Andrei Kiselev profiles the GDR’s most controversial playwright…
“It’s a privilege for an author to see the fall of three states during one lifetime. The Weimar Republic, the fascist state, and the GDR,” wrote Heiner Müller in his autobiography. He lived through the collapses of Weimar and the Nazis elsewhere, but experienced the GDR almost in its entirety in Berlin, unwirklicher Hauptstadt.
Heiner Müller was born in Eppendorf on 9 January 1929. He spent the pre-war years in Eppendorf, Bräunsdorf, and Waren where he was enlisted for Reichsarbeitsdienst in 1944. After the war he returned to Waren and later moved to Frankenberg where his father was appointed Bürgermeister. After his Abitur he worked at Landratsamt and as a library assistant.
Müller arrived in Berlin for the very first time shortly after the war, in a coal car. “My first Berlin image was the Anhalter Bahnhof, 1946. The old building was still there, parts of it.” He spent several days in Wilmersdorf and met the writer Müller-Osten, probably his first literary connection there. “Müller-Osten at his typewriter and the bombed-out Anhalter Bahnhof, that was Berlin.”
In these early Berlin days, apart from writing, Müller’s main activities were looking for money or work and adjusting to big city life: “In Saxony when we saw a girl we came up and flirted. And I did exactly that at Bahnhof Friedrichstraße. I chose the one I liked, but she said: “Mein Herr, you’re on the wrong track.” That was Berlin for me.”
Heiner Müller’s later move to Berlin was connected with two escapes: his father Kurt’s escape from the East to the West, and Heiner’s own escape from his girlfriend’s pregnancy. His father, an SED functionary, fled to avoid the growing pressure of the Soviets. When Müller found out his father was in Berlin he seized the opportunity: “So off I went, because I wanted to get to Berlin, among other things. I was done with Frankenberg, and that was reason enough.”
This time he came to stay. Kurt left for the West while Heiner chose the East. His escape was no success, though: bumping into his pregnant girlfriend at a railway station forced Müller to cut his single life in Berlin short. After a pre-arranged wedding ceremony in Kleinmachnow he moved into a furnished room in Pankow where his wife paid him occasional visits. As a Charité nurse she lived in a nurses’ residence and had many night shifts, which made their married life complicated. In 1953 they divorced, only to get married again half a year later.
Heiner Müller labeled his early life in Berlin as “nomadic” and “the time of preparation and waiting.” He had no money, no place to live, and no residence permit. He stayed with his school friend near Ostkreuz, a district where the notorious Gladow gang operated. “My first Berlin impression was the S-Bahn, especially the Ring, where one could take the same train through Berlin and around Berlin. The first thing that caught my eye: Leninallee, Zentralviehof, and Stalinallee stations in succession on the eastern side of the Ring, the ominous sequence.”
Local bars (Kneipe) served as the best source of information: “You get to know a city from the inside, not as a tourist. Kneipe is the opposite of tourism. At least in Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain, and Lichtenberg.” Those bars held the spirit of the old proletarian Berlin, and turning them into standardised controllable cafés was part of the SED policy to treat the proletariat and the youth as the enemies.
For Müller it was the time of gathering material for his future plays; a story told at Café Nord made it to Germania Tod in Berlin. Sometimes bars functioned as a sleeping area. At the Mitropa at Bahnhof Friedrichstraße it cost two beers to stay overnight, one for the evening and one for shift change.
Müller joined the SPD in 1946 and the Soviet-backed KPD/SPD merger automatically made him SED member. He was soon expelled for the lack of enthusiasm and non-payment of dues. The accelerated construction of socialism in the GDR and so-called New Course resulted in the uprising of the 17th June 1953. Müller experienced this uprising “as an observer” between Alexanderplatz and Potsdamer Platz, the main battlefield. His endorsement of the early GDR arose from his family’s antifascist background, and an anticommunist uprising in an allegedly communist state came as a surprise.
In the early fifties he started writing for East Berlin publications Sonntag and later neue deutsche literatur, and in 1954 he became a member of the Deutscher Schriftstellerverband, all the while coping with the feeling that he didn’t belong and regarding his journalistic endeavours mainly as a waste of time: “It was relatively well-paid. But the problem was, it troubled me a lot because I wanted to do something completely different. And this money making was time-consuming.”
Another legitimisation of the GDR for Müller was Brecht—Brecht sided with the GDR, which meant the system could be accepted and that the superiority of East German literature was confirmed: “On reflection, it was not about whether socialism could win in the GDR or not. Brecht was an example of being a communist and an artist.”
Müller’s fascination with Brecht meant the Berliner Ensemble (BE) was his ultimate goal, but his first attempt to work there was a failure. In 1958, after a short period as Junge Kunst editor, he was employed as dramaturge at Maxim-Gorki-Theater where his first major plays Die Korrektur and Der Lohndrücker premiered; adhering to the party line, they won him the Heinrich Mann Prize.
Müller’s first permanent dwelling was his second wife’s house in Lehnitz. He met Inge while working for Schriftstellerverband and credited her as coauthor of several plays since she was actively involved in gathering material. As his reputation grew, so did his controversial nature. Rehearsals of Die Umsiedlerin coincided with the Berlin Wall construction and its premiere in September 1961 caused a stir; the play was banned, everybody involved in the production was persecuted and self-criticism under Helene Weigel’s guidance didn’t help.
In the course of discussions in Schriftstellerverband reminiscent of a show trial Müller was condemned as counterrevolutionary and anticommunist. Another meeting later voted for his expulsion. Müller did not attend. He was told to be happy to live in a state where literature was so seriously taken and for two years was taboo. His plays Der Bau and Mauser were also banned, but Müller’s attitude was restrained:
“I regarded all that as material for my work, I myself was material. It’s a mistake to think I was a political author.” Despite the deterioration of his relationship with the state, Müller did not consider leaving: “For a playwright, a dictatorship is certainly more colourful than a democracy. Staying in the GDR meant staying amidst material, in the first place.”
When Ruth Berghaus became Intendantin at the Berliner Ensemble she planned to extend the repertoire, and Heiner Müller’s Zement was staged. It was his rehabilitation in the GDR. Later she hired Müller as dramaturge, although this decision was difficult to push through. Following Berghaus’ disempowerment Müller joined the Volksbühne where he met his third wife Ginka Tscholakowa. His first major work at the Volksbühne was Die Schlacht, while Mauser, Germania Tod in Berlin, and Die Hamletmaschine premiered in the West.
Müller’s growing fame contributed to his formal recognition in the GDR. In 1984 he was admitted to the Academy of Arts and two years later awarded the National Prize, following the West German Georg Büchner Prize in 1985. He regarded it as a call for a ceasefire. For Müller it was not about privileges but about work: within a year he became the most performed playwright in the GDR—no functionary dared ban the National Prize recipient. When the authorities didn’t manage to ban his new play Wolokolamsker Chaussee in 1987, Müller realised the days of the GDR were numbered: “I knew that was the end. If they could no longer ban, that was all over.”
Müller didn’t believe in reforming the system, he thought it needed a fresh start. At the same time he was skeptical of reunification: “Lack of alternatives was a problem. The Poles could dream of a different Poland, for the GDR the only alternative was the Federal Republic.”
Müller was among the speakers at the Alexanderplatz demonstration on 4 November 1989. Reluctant to deliver a GDR obituary, Heiner Müller, one of the GDR’s top intellectuals, ended up reading out someone else’s text assuming that not many of the five hundred thousand demonstrators would give a fuck. But some did, all the more so as there were booing Stasi agents in the crowd. Müller spoke of the intellectuals’ privileges and impending social conflicts, the people wanted none of it. At the main event of the peaceful revolution Heiner Müller was a stranger.
While the fall of the Wall could stand for reunification, free travel, or proper jeans, depending on how you looked at it, for Heiner Müller it meant the sudden disappearance of the opponent; suddenly there was nobody to confront. The end of the GDR meant there was no more material.
Reflections on whether the Wende was in the name of democracy or shopping malls didn’t interest Müller, he concentrated on directing his own plays all over Europe and producing poetry. He was the last president of the GDR Academy of Arts until its merger with the western academy. Coping with the end of the GDR didn’t come easily: Müller felt he was parting with probably the last epoch of sincerity and true aesthetics in history, when people still had something to believe in, socialism or free trade, whatever.
After the end of the GDR involvement of many East German intellectuals with state security became common knowledge. In 1992 it was alleged that Heiner Müller worked as a Stasi IM. Müller admitted he had contacts but claimed he never wrote any reports. That said, he dismissed accusations of collaboration: “What is collaboration, anyway? I didn’t support the dissolution of the GDR or reunification. I didn’t see myself as a critic of the system, my plays were simply realist.”
Many people couldn’t endure the fact that the biggest German playwright at the time worked in the eastern totalitarianism, but for Müller this inner conflict didn’t exist. His plays were banned, but he didn’t intend to leave. He wasn’t part of the Prenzlauer Berg dissident scene. He could marry a foreign citizen. He could travel. His plays were staged in the West.
And, by the end, he surely had a feeling that he belonged. “I knew that in prison I wouldn’t be able to write a new play. And I wanted to write a lot of new plays, in that system, under those circumstances. I experienced it and I could describe it. In fifty years nobody will care whether I acted like some cunt, only whether I wrote like some cunt.” There was no moral dilemma as long as he could work. “My existence as an author was in question. For me to write was more important than morals.”
The Berliner Ensemble reopened in January 1993 with Heiner Müller joining the directorate along with Peter Zadek, Peter Palitzsch, Fritz Marquardt, and Matthias Langhoff. Müller believed with five directors the Ensemble was bound to stagnate and his approach included a readiness to sacrifice success for the sake of impact—meaning he’d rather see a production fail than compromise just to please an audience. His left-leaning remarks sounded strange in the new free-market reality: “We’re all interested in moving the theatre away from the market. Ours is a utopian concept of a different theatre.”
Müller’s Duell Traktor Fatzer production (three of his own plays plus Brecht’s Fatzer) in 1993 was not well received by critics and audiences. Joint administration proved a failure, the BE was losing its identity and needed a refresh. In 1994 Müller was diagnosed with cancer. While recovering after surgery he found himself amidst a fight for dominance in the Berliner Ensemble; following a confrontation with Peter Zadek, in June 1995 he became the venue’s sole artistic director.
He started rehearsals of Brecht’s Arturo Ui, which premiered to critical acclaim. The new repertoire included Müller’s new play Germania 3 and, most surprisingly, Philoktet. Müller was unable to direct because of his deteriorating health, and the production was declared a failure and cancelled after the second performance; it only got the green light because Müller feared it was his last chance to see it on stage.
Heiner Müller died in Berlin on 30 December 1995. From 2 to 9 January 1996 actors, staff, and friends read out extracts of Müller’s texts in the Berliner Ensemble foyer, and on the 16th January he was buried at Berlin’s Dorotheenstadt Cemetery.
In 2021 Heiner Müller got a street in Berlin Karlshorst named after him. As with Brecht, he hated the petty-bourgeois nationalism of a Kleinstadt and was attached to Berlin for that very reason: “Berlin isn’t actually a German city. In a Kleinstadt everything’s in order, neat and tidy and all. Berlin will never be like that. That’s why Berlin’s worth living in.”
On 14th December 1994 he wrote Fremder Blick: Abschied von Berlin, his most Berlin poem and the best poetry ever written on Berlin:
Graugelb die Wolken ziehn am Fenster hin
Weißgrau die Tauben scheißen auf Berlin
Texts & Resources
Heiner Müller, Krieg ohne Schlacht, Werke 9. Suhrkamp
Heiner Müller, Die Gedichte, Werke 1. Suhrkamp
Heiner Müller, Gespräche 3, Werke 12. Suhrkamp
Хайнер Мюллер, Цемент. Стихотворения. libra
Jan-Christoph Hauschild, Heiner Müller oder das Prinzip Zweifel. Eine Biographie. Aufbau Tb
David Barnett, A History of the Berliner Ensemble. Cambridge University Press