Hans-Jürgen Bartsch in Germany
22 October 2022
Had they not been compelled to go into a (temporary) exile four years ago, the Komödie and the adjacent Theater am Kurfürstendamm would have looked back on a century-long presence on Berlin’s fashionable boulevard where both theatres were inaugurated in the early 1920s. Heavily damaged during the war, they were faithfully restored in the original style in the 1950s, and in the 1970s integrated into the “Ku’damm-Karree”, a modern high-rise office block. For nearly eight decades they have been run as private theatres by the Woelffer family, now in the third generation. Berliners refer to them as the “Woelffer-Bühnen” (the “Woelffer stages”).
In the summer of 2018, wrecking balls began demolishing the office block, to prepare the ground for the construction of yet another shopping and office complex. It will contain a new 640-seat auditorium for the Komödie in the basement – regrettably with less than half the combined seating capacity of the two demolished theatres.
Pending its completion, the Komödie has been granted temporary refuge in the Schiller Theater, West Berlin’s state theatre until 1993 when, in the wake of the country’s re-unification, budgetary constraints forced the city government to shut it down. During the last four years, it has operated there as the “Komödie am Kurfürstendamm im Schiller Theater”. The return to its former address was originally scheduled for the end of 2021, but had to be postponed; the new edifice is still a building site.
In March 2023, the Komödie will enter a new phase of its odyssey, expected to last for at least another two years: it will move into the Theater am Potsdamer Platz, a musical theatre in the city centre (which also hosts the Berlinale, the annual international film festival). Filling its 1700 seats, 600 more than in the Schiller Theater, will present quite a challenge, and so will, after its homecoming to Kurfürstendamm, the need to re-adjust its programming to the size of a much smaller auditorium.
One of the last plays on show at the Schiller Theater was Münchhausen or: Freuds letzte Reise (Münchhausen or: Freud’s Last Journey), based on a comic book by the cartoonists Flix (Felix Görmann) and Bernd Kissel and adapted for the stage by Sönke Andresen. Known in German narrative literature since the fifteenth century as the “Lügenbaron” (“lying baron”), Münchhausen is famous for his tall stories – highly imaginative accounts of unlikely adventures, such as the one where he rides over a battlefield on a cannonball to spy on the enemy, or where he hurls an axe so powerfully into the air that it lands on the moon and he has to climb up on a beanstalk to recover it.
Photo credit: Franziska Strauss.
On the Komödie’s stage we meet Münchhausen after he has returned from yet another excursion to the moon – or so he wants us to believe. In 1939, shortly before the beginning of World War II, an elderly man, Erich Bürger, landed on the roof of Buckingham Palace in a hot-air balloon. Interrogated by the British security service MI6, which suspects him of being a German spy, he presented himself as Baron von Münchhausen and claimed to have returned from picking strawberries on the moon (“on the reverse side of it”). When the officers interrogating him fail to get any sense out of him (“He just kept smiling and stayed polite, even when we broke his fingers”), they engage the Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud who reluctantly agrees to assist them because he had been granted political asylum in Britain and does not want to be seen as ungrateful.
Freud has no illusions about solving the mystery of this scatter-brain patient. Nor does he fall for the flattery of the lady in charge of special operations who tells him “His Majesty needs your help”, to which he curtly replies: “Your Majesty is not my Majesty”.
In the following two hours we watch the MI6 office being transformed into Freud’s consulting room – including the famous couch and a Persian carpet – and the neurologist trying to make sense of his patient’s fantasies. Freud doesn’t succeed, but the two men gradually develop sympathy for each other on the understanding that the borderline between fantasy and reality is often blurred.
The blend of historic facts with a Münchhausen-style tale makes this an original and highly entertaining play. Andreas Gergen directs a formidable ensemble: Jytte-Merle Böhrnsen, cross-gender cast as Münchhausen, as a chirpy, good-humoured storyteller; Matthias Freihof as a frail Dr Freud (he died of cancer in his London exile in 1939) who is not immune himself to drifting off into fanciful dreams; Marcus Ganser, in the disguise of a rag doll, who serves Freud as a medium; Karina Krawczyk as the resolute if stressed MI6 agent; and Max Ortner as her calm assistant.
Unfortunately, with the acoustics of the Schiller Theater’s vast auditorium they faced a problem which was out of their control. Münchhausen consists mainly of dialogues; it is a Kammerspiel (chamber or intimate play). But to reach their audience, the actors were compelled to raise their voices as if performing in a grand action drama.