Bertie Alexander pays tribute to one of Berlin’s most venerable – and vibrant – theatres…
With its six limestone pillars, tall, narrow windows and somewhat loomy facade overlooking a section of green lawn, Berlin’s Volksbühne manages to be something of an eye-catcher on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, a square – or rather, a triangle in simple geometric terms – that practically vibrates with history and architecture.
Built between 1913 and 1914 on what was then called Bülowplatz, the theatre was a product of the ‘Frei Volksbühne’ (Free People’s Theatre), a workers’ movement that had been gathering pace since the early 1890s. Their slogan, ‘Die Kunst dem Volke’ (The Art Of The People) reflected their mission: to create a theatre that was not only affordable to the average Berlin worker, but would provide a significant channel for promoting political rights in Imperial Germany.
The original building was designed by Oskar Kaufmann, the architect of the Hebbel-Theatre (now HAU1) in Kreuzberg that had first opened its doors a few years earlier, in 1908. Eschewing the formal elegance of the baroque-style court theatres of the past, the Volksbühne was deliberately tailored to mirror the tastes and needs of a burgeoning working class and booming metropolis, with space in the auditorium for up to 2000 spectators.
The theatre was intended to be one of the first jigsaw pieces in a modernised (and modernist) city centre in previous decades had become part of the overcrowded – and unhealthy -Scheunenviertel, or Jewish quarter. The new designs were heavily promoted by the architect Hans Poelzig, designer of the Kino Babylon located over the street from the Volksbühne, which shares reflected the Kaufmann’s emphasis on light-coloured walls and strip windows.
Although the outbreak of the First World War during the Volksbühne’s inaugural year thwarted the new plans somewhat, Kaufmann’s design was a precursor to the ‘New Objectivity’ wave that was to soon engulf the literature, music and architecture of Weimar Germany, emphasising a practical and business-minded engagement with the world over the romanticism of the expressionists that had flourished towards the end of the 19th Century.
The theatre continued operating through the war under its first artistic director – the Austrian Max Reindhart. Reindhart had already made a name for himself as a director at the city’s Deutsches Theatre, which he had helmed since 1905. Entering the fray as arguments raged within the management about whether the theatre’s focus should be promoting the ideals of the proletariat (as per the original mandate), or simply theatrical excellence, he neatly side-stepped the debate by presenting a savvy mix of well-known classics (Goethe, Schiller) alongside politically provocative plays like those of Henrik Ibsen and rising star Gerhart Hauptmann.
Reinhardt also put on works by famous theatrical talents such as Ernst Lubitsch and Eduard von Winterstein; it was thanks largely to his astute programming that the number of Berliners registering as members of the Frei Volksbühne doubled throughout his tenure. Stepping down from his post in 1918 to return to his homeland (in the hope of fostering the same success there that he had amassed abroad), Reinhardt handed his role to actor and composer Friedrich Kayssler, who led the theatre until 1923, at which point theatre director Fritz Holl – trained by the court actor Otto König in Munich – stepped in.
In 1924 Holl hired the theatre practitioner Erwin Piscator to shape the theatre’s artistic output. Piscator was a member of the KPD (Germany’s fledgling Communist Party), and thereby marked a stark return to the theatre’s socialist roots. He immediately set about shaking up what had gradually become a relatively conservative programme since the departure of Reinhardt, insisting on producing only contemporary plays that he believed had direct relevance to Berlin and its residents, such as the work of the pacifist journalist and playwright Alfons Paquet and the social satires of Hans Jose Rehfisch.
Along with his friend Bertold Brecht, he rejected naturalistic and melodramatic conventions in favour of Epische Theatre, a more socio-political format which regularly ‘broke the fourth wall’ to purposefully remind the audience they were in a theatre. As critically popular as these avant-garde practices were during the Weimar years, the country’s flailing economy meant Berliners had less and less money for leisure activities like the theatre. Membership declined as inflation grew, and the theatre’s management board grew nervous of Piscator’s forthright politics.
In 1927, the board ruled that his production of Ehm Welks’s Gewitter über Gottland flagrantly breached their policy of non-partisanship. Piscator adapted the play’s focus on social revolution to bear directly upon Weimar Germany, citing as artistic justification Welks’s line from the manuscript, ‘Dieses Drama spielt nicht nur um 1400’ (‘This play is not only about the 1400s’). The production caused a charged public debate in regard to art and politics and Piscator was eventually forced to leave.
When the National Socialists came to power in the 1930s, Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz was renamed the Horst-Wessel-Platz, after the Nazi activist Horst Wudwig Wessel, who had been killed by members of the KPD in 1930s and subsequently heralded as a martyr by the Nazi Party. The Volksbühne was also renamed as the Theater am Horst-Wessel-Platz and fell under the jurisdiction of Joseph Goebbels’ ‘Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda’. Actors had to register to continue working, and every play had to pass the censors to ensure it reflected the ideals of the Third Reich.
The horrors of Nazi Germany affected the Volksbühne directly with the death one of their actors, Joachim Hottschalk. Hottschalk was a famous and much loved actor of both screen and stage, and his wife, Meta Wolff, was also a popular actress but – being Jewish – she was disallowed to continue working. In 1941, Meta and their 12 year old son Michael were informed that they were to be sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp, and Hottschalk himself was ordered to join German’s armed forces. The whole family committed suicide minutes before the Gestapo arrived at their house.
While it more or less survived the Nazi censorship, the Völksbuhne had worse luck with Allied bombs; by the end of the war it was reduced to rubble. Renovation began under the direction of painter and graphic artist Hans Richter in the 50s, who replaced the monumental curved front with the six new columns. The front of the roof was flattened, giving it the bulky urban presence it exudes today.
The most significant adaptations to the theatre, though, were the implementation of the Green and Red Salon, two separate venues within the theatre. In the postwar years, these salons become almost as famous within East Germany as the Volksbühne itself, hosting jazz bands, comedians and chanson singers.
Coming directly from running the Theaters am Schiffbauerdamm, the director Fritz Wisten successfully, if conservatively, led the Volksbühne from 1953 to 1961, picking up the Goethe Prize of Berlin during his tenure and the Patriotic Order of Merit in silver shortly after (a national award granted annually by the GDR for service to the state). Big-name directors such as Heiner Müller, Benno Besson, and Fritz Marquardt followed Wisten in navigating the theatre through the choppy waters of the GDR regime.
Besson was perhaps the most remarkable of these directors, staging annual festivals in which the actors performed in the foyer as well as on the stage, and introducing committed young directors such as Manfred Karge and Matthias Langhoff. In the late ’80s the Volksbühne stepped decisively out of line when it joined with other theatres and student activists in campaigning for the Berlin Wall to be brought down.
After the wall fell, the East-Berliner director Frank Castorf took over leadership of the theatre in the newly reunified Germany. At this point in his career, Castorf was already a highly regarded name in the theatre world, having been the leading director at the Brandenburg Theatre before working as a freelance director in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg and Basel. Castorf had also been the in-house director at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin since 1990 before he joined the Volksbühne in 1992.
Upon joining the theatre, Castorf was faced with the debate that had confronted the management of the theatre since the days of Reinhardt: whether the theatre should be populist or high-brow, political or purely artistic. He has tackled this challenge by producing eclectic programmes each season, with productions of plays from writers as diverse as Sophocles, Beckett and Tennessee Williams, as well as adaptations of novels ranging from Kafka to Dostoevsky, Dumas the Younger to Balzac.
Castorf has often said that the worst thing his theatre could be called would be ‘richtig’ (proper). As soon as it is ‘richtig’ it becomes superfluous. Following this dictum, Carstorf has habitually courted controversy in his role, such as his sexually-charged take on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen in 2004 (involving a scene where one character gets his buttocks ironed) and his 2008 production ‘Fuck Off, Amerkia’, an adaption of the novel ‘It’s Me, Eddie’ by Edward Limonov. To intentionally raise a few eyebrows, he placed the titles of the show in large letters atop the theatre building.
Castorf’s approach has proved successful; the magazine Theaterheute awarded the Volksbühne ‘Theatre of the Year’ in 1993, and Castorf himself has been awarded the Fritz Kortner prize, the Berlin theatre award of the foundation of the Preußische Seehandlung, the Nestroy Award Vienna, the International Theatre Institute’s Award, the Schiller Award of the City of Mannheim, the Order of Merit of the State of Berlin, and also the Golden Laurel Wreath Award of the MESS festival in Sarajevo. His contract was recently extended to 2016.
In spring 2009, the Volksbühne went under extensive renovation for the second time, this time to replace the older infrastructure with newer, high-tech equipment, administrative offices and emergency exits. In 2015, it was announced that Castorf’s long reign would come to an end with the announcement of former Tate Modern head Chris Dercon’s takeover in 2017. However Dercon, who represented a more commercial direction for the theatre, resigned after much protest, with left wing activists even occupying the theatre for a few days in 2018, and a petition signed by 40,000 people, who claimed he the wrong person for a ‘people’s theatre’, a point driven home by the lukewarm reception to his productions.
The current situation is that the theatre is led by managing director Klaus Dörr with Rene Pollesch—who has a history of working with Castorf and Volsbühne’s side venue, Prater—is currently scheduled to take over from 2021. How that pans out remains to be seen. Bu today, you will as likely find productions full of potato salad fights and people peeing into zinc buckets, as you will plays of Goethe and Shakespeare, though the latter will always have a twist.
Over a hundred years after its birth, and having survived the various tragedies and travails of the city, the Volksbühne remains one of the most exciting and experimental theatres – not only in Germany, but the world over.