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Editor's column

A final bow: Theatretreffen celebrates the legacy of René Pollesch

This year's Theatretreffen brought into focus a recent loss: Schaubühne director René Pollesch.

Pollesch in 2022. Photo: IMAGO / Sabine Gudath

If you scroll down on the homepage of the Theatertreffen website, you can find a recording of René Pollesch’s Kill Your Darlings! Streets of Berladelphia. A young Fabian Hinrichs jogs around the stage in sparkly rainbow leggings, speaking and singing to the Bruce Springsteen melody in German, as gymnasts tumble around him. “Something is missing,” Hinrichs declares. “It’s not enough.”

Indeed, something is missing. The video is a relic of another era. It documents Pollesch’s participation in the 2012 theatre festival – which will, as usual, return again this May, but without the presence of Pollesch, the renowned writer-director and Volksbühne’s intendant since 2020.

It was fun and moving, silly and profound.

2012 was his second time at Theatertreffen; his debut came in 2002, when his Prater Trilogy, developed during his leadership of the Volksbühne’s smaller stage, Prater Studios, was invited as a daring new kind of work.

By the time Kill Your Darlings! appeared at Theatertreffen, Pollesch had already become an established director, but he still represented an exciting development in the world of German theatre, what’s come to be known as discourse theatre: no plot, no characters, just the development of ideas in correspondence with theatrical spectacle.

Memorial note for Pollesch at the entrance to the Volksbühne on Rosa Luxemburg Platz. Photo: IMAGO / Martin Müller

It was fun and moving, silly and profound. We’ll never have the chance to see him carry that development to maturity. In February, at the age of 61, Pollesch died suddenly and unexpectedly. 

It was uncanny to watch this 12-year-old performance. Time felt out of joint. Theatre, as Sina Martens and Lena Brasch insist in this issue, cannot be decoupled from the experience of its liveness. Indeed, in Kill Your Darlings! Hinrichs rails against “the network”– represented by 14 gymnasts – as an abstraction of people and tool of capitalism.

Pollesch was first and foremost a theatre – not film – maker.

And watching Hinrichs stalking the stage, biting and spitting out potatoes as The Smiths sing, the team of 14 gymnasts waving as rain falls on them, everyone running around the stage and sliding in the water as Morrisey sings ‘Life Is a Pigsty’, I couldn’t help but wonder where Pollesch was as this was being filmed. (The Smiths lyrics feel oddly relevant here: “I can’t reach you / I can’t reach you / I can’t reach you anymore”.)

Pollesch was first and foremost a theatre – not film – maker. He never conceived of theatre as the repetition of an unchanging mastertext to be repeated again and again (as this recorded performance now could be on my screen). As he mentioned to my predecessor in an interview for The Berliner, he was against surtitles because he didn’t want to make his performers “servants to the text”.

Rather, he trusted in and believed in their “autonomy” – an ethos that he continued to hold onto even as he became the Volksbühne’s intendant. 

By empowering his collaborators, Pollesch’s artistic practice never calcified across his 200-plus pieces, all the way through his final premiere, ja nichts ist ok (“yeah, nothing is okay”). His work never became, as Walter Benjamin once wrote, “the death mask of the conception”.

Working in dialogue with his actors until the moment of the premiere – often from among the same group of Inga Busch, Fabian Hinrichs, Sophie Rois, and Martin Wuttke – the text was a living thing, ever shifting and changing. 

Pollesch’s death takes with him his acute perception of the world, alert to the marginalised and dispossessed and aware of the joys and hypocrisies of popular culture. Now, we have only the fossils of his vision in his texts and the imprint of his elastic thinking and feeling that lives on with his fellow theatremakers.

We might hope that his frequent collaborators might yet be able to continue forward with his work – as we’re witnessing them attempt to do this spring at the Volksbühne and Deutsches Theater.  

Photo: IMAGO / Martin Müller

We don’t know yet what the afterlife of Pollesch will be. We don’t know how his name will ring out in the theatres in the years to come.

We do know that this year’s Theatertreffen will not and cannot be the same.And I know that the recording of Kill Your Darlings! Streets of Berladelphia, however exciting it is, pales before the experience of watching it live in the theatre. It is not enough.

A recording is but a fossil of the theatre that Pollesch was making, a memory of something that was once alive. And there is no substitute for the living thing – or a living person. He will be missed.

Still, I take heart from some of that performance’s final imperatives (delivered indelibly by Hinrichs in a black squid suit): “That was not for you. It was for us. It was always for us. Make it for you.” It is a tragedy that Pollesch is gone. The task of those still here is to make something out of the rich legacy he leaves behind “for us”.