Lethal Leitmotif

In Berlin, a Musical Assault Against Anti-Semitism and Racism

Scrubbing parliament clean. Source: BERND UHLIG/STAATSOPER
Scrubbing parliament clean.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Christoph Marthaler wants his “Last Days” to pay homage to Jewish composers who were expelled or murdered during the Nazi era.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • In 2011, Christoph Marthaler won the prestigious Swiss theater award Hans-Reinhart-Ring.
    • He first staged “Last Days” in the historic Austrian parliament chamber.
    • “Last Days. An Evening Before” runs through September 7, at Berlin’s Schiller Theater.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Was it meant as a counterpoint, or was this start to Berlin’s classical season the result of bad scheduling? As the Berlin Philharmonic’s music festival began with Barenboim’s Brahms, the Berlin State Opera opened before its official start with the Swiss director Christoph Marthaler and his screamingly quiet musical evening, “ Last Days. An Evening Before.”

It was first staged in 2013 in Vienna, as a theatrical confrontation with a place that is now a relict, sitting most of the time deserted, while the voices of the past continue to echo inside.

Mr. Marthaler premiered “Last Days” in the historic chamber of the Austrian parliament, seating his actors and musicians in the rows once occupied by representatives from Bukovina to Dalmatia – once parts of the Habsburg empire.

Karl Kraus, one of Austria’s most prominent writers of the early 20th century, whose drama “The Last Days of Mankind” Mr. Marthaler alludes to in his title, often followed the parliamentary debates aghast: “How shall this state, with these speeches being delivered in its parliament, not perish?”

The historic location remains in Vienna, but Mr. Marthaler has brought the speeches to Schiller Theater in Berlin, where the Berlin State Opera is playing while its own building is being renovated.

The director, who in 2011 won the prestigious Swiss theater award, the Hans-Reinhart-Ring, has turned the place upside down. The audience takes their seats on a towering platform on the stage and looks in mild horror at the theater’s seats.

Some have had their screws loosened so they hang crookedly, plastic sheeting covers the upper tier, in the middle of which a scaffold rises. The whole thing is a construction site, in Berlin a worn-out metaphor, which is supposed to represent old Vienna’s parliamentary chamber.

Things would start becoming unwieldly, if it were not for the invisible wandering piano tones that have claimed the place for themselves.

The chamber needs to be cleaned for some commemoration day or another, without stirring up dust in the process. The cleaning ladies are only interested in their varicose veins until a speaker greets the Kaiser of Habsburg Europe and remarks that anti-Semitism has been declared Unesco World Heritage as an outstanding European characteristic, just like democracy before it.

A politician from Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) played by Katja Kolm roars about the genetic superiority of Europeans and punctuates her bile with an Alpine yodel.

It is the only fictitious speech of the evening. Shortly thereafter, actor Josef Ostendorf’s massive body is squeezed behind a lectern and, in a quiet monotonous voice, he delivers a tirade made by former Mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger.

“Anti-Semitism will disappear when the last Jew disappears,” he says.

Mr. Marthaler lets the rhetorical poison slowly trickle, unimpeded it flows forward to the present, in which actor Ueli Jäggi makes an abysmal speech crafted from quotes from Hungary’s current right-wing populist leader Viktor Orbán and his inner circle: “We are Democrats, we need no opposition,” it goes before “gypsies” are made out to be the nation’s mortal enemies.

After this he fails to come down from the speaker’s platform in a manly manner. It is erratic slapstick that serves as the last savior of human dignity. A politician from Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) played by Katja Kolm roars about the genetic superiority of Europeans and punctuates her bile with an Alpine yodel.

It’s all rather vile, and only slightly broken up by Mr. Marthaler’s theatrical mechanics: a couple of childish excesses among representatives here, a little bit of lethargy there, and some twisted utopia, as the stalwart anti-Semites and racists shirk under the sounds of the music and flee.

And it is not just any music. Mr. Marthaler wants his “Last Days” to pay homage to Jewish composers who were expelled or murdered: Ernest Bloch, Pavel Haas, Szymon Laks, Erwin Schulhoff, Alexandre Tansman — and Viktor Ullmann, whose last fragmented composition, written in 1943 in Theresienstadt, is the crowning musical moment of the evening.

The musicians of the Vienna group play in an imaginary concentration camp band with two violins, clarinets, double bass, accordion and harmonica. In the end, a concert lingers, and so does a memory.

The German folksong “Flamme, empor!”  (“Flame, aloft1”) is belted out sometime in the middle of the performance, which runs two-and-a-half hours without intermission. This call for a free Germany, in 1993, already rang out with Mr. Marthaler’s “Murx den Europäer!” (“Kill the Europeans!”), where music penetrated out of concentration camp ovens before everyone finally succumbed to the Klezmer sounds.

Does Mr. Marthaler’s necromancy and its banishment through the power of music still work in view of the endless cycle of hatred? His conspiratorial ensemble, all dressed in the eternal beige of senior citizens, traipses through the upper tier.

They sing: “He that endure to the end, the same shall be saved,” from Medelssohn-Bartholdy’s “Elijah.” They also sang that in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The verse immediately before it in the New Testament reads: “And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.”

The people dressed in beige can’t be seen anymore, their singing hovers in the lobby. Maybe these “Last Days” are indeed that: a frosty plea for warm hearts.

This story first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. It was translated by Mary Beth Warner. To contact the author: redaktion@tagesspiegel.de 

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