Review: Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald (History of the Viennese Wood)
by Ödön von Horvath
by Paul Murphy
The Volksbühne is situated in the east of the city centre, just a little further east from Mitte and the commercial boulevard Frederichstraße. Broadly speaking, it has the feeling of being a political theatre, with primitive art and (seeming) political slogans in the foyer, brash advertising posters done in an overtly Socialist-Realist style. Socialist-Realism was the former aesthetic of the former Communist regime. It depends on an outdated (pre-Modernist) aesthetic, where subtlety, abstraction, even any form of impressionism, are entirely sidelined in favour of everything that is big, brash, obvious, a clarion call to the most obviously grandiose populism. Although traces of this style persist, the Communists are now finished, the wall has been destroyed. The Volksbühne perhaps registers traces of the old regime while aiming itself somehow in the direction of its future.
The play Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald by Ödön von Horvath had been given a post-modern makeover by the Volksbühne. This play, written in 1931, was supposed to highlight the kind of social fracture experienced in the post-WW1 ferment that is now supposedly being experienced in East Berlin. Fracture is, perhaps, a kindly word in this context. Not only had society been fractured, it had been upended. The overall experience of Germans in the post-WW1 period was of a world turned upside down, where a conservative but workable justice system had broken down, when the line between criminality and law had become entirely blurred. Out of this critical moment in German and European history came art and filmic masterworks, the paintings of the art movement The Bridge, films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Nosferatu and Metropolis. Of course we are now in another post-war period: the time after the end of the Cold War and the beginning of, what has been styled, the war against terrorism.
The opening scene is performed in a film or theatre foyer, a poster of Nosferatu the vampire placed engagingly in the box office window. Clearly the director was keen to engage with some kind of self-referentiality, keenly aware of all the most obvious ghosts of German cinema and theatre that might appear. One of those ghosts is that of Max Schreck, the actor who played Nosferatu the vampire in the film by F W Murnau. (Even in his lifetime there were doubts and question marks about the identity of Schreck. His surname means fright or terror in German.) The play itself is interspersed with songs, which range from old-style romantic or nationalistic German ballads to songs by Pink Floyd and The Beatles. A definite Brechtian tendency to break up the narrative with commentaries from songs emerged in the play, even much slapstick humour which seemed to entirely engage the (large) audience. The play itself seemed to pull in several directions: towards some kind of slapstick or circus and then in a Brechtian direction. These two simultaneous pulls seemed, at times, incongruous, but in other ways, sympathetic to each other. Perhaps this underlined the fact that the audience was both sophisticated and naïve, or that the director wished to push towards a broader appeal.
Cursorily (for this is a cursory piece) the play was successful in engaging a large audience. The mise en scene was contemporary, the overall feeling of the play impromptu or al fresco, as if it had been written, pulled together five minutes before performance. The actors met the demands of simultaneous free, then engaged acting.