bringing Bertolt Brecht's Spirit Back to Berlin

A touch of 1920s glamor will return to Berlin this summer when the Admiralspalast theater dusts off its marble columns and reopens its doors with a production of Bertolt Brecht's biggest hit.

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A "Threepenny Opera" cast

"The Threepenny Opera" is scheduled to have its opening night on August 11, three days before the anniversary of the death of the Marxist playwright who wrote it with composer Kurt Weill in 1928.

The musical comedy features Weill's most famous song, "The Ballad of Mack the Knife." But, if the tune is hummed by people who may never have heard of him or Brecht, for Germans it remains forever linked to the bohemian spirit of Berlin in the days of the Weimar Republic.

"We are on Brecht's turf," the producer of the play, Lukas Leuenberger, says simply.

A star-studded cast

He has hired Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, known to English audiences for his role in the Oscar-winning "Out of Africa," to direct the play. Brandauer has cast punk singer and first-time actor Campino, the frontman of the German band "Die Toten Hosen", in the lead role of the bandit Macheath.

Katrin Sass, who starred in the hit film "Goodbye, Lenin!" about an East German woman whose son hides the fall of the Berlin Wall from her, is to play Mrs. Peachum.

Theater expert Hans-Jürgen Drescher, head of the publishing house Suhrkamp, says the director and the cast will "give a new life to 'The Threepenny Opera'," which he agrees "forever belongs to Berlin and its Mitte district."

Social critique still applies

Bertolt Brecht

Writer Bertolt Brecht

Brecht was beginning to explore Marxist ideas when he wrote the script and it challenges conventional ideas of property, as well as conventional theater, and delivers a stinging critique of bourgeois society. The social comment, Drescher believes, can also apply to modern times.

Brecht lived and wrote on the Chausseestrasse just down the road from the Admiralspalast, which breathed life into the area for more than a hundred years before closing a decade ago.

The building sits on a spring and began life as a bath house in 1873, but in 1910 the "Admiralsgartenbadhaus" changed its name to the "Eispalast" and became a turn-of-the-century entertainment complex.

It kept the baths but added cafes, clubs and a chandelier-lit ice skating rink which doubled up as a ballroom at night. In 1922, the ice rink was turned into a theater with more than a thousand seats and the Admiralspalast's reputation as a hedonist haunt grew. By then its ornate facade also hid a casino, and, legend has it, a brothel.

Komponist Kurt Weill

Composer and "The Ballad of Mack The Knife" creator Kurt Weill

"This used to be a place of excessive partying," the new owner of the complex, businessman Falk Walter, told Berlin's Tageszeitung recently.

The newspaper remarked that the theater, which sits on the part of Friedrichstrasse that fell behind the Iron Curtain, was also a quirky measure of the political climate in Berlin.

In the Nazi era, Hitler's propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels ordered the decor be made still plusher and the main lodge with its pale blue curtains was known as the "Führer Loge." During communist times it was referred to as the "Politburo Loge."

Hedonist palace turns into Socialist stage

The theater escaped bombing in World War II and in 1946 it served as the stage for the forced merger of East Germany's Social Democratic and communist parties into the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.

At the time it was housing the Deutsche Oper while the war-time damage on the opera house was repaired.

Dichter, Dramatiker und Schriftsteller Bertolt Brecht vor dem Untersuchungsausscuss in Amerika

Brecht testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington in 1947

Brecht, a dedicated communist who fled Nazi Germany because of his opposition to the regime, had in the meanwhile returned from his exile in Hollywood to establish the flourishing Berliner Ensemble theatre around the corner.

The Admiralspalast survived for decades as a concert hall for musicals and operettas but finally ended up as cinema just before it was boarded up in 1997.

Walter bought it from the Berlin city authorities for one million euros ($1.2 million) and has said he is spending 13 million euros more to restore it to its former decadent glory.

The casino and the brothel belong to the past but the old Art Nouveau pools, which black and white photographs from the 1920s show dotted with women in swimsuits, will be restored.

Walter will also add an opulent cafe, a jazz club and a disco, that will be at home among the trendy shops and restaurants for which Friedrichstrasse has become known in its current capitalist incarnation.

"It is a new era for a place with more than a hundred years of history," he said.

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