At the Berliner Ensemble

Harry Stopes

‘It’s really a good idea to live in houses and with furniture that are at least a hundred and twenty years old,’ Bertolt Brecht wrote to his publisher in 1953, after he and Helene Weigel had moved into their apartment on Chausseestraße, in the north-west corner of central East Berlin. ‘Let’s say, in early capitalist surroundings until later socialist surroundings are available.’

Brecht and Weigel are buried in the Dorotheenstadt Cemetery, next door to where they lived. Their graves aren’t far from Hegel’s. When I visited on 14 August, the 65th anniversary of Brecht’s death, someone had left a cracker (the bread of the people?) at the graveside. Someone else had deposited a copy of ‘To Those Born After’ with an Arabic translation.

The apartment building I live in up the street used to belong to the Wohnungsbaugesellschaft Berlin Mitte, a municipal landlord, but was sold to a private landlord in 2004 as part of a mass sell-off of city property that seeded the portfolio of Deutsche Wohnen, among others. Berliners will have the opportunity to vote in a referendum on the expropriation of such large landlords when they go to the polls on 26 September.

Brecht and Weigel’s theatre company, the Berliner Ensemble, moved to the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, half a mile south of their apartment on Chausseestraße, in 1954. The theatre had suffered only light damage during the war – a bomb had fallen in the yard behind the backstage area – and the auditorium was well preserved. You can still see the German imperial eagle stage right above the Kaiser’s old box, covered with a bright red cross painted by Brecht.

One of the theatre technicians told me that the stage machinery runs on 32 wheels that Weigel sourced from Soviet tanks. (He also told me that some of the marble in the Volksbühne at Rosa Luxemburg Platz was said to have been looted from Hitler’s bunker, though he wasn’t sure it was true.)

‘The survivors, the returnees, dug out the condemned culture and literature again,’ the actor Jürgen Holtz wrote in 2011. Born in 1932, one of his first major roles was as Macheath in Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, in Greifswald in 1962. He played Mr Peachum in Robert Wilson’s long running production of the play at the Berliner Ensemble, appearing in its last performance in February 2020, a few months before he died of cancer at the age of 86. ‘Everyone in the room would focus on him,’ the technician told me, ‘but you could see he wanted a normal collegial relationship. He spoke with an old Berlin accent and swore.’

Last month I went to the first preview of the Ensemble’s new production of the Threepenny Opera, directed by Barrie Kosky, the artistic director at the Komische Oper. (The play runs until 16 October.) Kosky told the New York Timeshe was worried some of the audience might think his production was too abstract for Brecht’s biting social satire; they shouldn’t expect ‘Cabaret with a little bit of intellectualism’. But he seemed to be in a good mood as he addressed the audience before the first act. ‘Laugh if you want to laugh!’ he said. ‘Shout if you hate it! A normal Berlin theatre evening!’

The set is bare and abstract, a latticework of metal frames the actors can climb over and under. When Macheath is arrested and sent to prison awaiting execution, he isn’t put behind physical bars but confined in a bright white spotlight that slowly narrows. The image is echoed at the final curtain, when an actor (I couldn’t make out which) pops their disembodied, illuminated head through the curtain to sing the final stanza of the ‘Moritat von Mackie Messer’ that Brecht added for the 1931 film version:

There are some who are in darkness
And the others are in light
And you see the ones in brightness
Those in darkness drop from sight.