At the 2022 Reichenau Festival, Christian Berkel will make his debut as a stage director with a production of Frühlings Erwachen (Spring Awakening) involving Max Reinhardt Seminar students. A conversation on the existential life crisis of puberty, broken homes, and the power of theatre.
You’re well-known as an actor from innumerable German and international theatre and film productions. But this year’s Reichenau Festival will see you credited for the first time as a stage director. What brought you to directing?
Christian Berkel (CB): Back in the late 1980s, while I was at acting school, I also studied directing and screenwriting at the German Film and Television Academy Berlin (DFFB). At that time, I was still much closer to theatre: I’d spent 16 years acting mostly in stage productions—including one at the Akademietheater, incidentally. But then, my screen acting career took off so fast that I had zero time to dig any deeper into that whole other side of things. At some point along the way, however, I did start writing. I’ve since published two novels that grapple with German history, and my interest in writing and directing has just grown stronger and stronger.
In Reichenau, you’ll be directing a production of Frank Wedekind’s Frühlings Erwachen with Max Reinhardt Seminar students in the teenage roles. What’s your relationship with this play?
CB: It was when I played Hänschen Rilow myself in Düsseldorf, back in my early 20s, that I got hired on the spot by Hermann Beil to perform at Schauspielhaus Bochum. For me, that marked the beginning of what was to be the most important collaboration of my theatrical career. Maria Happel hadn’t known that when she asked me how I felt about Frühlings Erwachen and whether I thought it was still doable today. And when I sat down and reread it, I was taken aback by its power and developed this huge urge to put it on.
What do you like about it?
CB: Certain problems need to be revisited afresh from era to era. And I don’t know any other work in the history of literature where all of the usual topics surrounding puberty are worked through in quite this way, with these unbelievably astute observations. Wedekind shines a spotlight on juvenile suicide, sexuality in all of its various shades, and everything the preoccupies and disturbs young people, that makes puberty—this deep, initial life crisis—what it is. Later on in life, we’ve already experienced how crises are things that one emerges from. But in puberty, this is something we don’t yet know. That’s what lends this phase of life its impact and its horror. That a young person doesn’t know: Will I get through this? Falling in love, failing, suffering injuries for the first time—will I survive it at all?
The young people in Frühlings Erwachen face this crisis subject to the whims of an entirely uncomprehending and dismissive adult world; is that different today?
CB: Today, too, we’re dealing with a society that’s forgotten how to prepare young people for their emotional lives—so in this sense, not much has changed. We learn to avoid perceiving feelings and to repress them from the very beginning, really. It’s something you can experience at every playground! So we’re constantly dealing with people who lack emotional experience and practice. And in adult relationships, it leads to conflicts one hasn’t learned to talk about. Various examples of this were already shown by Wedekind.
For young people like Wendla, the fact that her parents don’t speak with her or explain anything ends up leading to a dramatic calamity. Is it still possible to approximate how this feels today?
CB: While it’s clear that every present-day teenager knows how children are made, it’s still hugely problematic today if, say, a 14-year-old girl becomes pregnant. And one fundamental problem has hardly changed: we may be living in an extremely sexualised era, but we’re still just as speechless when it comes to dealing with sexuality and emotions as they were in Wedekind’s day. So in this respect, it’s a fascinating play, and I think it’s as provocative as ever.
Wendla, who ends up getting pregnant and dies from an attempted abortion, battles against this speechlessness: she asks her mother explicit questions but gets left alone with them, which plunges her into misery and ultimately kills her. Wedekind’s portrayal of this existential drama is at eye level with his young characters.
CB: Shame is a big theme in this play, as is the attendant disgrace—a disgrace that’s always tantamount to social ostracism. Just take a look at the family situations portrayed here. Wendla is fatherless. Her mother, who calls in a backstreet abortionist, fears disgrace. She’s an abandoned woman, a socially shunned single parent—and if it should also come out that her daughter’s pregnant, she’ll be socially dead. She’d rather run the risk of her daughter dying than die socially—which is brutal. The other family, that of Moritz Stiefel, is missing a mother. She does exist, evidently—she’s not dead. But she doesn’t even attend her son’s funeral. So wherever we look, it’s broken homes—homes broken in ways that are by no means unfamiliar to us today. In our own era, patchwork families, separation, and being raised by a single parent are almost the rule. We pretend as if that were perfectly okay. But whenever it happens, it entails a deep loss of trust on the part of the children.
It’s not just in Frühlings Erwachen that parents simply pass on their own problems to their kids without further comment. How can the speechlessness that you mentioned before be put onstage? And with what sorts of ideas will you begin rehearsing?
CB: The world of the circus held a strong fascination for Wedekind, and he even spent some time travelling with a circus himself. What’s more, he was closely tied to cabaret—and stated repeatedly that he found it important to also bring out the humour in every scene. Wedekind is always shooting for tragicomedy, for both aspects—and his humour is of the acerbic and occasionally satirical variety. This whole aspect is very important to me, and we’ll also be working it into our stage design in the new hall of the Festspielhaus, which is itself already set up like an arena. I also view the whole notion of “circus” to be a metaphor of life, a timeless metaphor. The circus is something that takes us back to early childhood—the experience of getting dressed up, being different, and also of forging on ahead, testing ourselves. It’s a metaphor that goes together very well with this play and can perhaps protect it from any excessively strict interpretation. So this is the route I’d like to take with the actors.
In your production, “experienced” actors in the adult roles will be playing vis-à-vis the Max Reinhardt Seminar students as the teenagers.
CB: It’s unbelievably interesting to do this play with such young actors, actors at the very outset of their careers. I checked out three years’ worth of Max Reinhardt Seminar students and was extremely impressed by the level they’re at. The majority of the cast are second-year students—so it’s almost like an ensemble! These young people are so highly gifted that really every single one of them absolutely would be suitable for all of the leading roles.
What does it mean to you to go back to working for the stage after so many years spent working in international film, as well as after all the limitations imposed on cultural life due to the pandemic?
CB: Theatre is a basic need. We’re not solitary beings. We need the Other; we form a society, and we need to be mirrored and to express ourselves—which is also part of what Frühlings Erwachen is about. This pandemic has left deep marks upon society, and I worry that the return to normalcy won’t be all that easy. We’ve experienced a loss of innocence, and that’s rough. The need for theatre is great, and stagecraft has an important responsibility to address all this. We’ve experienced how the laws by to which our world functions can change drastically in the mere blink of an eye, with us being forced to do the opposite of what a society’s actually supposed to do for the sake of our own protection. And that’s something we won’t be so quick to unlearn.
Christian Berkel’s production of Frühlings Erwachen will go onstage from 3 July to 6 August 2022 at the Reichenau Festival. Details and tickets at: theaterreichenau.at