Conventional wisdom has it that Germans are not funny. Brooding, melancholy, tragic, yes; but comic? Which makes it all the more remarkable that the greatest living director of farce is German.
Herbert Fritsch became one of the hottest directors in the German-speaking world in 2011 at the age of 60, after a long career as an actor at the Volksbühne Berlin, under the directorship of Frank Castorf. In that year, two of Fritsch’s productions, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Hauptmann’s The Beaver Coat, were selected to appear in Germany’s most prestigious theatre festival, the Berliner Theatertreffen. The following year, his production of a 1913 farce, Die (s)panische Fliege (The Spanish Fly), by the German comedy team Franz Arnold and Ernst Bach, was a big hit at the Volksbühne and was also selected for the Theatertreffen; it has since toured Europe and Japan (but not, alas, the United States).
Die (s)panische Fliege is about a rich mustard tycoon, his puritanical wife and his panic at the likelihood that a Spanish dancer (the title character), with whom years before he had a one-night stand, will show up on his doorstep. (Like Godot, she never appears.) Fritsch staged an otherwise throwaway boulevard comedy on a gigantic, undulating Persian carpet that covered the Volksbühne’s huge stage, with a trampoline hidden among its upstage folds, so that when characters entered they would jump from the crest of the rug onto the trampoline, bouncing headlong onto the stage. In Fritsch’s hands, a comedy about people sweeping things under the rug became literally about people, well, sweeping things under the rug. But what was most remarkable about the production is the knockabout farce, gravity-defying pratfalls, frenzied mugging, over-the-top costumes, gargantuan wigs—the utterly theatrical brilliance of it all.
The intense, insane, highly formalized theatricality of Fritsch’s work makes it about as far from American realism as one can imagine—except that it plunders American comedy, from the Marx Brothers to Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton to Jerry Lewis, leavened with a pinch of Jacques Tati, Peter Sellers and Monty Python.
Designing his own sets and virtually eliminating furniture and props, Fritsch puts the spotlight on actors, all of whom seem to be working overtime at the Ministry of Silly Walks. He has been called a neo-Dadaist and he does not shy away from the aggression and cruelty that underlie so much classic comedy and avant-gardist performance alike. This unsettling subtext makes his work virtually a portable advertisement for the ridiculousness of the world. Thus, the structural similarity between Die (s)panische Fliege and Waiting for Godot is no accident. Just as Beckett turned to an old vaudevillian, Buster Keaton, to star in his one and only Film, so Fritsch revisits outmoded comic conventions to mine them for their disorienting absurdity.
Fritsch has directed a range of classic plays, from Molière to Dürrenmatt, as well as opera and operetta, and maintains that the very category of music-theatre is a redundancy. In his own productions, music is everywhere. Most require a pit band or onstage musicians, a flawlessly choreographed ensemble, and musical set pieces, as well as virtuosic comic routines that are really arias and duets of wild gesticulation. And although he dismisses the efficacy of self-proclaimed political theatre in Germany in 2014, his productions dramatize the exuberant de-repression of everything that bourgeois society has stifled. This emancipatory joy is nowhere more visible than in his elaborately staged curtain calls that are sometimes even more bizarre than the productions they follow, and that seem to announce the contemporaneity, urgency and indispensability of theatre in a world that has declared it irrelevant.
I spoke with Herbert Fritsch in his Berlin apartment on July 31, 2014.
DAVID SAVRAN: How did you get your start in theatre?
HERBERT FRITSCH: My first real job as an actor was in Heidelberg, a very nice theatre, but after two years I said, “No, it’s not me.” Because they always told me, “You have to be real, you have to be really Herbert.” I said, “What? I don’t know who I am.”
Sounds like American theatre.
“Listen, and don’t overdo it. And please, don’t act.” For me it was horrible, because I was a fan of silent movies, of strong expression. And I was recording all these radio plays, and they always said to me, “Can’t you speak normal?” And I can’t. So I quit Heidelberg, and started my own show, Zero Show. I wanted to go onstage and do as much face work and body work as I could for one and a half hours, without any plot.
Now I tell actors about my experience, the things I could do onstage, what it is possible to do onstage. For me, it is a kind of a dream to give actors the possibility to really feel free, and not be forced to find out “Who I am.” Just move, just do it, just behave as you want. And sometimes people accuse me of being an animal trainer. But when actors behave so coolly onstage, thinking, “This is reality,” this is just mannerism. They behave like what they see in cinema, like Robert DeNiro. And they think that if they behave like this and speak like this, they are “real.” And I said, “I want to destroy these pictures.” You have to show them how to do it, and then they can get out of this picture they have of what they should do.
And this requires a kind of violence, to break through something. We do train them to be exact, to be able to repeat the rhythm, because the rhythm, the melody, the music is very, very important to me. Acting is singing and dancing. When you speak, it’s also singing. It’s about creating a new culture of speech onstage. But it’s not recitative, it’s more like Chinese Opera, with singing-speaking. And like the great actors of the ’20s.
Most theatre directors of the last 30 years say, “If you could do a movie, you could easily do this scene.” They haven’t been to the theatre, they don’t like the theatre. They’re always talking about how theatre is bullshit. For me, theatre is the highest art. It’s wonderful because it takes everything together and there is no discussion of Gesamtkunstwerk, because theatre already is. And there is no music-theatre, because music-theatre is a pleonasm. The theatre is music. Theatre is everything—it’s painting, it’s music, it’s speaking, it’s literature, it’s not-literature, it’s so many possibilities.
Because I don’t work with props, the physical work is more present. I don’t do it to make use of pantomime, but to see people moving, the whole body moving, using the whole body to make a picture. So the first thing I make is the stage design. And the first thing I think: empty space. With nothing, show everything. This is why I love theatre.
I’m always amazed by the sense of freedom your performers have, the fact that they do so many things I’ve never seen people do onstage and that I never imagined people could do onstage.
There’s a very important sentence for me: Vertrauen ist Überwindung von Komplexität [when you trust, you overcome complexity]. In other words, trust makes things easy. In theatre, there are so many variables. If you tried to direct every movement, you wouldn’t end in 10 years. But if you trust, then all these complicated things will happen by themselves. If you want to do something, you have to trust in the people, and then they can do more and more complex things.
But everything looks so polished, which I think is an interesting contradiction: through freedom and trust, you get precision.
It’s not a contradiction. It’s being exact, and being free. Okay, it’s a contradiction—but it shouldn’t be.
You’ve talked about the silent movie stars who have influenced you. What about Germans? When I tell my American friends about what a brilliant director of farce you are, they can hardly believe it because in the U.S., Germans are not known for comedy.
Normally in private I’m not overly humorous. Not like onstage. But what really annoys me with Germany is—okay, there’s a lot of guilt lying on Germany. And after the war, they used culture, theatre, everything, to work out the guilt. But this was still a product of the Nazis. There was a big misunderstanding because the Nazis appropriated Wagner and Nietzsche and incorporated them into a cult of stern seriousness, which continued after the war. People thought they got rid of Nazism, but they got more serious. They thought, “Oh, God, what did we do?” and forgot to change. And some people even told me that I am doing Nazi theatre, because it’s funny. Joseph Goebbels enjoyed Walt Disney and was a fan of American musicals, and so they say I’m a Nazi. But this is a big misunderstanding. And they say I don’t do political theatre. Political theatre in Germany always shows how bad everything is. But what did the Nazis kill? The Nazis killed humor. The Nazis killed the clowns. They killed comedians who were Jews and comedians who were not Jews. And this was German culture! But what we have to do now is to continue prewar culture, where it was cut off. And that’s what I want to do with my work. And this, for me, is political: to offer a new way of life, another way of life. This is wonderful!
David Savran is the author, most recently, of Highbrow/Lowdown: Theater, Jazz, and the Making of the New Middle Class (University of Michigan Press, 2009) and teaches at CUNY Graduate Center in New York City.