Rhea Boyden visits the former summer residence of Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel in Buckow…
One chilly Saturday morning in January, I decide to beat the winter blues by setting off on a day excursion to the town of Buckow in Brandenburg. About 50 kilometres east of Berlin, Buckow lies on the Schermützelsee and is the seat of the municipal association of the beautiful and hilly region known as the Märkische Schweiz, not far from the Polish border.
Since 1990, the entire Märkische Schweiz region has been a nature park, with Buckow as a Kneipp Spa town, meaning it follows the philosophy of the Bavarian priest Sebastian Kneipp (b. 1821), a proponent of hydrotherapy and herbalism. Kneipp used his ‘water cure’ to treat all kinds of ailments, and promoted good nutrition, exercise and spirituality as the basis of a good life.
Buckow is home to a Kneipp day-care centre where children are educated according to his principals, eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables and very little meat, and there is also a Kneipp herb garden in the centre of the town. But the real reason I’m here is to see the town’s main cultural highlight: the Brecht-Weigel House.
After a regional train ride from Lichtenberg to Müncheberg, followed by a bus journey through snowy woods, I’m deposited at a deserted marketplace and find myself savouring a moment of peace and silence—the kind that city dwellers sometimes long for. Although a popular spa town in summer, Buckow has a scant population of 1,500, none of whom are showing their faces on this frigid winter day. The only activity is an ice-encrusted waterwheel churning somewhat heroically in a semi-frozen brook.
After a brisk twenty-minute walk past the villas that overlook the lake, I arrive at the house where German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht and his Austrian actress wife Helene Weigel lived, worked and entertained guests each summer from 1952. I’m greeted by the friendly woman that runs the house and we fall quickly into conversation; since I am the only guest for the first half hour of my visit, she takes the time to tell me some anecdotes and history of the house.
“Helene Weigel was a fabulous cook and she loved to host dinner parties,” she says, as she shows me Weigel’s cookbook. Indeed, the Berlin home on Chauseestrasse where the couple lived together—also a memorial and archive that can be visited by prior arrangement—once had restaurant in the cellar beneath the house, the so-called Brecht-Keller, which served Weigel’s Austrian-themed recipes.
The Buckow summer house, I learn, was built in 1910-1911 by the German sculptor Georg Roch. The front room is a fabulous and bright five-meter high studio with a wall of panelled windows that look out onto the garden, a jetty and the lake. Helene Weigel’s collection of German furniture from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries fill the room, which she furnished as a salon.
There’s an elegant old breakfront containing her porcelain collection and a bridal chair that heads the low table, while Georg Roch’s sculptures still adorn the house – not only on the inside, but also in the shade of the silver poplar and birch trees in the front garden. The salon was primarily the working space of Helene Weigel, while Brecht withdrew to the simply-furnished garden house to work on his plays and poetry.
Brecht and Weigel had a curious but dynamic relationship. Brecht was a well-known womaniser, but Weigel had been raised a ‘new woman’ and had an inner strength and creative vision that Brecht grew addicted to. She was undoubtedly his equal in terms of artistic prowess and ambition, and they had parallel careers right up until their exile in 1933, when Weigel devoted herself to raising their children before they moved back to East Berlin in 1949. During the summer of 1953, he wrote The Buckower Elegies here, his artistic and poetic reaction to the GDR workers uprising of June 17th the same year. In 1956 he died of a heart attack.
Today, the garden house has many of Brecht’s poems on the walls, an exhibit of Helene Weigel’s costumes, as well as some of the props from the staging of Brecht’s play Mutter Courage, which was Weigel’s most triumphant role in acting at the Berliner Ensemble, where she was artistic director until her death in 1971.
Mutter Courage is considered by some to be one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. It’s certainly one of Brecht’s most triumphant pieces of writing; written in a flash of inspiration in 1939, the play is set during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) but formulates, in essence, Brecht’s reaction to the rise of Nazism and his way of protesting Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939. I’ve since seen it at the Berliner Ensemble, starring award-winning German actress Carmen- Maja Antoni in the role of Mutter Courage, and can testify to its ongoing power and relevance.
I purchase a copy of Buckower Elegies and enjoy a contemplative walk around the lake that leads me eventually to the Strandhotel and Restaurant. The café inside has a fireplace, and I take a seat close to its warming glow. I order a cup of coffee and a slice of hot apple strudel with vanilla ice-cream, and watch the weak rays of the setting January sun play across the partially frozen lake. “The apple strudel is Helene Weigel’s recipe,” announces the waiter proudly, eyeing my copy of the Buckower Elegies.
On the way back to the bus station I walk through the Schlosspark, which contains Schloss Buckow. Built in the baroque style by the nobleman Graf vom Flemming in the late 17th century, the castle was converted and refurbished in neo-classical style by renowned Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1803. I am back on the bus before dark, heading back to the turbulent city that informed so much of Brecht and Weigel’s life and work.
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