Books Spring to Life Onstage in Germany

Posted June 22, 2018 8:37 p.m. EDT

BERLIN — In Germany, the dividing line between books and plays is astonishingly fluid. Most English-speaking visitors here would probably be surprised to see names like Thomas Mann and Dostoyevsky adorning theater marquees. Perhaps the phenomenon can be traced back to Goethe, whose two-part “Faust” — a central text of German literature — is an “armchair drama,” meant to be read rather than staged. (Goethe didn’t think the latter was possible; a production of the complete epic in 2000 lasted 21 hours.)

Goethe aside, directors here love finding ways to bring books to the theater. In a recent trend, international literary best-sellers have been appearing onstage with considerable speed. In Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, there have been versions of Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novel “Submission,” Miranda July’s “The First Bad Man” and Kamel Daoud’s “The Mersault Investigation,” among others. (The Hamburg production of “Submission” began touring Germany a mere year after the book’s publication.)

Now the Berlin Schaubühne has brought Édouard Louis’ “History of Violence” to vivid, shocking life. This autobiographical novel caused a stir when it was published in France in 2016, and was released in the United States this week.

“History of Violence” is a personal examination of class and sexuality that is also the story of an assault, rape and attempted murder. In the course of the novel, the narrator’s effort to reconstruct his traumatic memories becomes an indictment of an intolerant society.

Walking home at 4 a.m. after Christmas dinner, a young man named Édouard lets himself be picked up by a handsome stranger of Algerian origin. The initial tenderness of the encounter evaporates later that morning, however, when the stranger robs Louis and then rapes him at gunpoint. At the police station, at the hospital and, later, talking to his sister, Édouard tries to process the nightmarish incident. Time and again, people’s prejudices about both gay men and Arabs stand in the way of genuine interest in his story or concern for his well-being.

Thomas Ostermeier, the Schaubühne’s ingenious artistic director, adapted the book along with the author and Florian Borschmeyer. One of the producers is St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York City, which earlier this year presented Ostermeier’s Schaubühne production of “Returning to Reims,” based on the memoir by Didier Eribon (a sociologist who is one of Louis’ foremost influences).

In Ostermeier’s intense, involving production, four actors animate Louis’ crisp, self-reflexive writing, often videotaping one another using iPhones, with the results then projected in grainy close-ups on a white wall behind the nearly bare stage. The events of Édouard’s fateful evening are revealed piecemeal, through a series of monologues and interrogations that tumble forth over an intermissionless two hours.

Laurenz Laufenberg, one of the Schaubühne’s most captivating young actors, plays Édouard with a remarkable blend of strength and vulnerability. Renato Schuch gives a terrifying and complex performance as the perpetrator, Reda, investing the character with disarming charisma before exploding in an outburst of brutality mixed with self-loathing. Alina Stiegler and Chistoph Gawenda play Édouard’s antagonistic older sister and her husband, a truck driver, with a bit too many working-class clichés, but are more convincing as detectives, doctors and assorted others.

In the end, reconstructing and narrating his assault take on both a creative and a therapeutic function for Édouard — as one imagines they did for Louis — and “History of Violence,” for all its political and sociological significance, is also about how storytelling and art can serve as a ballast against adversity.

The redemptive power of narrative is also a subtext of “The Decameron,” the 14th-century compendium of ribald tales by Giovanni Boccaccio. To escape the ravages of the Black Death, 10 young aristocrats retreat to a secluded villa. Over 10 days, they regale one other with stories of folly and caprice from the world they have abandoned, to safeguard against the peril lurking at the door.

An immersive four-hour production of “The Decameron” in the Berliner Ensemble’s small house lies at the opposite end of the theatrical spectrum for literary adaptations from “End of Violence.” Unlike Louis’ first-person account, which easily lends itself to being spoken in a play, “The Decameron” is told by many voices. We hear very few of them, however, in Thomas Bo Nilsson and Julian Wolf Eicke’s riff on Boccaccio, billed as a “theatrical installation.”

After climbing up a clattering metal outdoor staircase, a group of 30 spectators is ushered into what looks like a haunted house. Take it all in: the black, ash-strewn antechamber; the blood-splattered operating room; and the group of young performers in frilly undergarments huddled together on the floor. Savor the first 20 minutes in ignorance and expectation, because once the audience is divided into smaller groups and led upstairs to the actual performance, spread over numerous rooms — where 10 of Boccaccio’s tales, one from each day of the “Decameron” — play out, it won’t be long before you start to plot your escape.

Sadly, there isn’t much beyond a cool concept, which is hardly enough to sustain interest over four hours. Often, the production feels like being trapped at a lame party. If only the directors had given as much attention to the acting as they clearly did to the lurid décor. Many of the attractive performers — calling them actors would be a stretch — were recruited, several said privately, from Instagram and Craigslist. At the premiere, the energy was generally pretty low, save when the actors were quarreling with one another (unscripted) or harassing the audience. Several actors with Down syndrome from RambaZamba Theater, a Berlin troupe that works with disabled people, seemed the most engaged and ready to improvise.

It is a frustrating experience that leaves one wishing for the type of conventional dramatization most common in Germany: an adaptation that takes inspiration primarily from the plot and themes of its literary source. From Franz Kafka to Günter Grass, modern classics are the ones directors here seem to take the most relish in turning into theater.

An energetic and fast-moving adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” at Munich’s Volkstheater is a tightly choreographed ensemble piece featuring sweaty performances, bright lights and outlandish costumes. The eight-person cast refreshingly (and stylishly) embodies Huxley’s vision of the future, although I do wish that the director, Felix Hafner, had found ways to relate Huxley’s predictions to our contemporary world. (This season’s new production of “1984” at Vienna’s Volkstheater, with Donald Trump as Big Brother and Bernie Sanders as his nemesis, Emmanuel Goldstein, did a much better job of updating that dystopian classic.)

Discussions of a literary canon are increasingly suspect these days, but one of the most salient features of a “classic” is the way it takes on a life of its own. In Germany, that often means that the words of great authors fly off the page and onto the stage.

Event Information

Im Herzen der Gewalt. Thomas Ostermeier. Berlin Schaubühne, through July 4.

Dekameron. Directed by Thomas Bo Nilsson and Julian Wolf Eicke. Berliner Ensemble Kleines Haus, through July 7.

Schöne Neue Welt. Directed by Felix Hafner. Münchner Volkstheater, through July 22.