Hans-Jürgen Bartsch at the Berliner Ensemble
1 September 2020
The Berliner Ensemble premiered Gott (God), Ferdinand von Schirach’s latest work for the stage. As it addresses the constitutional, legal, medical, and ethical aspects of assisted suicide, the choice of title is puzzling. Religious beliefs are but one of the issues addressed. Only half-way into the performance do we understand that the title is meant as a reference to the Grundgesetz (Basic Law), the German constitution of 1949 which states in its preamble that the German people have adopted the constitution “conscious of their responsibility before God and man.” We also learn that according to constitutional law experts this reference is explained by the post-war origin of the text but is irrelevant for the interpretation of the individual rights guaranteed by the constitution.
Photo credit: Matthias Horn.
Von Schirach is a lawyer, and it shows. Like Terror (he does like short titles), his first excursion into playwriting in 2015, God is structured as a debate on a controversial issue. ln the customary meaning of the word, this is not really a play. There is no plot to speak of and almost no dramatic action. As in Terror, which dealt with a criminal trial, the audience is invited to witness the proceedings of a public meeting and, at the end of the performance, to take sides by voting on a verdict. Here we follow the deliberations of the German Ethics Council (a multidisciplinary advisory body) on the legal and ethical implications of euthanasia.
The council has been convened to debate the case of Frau Gartner (Josefin Platt), a 78-year-old widow who is determined to commit suicide but has unsuccessfully sought a doctor’s help in obtaining a lethal drug. Her problem: she is not terminally ill, nor does she suffer from depression or insufferable pain. To justify her decision, she explains that she feels abandoned since her husband died of a brain tumour and sees no point in carrying on without him.
Photo credit: Matthias Horn.
May or should a doctor help a patient to commit suicide? After the chairman (Gerrit Jansen) asked the participants to debate this question, we listen to a series of lengthy expositions by the invited experts and the members of the council, interspersed with some acrimonious exchanges with Frau Gartner’s quick-witted lawyer Biegler (Martin Rentzsch), and his client’s repeated assertion that she is resolute about wanting to end her life. The legal expert Dr Litten (Judith Engel) starts off by explaining the difference between lawful and illegal assistance, recapitulating a recent judgment of the Federal Constitutional Court. ln 2015, parliament had made “geschäftsmäßige Beihilfe” (assistance for proﬁt) a criminal offence and limited lawful assistance to cases of terminally ill patients.
In February this year, the Constitutional Court declared this provision unconstitutional, on the grounds that “the constitutional right of self-determination includes the right to self-determined dying and to that end to seek the voluntary assistance of others”. The dogged council member Keller (Bettina Hoppe) vehemently – and loudly – disagrees with the court’s decision and with Dr Litten’s interpretation which she blasts as “a declaration of moral bankruptcy”. The representative of the medical profession, the cocksure Dr Sperling (lngo Hülsmann), also disagrees; he criticizes the court for not distinguishing between ill and healthy patients, questions whether a doctor could ascertain if the decision to commit suicide has been taken of the person’s own free will, and argues that active assistance would constitute abetting in the crime of murder. The last speaker, Bishop Thiel (Veit Schubert), predictably condemns suicide as “pure egoism”; for him “life also means suffering … it is sacred” and a “gift from God”— whereupon Biegler quips: “Gifts may be given back.” The two-hour verbose disputation, directed by Oliver Reese, is instructive, certainly for the law students in the audience, but it doesn’t make for an absorbing stage play.
The set doesn’t help. The three-tier wooden construction covering the whole stage (design: Hansjorg Hartung) — intended, I suppose, to resemble the podium in an assembly hall — poses a problem for the actors. It gives them little opportunity to shine. When they are not “on”- and this l often for a long while — they sit or stand around, wander about, or climb to the upper tier to help themselves to refreshments from a drinks trolley, the only prop on this otherwise bare stage. When it is their turn to speak, however, it is a pleasure to listen to them. Their diction is pitch-perfect – as is to be expected of this theatre’s top-class performers.