Germania Tod in Berlin

[This page by Michael Wood] 

Germania Tod in Berlin; Germania Death in Berlin

Heiner Müller began assembling material for Germania Tod in Berlin; Germania Death in Berlin in 1956, and completed work on it in 1971. It was first published in 1977 with the East German Rotbuch Verlag. Along with other works such as Leben Gundlings Friedrich von Preußen Lessings Traum Schlaf Schrei; Life of Gundling Frederick of Prussia Lessing’s Dream Sleep Scream, Die Schlacht; The Battle, and Germania 3. Gespenster am toten Mann; Germania 3. Ghosts at the Dead Man, it is considered a synthetic fragment. That is, it consists of disjuncted, fragmentary scenes, or images, which do not follow an overt structure, rather a thematic thread runs through them. The play recieved its world première at the Münchner Kammerspiele, Munich, in 1978, under the direction of Ernst Wendt and Johannes Schütz, and proved popular on both the West German, and international stage. Its first performance within the German Democratic Republic took place at the Berliner Ensemble, Berlin, in 1989, directed by Fritz Marquardt.

As stated above, Germania has an immensely complex structure: it consists of short and long scenes, not chronologically ordered to form a single narrative. The first scene begins in a Berlin street in 1918, and accelerates history to move from the end of the first World War to the the Kiel Mutiny, to the revolution, and then to the establishment of the Weimar Republic, then ends, and the second scene announces the establishment of the GDR in 1949. The following scenes jump between the eighteenth century, the second World War, and mythical time of the Nibelungenlied, before the play ends again in the twentieth century. Müller’s text weaves its way throughout history, while always maintaining a sense of anachronism: in the individual scenes themselves, historical figures (such as Julius Caesar and Napoleon) feature as ghosts, haunting the present state of affairs. Germania herself enters the play, aiding Joseph Goebbels as he gives birth to Adolf Hitler’s child, a wolf – a birth which is attended by the three kings who followed the star of Bethlehem. Müller’s blend of the historical and the mythological focuses attention on the question of cultural heritage of the German peoples, and the barbarism committed in their name. This is, however, not a purely German barbarism, but figures within a larger European malady.  

Aside from the historical and mythological scenes, Müller includes a scene entitled ‘Nachtstück’ (‘Night Piece’), which describes the actions of a man, who might be a marionette. This fearful image of man as hybrid man-machine is also found at the end of the Nibelungen scene in which, after slaughtering each other, Günter, Hagen, etc.’s remains come together with metal to form a cyborg-like monster. The play also features large amounts of cannibalism as historical figures threaten the living: Hitler eats his soldiers; the dead of Stalingrad consume the living; and Frederick the Great returns to the GDR as a vampire to claim the blood of a hero of the workplace who has deigned to sit in a throne. While fundamentally questioning German heritage, Germania is also a radical critique of the Marxist concept of a teleologically ordered, rational process of history: here, history breaks into the present, is anachronistic, and it serves to terrorise the present. Rational process appears to signal nothing but a perpetuation of the (now mechanised) killing-machine, which appears in full swing throughout the play. Germania ends with the assertion that children at play, playing ‘Mason and Capitalist’ never want to be the capitalist: is Müller hopeful of a new direction in history away from the brutal history of capitalism and its partner-in-crime, imperialism? Or is Müller perhaps more sceptical of the socialist East’s capacity to move beyond tyranny, as it fails to recognise its own involvement in this history?

Further Reading in English

Robert von Dassanowsky-Harris, ‘The Dream and the Scream: ‘Die deutsche Misere’ and the Unrealized GDR in Heiner Müller’s Germania Tod in Berlin’, New German Review 5-6 (1989/90), 15-28

Helen Fehervary, ‘Enlightenment or Entanglement: History and Aesthetics in Bertolt Brecht and Heiner Müller’, New German Critique 8 (1976), 80-109

Theresa M. Ganter, Searching for a new German Identity: Heiner Müller and the Geschichtsdramen (Bern: Lang, 2008)

Jonathan Kalb, The Theater of Heiner Müller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)

Further Reading in German

Carlotta von Maltzan, Zur Bedeutung von Geschichte, Sexualität und Tod im Werk Heiner Müllers (Frankfurt a.M.: Lang, 1988)

Web Links

Review in Die Zeit of the world première in Munich in 1978.

Trailer for production in Patrick Schimanski’s production in concordia, Bremen, 2009.

A scene from the above production at the concordia, Bremen, 2009.

Podium discussion regarding the play, featuring Patrick Schimanski, Gregor Gysi, and Thomas Irmer.