Herbert Fritsch

© Barbara Braun
Herbert Fritsch was born on 20 January 1951 in Augsburg, trained as an actor at the Otto Falckenberg School of the Performing Arts in Munich and went on to appear at many theatres in Germany and abroad. From 1993 to 2007, he was one of the most influential figures at the Berlin Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz under Frank Castorf.

Although Fritsch was already 56 years old when he directed his first full-length piece at a municipal theatre in 2007, Molière’s The Miser at Theater Luzern, his move from the stage to the director’s chair did not come entirely as a surprise. In the days when he was working as an actor, Fritsch had directed two short pieces for a show at the Berlin Volksbühne in 1993. In addition to this, he had held numerous exhibitions of his own photographs and computer animations, and in 2000 he had begun developing the serial, intermedia art project hamlet_X.

The Miser in Lucerne was followed by other plays directed between 2007 and 2011 at various venues, including the Mecklenburgisches Staatstheater Schwerin, Theater Oberhausen, the neues theater Halle and the Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden.

The director achieved his decisive breakthrough with a double invitation to the 2011 Berlin Theatertreffen – for which the jury selected both Fritsch’s Gerhart Hauptmann interpretation The Beaver Coat and his Oberhausen production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Since then, he has worked as a director at major theatres such as the Thalia Theater Hamburg, Schauspiel Köln and the Berlin Volksbühne, where his production of The Spanish Fly, a farce by Franz Arnold and Ernst Bach, earned him yet another invitation to the Berlin Theatertreffen in 2012.


    Portrait: Herbert Fritsch

    In the generally discourse-dominated landscape of the German-language theatre, Herbert Fritsch is a director who stands out as the advocate of a gutsy countertrend. ‘Ultraconceptualised political theatre that has been mediated and remediated over and over again does not interest me,’ he proclaims repeatedly from podiums with an air of grandeur. ‘The fundamental driving force of theatre is entertainment, even when it is telling a sad story!’

    In fact, comedy has received unexpected impetus since Herbert Fritsch started directing plays for municipal theatres in 2007 – at the age of 56. He did not enter the profession by studying directing and taking posts as an assistant director, but came straight from the practice of performance: For fourteen years – from 1993 to 2007 – he was one of the key performers at Frank Castorf’s Berlin Volksbühne, where his partners in slapstick included not only exceptional colleagues like Sophie Rois and Henry Hübchen, but the occasional live giant snake as well. Fritsch’s trademarks as an actor – a performance style of extreme physicality and an uninhibited pleasure in exaggeration – are also characteristic of his productions.

    In short: The typical Fritsch staging is flashy, highly stylised, hyperformal and very funny. There is only one thing that can be guaranteed: it will not be realistic. Regardless whether Fritsch is exploring the traditional comedy repertoire, as in Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters at Schwerin in 2011, or taking on the bourgeois tragedy par excellence, as in Lessing’s Emilia Galotti the same year at Oberhausen, his actors are always dressed in colourful hooped skirts, trousers or jackets and roll their eyes in faces plastered with outrageous make-up. When they bend their bodies in high-speed slapstick routines, the towering wigs on their heads sway after them. A critic once summed up the visual impact of a classic Fritsch staging by calling it ‘Robert Wilson on speed’.

    Stylistically, Herbert Fritsch cultivates a deliberate eclecticism: He plunders vaudeville and commedia dell`arte just as unscrupulously as the comic strip. Cinema is present in gestures towards Buster Keaton, the expressionist silent film and, now and then, Alfred Hitchcock. Nevertheless, Fritsch’s stage works, which never end abruptly, but always merge seamlessly into formalised, intricately organised curtain calls, strike the viewer as more bizarre, more contemporary and crazier than these models. For Fritsch always pulls off the trick of parodying every genre he quotes to a certain extent at the very moment when it is being invoked.

    The Spanish Fly deserves to be mentioned as a fine example of his work, a play the director staged in 2011 at a place where he once celebrated many triumphs as an actor – the Berlin Volksbühne – in a production that has been invited to the 2012 Berlin Theatertreffen. This boulevard farce by Franz Arnold and Ernst Bach was first performed in 1913 and revolves around the mustard manufacturer Ludwig Klinke, who attempts to prevent his one-night stand with a dancer 25 years earlier from coming to light, indulging in all the capers to be expected from a comedy of this kind as he does so. Fritsch, who often designs the stage sets for his own productions, interprets Klinke’s efforts to cover things up literally and unrolls a massive imitation carpet on the set. It flows down as far as the front of the stage in a series of waves that rise as high as the actors’ knees or hips and is therefore just the thing for someone who wants to sweep incriminating evidence under the carpet.

    A trampoline is hidden in one of the carpet’s folds. When the actors fall on it and bounce to and fro like puppets, landing first on their backs and then their fronts while juggling compromising lever arch files with hilarious desperation, or when their bodies suddenly get hopelessly entangled in ostensibly conventional rituals of greeting, what Fritsch is doing is more than just funny. At such moments, he systematically inverts the mental repression and inhibition from which the bourgeois theatre of laughter draws its humour, so opening the genre up to an exceptionally original reading that is pushed radically to its ultimate logical conclusion: It could be said his extreme slapstick sweeps the malignant, anything-but-painless residues of bourgeois hypocrisy out from under the carpet. As a result, the comedy’s characters are distorted until they become all too recognisable.

    ‘I want bodies to be words.’ In his second production at the Berlin Volksbühne – Dieter Roth’s Murmur Murmur (2012) – Herbert Fritsch took this credo to a new, yet more radical level and constructed a whole evening of theatre out of a piece of concrete poetry, a text that actually consisted of just a single word: ‘Murmel’ (‘murmur’), which was whispered, shouted, sung, stretched out in endless loops, repeated and positively chewed to pieces.

    The two productions presented at the 2011 Berlin Theatertreffen, The Beaver Coat and A Doll’s House, made it abundantly clear that, for all their superficial similarity, Herbert Fritsch’s directorial works differ greatly from one another as far as their deep structures are concerned. The double invitation gave Fritsch his breakthrough after he had spent just four years directing professionally away from the major metropolitan centres – in Lucerne, Halle, Schwerin, Magdeburg and Oberhausen.

    At the Mecklenburgisches Staatstheater Schwerin, the director moulded Gerhart Hauptmann’s naturalist classic The Beaver Coat into a determinedly anti-realistic, often choric tableau vivant of the deadly sins that was choreographed meticulously down to the very smallest detail: in this production, even the characters that had been drawn positively by the author buried any remaining almost human reflexes under acts of greed, envy and addiction taken to excess in true comic-strip fashion.

    By contrast, Fritsch’s version of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at Theater Oberhausen – his second contribution to the 2011 Berlin Theatertreffen – looked like an artistic alliance between Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, the director of the expressionist silent film Nosferatu, and Alfred Hitchcock. By setting this worthy, but now clearly dated, classic of emancipation three steps below the conscious level – in a nightmarish horror chamber of freely floating, and therefore politically incorrect, desires – the director rescued its core message for the contemporary world in a way that was just as original as it was startling.

    However, there are also less successful Fritsch productions, from which it is evident that the director’s methodology is not risk-free. This is noticeable when the staging lacks what could be called substructure and – instead of translating the internal deformations of their characters into specific, extreme external actions – the actors seem to rummage through a dressing-up trunk of the protruding tongues, rolling eyes and infantile stumbling that are so common in Fritsch’s theatre to pick out and quickly slip into the appropriate mannerism for each scene. When this happens, the audience is not offered a compelling externalisation of internal processes, but standardised comedy routines delivered with total detachment.

    Christine Wahl

    Productions - A selection

    • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart/Lorenzo da Ponte (German Version Sabrina Zwach) "Don Giovanni"
      2014, Komische Oper, Berlin
    • Carlo Goldoni "The Holiday Trilogy"
      2014, Residenztheater, Munich
    • Molière "The School for Wives"
      2014, Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Hamburg
    • Herbert Fritsch "Ohne Titel Nr. 1"
      Eine Oper

      2014, Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Berlin
      Invitation to the Berliner Theatertreffen
    • Friedrich Dürrenmatt "The Physicians""
      2013, Schauspielhaus, Zurich
    • Heinz Bolten-Baeckers/Paul Lincke "Frau Luna" (i.e. "Mrs. Luna")
      2013, Volksbuehne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Berlin
    • Jacques Offenbach "Les Brigands" (i.e." The Bandits")
      2012, Theater Bremen
    • Dieter Roth „Murmel Murmel“ (i.e. „Murmure, Murmure“)
      2012, Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, Berlin
      Invitation to the Berliner Theatertreffen
    • Bertolt Brecht „Mr. Puntila and his Man Matti“
      2012, Schauspiel Köln
    • Franz und Paul von Schönthan/Curt Goetz „The Rape of the Sabine Women“
      2011, Thalia Theater, Hamburg
    • Gotthold Ephraim Lessing „Emilia Galotti“
      2011, Theater Oberhausen
    • Franz Arnold und Ernst Bach „The (S)pani(sh)c Fly“,
      Invitation to the Berliner Theatertreffen 2011, Volksbühne Berlin
    • Carlo Goldoni „Servant of two Masters“
      2011, Mecklenburgisches Staatstheater Schwerin
    • Christian Friedrich Hebbel „The Nibelungs“
      2011, Theater Bremen
    • Henrik Ibsen „Nora“
      2010, Theater Oberhausen
      Invitation to the Berliner Theatertreffen
    • Gerhart Hauptmann „The Beaver Coat“
      2010, Mecklenburgisches Staatstheater, Schwerin
      Invitation to the Berliner Theatertreffen
    • Claude Magnier „Oscar – Ein Missverständnis in drei Akten“(i.e. „Oscar – A Misunderstanding in Three Acts“)
      2010, Centraltheater, Leipzig
    • Eugène Labiche „The Affair of Rue de Lourcine“
      2010, Theater Magdeburg
    • William Shakespeare „Macbeth“
      2010, neues theater Halle
    • After Ben Jonson „Herr Fuchs oder einfach VOLPONE“(i.e. „Mr. Fox or just VOLPONE“)
      2009, Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden
    • Eugène Labiche „Horse Eats Hat!“
      2009, Theater Oberhausen
    • Joe Orton „Pray“
      2009, Theater Oberhausen
    • Knut Hamsun „Hunger“
      2009, Oslo (Norwegen)
    • Franz und Paul von Schönthan/Curt Goetz „The Rape of the Sabine Women“
      2009, neues theater Halle
    • Molière „Tartuffe“
      2008, Theater Oberhausen
    • Herbert Fritsch & Sabrina Zwach „Spielbank“ (i.e. „Casino“)
      2008, Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden
    • Curt Goetz „The House in Montevideo“
      2008, neues theater Halle
    • Moliére „The Miser“
      2008, Luzerner Theater