Theatre Review: “Draussen vor der Tur” by Wolfgang Borchert

A new performance of an anti-war play at the Berliner Ensemble is flawed but still worth seeing


Today we face moves towards a new inter-imperialist war. Again…

It is timely that the Berliner Ensemble Theatre, is reviving Draussen vor der Tur (Outside the Door, or Being on the Outside) by Wolfgang Borchert (1921-1947). There are several aspects that socialists might be interested in: the author, the literary movement he belonged to, the play itself, the current production, and the theatre in which it is staged now in Berlin. I will discuss the first three.

The author [more information here, here and here]

Borchert wrote the play at 26 years of age, returning from forced service in the Nazi assault on Stalingrad in 1941. His father was in the Dada movement, and Borchert was a young poet. But to earn a living he became a bookseller while circulating anti-Nazi poems. This led to his first jail. On release, in 1937 he saw actor Gustaf Gründgens, playing Hamlet, which inspired him to become an actor. [Gordon Burgess, ‘The life and works of Wolfgang Borchert’; 2003; p.1-2; Woodbridge, Sussex]

Borchert was conscripted in 1941, and sent to the Eastern Front. There he claimed that his finger was shot off in single combat against a Russian soldier. The Nazis rejected this, seeing instead ‘self-mutilation’ to evade military service. Exonerated he escaped the death penalty, but was quickly re-arrested for anti-Nazi statements and poems. Under the Heimtückegesetz, (1934 Nazi ‘Treachery Act’) he was convicted of “defeatist statements”. Sentenced to nine months imprisonment, he was then sent back to the Eastern Front in a ‘punishment battalion’. All this led to chronic hepatitis, typhus and severe frostbite.

He survived and returned to his family in 1945. But he was a bed-ridden, physical wreck in the last two final years of his life. He wrote his famous play in an inspired burst in eight days. He only heard it as a radio ‘Horspiel’. A wonderful rendition of the original can be heard here. In 1947, he died tragically – one day before its stage premier.

In a foreword to the play, Stephen Spender wrote: “This appears to be the life of a perfect victim of our times, a man whose soul must bear simply the impress of the world of dictatorship and war and post-war horror into which he was born. It is in some ways like the life of a man born and bred in a prison cell.”

I will briefly review the play itself below, however his most famous poem also deserves attention. The poem’s is known as “Sag Nein!” (Say No!) a phrase that echoes through the poem. The official title is “Dann gibt es nur eins!” (Then there is only one). It was written as a Manifesto, lying on his deathbed in Basle, just weeks before his death. While I think it rings out in the original German, the power certainly comes across in translation:

“You. Man at the machine and man in the workshop. If they order you tomorrow not to make any more water pipes or cooking pots – but steel helmets and machine guns. then there is only one:
Say no!
You. Girls behind the counter and girls in the office. If tomorrow they order you to fill grenades and mount scopes for sniper rifles, then there is only one thing:
Say no!
You. Factory owner. If they order you tomorrow, you should sell gunpowder instead of powder and cocoa, then there is only one thing:
Say no!
You. Researchers in the laboratory. If they order you tomorrow to invent a new death against the old life, then there is only one thing:
Say no!
You. Poet in your room. If they order you tomorrow not to sing love songs, you should sing hate songs, then there is only one thing:
Say no!
You. Doctor at the bedside. If they order you tomorrow, you should the men write fit for war, then there is only one thing:
Say no! …
You. Mother in Normandy and mother in the Ukraine, you, mother in Frisko and London, you, on the Hoangho and on the Mississippi, you, mother in Naples and Hamburg and Cairo and Oslo – mothers on all continents, mothers in the world, if they tomorrow command you to bear children, nurses for war hospitals and new soldiers for new battles, mothers in the world, then there is only one thing:
Says no! Moms say NO!…”

The power that this poem can wield is seen as recited by actress and artistic director of the Hamburg Theater, Ida Ehre. She announced Borchet’s death on stage after the premiere. In 1983, Ehre  addressed an open air meeting for the “Kunstler fur den Frieden” (Artists for peace).

II) Borchert and the Trümmerliteratur (rubble literature) or der Stunde Null (hour zero) or Heimkehrerliteratur (or home coming) literature

Borchert was the most famous of this school of writers. After the war ended they made their way home from the fronts, from prison, or from exile. But Germany was changed. Many had begun writing about their experiences in the prisoner-of-war (POW) camps of the Western Allies. The school gave rise to ‘Group 47’, and work from the German Democratic Republic (GDR). In West Germany, Heinrich Böll became the most famous exponent. Writers of the GDR largely adopted (and sometimes distorted) variations of ‘socialist realism’. Borchert differed as seen below.

Trümmerliteratur aimed at realism, but was also influenced by existentialism and writers of the Resistance: Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, through to the more realist Ignazio Silone. American realists such as Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck were another influence. The Allies had distributed these authors in the POW camps. The overall literary result aimed at a psychological raw truth, but coupled with a ‘magical’ realism.

Returning veterans found an unrecognizable ‘home’, with only ‘rubble’ and poverty. Moreover they were shunned by those in comfort. Yet their writings reverberated among the wider German people. Many found their houses destroyed and were left with nothing. Another theme was also urgent – a collective guilt for the war, for Nazi fascism and what came to be known as the Holocaust.

III) The synopsis of the play and four ‘magic’ realisms

A stark tone is set from the prologue. In the ‘Horspiel’, the prologue is intoned by a separate voice from the actor playing the lead personage, Beckmann – the returning soldier. (This differs from the production reviewed below). Beckmamn is listed in the cast list as “one of them”. The play starts as follows:

“A man comes to Germany.
He was gone a long time, the man.
Very long. Maybe too long.
And he comes back very different from when he left. Outwardly it is a close relative of those creatures that stand in the fields to frighten the birds (and sometimes people in the evening). Inside – too. He’s been waiting out in the cold for a thousand days.
And as an entrance fee he had to pay with his kneecap. And after waiting a thousand nights outside in the cold, he finally comes home.
A man comes to Germany.”

Returned soldier Beckmann finds his wife has another man, and she turns Beckmann out the door. Very soon, the ‘magic’ of Borchert’s realism becomes vivid. Four examples will suffice.

First, a burping ‘Undertaker’ watches as Beckmann is about to drown himself in the Elbe in Hamburg. He is joined by an ‘Old Man’, an extraordinary meeting. It is revealed that the Undertaker is ‘Death’ and constantly burps from eating too many dead: “Overeating. Outright overeating. That’s all. You can’t stop burping these days. Burp! Sorry! “ The Old Man declares he is one “in whom no one believes any longer”. He is God, and unable to prevent his ‘children’ from killing themselves.

A second ‘magical’ device is the personification of ‘The Elbe’. When the soldier Beckmann attempts to drown himself, he wonders what has happened. He is enlightened but startled by Elbe – who replies:

“You thought I was a romantic young girl with a pale green complexion? The type of Ophelia with water lilies in her loose hair? You thought you could spend eternity in my sweet-smelling lily arms. No, my son, that was a mistake on your part. I’m neither romantic nor sweet-scented. A decent river stinks. Yes. After oil and fish. What do you want here?”

Beckmann replies he wants “to sleep” and escape the world. Elbe rejects him, not actually unkindly – urging him to struggle:

“You snotty-nosed suicide. No, you hear! Do you think because your wife doesn’t want to play with you anymore, because you have a limp and because your stomach is growling, that’s why you can crawl under my skirt here with me?… I don’t want your miserable little life… Let an old woman tell you: Live for a while. Let yourself be kicked Kick again!… I want to say something to you, very quietly, in your ear, you, come here: I fuck your suicide! You baby”.

Beckmann is dumped on the shore, where a young woman either takes pity on him, or being lonely enough, fancies him. She takes him home. A sojourn is interrupted by a one legged giant cripple on crutches. It turns out to be her dead husband – killed on the front. Of his absence “the girl” said: “Starved, frozen to death – what do I know. He has been missing since Stalingrad. That was three years ago.“

It is implied but not certain, that the giant cripple was one of the eleven soldiers of a total of 20, who corporal Beckmann had led to their death, in Russia. Beckmann: “I was three years away. In Russia.. In Stalingrad”. He was following orders to lead a foray into the surrounding forces.

The third ‘magical’ image comes fast – it is the “Other”. This turns out to be an inner dueling, contesting Other – presumably Beckmann’s own consciousness. At the end of the play, the Other be silent, and thus desert Beckmann when he is at his lowest. But now, he urges Beckmann to get rid of his guilt, or his “responsibility” (“Die Verantwortung”). How?

By giving it back to his commanding officer. Beckmann finds the commanding officer, who has been eating caviar for three years while Beckmann and the minions were: “under the snow and had steppe sand in their mouths. And we spooned hot water. But the boss had to eat caviar. For three years. And they shaved our heads off. Up to the neck – or up to the hair, it didn’t really matter. The head amputees were the happiest.”

The commanding officer demands to know what Beckmann wants. Beckmannreplies that he wishes to give back responsibility, explaining this will let him sleep to avoid a recurring nightmare.

This brings the fourth devastating ‘magical’ example – a blood soaked General wakes him, playing a giant xylophone made of bones: “He’s got skullcaps, shoulder blades, pelvic bones. And for the higher notes, arm bones and leg bones. Then come the ribs—many thousands of ribs. And finally, at the very end of the xylophone, where the very high notes are, there are knuckles, toes, teeth. Yes, the teeth come last.”

Beckmann argues that responsibility is “not just a word, a chemical formula, according to which light human flesh is transformed into dark earth. You can’t let people die for an empty word.” The commanding officer is horrified, even guilt-struck. But he pulls himself together – and brazenly takes it as a wonderful act fit for the stage. Booted out, and prodded by the Other – Beckmann find his way first to a stage director. His act is deemed ‘too true’ and shocking for people, and besides it is not art.

Finally Beckmann tries to find his parents. They have committed suicide to evade denazification: “The old Beckmanns could no longer… They exhausted themselves a bit in the third Reich.. What does an old man like that need to still wear uniform. And then he was against the Jews, you know that, son, you. The Jews… Been a little active, your old man. Was amply used by the Nazis.”

Almost his last hope – his parents are no longer. Now only his Other deserts him as all seems hopeless. The last anguishing words in the play are: “Where are you, other? You’re always there! Where are you now? Now answer me! now i need you answerer! Where are you, then? You are suddenly no more there! Where are you, answerer, where are you.. Where’s the old man who calls himself God? Why isn’t he talking!! Please answer! Why are you silent? Why? Doesn’t anyone have an answer? Doesn’t anyone answer??? Doesn’t anyone give an answer???

IV) The Berliner Ensemble production by director Michael Thalheimer; and Beckamnn and the other – Karin Wehlisch.

The production premiered on the 25 March 2022. It is up against historical precedents including the Horspiel and film adaptions, not to say significant prior stage productions. The production tries therefore to be novel and modern. A staging with a forest of hanging lights that entwine around the actors is effective.

However in the quest for novelty ridiculous staging is introduced. For example the Director is put on rollerskates (which he nearly falls off inadvertently), and the commanding officer is shaved in a slapstick foamy scene. All this is simply distracting and does not add anything. Perhaps the most useless novel feature is that Beckmann is almost continually screeching. The monotony that this introduces compares badly with clips that can be seen from prior stage productions and films.

Nonetheless this live performance of the play is worthwhile, and the anti-war message is propelled. The intense history of the Berliner Ensemble and the shadows of Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel are always worth visiting. I intend to return to that theme. But in the meantime, for this play – the old-fashioned Horspiel trumps the ‘novel’ stage.

Draussen vor der Tür is currently playing in the Berliner Ensemble. Tickets available here.