Professor Bernhardi: Bullying, Intrigue, and Survival

by Joseph Pearson

19 December 2016

Walking from Adenauerplatz to the Schaubühne on a drizzly December afternoon – in dispiriting weather that fuses humidity and low temperatures – I don’t know whether to feel hopeful or crushed. I’m encouraged that the far-right was defeated the day before in the 2016 Austrian Presidential re-election. But I am also thinking about Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 play, »Professor Bernhardi«, set in an Austrian hospital, and its theme of how anti-Semitism is made politically useful. The electoral margin in Austria was rather too close for comfort, wasn’t it, at 6,6%? And there is uncertainty in the upcoming French and German elections. I suddenly turn around, and blink. Was that Frauke Petry on Kurfürstendamm? No, she wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere near the Schaubühne.

I meet director Thomas Ostermeier, robed in black, in front of the theatre. We are both freezing; I jump up and down to stay warm. I make small talk; it feels very North-American of me. He shakes his head at my question, »Am I doing ok? Today is so important: the first run-through rehearsal on the big stage. Psychologically important, for the actors. We have been watering a plant, it has grown, and now, at this delicate moment, we need to make it flower«.

The plot is as follows: Professor Bernhardi – acted in the production by Jörg Hartmann, recently returned to the ensemble – heads a medical clinic. There, he finds his leadership position questioned after, out of medical necessity, he refuses to allow a priest to perform the last rites on a young woman. When his interference is politicised and called religiously motivated (Bernhardi is Jewish), colleagues and politicians take the opportunity to divest him of his position. Anti-Semitism is used as a political power-play. The setting came from the personal experiences of Schnitzler and his father; acculturated Jewish doctors were overwhelmingly represented in Vienna at the turn of the last century. The premiere was in Berlin because the banned play ruffled religious sensibilities in Austro-Hungary.

The play’s mechanism is prescient of the systematic elimination of Jews from professional posts in Germany in 1933. But it is also not hard to recognise the play’s resonance today. The mechanism can be applied to how vulnerable refugees, Muslims, homosexuals, racial minorities, and other subalterns in nation states, are instrumentalised for political gain.

Those familiar with the Schaubühne’s repertoire will be struck by how the play is a sequel of sorts to Ostermeier’s production of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, involving the same mob mentality in a chamber setting. But as Ostermeier explains, »This play presents not an idealised version of a hero standing up against authority, like in »An Enemy of the People«, but rather a more familiar story of those who are brought down by greater powers. What interested me was the situation of people at work. Most of the time you consider a play that is about love or death, but you rarely find plays which are dealing with strategies of power, bullying, intrigue, competition, and survival in a performative workspace«.

As we walk inside, by the box office, I want to ask him what’s on my mind: what is the epidemiology of political hatred, and its prophylaxis or eventual cure? Is its origin in the European soil, in the air? Are we dealing with sentiments that spread just like a disease?

Ostermeier tells me: »The play is an inquiry on a more detailed, subtle and complex level than you might see in agitprop performances. This is a more sociological approach to the issue. The people we are dealing with in the play are not what we might call »biological anti-Semites«; they do not operate out of contempt, but they use hatred for their agenda. This is something depressingly contemporary nowadays in Europe... Just 10 percent of a population might be racist, but it gets dangerous when [the rest of us] start to be infiltrated by these ideas«.

We bustle into Saal B for the important run-through. »Sit in the first rows«, he indicates stage-left once we are inside, »You’ll get the best volume«. And as I sit back, the staged tableau unfolds.

Professor Bernhardi invites us to think like doctors and also to see their limitations. This is a production set in white, clothed in white. We are in the laboratory; places and names invade the petri dish, and then multiply and break apart, like the Cy Twombly-esque words drawn by artist Katharina Ziemke throughout the performance. Schnitzler called his work a »serious comedy«, and there is an absurdity to the arcane hierarchies in their medical context, set against the brutality of dying to which the doctors have largely been inured. The officiousness by which Bernhardi’s position is dismantled is accompanied by a projected ballet of bureaucratic charts, pencils and paperwork.

The medical setting lends itself to metaphor-making. Medical debates of the time concerned the rise of specialisation and the erasure of a holistic idea of the patient. Perhaps the play’s reflection that Bernhardi is, ultimately, »a fool« comes from his thinking it is enough to do the right thing on his own terms. He is unable to see his personal tragedy as a broader political event. He is a specialist of organs, not of the whole body.

Ostermeier tells me, »I put it in one sentence: how can you be a humanistic person and not a political one in political times? Bernhardi does not see the big picture. Here, I think of Adorno’s quote: ›there’s no righteous life in the false one‹. Bernhardi tries to have righteous life in the wrong one. This is the misery of the 20th century. When fascism was rising in Germany, many intellectuals and artists tried to just stay out of it. They underestimated the danger.«

»This holds true for the danger in which we live in at the moment, as it was monstrously true for the Jews of Germany. It is true for racial minorities, homosexuals, and disabled people, and artists, writers, and so on. And so, the play should be considered a wake-up call. The question is: how far along are we already in our European societies? Is Hungary, Poland, or Denmark already like the society in Schnitzler’s »Bernhardi«?«

I lean back in my seat and continue watching. The performance runs through with hardly an interruption, almost two weeks before the premiere. I had, of course, heard of Ostermeier’s reputation as someone who gives himself plenty of time to get it right, but I had not quite expected this. A sense of exposure and minimalism is enhanced by the compositions of John Adams, and the aleatoric works of John Cage. But little is left to chance here.

»We are at the stage of adjusting the volume, the tension, the peaks and low notes«, he tells me. »Good for you«, I reply, »Most directors rush to do that in the days before and after the premiere«. »I’m not that kind of director«, he replies.

One thing that is immediately clear from Ostermeier’s style is his inductive direction (for more on this, I would suggest the chapter on directing that Ostermeier co-authored for Peter M. Boenisch’s study »The Theatre of Thomas Ostermeier« (Routledge, 2016)). Unlike deductive directors, Ostermeier lets the text guide his directorial decisions, as opposed to imposing a directorial style on the text. The text of »Professor Bernhardi«is central in a production that is unafraid of the long meditation. It allows delicate interactions to unfold and is demanding of audience members. They are asked to slow down and listen, to sit still as if a surgical procedure were occurring.

When the rehearsal’s final scene concludes, and the lights fade to black – not to give too much away – I am left thinking of one climactic moment. It brings us particularly close to the troubles affecting contemporary Europe. Late in the play, the priest confronts Bernhardi, explaining that the doctor was fully justified in denying access to the dying patient according to the rules of the medical profession. Yet, as a priest, he must serve a different truth. The messenger of love puts the truth of another world, and of his institution, above earthly truth and justice.

The problem with anti-Semitism, or racism, is that it too proceeds from a world view with its confirmation bias, and those who work within it cannot easily be reached. Those who, like Bernhardi, operate in a rational scientific universe, find themselves dangerously exposed when that other system of thought – impervious to logic and scientific rigour – occupies a position of power. Anti-immigrant sentiment, like anti-Semitism, presumes certain characteristics of its antagonists, which makes prejudice justifiable: that they hate Western civilisation, women, or gay people. It presumes too that there is a primary national culture that needs to be respected, in which the others cannot participate.

As Thomas Ostermeier concludes, »Germany’s AfD [Alternative for Germany Party] has become a xenophobic, homophobic, anti-refugee party, and every day, since the first big wave of refugees last summer, this has made the play more and more important«.

Professor Bernhardi

by Arthur Schnitzler
Version by Thomas Ostermeier and Florian Borchmeyer
Director: Thomas Ostermeier

Premiered on 17 December 2016