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“A plea for radicalism”: The work of Thomas Brasch

This year's ILB culminates in a multifaceted tribute to the German poet, playwright and film director Thomas Brasch, organised by his friend and artist Alexander Polzin.

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The artist Alexander Polzin, a close friend and collaborator of German poet, playwright and film director Thomas Brasch. Photo: Timo Günther

One of the highlights of this year’s Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin is, perhaps counter-intuitively, a local discovery – or rediscovery. Throughout the festival, a series of events have paid tribute to the German poet, playwright and film director Thomas Brasch. Born to Jewish-German parents in English exile, Brasch grew up the son of an important GDR functionary but came increasingly into conflict with the East Berlin authorities on account of his disobedient political utterances and radical literary work. After emigrating to West Berlin, Brasch continued his writing and filmmaking, earning critical praise and numerous prizes. Uncompromising and bold, Brasch became a remarkable public figure – but his growing disillusionment, worsened by the difficult years around German reunification, took a toll on both his literary output and his body. He died in 2001 at the age of 56.

The ILB series reflects the multiple talents of this fascinating author, one who is little known among readers of English (he has not been translated). In addition to screenings of his films at fsk kino and a photography exhibition dedicated to him, a dramatic reading of his texts was held by director Hilda Stark on September 16. On the festival’s final day, a panel discussion will feature the celebrated Berlin author Annett Gröschner alongside the director Andreas Kleinert – whose film about Brasch, Lieber Thomas, will be out later this year – and the musician Masha Qrella, who adapted Brasch’s texts for her recent album Woanders (Sep 18, 7:30pm). Also present will be the artist Alexander Polzin, a close friend and collaborator of Thomas Brasch who, among other projects, designed the sculpture for Brasch’s grave in the Dorotheenstraße Cemetery in Mitte.

We visited Polzin at his studio in Wilhelmsruh, where he told us about Brasch’s multifaceted legacy and presented some of the work he made with, about and under the influence of his brilliant friend.

How did this event series come about? What’s the idea behind it?

I passionately admire Thomas Brasch and his work, and I love every opportunity to share that passion with other people. Ulrich Schreiber, the founder and director of the ILB, is a friend of mine, and for years I have been pestering him to run a Brasch series at the festival. What’s so interesting about Thomas Brasch is showing people how multifaceted he was. I mean, here we have this unbelievably talented poet and prose writer. But he’s also a playwright. And an incredible translator, too – if you go to see a production of Shakespeare or Chekhov in German theatres, there’s still a good chance it’s his version. So that’s him: translator, poet, author, playwright, and then on top of that a filmmaker. It’s such a rich body of work, which really deserves to be out there in the world.

It seems appropriate, then, that the ILB series is so wide-reaching: the final event alone features you, an author, a musician and a filmmaker.

Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted to curate. I wanted to invite people from all conceivable corners. What Masha Qrella does with her work is absolutely fantastic because she brings Brasch’s texts to a younger audience, people you might have trouble getting to read a poetry collection – but when they hear a song, a song they can dance to, then suddenly there’s new possibilities. That suits Brasch well.

Brasch is neither a GDR author nor a West German author, but someone in the middle, someone who lived between worlds

He was a border-crossing figure in the most literal sense, too – an East German author, but also a German author…

Thirty years after the Wall came down, those labels are hard to sustain. Look, I grew up here in Wilhelmsruh with the Berlin Wall right under my nose – of course that influenced me. The influence is that now I look back with irritation, horror and amazement at how much I accepted this border as self-evident, even as a teenager, and teenagers are meant to be rebellious. That was the edge of the world for me. And it’s left me with a sense of how great the danger is that people get conditioned to things that are totally absurd. I don’t just mean walls made of cement, but walls in the head, walls made of ideas.

Thomas experienced both sides, the East and the West. This upcoming film Lieber Thomas captures it really well – that the GDR was formative for Thomas, but that at the end of the day he is neither a GDR author nor a West German author, but someone in the middle, someone who lived between worlds. After his intense experiences of the East – where they basically told him, Thomas, you’re a good writer but your works are too critical so we will never publish them – he went across to the West, and had a very intense experience there. During the last years of his life, he lived on the Schiffbauerdamm, near the Berliner Ensemble. And he would spend hours looking out at the river going past: his place had a view of the Spree and of Friedrichstraße station, the old Palace of Tears, the former border crossing. I think that’s a good description, a good localisation, for an author who was never quite on one side or the other.

It’s refreshing the ILB program hasn’t tried to force Brasch into the “Cold War dissident” mould.

That’s right. I mean, that was his ticket to success when he arrived in the West. The critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki picked up his short story collection and said: This is our East-dissident, the voice of a generation, the poor embattled author who came to us from GDR prison. And as a marketing strategy, that’s exactly what happens these days with authors from other parts of the world. But Thomas was too provocative, and too in-between, for that. While he always had a sense for what was good and interesting about the GDR, he was no nostalgist and certainly never wanted it back after 1989.

He saw the West critically, too; he refused to see it as a return to normality. There is one famous speech from when he was awarded the Bavarian Film Prize in Munich. Thomas got up next to Franz Josef Strauss, this arch-conservative CSU state governor. And in his speech, he made a point of thanking the GDR’s film university for his education there – it caused a massive tumult, you can still see it on YouTube [laughs]. But then – and this really demonstrates his provocativeness, his contradictions – he had actually got himself ex-matriculated from the film university for political reasons. So if the GDR had given him a prize, then he would have gone and said fuck off, you actually kicked me out. He always thought closely about what people wouldn’t want to hear in a particular setting.

You can just open a book by Goethe and find a line that speaks to you – and I think that’s the class Thomas is in

How was the Wende for him? If he’d been living between two worlds during the Cold War, but then suddenly there was only one world, only one superpower…

Yes, exactly that. It was a serious problem for him. And it really impeded his publishing. By 1989, he had had experience of both systems, and knew the limitations of each. Then, in the moment when it all fell apart, somehow there was no interesting new vision emerging. He found that very difficult. Some authors started publishing a lot in the years after reunification, but for Thomas it brought him more or less to silence. At this time the reading audience, and all the publishers, were crying out for a definitive Wenderoman, a novel of reunification. But nothing came. It was a major source of irritation.

Did Brasch want to write something like that?

No, not at that point. He was very disillusioned by then. But I often wonder about what his later work would have been like. Thomas died at 56. What might have developed out of his literary potential and his understanding of the world if he had lived for 10, 15, 20 years more? What might have evolved, from an author who’d been so committed to unremitting radicalism, with all the wisdom and mellowing-out of old age? His death was so terrible personally for everyone close to him, but it also brought an abrupt end to a great, developing talent. He never got to live long enough to look back, 30 years later, on German reunification and bring that into a literary form – like Jenny Erpenbeck, for instance, who has similar interests and who took decades to bring her experiences and observations into the voice she has now.

So it’s a good time for us to learn about the life and work of Thomas Brasch?

Yes! On the one hand, well, either an author has a beautiful and powerful voice that says something to you, or they don’t. It’s independent of the era. You can just open a book by Goethe and find a line that speaks to you – and I think that’s the class Thomas is in. My conviction is that, in parts of his work, he is an author whose work will be read hundreds of years from now. On the other hand, his work is really a plea for something that has fallen by the wayside nowadays, not just in art but in society more broadly. His work is a plea for radicalism – not in the sense of being a terrorist, but in every other conceivable sense. A plea not to become too fast-moving, too happy, too ready to compromise, or too conciliatory. Which always entails the risk of failure, or of being off-base. Today we’re obsessed with playing it safe, and we’re scared of offending anyone. Thomas dealt with people extremely respectfully – but he also really stood for radicalism.

That’s something poetry and sculpture have in common: they’re both art forms that deal in the essential.”

Where would you recommend readers start with Brasch? Unfortunately his written work isn’t available in English…

The poems are a great beginning. One my favourite poems is “Halb Schlaf” (‘Half Sleep’). I would also recommend watching his films. Either his first film, Engel aus Eisen (‘Angels of Iron’) – a radical black and white film about a modern-day Robin Hood in Berlin just after World War Two – or his final film, Der Passagier: Welcome to Germany (‘The Passenger: Welcome to Germany’), which stars Tony Curtis. That one really shows the fragmentation and disorientation of the years after reunification. In a way, it was his response to the fall of the Wall.

One of your artworks directly responds to “Halb Schlaf”, right?

Yes. It’s a series of masks with a mirror behind them – and in the mirror, you can see the words of the poem as I’ve engraved them. I love literature, but I’m a painter and sculptor, and this is the form in which I express myself. I’ve done portraits of Brasch, one of which is printed in the ILB program. I also painted a series of portraits of the actor Klaus Kinski, which I’ve previously exhibited in an exhibition of works related to Thomas. There was a great affinity between Kinski and him; a few of his poems were dedicated to Kinski. My Kinski portraits were done in the spirit of Thomas – under his influence, so to speak.

Image for “A plea for radicalism”: The work of Thomas Brasch

The grave of Thomas Brasch in Dorotheenstadt Cemetery, with sculpture made by Alexander Polzin. Photo: IMAGO / Schöning

You made the sculpture for Brasch’s grave in the Dorotheenstadt Cemetery, which was his wish. What was that experience like?

It was very, very difficult for me. Making a sculpture for a friend’s gravestone is one of the hardest things you can ever do. I mean, I knew him for the last 10 years of life, and for six or seven of those years, there was hardly a single day when we didn’t talk. Regardless of where we were. I was in Israel for a year and a half, and the telephone bill that we both ran up during that time – we could have flown back and forth multiple times. It was a very intense friendship. And it was also based in seeing and critiquing each other’s work. Thomas would call me in the middle of the night to read me line after line from his manuscript, and wait to hear how I reacted. And it was the same for me: all my work I showed to him first. And, you know, he was unbelievably critical. He really believed in radical criticism. There was a phrase he particularly liked: Talent braucht Beleidigung, talent needs insults. I can say personally that during the phase in which we were friends, when I was just a young artist starting out, his radical criticism helped me to a tremendous extent – it helped me go up to and beyond my boundaries. Because there was someone I believed in who would come and say: That’s not good enough. You can do better.

The grave sculpture must have been doubly hard, then, with his criticism in your head.

Exactly. The whole time, I was thinking: What am I doing, here? Imagining him saying: Is that it? I really wanted to do something that was consequential in its own right, not just something that would please this or that person. It’s important to me to really boil things down to their essence. That’s something poetry and sculpture have in common: they’re both art forms that deal in the essential. In a sculpture, just like a poem, if there is something there that’s surplus, then it’s shit.

What was your idea with the grave sculpture?

For me, it’s an empty throne being watched over by a peculiar figure. But everyone sees different things when they look at it. I like that it makes people stop in the cemetery and think: Wait, what the hell is that? In Dorotheenstadt, when we started, it was practically all normal gravestones – and we had to fight for my artwork, because Germany has a whole set of regulations about what dimensions you’re allowed and so on. But we did succeed in convincing them, and since then, there seem to be more and more individual designs at the graves. I really like that. Each one of these people’s biographies is worth considering. Everybody who lived has tried, in their time on this planet, to make a little exclamation point. I think cemeteries can reflect that. It’s about memory culture, in the truest sense of the word. And sculpture, from its origins, is closely entwined with death and commemoration. It’s a representation of absence.