Welcome to the Nazi Laugh Islands!

Rumour has had it that German humour is a mythical creature much like the unicorn, the centaur, or American gun control. The all-knowing God of Stereotypes has declared that The Germans are to be efficient but without humour.

Which, like all stereotypes, doesn’t exactly reflect reality. German humour not only exists, it’s thriving – according to the overly-defensive Wikipedia entry in English and Danish (?!). Granted, humour is extremely culturally dependent. As a foreigner, even when your language skills are flawless and you theoretically understand why Loriot is funny, it’s actually laughing at Helge Schneider or Kurt Krömer that shows you’re truly, irretrievably integrated (There’s an idea for your boring, answer lists of questions citizenship test).

Contrary to my expectations – as influenced by my colleague’s review – I laughed out loud multiple times at Murmel Murmel (next performance during TT on the 12th of May). And it wasn’t just because the concept – one word over and over – is so ridiculous that there’s really no other suitable response (see TTtv for more Murmeling). Nor was it just when a man sitting to my right said “Was für ein Text ist das?” (What kind of a text is this?), 54.4 minutes into the piece. Or when a woman behind me, unable to contain herself anymore, shouted “Murmel!” at the stage, and was quickly scolded with “Nicht vorhersagen” (Don’t jump the gun).

Oh no! He's fallen! But it's ok, there was a mattress there all along...
Oh no! He’s fallen! But it’s ok, there was a mattress there all along… Scene from Herbert Fritsch’s “Murmel Murmel”. Photo: Thomas Aurin

And while slapstick comedy dominated the evening, I mostly laughed at moments of the absurd and of Schadenfreude. The running gag through the 80 minutes were repetitive pitfalls (and I mean pitfall literally, an actor actually fell into the orchestra pit.) And we, both Americans and Germans, laugh at other people’s misfortune, when we’re in a context where it’s safe to laugh about it – i.e. when the person in question is Paris Hilton, and not when it’s Nelson Mandela, or when the pitfall is onto a mattress and not resulting in multiple broken bones.

The kind of humour that’s less my taste, exaggerated characters and physical comedy that obviously signal FUNNY, showed up both in Murmel Murmel and Every Man Dies Alone. Laughter is at its best when it’s a spontaneous reaction, so when capital letters telegraph YOU WILL LAUGH, I tend to respond with a kind of choked chuckle of discomfort.

Every Man Dies Alone desperately needs the little humour that’s there – it’s pretty obvious from the title that there’s no real happy ending to this controversial text. And moments of comic relief, or Lachinseln (laugh islands) in German, can integrate well into an overall dramatic arc. What made them so problematic for me in Every Man is that half the time they consisted of Nazis presented as “funny characters,” ranging from an alcoholic bum informant to a troupe of brown shirts with Hitler moustaches to an incompetent Gestapo investigator.

Brown shirt clowns with Hitler moustaches
Last night, on the Nazi Laugh Islands: Brown shirt clowns with Hitler moustaches. A scene from “Every Man Dies Alone” by director Luk Perceval. Photo: Krafft-Angerer

And I know this is part of Germany dealing with its history, but I still can’t bring myself to laugh at “silly, stupid Nazis” in the context of a theatre piece addressing failed resistance to the NS regime.

Now if those Nazis fell into the pit while mumbling “Murmel Murmel”, that might be a different story.

Sex and Pretzels

The Theatertreffen became the center of my life just a couple of days ago. And I have to say it’s been simply bizarre. This feeling of being in a time warp is probably due to the fact that I normally wouldn’t be anywhere near Wilmersdorf (there’s no kumpir for miles). And even though I spend a ridiculous amount of my time in the theater, it’s usually the off-scene dance or experimental low-fi productions that fill my Google Kalender.

Now I’m suddenly at the nerve center of the best state-funded German theatre, and it’s thrilling, inspiring and amusing. And that’s just what happens at the bar by the Boulette. It’s still such a refreshing surprise to me that there’s so much drinking and socializing at theaters in Germany – in the States everyone packs themselves into their cars/taxis/subways relatively quickly, or heads to a restaurant down the block before they start gossiping. Only one complaint: despite the frequent token DJs, I still have yet to witness a real dance party (here’s hoping for Lars Eidinger’s Autistic Disco on May 11. The party’s free after 23:00).

A few other impressions thus far:

Opening nights attract an assortment of politicians, characters, and Berlin theatre celebrities (you’ve probably never heard of them, but there are some, trust me). On this balmy, finally-spring evening, freelance camera men, photographers and hopefuls with Suche Karten (need tickets) signs swarmed at regular intervals and RBB was there with an anchor in all his fake-tan glory.

Of course, it’s still Berlin, so arriving on a bike in evening dress was fairly commonplace and there was a distinct lack of a VIP lounge or red carpet. Because we’re all equal… ly crazy for going inside to watch a production of Medea (!!!) on a beautiful sunny evening. I understand conceptually why TT director Yvonne Büdenhölzer wanted to start with a classic from a prominent director, but you’ve got to admit that kills-her-children Medea really isn’t much of a party starter.

Murmel Fashion (c) Mai Vendelbo
Premiere fashion at Volksbühne. Photo: Mai Vendelbo

Back to little quirky oddities: there’s the book exchange on the plywood party deck (English-language selections present at the opening: Welsh Crime and Mapping Cultural Diversity – Good Practices. Sex Verboten also looked interesting) and a Bauchladen vendor walking around with free candy and other random kitsch. Thank God that theater, unlike the Philharmonie or the Staatsoper, doesn’t feel the need to be classy and refined ALL the time. The strange rules of Berlin fashion also dictated Friday-night sightings of fluorescent accessories, blasts from the 1970s past, and one man wearing the Evian baby-body shirt (WTF?)

My personal favorite moment thus far came on Sunday afternoon: the Theater Award Berlin was presented to 80-year-old actor Jürgen Holtz, and in his nearly 40 minute long acceptance speech he ripped basically all of German theater a new one. In summary: internal politics and cultural budget cuts make for boring, low-quality conservative performances. (Jürgen Holtz tells a joke to the TT-blog in German.)

Stempelverleihung Fritsch Freude (c) Mai Vendelbo
Herbert Fritsch holding the stamp. Photo: Mai Vendelbo

Shift scene to the Volksbühne, imposing gray pulpit of concept theater on Rosa-Luxemburg Platz, for the second premiere of 10. Moving east makes for a younger crowd and a welcome anti-establishment tone – sure it’s your 50th anniversary, but it’s also just another performance, you self-important Wessis. Murmel Murmel director Herbert Fritsch admitted to being drunk as he received his award (a stamp? You’re selected as one of the 10 most remarkable productions that year and you get a STAMP? Sometimes one can take quirky a bit too far…) The vendor(ess) was dressed in retro Pan-Am gear this time (Pan-Am lounge is this year’s location for the Stückemarkt festival for new drama) and the percentage of hipster glasses and patterned leggings at the premiere party went up by a factor of eight.

Panam Stewardess (c) Mai Vendelbo
Pan-Am revival. Photo: Mai Vendelbo

Premiere parties deserve a bit of attention. They’re open to anyone but it’s mostly a gathering of the city theater tribes, with international forum members (read: young networky theater makers) scattered around trying to negotiate the treacherous theater connections landscape. The jury’s praise is recited, the award (again: STAMP?!) is handed over and finally the precious words “The buffet is open” are recited and the party can really begin. Another massive difference to the States: there was food left OVER at this buffet. Where are the starving actors who would normally descend on any calorie source after it’s made open to those who hadn’t paid? Oh right, there’s money for theater here so actors don’t have to starve. Crazy.

Earlier that afternoon: after listening to Holtz attack contemporary state-funded theater, the audience escaped to feast on wine and bread at the reception (allusion to Christian communion purely coincidental). Was there cheese? Nope. Remember those budget cuts?

Day 3

For the first edition of Eng-lang highlights:

1. Listening to cult director and lighting designer Robert Wilson speak at the Theater Award Berlin.

2. Watching tourists act out their version of Berlin nightlife outside Belushi’s on Rosa-Luxemburg Platz.

3. Eating Sunday brunch at 10pm.

Wish: To understand all of the text at Murmel Murmel.