Reflections by Karein Goertz, RC German and Arts and Ideas in the Humanities Faculty. Photos by Robby Griswold.
The idea of inviting Margrit Straßburger to the Residential College was hatched a number of years ago in a little café near the Gorki theater in Berlin.
As she related her life story—from an unconventional childhood among performing artists to a daring escape from East Germany and then a new beginning in the West where she knew no one—I was intrigued by Staßburger’s ability to pull me into her narrative. Even off stage, this petite woman with bright red hair and lively eyes embodied theatricality: the cadence of her voice, her gestures and expression, the dramatic pauses. She was drawn to the theater, she said, because she loves to transform herself and, after listening to her, it was clear that she can also transform language and the physical space around her. I wanted my students to experience the resonant beauty of German spoken so artfully. When we discovered our shared passion for the poetry of Mascha Kaléko, our friendship was sealed. After Straßburger told me that she had created a so-called literary collage of this underappreciated poet’s work, entitled Bonjour Berlin, I knew I wanted to bring her to Ann Arbor. With the generous support of the Residential College, Arts at Michigan, and the Germanic Languages Department, I was able to invite her to campus for a 5-day residency in February 2019.
Straßburger is a German actress, chanteuse, voice-over artist and director who works in theater, radio and film. She received her theatrical training at the Ernst Busch Theater School in East Berlin in the 1980s and started her career at the renowned Volksbühne. Since the 1990s, she has performed in theaters throughout Germany and has also built an independent career. As a solo artist, Straßburger creates and performs dramatic monologues based on the lives of historical figures that particularly move her. These have included the exiled poet Heinrich Heine, the rivaling Maria Stuart and Queen Elisabeth, and Bettina von Arnim who wrote passionate letters to Goethe. Straßburger was intrigued by Mascha Kaléko’s life story and her signature blend of satire, wit and lyricism. Kaléko’s early poems, often written in saucy Berlin dialect, were unsentimental “everyday miniatures” of life, love and work in the big city. They first appeared in newspapers in 1929 and because they “captured the spirit of the times”, quickly won the hearts of Berliners. Later, after censorship and anti-Semitism forced her to leave Berlin for New York, Kaléko’s poems turned to her experience of exile, longing, and alienation. These themes are strikingly relevant to our current moment of refugee crisis, rising racism and demagoguery.
Straßburger’s one-woman play, Bonjour Berlin, tracks the different phases of Kaléko’s life through her poems that are recited and sung, with prose intertexts, improvisation and audience participation. There is Kaléko as emigrant child who once believed that “peace happens when the war is over,” as young woman whose “heart is an instrument of dark desires, unfailingly love-struck, if only with love itself,” and as disenchanted lover who calls it all a “scam that we give our heart away, when in fact it gives us away and we watch.” There is Kaléko as social critic portraying the lives of ordinary people who can’t afford the luxuries of the big city: “What do you live for? To eat! And the dreams of your youth? Long gone! Those ‘loftier interests’ are done. You’re just far too beat!” Kaléko as feminist who condemns the objectification of women, “legs: our working asset and best reference, salary: depends on the waist’s narrow circumference,” and who suggests that the poet’s “rose-mouthed Venus” is probably typing his manuscript, cooking his food and changing the baby’s diapers. There is the dreamer who can “take her pencil and travel with it on a colorful map” or who “never gets used to what is beautiful and miraculous.” Then there is the melancholic who “waits sometimes for that thing they call happiness.” Most moving are Kaléko’s poems about exile, when the “nightingales turned mute, looking for their safe perches, and only the vultures shrieked high above the rows of graves.” Here is the mournful voice of the banished: “It occasionally feels as if the heart in me has shattered. I sometimes get homesick, I just don’t know what for.” Returning to Berlin after many years away is an uncanny experience. The poem resonates with anyone who has been forced to leave a place they once called home and that has been irrevocably changed.
The Grünewald today smells of Spring
Everything is asking me, how I find Berlin
How I find it? Well, I’m searching for it still
I do so violently, under the ruins of humanity
Among the remnants left behind
In my heart I go through the streets
Where often nothing but a street sign stands
The former city that thousands have forgotten
Lives on in me, the stranger
I wander as in a trance
through this landscape of time and space
When Straßburger—white dress, red gloves and red hat, suitcase and book in hand—recites this last poem to the intermittent soundtrack of birds and with light that time-travels between the seasons, the audience looks upon a stage covered with the remnants of the past scenes of Kaleko’s life. After the words “How many I saw that I no longer see! How loudly Pompeii’s rocks spoke to me! Pompeii without pomp. Bonjour Berlin!” Straßburger exits through the audience and the pianist picks up the play’s recurrent wistful motif from Satie’s “Gnossiennes.”
Play an excerpt of Margrit performing one of Kaléko's poems, Den Snobisten (The Snobs)
Little did I know how intense, rewarding and educational this visit would be. It was exhilarating to witness firsthand how the script of Bonjour Berlin came alive in the physical space of the Keene Theater, through Straßburger’s voice, gesture and movement, the carefully selected props, live piano accompaniment, atmospheric lighting, photographs and explanatory texts following Kaléko over her lifetime—and the unpredictable spontaneity of audience participation. Preparing for the Sunday evening performance was a whirlwind collaborative effort between Straßburger (actress-chanteuse, aka Mascha), Michelle Papenfuss (piano accompanist), Rudy Thomas (lighting technician), Violet Needham (stagehand), myself (producer, technical director, slideshow). We all met for the first time the morning after Straßburger arrived, rehearsed for half a day, and then barely made it through one complete dress rehearsal before the doors opened to a large and enthusiastic audience.
The following days, Straßburger came to several RC and LSA classes to talk with students about her history. In 1988, while on theatrical tour in West Germany, she decided not to return to the East and escaped in a daring and perilous manner worthy of a thriller. A year later, the Wall fell and with it the country she once called home. For Straßburger, as for many who grew up in the former East Germany, German unification and the new competitive reality of capitalism evoked a sense of homelessness, of being a stranger in her own land. It is not surprising, therefore, that she would feel an affinity with Kaléko. Straßburger also spoke about her long theatrical career before and after unification, her extensive repertoire interpreting literary lives, and she spoke in both Berliner and Saxon dialects. On her last evening, Straßburger gave a theater workshop on the art of improvisation and role-playing with prop, body and the German language. After voice training exercises to practice voice projection and accent, she got students improvising on select scenarios. It was gratifying to see the students, some of them beginners, feel comfortable and freed up enough to act spontaneously on stage—in German!
Play an excerpt of Margrit performing Kaléko's poem, Ich Freue Mich (I'm Glad)
Reflections from some of the RC German students on the Margrit Straßburger residency:
"The theater workshop taught me how to pronunciate much better, as well as how to present myself onstage. It was a bit intimidating having to improvise in German for a German actress, but overall I found her teaching very helpful."
"This performance was unlike anything I'd ever seen before, but in a good way!"
"Frau Straßburger was so generous with her account of her life in the theater world as well as what it was like growing up in east Berlin. To hear from someone who had experienced it gave me a lot more insight into German's history."
"It was really fun to see how an artist might use poems from a writer we had a chance to study in class, and how she was able to bring those poems to life onstage. It was also exciting to see how many people from the German-speaking community turned up to see the performance."
Karein Goertz, Ph.D., is Lecturer IV in the RC German, Arts and Ideas in the Humanities, and First Year Seminar programs. Karein teaches undergraduate-level courses in German (First and Second Year Intensive German, German Readings), as well as seminars in English (Holocaust Literature, Cities and Modernism, Representations of Berlin, Literature of Walking, Literary Translation). She is the author of articles in academic journals (Michigan Quarterly Review, The Comparatist) and chapters in books (Shaping Losses: Cultural Memory and the Holocaust, Secret Spaces of Childhood, Berlin: The Symphony Continues, Routledge International Handbook of Walking, If I Don't Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings).