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December 07, 2009

An anti-semitic Fledermaus in Berlin? Brendan Simms on Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus at the Staatsoper Unter Den Linden, Berlin

Posted by Brendan Simms

Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus
Staatsoper Unter Den Linden, Berlin
in repertory 21st November - 6th December 2009

Joachim Lange of the Wiener Zeitung has described Johann Strauss's operetta Die Fledermaus - "the bat" - as the "sacred cow" part of the German repertoire. Its catchy tunes, frivolous libretto, and much-loved dances make it extremely accessible- and relentlessly lower-middle-brow. It is as the contemporary critic Eduard Hanslick - whom Wagner parodied mercilessly as Beckmesser in the Meistersaenger - a "potpourri of waltz and polka motifs". It is watched by audiences the world over, and especially in the German lands, in the expectation of entertainment ans escape from the cares of the real world.

As such, the Fledermaus has been a standing provocation to German and Austrian directors, who have vied with each other over the past fifteen years to produce ever more controversial and "relevant" versions with which to offend and educate their long-suffering publics.

Franz Castorf's version, which premiered in Hamburg in 1997 included a scene in which gas rising from the stage chokes the performers to death (the programme notes helpfully explained that "gas" can also mean "fun" in English). Hans Neuenfels outraged the audience at the Salzburg Festival in 2003 by moving the plot from 1870s Vienna to the period of "Austro-fascism" in the early 1930s, complete with drug addiction, homosexuality, paramilitaries sporting arm-bands. A minimalist production by Michael Thalheimer at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin four years later almost did away with the music altogether, or at least with the orchestra.

The most recent Fledermaus, now playing at the Staatsoper on Unter den Linden, received at best an ambivalent welcome from the audience at its premiere on 21 November. Musically the performance was excellent, thanks to Zubin Mehta's direction, but the production drew as many boos as it did cheers. Christian Pade's version sets the story in present-day Berlin. Orlofsky, for example, is turned from a Russian prince into a jaded young Oligarch, who has already tired of everything the city, and life in general, can offer him. The Viennese prison warder "Frosch" is changed into a typical GDR jobsworth with a sideline in memorabilia from the time of the communist leaders Erich and Margot Honecker. The performers eat takeaways, and there is even a Botox scene, where the injection is delivered to the strains of the most famous lines of the operetta "happy is he who forgets what he cannot change".

Pade's target is bourgeois society in general and the banking sector in particular. Paper money is burnt in a rubbish-bin marked Hypo (the name of a major local bank which recently got into difficulties). Figures in bankers' pinstripe wearing placards entitled "Jump" are held up to general ridicule, and in case we didn't get the message the accompanying notes tell us that in 2008 the crowd outside the failed Lehman Brothers waved banners saying "Jump you Fuckers", in reference to the mass suicides after the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

All this is of a piece with Pade's well-known didactic yen: in November 2004, he defended his version of Beethoven's Fidelio (which included the use of gas, and the now-obligatory allusions to Guantanamo) with the observation that "ethical behaviour is a increasing a crucial parameter of aesthetics".

The reviews have been generally brutal, focussing on the chaotic modern dance (which replaced the traditional waltzes), the stilted additional dialogue and the bizarre costumes, in which Orlofsky looks like nothing so much as a Humungan from Mel Gibson's film Mad Max. Not even the "financial crisis" theme is new, since the "Boersenkrach" of 1873 is well-known to have been the background to the original staging, and it has featured strongly in productions since, most recently Thalheimer's in Berlin itself.

All these criticisms are fair, but they miss the real problem with the production. In the original the hapless Eisenstein is a "rentier", who lives from his investments; in some versions he is also a newspaper baron. There is something else about which Viennese audiences would have been aware of in the 1870s - his name, Eisenstein - marks him out as a Jew. Interestingly, the Fledermaus was made into an escapist film starring the Goebbels protege and mistress Lida Baarova in 1937, and Hitler himself was an enthusiast for Strauss's music, which he regarded as Germanic and nationalistic. There is no suggestion, however, that the composer himself was an anti-semite, and a careful study of the libretto by Karl Haffner and Richard Genee reveals no further evidence. Indeed, Strauss was a focus of Austrian patriots opposed to Hitler during the Second World, who regarded him as a negation of everything the Nazis stood for. All the same, the naming of Eisenstein cannot be coincidental, and audiences will have drawn their own conclusions.

Pade unwittingly feeds the stereotype by sending Eisenstein to jail for financial malfeasance rather than assaulting a civil servant, as was the case in the original. Eisenstein's Jewishness", thanks to the instinctive connection popularly made between Jewish and banking jiggery-pokery, is thereby enhanced. German artists have often sailed close to the wind in this respect: one thinks of Rainer Werner Fassbender's play Der Muell, die Stadt und der Tod, (The rubbish, the city and death), which targeted a notorious Jewish property developer in Frankfurt and unleashed a huge scandal when it was first performed in 1981. But they always did so knowingly, and often provocatively.

This Fledermaus is surely innocent of any such intent, and it is exactly for that reason that it should reflect on the dangers of scapegoating. The producers seek to put capitalism in the dock, but they should remember what the Social Democrat leader August Bebel called anti-semitism: "the socialism of fools".

The author thanks Miss Katie Jenner for research carried out in support of this piece.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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