- Stolpersteine Staatstheater
In front of the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe, in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg, there lie, embedded in the sidewalk, two cobblestones topped by metallic plates. These Stolpersteine, stumbling stones—you could literally trip over them—are part of a project by artist Gunter Demnig, who has placed 50,000 stones and counting in front of houses and other buildings across Europe memorializing victims of the Nazi regime. At the Badisches Staatstheater one of the stones reads: “‘Jank’ / Lilly Jankelowitz / Born 1907 / Fled to France 1936 / Interned at Drancy / Deported 1944 / Bergen-Belsen / Died Oct. 1944 / Ravensbrück.” Hans-Werner Kroesinger’s documentary production Stolpersteine Staatstheater (Stumbling Stones State Theatre), which premiered on June 21, 2015 in the studio of the Badisches Staatstheater, was a performed stumbling stone. I walked into the theatre (at the 2016 Theatertreffen Festival in Berlin, where it was invited as one of the year’s ten “most noteworthy” German-language productions) and tripped.
Lilly Jankelowitz, stage name Lilly Jank, a young actress and soubrette, wrote in 1928 a series of letters to Hans Waag, director of the Badisches Landestheater (which became the Staatstheater in 1933), requesting a job. Veronika Bachfischer, an actress in the theatre’s ensemble today, read aloud Lilly’s letters with passion, but also some distance; Gunnar Schmidt responded as Waag. The audience sat at a large, crooked table alongside Bachfischer, Schmidt, and two other actors—Jonathan Bruckmeier and Antonia Mohr. Initially, Waag offered Jank a voluntary position. But as we learn from her contracts, which Mohr read with some surprise, Jank was promoted for the 1929–30 season, when she sang Pirate Jenny in Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, a small though prominent role, and she was promoted again for the 1930–31 season. Bruckmeier recited newspaper reviews of Jank’s performances from 1932, praising the pretty soubrette and anticipating still greater performances.
We all know what happened next: Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. The Nazi Party passed a series of laws to “reform” and “restore” the professional civil service; many theatres in Germany, like the Badisches Staatstheater, are state-funded and thus ensemble members at the time were, legally, public employees. Jank’s contract was not renewed for the 1933–34 season for “racial reasons.” The rest of the story of Lilly Jankelowitz, or its essence, is carved into her Stolperstein.
What we do not know, or care to recall, is how theatres responded to Hitler and his willing collaborators. We like to think of artists as defenders of freedom and justice, tellers of hard truths. In remembering four members of the Badisches Staatstheater ensemble—along with Jank: Hermann Brand, an actor especially beloved for comic roles; Emma Grandeit, by all accounts an excellent prompter; and Paul Gemmecke, a celebrated actor—Kroesinger and his team remind us, at a particularly important moment in history, that institutions sometimes make uncomfortable compromises in exchange for government funding. And theatre artists are certainly capable, even eager, to animate xenophobic hatred.
Kroesinger has been creating documentary theatre for twenty years. Trained at the Giessen Institute for Applied Theatre Studies, he worked after graduation as an assistant for Heiner Müller. Kroesinger [End Page 665] typically combines Erwin Piscator’s vision for immersive documentary theatre and Brecht’s acting techniques with contemporary multimedia, resulting in productions that illustrate how past events are told, demanding that the audience sort through the media to develop their own understanding. This is not to say that Kroesinger succumbs to a cliché of postmodern, wishy-washy, the truth-is-what-you-make-of-it philosophy; his work is actively political and often palpably angry, excoriating the powerful and bringing attention to their wanton destruction of lives.
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Stolpersteine Staatstheater was performed in an alley between two long and tall...