Frank Castorf

Last Act for Theater's Enfant Terrible

Frank castorf_DPA
Frank Castorf, German theater's enfant terrible, is being forced to leave the Volksbühne.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Frank Castorf transformed the German theater landscape but has been pressured to leave the theater he worked at following a controversy over how he adapted a play by Bertolt Brecht.

  • Facts


    • Frank Castorf once used homeless people as actors in one of his plays.
    • A recent production of “Berlin, Alexanderplatz,” involved nine hours of screaming and a car driving into the audience.
    • The Volksbühne in former east Berlin is one of Germany’s most avant garde theaters.
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Frank Castorf’s bold staging and experimental casting have transformed theater in Germany. Mr. Castorf, the son of a Berlin ironware merchant, grew up in former East Germany and has led one of Germany’s most avantgarde theaters since 1992. He recently made headlines for producing what was widely derided as an incomprehensible version of Wagner’s Ring opera cycle in Bayreuth, the home of the late composer and a pilgrimage destination for his fans. He is leaving Berlin’s Volksbühne and described his future plans.


DIE ZEIT: Mr. Castorf, your staging of Bertolt Brecht’s “Baal” at the Munich Residenz theater was banned after a suit by one of Brecht’s heirs, Ms. Barbara Brecht-Schall. You were accused of unlawfully changing Brecht’s original text. How much did that bother you?

Frank Castorf: At long last – I wanted one of my productions to be banned for ages, that happened last in the GDR. It’s laughable really, you wouldn’t think this would happen in the 21st century. Brecht himself wrote five different versions of the text up until the 1950s because he wasn’t happy with it. He was generally very lax about questions of intellectual property, I don’t think he would have wanted his work to be kept under a bell jar.

Didn’t you expect there would be problems with Brecht’s heirs? Ms. Brecht-Schall is famous for her insistence that people stick to his texts.

I did have concerns and I let the theater know about them. The theater was optimistic about how tolerant Brecht’s heir would be, but unfortunately, that tolerance was lacking.

You’re now staging a production in Hamburg of a piece by another author that Brecht changed just the way you did – Brecht and Arnolt Bronnen created “Pastor Ephraim Magnus” in 1923, by Hans Henny Jahnn.

When Brecht staged the piece in Berlin, he only kept 20 percent of the original text. The author Mr. Jahnn wasn’t happy about that but he accepted it, he was more easy going than many people know. The fact that he didn’t sue Brecht and Bronnen shows he didn’t take himself too seriously.

In your production of “Baal” which can be shown for the last time at Berlin’s theater festival in the summer, there’s a reference to Francis Ford Coppola’s film “Apocalypse Now.” The film tells the story of the search for a mad and unpredictable Colonel who has created his own kingdom in the jungle. When I watched the show, I had the sense that the Colonel is actually you, who has gone into the headwaters of the river and is shouting “the horror, the horror.” 

That’s a very flattering comparison but I’ll say this: Yes. Kurtz’s existence has a lot to do with art: he goes out to experience loneliness.

Is Berlin’s Volksbühne theater your version of the jungle?

The Volksbühne was a cultic home that protected me. When I leave and have to go back to my roots as a poor, Jewish relative, I’ll see how things go. The Volksbühne was a place I was glad to come back to, but things are changing.

And it is true: time on this earth is decreasing so one needs to be more brutal against oneself.

You’re walking away from the post of artistic director at the Volksbühne?

In Berlin the desire is growing for me to stop working there. The Old Testament says: they are neither hot nor cold. Oh, I wish they were hot and cold and not lukewarm. And Berlin isn’t lukewarm, but has become cool. Coolness is not my temperature. That’s why maybe it’s the right time to change.

When will you stop? Your contract ends in 2016.

We have a bit more time but not enough to restructure the theater.

Did you decide to leave or were you under political pressure to go?

It’s the wish of Berlin’s new arts policy. For my part, I can’t ever seem to find an ending, so I probably wouldn’t have found one at the Volksbühne theater either.

Have you fallen shy of political changes in Berlin?

With Berlin’s former mayor, Klaus Wowereit, there was always the hope that we’d part on friendly terms. Now he’s gone but he’s left behind him a political misunderstanding that I can’t fix.

What kind of misunderstanding?

A  lack of professionalism. They don’t really understand the strange place that the theater really is. They don’t realize that this theater, the Volksbühne, was a nest of resistance. Cultural politics have changed. Now everyone uses a lot of English terms and people seem to think that’s a way into understanding the intoxicating zone that is theater.


CAstorf Hamburg Pastor Ephraim
Typical Castorf: avant garde costumes and shock effects. Source: DPA


How was it when Mr. Wowereit was still in office?

He didn’t do anything – nothing bad either – and he gave the theater financial support. But in this town, there’s a lack of vision for theater and opera. There was a vision for the Olympics even though that has failed miserably in the past. In Berlin, people don’t learn from their mistakes – they want things that they don’t need.

In one of your past pieces there were so many monologues, what I was left with at the end was what felt like your voice. Were you seeking a dialogue?

Not really, I’m not a politician. My existence is about being cast back on reflection, and that only has one voice, my own. Was there a hunger for dialogue? Maybe at the end of the GDR, when people were looking for answers within a system that was damned to failure. If there had been dialogues with opponents of the system, anarchists, there could have been a third way, rather than a takeover. Unfortunately though, this dialogue was possible in Poland but not here. Even in the GDR, it seemed like the only voice I could trust…

Was your own?

Yes. These days we’re flooded with information, which you can only trust to varying degrees, the only voice you can count on is your own.

Many of your former colleagues, actors and playwrights at the theater all say there’s a moment with with you when you chase people out. Do you do that on purpose, break things off?

That’s what I’m conditioned to do, it’s just an extension of part of my character.

How do you mean?

Also in my personal life, I radicalize situations to the point where I don’t leave people but they leave me. The other person realizes we’ve reached a breaking point. Since I find it hard to say the words, “please leave,” I speed things up to the point where they change. Anyone intelligent will choose to leave or go their own way. That’s how it is in my personal life and with work too. Sometimes people need to part in order to come back to each other again, like Martin Wuttke [the German actor who played Hitler in “Inglorious Basterds”], who worked really well with Heiner Müller and Tarantino…

… In the film “Inglourious Basterds”? 

Yes, and who are now playing with me again. These actors are exceptional people – they’re fighters. They give me something in their uniqueness that I don’t have. They sacrifice themselves, they waste themselves.

You have worked with many people who were practically the opposite of you – like the music theater director Christoph Marthaler, for example.

What drew me to the Volksbühne was that people were always polar opposites. The vitality of these opposites is not repeatable forever. What happened at the Volksbühne back then with directors like Matthias Lilienthal, Christoph Schlingensief, Helene Hegemann and Rene Pollesch can’t go on forever.

Is this you speaking as Colonel Kurtz in the jungle?

It would be horrible to be murdered like Colonel Kurtz. But theater is a form of loneliness and being an outsider that helps foster productivity. It was always about being an outsider and that’s a good thing. The big network, the desire to belong to a community was always the biggest threat and the biggest danger to me. In the GDR, you never wanted to have anything to do with the majority of the people involved in theater.

How would you describe your political position?

I am sometimes unsure who I can trust politically – where lies the truth of politics and whom to entrust with this responsibility? I look at things from an Asian, or Russian point of view and am not just a Western democrat.

In your production of “Baal” you speak of France’s colonial past. Even though the attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo are very recent, you have avoided commenting on them.

In the “Baal” assassination something struck back similar to the Charlie Hebdo attacks. It wasn’t just socio-economic circumstances that led to this attack. The late revenge of the colonies has also reached Paris. Anyone who had anything to do with Charlie somehow thought they were Charlie. I don’t believe that.

Hamburg, Vienna, you seem to be producing non-stop these days. What’s the rush – do you feel time is running out?

No, at the moment I have the heartlessness of a futurist, I feel like I’m a machine.

How does the machine work?

It tries to work without breaks and that’s nice. When you work non-stop in an intuitive way, you discover something special. And it’s true, time on earth is decreasing so it’s important to be tougher with yourself, you have to work even at the risk of harming yourself, and faster. That was a great experience in Bayreuth: don’t think, act! To go your own way without knowing where you’ll end up. It’s like the French writer Céline who wrote and thought so fast that he developed the ellipses between sentences. So just go on! Compared to adventures like this, for directors it’s a lot less interesting to think about pay scales and things.

Why, because you run into walls?

Because you come out of the woods and realize you’re surrounded by administrators.

The dweller in the woods has been described by many authors, such as Ernst Jünger; as has the idea of the partisan described by Carl Schmitt, a Nazi thinker. Both the woodsman and the partisan are unpredictable characters, loners who are potentially destructive and who challenge the dominant order. What draws you to these characters – and to right wing authors like Jünger, Céline, Malaparte, Carl Schmitt?

I always ask those who are excluded from the consensus of the democrats. What did they blow up and why did they do things? That’s what’s most fun at the moment. Ultimately, it’s one of Clausitz’s ideas: that a partisan is someone in the forest who only leaves to take punitive action, changes things, then withdraws back into the forest again.


This interview originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author:

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