Sunday, November 8, 2009

Berlin 1989-2009

So much has changed in Berlin over the past two decades, and so much remains the same. For those who have known the city for many years, its history seems to be written into it like a palimpsest, with its new buildings, streets and stories layered on top of older ones rather than replacing them. This is a view of the city as experienced from the point of view of the East, which is how I first got to know it. My love affair with the city began two years after the Berlin Wall fell—though “fell” is not the right verb to express what happened that night in November 1989. The Wall was not toppled, it was permeated from East to West (having always been permeable in the opposite direction). Those first years of what people called either “unification” or “reunification” depending on their political sensibilities were marked by a sort of bleak euphoria in East Berlin. Euphoria because of the sudden lifting of restrictions, the limitations on what you might be allowed to study, buy or read, or where you might be allowed to travel. Bleak because all of this was tempered by new economic realities. East German bank accounts were cut in half in the conversion to the West German deutschmark. In the cataclysmic transition of East German society from socialism to capitalism, more than half the people who had jobs lost them, and it soon became clear that economic survival would be predicated on the ability to function in the West German system. Since virtually all the GDR’s industry had been state-owned, the collapse of the government meant massive shut-downs of factories, laboratories and businesses. Many teachers were declared unfit to practice their profession because of what now looked like an ideological slant in their training, and many recent university graduates found themselves having to return to school for additional studies before their degrees could be recognized. Some adapted and thrived, others struggled.

It soon became clear that the financially as well as politically dominant West Germany would determine which aspects of “Eastness” would remain and which would be erased. In the early 1990s, one often saw the graffiti “BRD + DDR = BRD”: the FRG (Federal Republic of Germany, a.k.a. West Germany) + the GDR (German Democratic Republic, a.k.a. East Germany) = FRG. The value of the DDR, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, was being calculated as zero. In response, a backlash of nostalgia (or “Ostalgie”—from “Ost”=East) arose in the entire Eastern part of the country, particularly in East Berlin where the border was generally just a neighborhood or two away. This wasn’t nostalgia for those parts of life that the tourists now swarming into the city were charmed by. Where tourists saw street after street of gray façades with their plaster crumbling away to expose the brick and were reminded of streets in black-and-white movies, locals saw neglect and discomfort: it was difficult to keep buildings with damaged walls warm during long, cold Berlin winters. No, the nostalgia was for a way of life that had developed over a period of forty years and, the political unfreedoms notwithstanding, had involved things like the availability of a job of some sort for virtually every citizen, readily accessible childcare and healthcare, and a spirit of camaraderie and innovation in everyday life that derived from the shortage of certain resources. A limited range of clothing was available for purchase, and so women made their own. Many people could not get telephones, so friends dropped by to visit each other often to keep up to date on what was going on in others’ lives. I don’t think anyone who lived in the East would seriously have wished for a return to that system at any point after 1989, but many chafed against the apparent assumption that everything about life in the East had been shabby, substandard or misguided. For many, the glass had been half full.

It is difficult, walking through the streets of New Berlin, not to be constantly reminded of aspects of the city that were effaced bit by bit as the West gradually took hold in the East. It wasn’t so long ago that when you got out of the subway at Potsdamer Platz you found yourself in an enormous field of scrubby grass and biting wind with no buildings anywhere except for the ruins of an old hotel and the knowledge that Hitler’s final bunker had been under that grass somewhere. Now Potsdamer Platz is an architectural playground. Even more recently, the Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic) was torn down after years of debate —an eyesore of Eastern Bloc architecture with a bronze-colored glass façade planted right smack in the middle of all the fancy Schinkel buildings up and down Unter den Linden, state buildings signifying money and power. The Palast der Republik was hideous, but it embodied an important part of Berlin’s history, and its demolition was regrettable.

Other elisions are far more modest. I cannot walk down Torstrasse in Mitte without remembering when it used to be called Wilhelm Pieck-Strasse after the first president of the GDR and those strange transitional months in 1994 when the street was marked by a pair of signs: one with Pieck’s name struck through with a red diagonal line, and one bearing the street’s old new name, Torstrasse, meaning “Gate Street”—presumably because in centuries past this street had led to one of the old city gates. The same holds true of Clara Zetkin-Strasse, which used to run between the back of the Humboldt-Universität and the Reichstag. Zetkin, a friend of Rosa Luxemburg’s, represented the German Communist Party in parliament for thirteen years during the Weimar Republic. Now the street is again called Dorotheenstrasse, the one remaining monument to Clara Zetkin the shop “Copy Clara” where you can have your xeroxing needs attended to.

The Berlin Wall has now vanished in most spots, replaced by a double row of bricks set into the ground to mark the line it carved into this city’s skin. It's as if it was simply displaced from above the ground to below. The demarcation persists in memory, while the Wall itself is now buried beneath the massive weight of all the new stories written into the space where it once stood.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

When Grandparents Fall in Love

The East Berlin setting of German director Andreas Dresen’s 2008 film Cloud 9 doesn't particularly jump out at you. What we mostly see of it is the view from the window of the apartment that the film’s protagonist, 60-something-year-old Inge, shares with her partner of 30 years, showing the S-bahn tracks that come to stand for the ever-sameness of a marriage that has been stuck on the same track for years. Inge’s partner Werner is so obsessed with trains and train travel that he still listens to his old vinyl records that preserve the sounds various models of locomotive make when they pull into various East German train stations. He has Inge join him on recreational train rides (“The landscapes along the train tracks are much better than the ones along the highway”) and entertains his granddaughters by showing them his catalogues of locomotive models. At the same time, the tracks we see again and again out the window provide an image for Inge’s restlessness and her desire to experience something new—feelings that take her almost as much by surprise as they do her grown daughter and husband. Inge’s decision to leave Werner for an even older (but livelier) man with whom she falls suddenly, madly in love after she alters a pair of trousers for him raises so many issues that after the movie a considerable subset of the audience remained standing outside the theater because everyone wanted to know whether everyone else thought she had done the right thing. Everyone seemed fascinated by the issues surrounding Inge’s choice. (Dresen’s heavy use of nudity and explicit sex, on the other hand, appeared utterly uncontroversial.) So of course: people at any age can fall in love and fall into bed with one another, but what does it mean to abandon one’s partner of 30 years on the brink of old age in search of a greater happiness? In my favorite scene of the movie, Inge tells her husband a dirty joke her lover has told her after an incident of impotence. (“How do 80-year-olds screw? She does a handstand, and he drops it in from above.”) She snorts with laughter as she relates the joke and then for long minutes afterward shakes with elated, irrepressible laughter. Her new love, as Werner will remark later with a certain bitterness, has made her seem young again.

Dresen, who grew up in East Germany, uses the film’s East Berlin backdrop to lend depth to both the characters and the story. Almost twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Werner is still listening to DDR train sound recordings as his evening’s entertainment—a sound that mirrors the one we hear in the film’s opening shot, a close-up of the foot of Inge’s sewing machine moving over the fabric of the trousers that are about to change her life, producing stitch after stitch as regular and unchanging as railroad ties. They read the Berliner Zeitung over breakfast—the newspaper of choice for East Berliners of a certain age, as opposed to the West Berlin papers Berliner Morgenpost and Der Tagesspiegel. Inge’s lover Karl also takes her on an outing coded as East German: skinny-dipping in the lakes on the outskirts of Berlin, reached by bicycle. (Indeed, the more or less universal acceptance of nude bathing in East Germany produced some conflicts after 1989 when certain popular beaches such as those on the Baltic coast became accessible to West Germans, who showed up attired in bathing suits only to find the beach covered with happy nudists.) But while Karl is vital and active—we see him riding his bicycle and coaching younger cyclists—Werner is not. Apparently his only physical activity is rolling an abs-exerciser joylessly back and forth on the carpet as Inge cheers him on, and he spends hours smoking in his study, pursuing the monotonous labor of retirement. (Inge, meanwhile, who takes in sewing, does this work at a cramped table in the corner of their bedroom.) Werner is petrified, and his stuck-in-the-pastness is underscored by his ongoing obsession with his pre-1989 hobby as though nothing significant had changed in the world since then. Speaking of his wheelchair-bound father whom Inge and he visit in a Prenzlauer Berg nursing home (and who appears to be mentally as well as physically in decline), Werner says: “If I ever get like that, take me out in the woods and shoot me.”—but in fact he is already frozen enough that it manifests as physical rigidity. One audience member discussing the film afterward remarked: “He’s just like the Tin Man.” There’s a sense that in choosing the physically vital Karl over Werner, Inge has chosen motion and life.

Dresen’s film is a moving study of love at a certain age and the difficulties and responsibilities that accompany it. Fabulous acting, beautifully observed and filmed scenes, and with lots of skillfully incorporated gaps in the storytelling that remind us that—much as we might think we know the characters whose story we are watching—we are viewing their lives from the outside.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Hamlet at the Schaubühne

When it comes to the problem of how to stage lines so famous every schoolchild knows them by heart, Thomas Ostermeier’s new production of Hamlet at the Schaubühne Berlin takes the bull by the horns: “To be or not to be” (Sein oder Nicht-sein) are the first words spoken in the play. This is the same cut-to-the-money-shot strategy recently used as an opening gambit in Michael Thalheimer’s staging of Faust I for the Deutsches Theater, and it’s a good way to deal with the “classics angst” that has turned the staging of these key plays in the repertoire into daredevil variations in search of the ultimate trump. Ostermaier’s Hamlet, though, does turn out to be rather trump-filled, particularly during the first hour of the performance, which consists of one tour-de-force set piece after another. Afterward, the tension subsides somewhat, making for an evening that is good rather than great overall, but the six actors involved all turn out magnificent performances (particularly Lars Eidinger in the title role).

Ostermeier’s Hamlet relies heavily on the video-cam technique pioneered in Germany by Frank Castorf at the Volksbühne, but Ostermeier uses the camera quite differently. Whereas Castorf is interested in hidden spaces (the actors often perform in closed boxes on stage, their performance visible only by means of the live video feed projected on large screens onstage), Ostermeier shows us the mechanisms by which people and things are made larger than life. He projects his images onto a curtain made of shiny gold chains while we simultaneously look through it to see the live action on the stage, which is set up with a long banquet table. Judith Rosmair wearing dark glasses as Gertrude looks like what she is: a woman in dark glasses; but the projected black-and-white video feed in which her hugely magnified face is grainily projected turns her into a starlet caught in the cross-hairs of the paparazzi. And so the play’s initial image of Hamlet reciting his famous monologue with his face blown up so large that just his eyes and nose fit on the screen appears a self-reflexive gesture, a comment on the hugeness of the lines themselves, which have become familiar enough to be emptied out of meaning. At climactic moments of the play, the live video feed is intercut with other images, with e.g. the image of a skull flickering in and out of the live footage of Hamlet’s face (perhaps in compensation for the fact that the Yorick scene has been omitted).

The meaning Ostermeier offers us as recompense comes in the form of dirt: the entire stage is covered in a thick layer of earth, and the first real scene of the play is a burial pantomime in which a frantic gravedigger scuffles about at cartoonish speed to get a coffin singlehandedly lowered into its grave (with lots of slapstick pratfalls) as the play’s main protagonists look on in the rain produced by a hose held aloft. The scene lasts a painfully long time and is stunningly expressive. The gravedigger starts shoveling in the dirt before remembering that the first handfuls belong to the mourners—whereupon he hops into the grave to scoop it all out again. When a languishing Gertrude drops the delicate little mourners’ trowel into the grave along with the bit of earth it holds, the gravedigger offers the other mourners a full-sized shovel instead. Characters keep returning to this dirt throughout the performance, though not in the food-fight way that would have likely ensued if it had been Christoph Marthaler doing the directing. Ostermeier’s dirt has a solemnity, a gravity to it. Characters don’t throw it around, they eat it (Hamlet in particular). The first metaphorical use of the dirt comes early on, when Claudius is chiding bereft Hamlet for his ostensibly untoward despondency after his father’s death: Claudius embraces his unresponsive nephew, and the instant he releases him,
Hamlet topples like a felled tree, face-first into the pile of dirt covering his father’s grave. This descent into dirt is what Ostermeier keeps bringing us back to—the reality of death and loss—and compared to this Claudius’s politic speech is just wind blowing by.

The actors in this production spend a lot of time face-down in things, mostly food, and generally when they show their faces afterward, they look like ghouls arisen from the dead. This Denmark is a ghost town. And although Hamlet tells Horatio (and us) quite clearly that he’s planning to feign madness, it’s hard to see this madness as make-believe. Eidinger’s performance is full of Tourette’s-like verbal tics and is utterly unsettling. When he strips down to act out the play The Mousetrap for king and queen—Hamlet and Horatio are the only performers in this staging—we see that the doughiness of his body is due to the fact that he’s wearing a heavily padded undergarment beneath his clothes. After playing the role of the queen wearing only black lace panties and thigh-high stockings, he climbs back into his fat-boy suit, asking one of the other actors to zip him up. One of the strongest scenes in the entire production is the pas de deux between Hamlet and Ophelia when Polonius forces their encounter. The scene shifts back and forth so quickly between tenderness and violence it’s truly frightening, and eventually he half-buries her.

Toward the middle of the play the pace starts to slow down, and I found myself wondering, as I watched Claudius (brilliantly played by Urs Jucker) contemplating aloud the vileness of his own fratricide, whether this entire scene couldn’t have been cut outright
with no great loss of effect. Ostermeier has created an action-packed Hamlet in which psychological processes are so effectively translated into physical ones that the actual recitation of monologues seems almost irrelevant. Cutting out a startlingly large number of scenes is a strategy that worked beautifully for Ostermeier in his staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2006 (a co-production with choreographer Constanza Macras), and he would have done well to trim Shakespeare’s play more rigorously this time as well. Though two and a half hours is not at all long for a performance of Hamlet, given the density and compression of this staging, making it leaner by half an hour would have served the production well.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Faust in Love

Theater director Michael Thalheimer of Berlin’s Deutsches Theater seems to have found his niche over the past decade: he specializes in plays about the degradation, abuse and abandonment of women. It’s a great subject. His brilliant staging of Lessing’s Emilia Galotti (2001) depicted the life of this young woman—which is systematically destroyed by a pair of hit men: a powerful prince who has the hots for her, and her father—as a triangular cage. Wedekind’s Lulu in Thalheimer's 2004 production, which came to BAM in 2007, was rife with sexual violence performed before the blank screen of a wall in the middle of the stage (see fellow director David Levine's interview with Thalheimer). And now his Faust, Part I—currently showing as part of the Berliner Festspiele—whittles down Goethe’s complex tale of Faust’s search for knowledge and earthly pleasures to his bid to get into the pants of dour schoolgirl Margarete. Mephistopheles plays the pimp, and by the end of the play little Grete is left a bloody mess, her mouth a big red smear, her eyes all bruise.

Not that the play’s considerable metaphysical freight is left by the wayside. Thalheimer is a great lover of words, and most of the play is packed with Faust-Mephisto dialogues on everything under the sun. Actors under Thalheimer’s direction, regardless of the play in question, tend to develop a palette of verbal mannerisms, you can’t help thinking of them performing their texts much as musicians perform. Tempos change, voices are pitched high or so low they almost disintegrate (in the case of Sven Lehmann’s Mephisto) into pure resonance. And the story does still focus on Faust’s quest to grasp and master the universe of worldly life. In love with Grete, he may be above all in love with the idea of exercising his will by possessing the object of his desires. Grete in this staging stands in for everything Faust hopes to grasp.

The play begins in silence: the house lights suddenly go out, and the stage lights up, showing us Faust in profile (played by Ingo Hülsmann). He stands there immobile for an unnervingly long time, the only sound the faint grating noise produced by the revolving stage behind him whose circular wall of wide black slats as high as the stage itself continues to move inexorably clockwise throughout the first part of the play as Faust is joined by Mephistopheles and their conversations begin. Eventually lights appear backstage, illuminating the space between the vertical slats and soon blinding the audience at every interstice. After an extended period of constant noise and light, it comes as a relief when a gap finally appears in the slats, baring most of the stage and revealing Grete’s tiny metal bed standing alone at the center, beneath a big luminous cross mysteriously created by the alignment of the slats. This brief interlude of respite (during which Grete, played by Regine Zimmermann, speaks of happiness and peace) is the one upbeat moment amidst the dreariness. Soon enough Faust has entered Grete’s life and she sits on her bed (in left-facing profile like Faust before her) reeling off the verses of the famous song “Grete at the Spinning Wheel,” in which she repeats over and over the words “Meine Ruhe ist hin,” (my peace is gone). There’s no spinning wheel on stage; none is needed; all its symbolic weight is already carried by the black revolving barrel of the stage (literally a wheel, spinning) that’s grated on our nerves for the play’s first half, eventually making this viewer woozy.

The repetition theme reaches its climax when Margarete asks Faust whether he believes in God. Unwilling to answer yes or no, he engages in a long beating-about-the-bush speech that is as exasperating to us as it must to poor Grete. By this point Faust’s use of discourse has come to appear the opposite of kindness and truth. Unhappy with his response, she asks him again, and he repeats the monologue verbatim, with different gestures. Is he really repeating all this garbage? She asks again, and he repeats his response—six times in all. Eventually she gives in, having at last heard enough. And the slats of the background shift enough to set the cross askew.

My favorite part of the production is the stunning performance of Mephisto by Sven Lehmann, who turns the devil into a plump lascivious boor who lifts his sweater to scratch his belly and pantomimes the most astonishing little onanistic dances: prodigiously lecherous cavorting. He appears to be the only character in the play who’s having any fun. Even Faust, his desires quenched, is kept busy learning the lesson that fulfilled desire just gives way to other itches that require scratching.
At times the production’s insistence on monotony produces boredom, and for this reason I find the staging finally less successful than, say, that of Emilia Galotti, which proceeds at a well-nigh military clip. This Faust does drag a bit, but it shows us a psychological, Nietzschean Faust that most certainly affirms (in case you had any doubts) the play’s place in the modern canon.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Seeing The Reader

Some bits of Stephen Daldry’s film The Reader are set in Berlin, which is how I'll justify writing about it here. (Achtung: spoiler alert!)

I’m sure you know the story: A fifteen-year old boy named Michael Berg is seduced by a streetcar conductor, Hannah Schmitz, with whom he has a passionate summer affair. One special feature of their relationship is that she has him read books to her every time they meet. Years later (the Holocaust having happened in the meantime offscreen) he witnesses her trial in Nuremberg when he is a law student, and after she is sentenced to prison for her part in the deaths of 300 Jews when she was a guard at Auschwitz, he starts reading books into a tape recorder and sending them to her. During her years in prison she finally learns to read and write. Berg is asked by prison officials to help her when she is to be released, and he reluctantly agrees, but just before her release she kills herself in her cell.

I found the film terribly disappointing, but was interested to see that it disappoints in ways quite different than the bestselling novel by Bernhard Schlink on which it was based.

The main weakness of Schlink’s novel is that his descriptions are consistently so weak (or irrelevant), his characters so little fleshed-out that the book winds up seeming like a few big ideas clunking down the stairs. The storyline itself, though, is fascinating material, so I was very much looking forward to seeing how it would play out on film.

The film, however, is plagued by issues just as serious, though it does manage to correct some of the book’s flaws. The lush imagery of the film and the excellent performances by Kate Winslet (Hannah) and David Kross (Michael as a boy) fill the world with a nicely shot vocabulary of gesture and image that makes us believe in the characters and their lives. There are other improvements as well. Schlink would have us believe, for example, that the first book that Hannah sits down to read once she has painstakingly attained literacy is Elie Wiesel’s Night. I really don’t think so. The film handles her quest for literacy much more plausibly, treating it not as some abstract way to make amends for her crimes (after all, she does seem to feel she was just following orders and had no other choice), but as an attempt to recreate in fantasy the time in her past when she was loved and had her lover read to her: using Michael’s tape as a guide, she spells her way through Chekhov’s “Lady with the Lapdog,” a story he read aloud to her as a boy (and which touchingly reflects their own relationship). The Odyssey is another thematically relevant choice, especially the opening passage referring to the “twists and turns” of the hero’s life that is read several times in the course of the film. (They read Robert Fagles's 1996 translation, which has been pasted into an old-looking cover; never mind that the choice of translation is anachronistic; after all, they're "really" supposed to be reading it in German - in the Johann Heinrich Voss translation, perhaps?)

The movie handily provides some shots of young Hannah avoiding reading: refusing to look at a book Michael hands her, asking him to order lunch for both of them so she doesn’t have to read the menu (though unless I misheard he orders a BLT – what? In Germany? I hope I misheard). These shots then are used in flashback to show us Michael’s thought process when he realizes during her trial that she is not only illiterate but is so ashamed of the fact that she would rather accept a disproportionately long jail sentence than admit it.

And the large number of prison-library books in her cell is used to powerful effect in the film when she stacks them up high atop her table to make a platform she will use to kill herself. It’s as if the knowledge she has gained from reading has now enabled her to make the decision to take her own life, but there is nothing heavy-handed about the use of this image. I was also touched by the careful way she takes off her shoes before she dies – she doesn’t bother to unlace them, but she does place them neatly side-by-side on the floor.

In all these ways, the film outshines the novel on which it was based. But then it fails in quite different ways, primarily because of the script. The sections of the film that show Michael and Hannah in 1939 don’t contain much talking unless you count the reading-aloud. But the parts featuring middle-aged Michael (played by Ralph Fiennes) are all talk, and the dialogue grates and jars with one sententious, heavy-handed line after another. I don’t know what David Hare (who wrote the script) was thinking. Fiennes winds up having to speak the bulk of these lines, and he just can’t pull them off. It can’t be easy to be playing a character who’s supposed to be painfully repressed—as he casually announces to his 20ish daughter over dinner, causing her to burst into sudden tears of relief, pain and understanding [?]—and at the same time be asked to utter all these cockamamie lines. Maybe an actor of Donald Sutherland’s caliber could have made it work, but Fiennes serves up his homilies like he’s getting paid for it.

The script’s weakness is also seen during the law-school sequences, particularly in a seminar when a fellow-student of Michael’s is so outraged by the hypocrisy of the Nuremberg trials that he begins to shout. His rant makes no sense - in a context where it needs to. First he says how ridiculous it is that a handful of low-level officials are being tried with great pomp and circumstance when most of the rest of the German population is guilty as well. Then he says he wants to shoot Hannah and the other guards. Or does he mean shoot all the Germans? In the context of the scene, it seems that he is supposed to be serving as a foil to Michael’s wordless brooding (25-year-old Berg displays indecision worthy of a Hamlet). But his speech remains incoherent, and so the scene remains unilluminating, though at least the law professor is brilliantly played by Bruno Ganz.

Speaking of whom—since he’s a real German, as is David Kross—it’s quite odd that all the actors in the film speak English with German accents (real or simulated) passim except for Fiennes, who just sounds like a Brit. Did someone decide the inconsistency just doesn’t matter? It does.

Perhaps the worst dialogue of all is in the scene when Michael goes to visit an Auschwitz survivor who testified at Hannah’s trial after the war. He brings her a little tin of money—Hannah’s savings, which she asked be given to this woman. The relative paltriness of the bequest (seven thousand marks and change) is set off by the luxuriousness of the woman’s New York apartment. But then the two begin an inane dialogue studded with a few profundities (“Nothing comes out of Auschwitz”) and the scene quickly starts making no sense at all.

The film ends with a gesture that could have worked stunningly if Michael's daughter were anything but a cipher, but we know virtually nothing about her. So it doesn’t quite make sense that when he drags her out to a village cemetery in the rain (a village where he took Hannah on a bicycle outing one happy day) to show her Hannah’s grave, she actually appears delighted that he has brought her all this way to visit the grave of someone she’s never heard of, in the rain no less. And then we hear Berg’s voice beginning to tell his daughter his story as they walk away—and the storytelling is a lovely gesture (and counterpoint to all the stories of other people he’s read aloud all his life), but the film hasn’t created the psychological context to support it, so it winds up just feeling random. What’s more, the dates on the gravestone read 1922-1988, which would make Hannah just 17 years old in 1939 when she and Berg first meet (we see the date inscribed in the copy of The Odyssey he was reading that year in school). So suddenly she’s just two years his senior? Uh, no.

Ach. This material could have made such a good story. What a shame that neither novel nor film turned out better than this.