Notes From Berlin (Part I)
Friday morning we had a great seminar with Mr. Hartmann and a conversation with Johan Simons, director and commissioner of Elfriede Jelinek’s Die Straße. Die Stadt. Der Überfall (The City. The Street. The Attack) produced by the Münchner Kammerspiele and presented at the Haus der Berliner Festpiele. Simons, probably best known in the States as co-founder of Theatergroep Hollandia, was invited to head the Münchner Kammerspiele in 2010. He comes from outside the German system and, in fact, built much of his work over the years outside the theater altogether, beginning with the itinerant company Wespetheater in the 1970’s and including his site-based work with Hollandia. He brings an anti-authoritarian sensibility to his theater practice that seems to contrast starkly with the structures in which he is currently operating. His approach to acting and actors, to text and performance seem pointedly more Dutch than German and it makes for an interesting aesthetic tension that is, in some ways, evident in Die Straße. Die Stadt. Der Überfall.
In the seminar we learned that Munich has a very fancy shopping boulevard known as Maximilianstraße, where all the luxury retailers are located. According to Wikipidedia shops such as Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, Louis Vuitton, Dior, Chanel, Escada, Hugo Boss, Gucci, Gianfranco Ferré and Bulgari have increasingly ousted the traditional shops, art galleries and restaurants. Maximilianstraße is where people park their Lamborghinis, Ferraris and other luxury cars as they shop, creating a luxury “see and be seen” bubble. This, we learned, has created some tension in Munich because the introduction of the luxury shops has brought an influx of extremely wealthy Arabs from the oil-producing states. This cultural tension was, perhaps, encapsulated by the 2005 murder of the extravagant Munich fashion designer Rudolph Moshammer by then-25 year-old Iraqi asylum seeker Herisch Ali Abdullah in a dispute over compensation for sexual services provided.
Nobel-prize winning writer Elfriede Jelinek lives in Munich and Simons approached her to write a play about Maximilianstraße, inspired by the Moshammer murder. The thing about Jelinek’s plays is that her method is to write a block of text with almost nothing else and then turn it over to the theater maker to do what they will to stage it. It is totally radical and amazing and also completely dangerous. You can actually read the text of Die Straße. Die Stadt. Der Überfall here if you’re interested. It’s in German.
I was already excited to see a work of Jelinek’s and, having learned about Simons’ history and background, his artistic perspective and the premise of the production, I was really looking forward to the show. Unfortunately there was one major obstacles to my appreciation of the work: it was in German. Jelinek is an extraordinarily gifted writer and even with the best translation one can only hope to glean a sense of what she is doing. Here, in the theater, trying to read hastily translated supertitles, it was difficult to really get a grasp on what was happening with the text. Simon’s staging was visually compelling, the actors were exceptional and the overall effect of watching the work without comprehending the text was interesting if not satisfying. But my persistent inability to understand the text only reinforced how much I was missing.
Secondly, at its root, the show is about the shallowness of materialism and fashion. For some reason the shallowness of fashion resists all critique and pretty much everything I’ve ever seen that tried to offer a substantial, thoughtful indictment of fashion has failed. I’m not sure why. Maybe it is just too easy a target, too obvious in its engagement with consumerism to support interrogation. The only truly amazing and insightful comment on fashion I can recall ever seeing was Meryl Streep’s amazing monologue about “blue” in The Devil Wears Prada:
As a result I found myself frustrated with the entire experience. I very much wanted to like it, but couldn’t find a way in. I hope at some point in the future to have the opportunity to see other work by Simons and a really excellent production of Jelinek. But this wasn’t that opportunity.
After the show I was going to head back to the hotel as I had an early flight back to NYC on Saturday, but I was cajoled into going to a party with a bunch of young theater people in Kreuzberg. It ended up being quite a late night and I shared a cab back to the hotel with my colleague Sinan Al-Azzawi from the Iraqi National Theater in Baghdad, staying up almost until morning talking about our art and our lives and, of course, the costs of war that America started and pulled out of, even as it continues to tear his country apart.
My trip to Berlin concluded as it began, with a profound personal encounter with a different culture, wrestling to connect despite our fraught, violent, complicated histories.
But that personal story will have to wait until the next essay. Stay tuned.