Hallelujah Neuruppin!
»fontane.200« at the Schaubühne

by Joseph Pearson

21 December 2017

As Rainald Grebe’s song, »Brandenburg«, puts it, in Berlin there’s so much going on, but in Brandenburg only the wolves are coming back. In Berlin, there’s Chanel, Galeries Lafayette, and the Adlon Hotel; while in Brandenburg it’s Lidl, car dealerships, and muskrats swimming in your pool. Brandenburg is, of course, also the home of Potsdam’s palaces and collections, but more often than not it’s seen only in the halo, penumbra, or shadow, of the glittering German capital (»Hallelujah Berlin!«). Brandenburg is too often defined in opposition, or in relation to the metropolis, and not taken on its own merits. Hinterlands suffer from comparisons; often they are passed over as boring.

So, it’s no small beer that a Brandenburg municipality of 30 000, northeast of Berlin, Neuruppin, can lay claim to such an important figure in the history of German literary production as Theodor Fontane (1819-1898). An international personality, an anglophile, war journalist, and novelist (»Effi Briest« (1895) and »Der Stechlin« (1897)), Fontane is considered the greatest exponent of poetic realism in 19th-century German prose. Born the son of a town pharmacist, he himself escaped to Berlin, 70 km distant (or a full-day wander), as a teenager like so many young people from Brandenburg who leave for the capital today. Neuruppin is now just holding on to its inhabitants, much better than other locales whose populations are depleting.

2019 is the 200th anniversary year of Fontane’s birth. Neuruppin is celebrating with a massive investment of 1,84 million Euros in the fontane.200 project. There’s an online-countdown, a Fontane-Festspiel, research, exhibitions. To herald the 2019 Festivities – one year in advance – cabarettist, and »Brandenburg« lyricist, Rainald Grebe is mounting a production of »fontane.200« at the Schaubühne. It’s a collage from the works of Fontane and its reception in the 21st century.

Grebe is no stranger to the theatre, having produced his piece »Westberlin« in 2015. He puts it this way, »I’ve done the city, so now I need to go back to the countryside«.

Fontane’s early works, in particular, celebrate a flat, sandy, and lake-dotted landscape. The »Wanderings through Mark Brandenburg« (»Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg«) are not just poetic and realistic descriptions of places Fontane saw, walking through this part of Germany, but something more. When Fontane was in Scotland in 1858, he was struck by how the landscape summoned a sense of history and culture through literature; this romanticism compelled him to »go and show« poetically in Brandenburg as well: »Geh’ hin und zeig’ es!«

When I arrive in the practice space for Grebe’s new production, I am treated to an image from these wanderings. Two curtains are drawn across the stage. Behind them, I see the heads of actors sometimes popping up. Then above rises the cut-out image of a wanderer with a backpack and walking stick. He begins to hike, and in the background a series of images, scenes of Brandenburg, pass. Not just from the past, but also of today: sheep, chickens, but then a man on a tractor, a car (perhaps from Berlin) with bicycles on top going to a lake, a wind generator. Grebe goes up on stage and peeks behind the curtain, to talk to actor Damir Avdic who obviously seems to enjoy playing with his puppet. Later, in another scene, I see Florian Anderer climb up a massive stairwell, up to the top of what is a painted birch tree, from which he lets pages of prose fall like leaves.

»I thought here about a Theatrum Mundi«, Grebe tells me, speaking of the scene with the wanderer, »The world made small. God is the great engineer, of ideas, and we people are but automatons«.

Grebe uses a number of devices to compose his collage of Fontane’s works, against the background of Brandenburg and its history. One is the cut-up technique, made popular in the 1950s by William S. Burroughs, where text is dismantled, so it is no longer linear, and stitched back together in ways that provide new perspectives on the material. The challenge, of course, is to translate Fontane’s sometimes highly wrought language and poetic realism visually, or in terms of movement to the stage. Grebe tells me he wishes to »set Fontane to music«. And, indeed, music, like in »Westberlin«, is a connecting tissue through the production, with composer Jens-Karsten Stoll again participating.

Yet another challenge of a piece is that any evocation of Heimat in Brandenburg, even one that focuses on a German writer and landscape, can be easily co-opted by the right-wing. The Alternative for Germany (AfD), who enjoy approximately 20% support in Brandenburg, speak of wanting to promote historic German literary figures, to bolster a nationalistic project. These declarations of national pride are especially complicated in Brandenburg – as the region used to be the heartland of old Prussia. The Allies officially abolished Prussia, of course, in 1947 because (to quote the decree) »from early days [Prussia] has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany« – the very impulses that now find continuity in today’s AfD movement.

The far-right, however, should think twice about picking Fontane as their mascot. The figure might have regional roots, but he was also international and cosmopolitan. Grebe is well attuned to the debate and says, »I prefer to think in terms of the »Glokal« [global meets local] when it comes to Fontane«. Indeed, it would be metropolitan snobbism to think that only those who celebrate the city can be international: certainly, Fontane shows the opposite can be the case.

Grebe does not keep the problems of history at a distance. The historical context is perhaps best seen as a series of filters, through which we can look at Fontane’s work.

Grebe tells me, »I am interested in the post-war era, and how Brandenburg was experienced during the socialism of the DDR. And then there are tensions with that inheritance today, as aristocratic families return, to properties restored to them. One source for me has been a good and thick book called »The Ruppiner Diary« [»Das Ruppiner Tagebuch«], originally compiled but suppressed in the DDR, by Franz Fühmann. Even Fontane was aware of his position in history, putting a historical perspective on how industrialisation of the time was changing the landscape. We try to bring Fontane into the present and – «, he jokes, »What other theatre piece are you going to see that’s set in the German-Danish war [of 1864]?«

What fontane.200 promises to do best, perhaps, is create a sense of place. And Grebe in conversation speaks with a certain nostalgia, as he describes landscape and the cultural inheritance of a region in which he partly lives.

»There is something about driving in that landscape and listening to radio Antenne Brandenburg. It’s the happy sound of the 1980s and 1990s. Antenne Brandenburg is completely different from stations in Berlin. It spreads across the region. It’s softer and there’s more »Schlager« than what you get in the capital. And when it’s cold and rainy, suddenly they’ll play a song about Spain. Or a song like »I can turn back time«. Because Brandenburg, and this show, have something to do with yesterday«.

Interview in German. Translated and edited by Joseph Pearson

fontane.200: Insights into the Preparations for the Bicentenary of Theodor Fontane's Birthday in the Year 2019

An evening with Rainald Grebe
Direction: Rainald Grebe

Premiered on 14 January 2018