Just what makes Berlin theater so unique? | Scene in Berlin | DW | 18.02.2013
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Scene in Berlin

Just what makes Berlin theater so unique?

Berlin theater is a hard thing to love - it's pretentious, abstruse, cerebral and elitist. But on a good night, it's also unique, iconoclastic, bizarre, and compelling, says DW's Ben Knight.

Volksbühne, Berlin. Vorstellung Murmel Murmel, Regie Herbert Fritsch Copyright: Thomas Aurin Juni, 2012

Volksbühne Murmel Murmel

People who like Berlin theater knew what "Inglourious Basterds" was getting at even before Quentin Tarantino fell in love with a burlesque dancer and spent a fateful summer in the city. That's because we'd seen Martin Wuttke, the guy who played a demented Hitler in Tarantino's WWII caper, perform the same role in the Berliner Ensemble's revered production of Bertolt Brecht's own hilarious iconoclastic Nazi satire "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui."

That show, premiered in 1995 and since staged over 500 times, is still performed and still features the scrawny, wiry, unfeasibly flexible Wuttke, and last time I saw it, the bit where he pretends to be a dog - blood-red tongue lolling out of his mouth - is still horrifying. If you liked Tarantino's movie, you can think of this production as the back-story to that parallel-universe version of Hitler.

Martin Wuttke in the Berliner Ensemble's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Martin Wuttke's astonishing portrayal of Hitler, pre-Tarantino

German theater is a weird thing to love. I know that. If you mention it to people, they sometimes look at you as if you're a pervert. "Wait," they say, grimacing a little. "You mean the naked people shouting and hitting each other with dead pigs, or rolling around in gallons of fake blood? You like those people killing babies and breaking out into inappropriate songs against a video-projected backdrop of a decaying sheep's head? That's what you like?"

But there you go, that happens to be why I moved to Berlin about 12 years ago. I loved the iconoclasm and the way it was unshackled by the po-faced, fourth-wall trappings of the Anglo-American tradition. I can't help it. I was an over-intellectual post-grad student who liked to see Shakespeare and Ibsen and Tennessee Williams performed with a few more rotting farm animals.

Navigating the fortress

Despite all the creative-types who supposedly live here, Berlin's unique theater landscape, one of the richest in Europe, remains a forbidding fortress of cerebral, elitist pleasures to most. I think that's a shame. Apart from anything else, the prejudice throws a blanket over Berlin's 50 or so working theaters and close to 1,000 new live shows a year.

Even if you reduce Berlin's theatrical offering to the four big institutions that enjoy an international reputation - the Berliner Ensemble, the Deutsches Theater, the Schaubühne, and the Volksbühne -, you're in for four very different theatrical experiences, catering to four different types of audience, and led by four very different Intendants ("artistic director" is the closest English translation for this word, but that does not express the monarchical hold these men have over every detail of their house and its overarching aesthetic).

As a handy guide, here are my bite-size caricatures of the current incarnation of each of these theaters: the Berliner Ensemble (now very different from the house that produced Wuttke's Ui) is for tourists and school classes, putting on reading-list German classics in traditional, non-flashy, Brechtian style.

The Deutsches Theater is for the highly-educated, liberal bourgeoisie, who like their classics mildly modernized (perhaps with an anachronistic, non-committal costume choice), but within the framework of a clear, unified intellectual interpretation. The Schaubühne, meanwhile, is for the politically-aware mid-20s to mid-30s German student, someone who likes Shakespeare to be treated with rock 'n' roll irreverence as if he were a tyro dramatist to be altered at will.

Finally, the Volksbühne is basically a haven for embittered East German intellectuals who despise anything connected with a) pre- or post-GDR Germany, b) the USA and the West in general, and c) traditional Anglo-American theater. People who go to the Volksbühne love to see classics of world literature torturously dismantled over five hours without an interval and re-built with scorn and anti-capitalist disdain. That's my favourite one, obviously.

Spring Awakening, by Frank Wedekind, in Claus Peymann's Berliner Ensemble production .Foto: Claudia Esch-Kenkel +++(c) dpa - Report+++

Most people's idea of Berlin theater - middle-aged men masturbating

You'll notice that some demographics have been missed out here. It's true that this quartet of publicly-funded houses do not necessarily offer much to the hard-working masses that pay for them - the kind of people who feel like going out after a long week to, you know, be entertained. That is only broadly true, of course, but there's no doubt that most Berliners regard theater as an elitist pursuit for other people.

But that, for me, with that idealistic post-graduate still buried in me, is not the point. Even now, I feel a thrill when I go to a Volksbühne production and have my safe bourgeois preconceptions blown up. But if you don't fancy that (or at least five hours of that) and you're visiting Berlin, at least go see Martin Wuttke at the Berliner Ensemble and have your idea of what theater is invented anew.

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