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Germany

Curtain threatens to close on legendary Berlin theater

One of Berlin's most famous theaters, the Theater am Kurfürstendamm, is facing closure after a new court ruling. The move continues a trend of dying theaters in the former West Berlin.

The Theater am Ku'damm, a theater in the heart of the old West Berlin that has played host to some of the most important names in German theater history, is facing imminent closure despite a long and arduous public campaign.

A Berlin state court confirmed this week that the owners of the "Ku'damm Karree" building on Berlin's most famous boulevard, the Kurfürstendamm, were within their rights to cancel the theater's rental contract without notice because manager Martin Woelffer, who has been in a legal battle with the property developers for years, had not paid service charges for the building.

Woelffer's lawyer Reiner Geulen filed an immediate appeal with a higher court and threatened that the theater would be "occupied" if the owners attempted to clear the building.

"We won't make way, even if the court officers came to change the locks," a theater spokeswoman told DW. "But we still hope it won't go that far."

"This was not a good day for my family, our audience, and Berlin culture," Woelffer said in a statement afterwards (the Woelffer family has operated the theater for three generations). He added that the theater's program had been planned until 2018, and he was "sure" that the performances would take place.

Deutschland Theater Schauspielerin Anna Thalbach Wie es euch gefällt (picture-alliance/dpa)

The theater is currently operating without a rental contract

Wearying process

In 2013 the theater had come to an agreement with the building's former owner, the Irish property developer Ballymore, that it would not have to pay rent until construction work on the redevelopment of the property began. But the court ruled that this deal did not cover the building's operating costs of around 28,000 euros a month ($31,000).

Geulen had argued that the theater had stopped these payments because the owners had not charged them correctly, an argument the court rejected.

The building's current owners, Munich-based developer Cells and a Russian businessman named Mikhail Opengeym, want a complete renovation of the entire block that will turn it into a new shopping mall and restaurant complex. The two Ku'damm stages, meanwhile, will be replaced by a single theater, built underground.

"The Ku'damm Karree ... will be reinvigorated and developed into an urban, mixed-use quarter," Cells CEO Norman Schaaf said. "Of course culture will contribute to increasing the attraction,  as will shopping, work and gastronomy. There will be a theater operating in the Ku'damm Karree in the future."

Damaging Berlin's cultural history

Prof. Max Reinhardt Theater-Regisseur (Bundesarchiv,Bild 102-10387/CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Max Reinhardt is among the celebrated directors to have worked at the Kudamm

But this is an outrage for Berlin, according to several local politicians, as well as the theater's many celebrity supporters. Florian Graf, head of the Christian Democratic Union faction of Berlin's state parliament, said the demolition of the theater would be "a 21st century cultural barbarity, that could have been avoided politically."

Speaking to the local "Tagesspiegel" newspaper, Graf blamed the "hesitant attitude" of Berlin's Mayor and Culture Minister Michael Müller, who, Graf said, could have sought dialogue with the investors and found a solution.

In June this year, the state parliament had voted to delay a resolution calling for the "safeguarding of the stages on Kurfürstendamm" until after last month's election, a move roundly blamed on Müller's center-left Social Democratic Party.

The Theater am Ku'damm was opened in 1921, and played host to theatrical luminaries like directors Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator and saw one of the first productions of the Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill musical "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" in 1932. Martin Woelffer's grandfather Hans took over the running of the theater in 1933, but eventually fell foul of Nazi repression in 1942, when the theater was put under state control.

Woelffer has been fighting a legal battle to keep the theater open since 2006 when the then-property owners, a subsidiary of Deutsche Bank, tried to cancel the rental contracts for the building.