Friederike Heller

She was born in West Berlin in 1974. From 1996 to 2000, she studied Theatre Directing at the Academy of Music and Theater Hamburg, where one of her teachers was Jürgen Flimm. While a student, Heller presented George Tabori's Peepshow at the Zeise complex in Hamburg, her first own production.

She then put on productions at the Dresdner Staatsschauspiel, the Burgtheater in Vienna, the Schauspiel Köln, the Munich Kammerspiele, the Staatstheater Stuttgart, the Schauspiel Frankfurt and other renowned stages in the German-speaking area.

In 2004, Heller was selected by a jury of critics from the specialist journal Theater heute as young director of the year for her staging of Handke's Untertagblues (Underground Blues). The following year, she also put on guest performances of this work at Radikal jung, the Munich festival for young directors. Heller attended the Young Directors Project at the Salzburg Festival in 2006 with her performance of Handke's Die Unvernünftigen sterben aus (They Are Dying Out). As well as doing freelance directing, she has been managing dramaturge at the Berlin Schaubühne on Lehniner Platz since the 2009/10 season, where she has also been staging her own productions.

Portrait: Friederike Heller

At the beginning of her career, an unusual label was attached to director Friederike Heller, who was born in 1974. She was considered to be a sharp-sighted second producer. When a renowned director of the fifty-something generation had just premiered a prestigious work, she took a fresh, critical and comparatively disrespectful second look at it a few days later. The critics rightly attested that her version was often more intelligent and wittily staged than the premiere.

That was the case with Heller’s first production after completing her studies of Theatre Directing at the University of Music and Theatre Hamburg in 2000. Frank Castorf had just produced Michel Houellebecq’s Elementarteilchen (The Elementary Particles), the scandalous novel par excellence at the time, at the Berlin Volksbühne. Heller, then aged 26, who had been intending to adapt the novel for her diploma production but who, as a newcomer, had had no chance of winning the premiere performance rights, was able to follow suit just ten days later. In contrast to Castorf’s four-hour marathon, she put on a concise 90-minute version at the Theater in der Fabrik (TIF) in Dresden, formerly the young experimental stage of the city’s state theatre.

Here, she already displayed many qualities that remain distinctive of her directing style. Instead of getting hopelessly bogged down in the mammoth work’s attempted artwork, Friederike Heller boldly distilled her own personal version for three actors from the original text, which features many more characters. She combined the plot’s most important characters – Bruno, a sexual obsessive, and his frigid brother Michel, who prefers to devote himself to biogenetic research than to people – to create an ambivalent character by the name of Bruno-Michel and made him the last representative of the human species, and the object of research of two cloned female scientists in a laboratory of the future.

In making this manoeuvre, the director not only brought the novel’s scientific level and dark apocalyptic mood onto the stage apparently incidentally, but also shifted the focus radically and nonchalantly from the originally male narrative perspective to a female perspective. In so doing, she demonstrated a high level of playful irony, another basic feature of her work. Finally, her use of anarchically playful female lab technicians of a future age to look back on the events is a more or less literal rendering of the message of Houellebecq’s novel, “the future is feminine” and it wittily takes that message ad absurdum.

Heller made her breakthrough from being a promising talent to becoming one of the most influential directors of the younger generation with her second second production, this time of Peter Handke’s Untertagblues (Underground Blues), in which a misanthrope flings his cumulative existential nausea at fellow passengers on an underground train. She staged her version at the Akademietheater der Wiener Burg, again just a few days after the work was premiered, this time by Claus Peymann, who had staged the “station drama” at the Berliner Ensemble with more than 30 actors in a scenario based on real U-Bahn trains. She made the “Wild Man” a narcissistic solo entertainer who puts on a brilliant performance of his often self-pitying monologue in a hall of mirrors. Disco lights, live music, and dance and song intermezzi are all included. Heller also linked the play formally with Handke’s Publikumsbeschimpfung (Offending the Audience), which was premiered in 1966. The audience as it were replaced the silent fellow passengers to whom the “Wild Man” addressed his abusive tirades. This brings another important element into Heller’s work: resolutely dealing with the theatre’s “fourth wall”, which she has been attempting to break down ever more persistently since then.

Untertagblues not only brought Heller an invitation to the festival for young directors “Radikal jung” and the title “Young Director of the Year” in a poll of critics from the specialist journal Theater heute. It also added another label to that of the “sharp-sighted second producer”. It was “Handke specialist”, and following her work at the Burgtheater, she was allowed to stage his plays Die Unvernünftigen sterben aus (They Are Dying Out) (a coproduction with the Salzburg Festival) and Spuren der Verirrten (Traces of the Lost).

Of course, critical views differ on the tension between the childlike pleasure in theatre characters and dramatic forms on the one hand and the aim for intellectual intensity and conceptual rigour on the other, the specific attraction of Heller’s productions. In the Süddeutsche Zeitung, for example, Christopher Schmidt praises the “feather-light” manner in which Heller and her actors “turned the difficult text (of Spuren der Verirrten)... upside down”. In contrast, Martin Lhotzky of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung announced disappointedly how little the production had contributed to Handke’s “brilliant text”: it was just “turning phrases” and “all kinds of pranks”.

After this work, the director gave herself a “break from Handke” and increasingly turned her attention to staging novels. “I like the fact that prose texts evade the question of how assertions are to be made on stage,” she said on one occasion. “I do not want to be psychologically bulldozed in the theatre.” Also, complex works that can be “dramaturgically better ‘concocted’ than plays” accommodate Heller’s preference for “extracting one’s own perspectives” from texts. As an adapter of novels, she has already mapped out the cosmos of Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé, Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. Her stage version of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister was one of the productions with which Wilfried Schulz began his artistic directorship of the Staatsschauspiel Dresden at the start of the 2009/10 season.

At the same time, Friederike Heller has been working since that season as managing dramaturge at the Berliner Schaubühne alongside her directing activity. This stems from her wish to go beyond stagecraft and “get to know a theatre from the inside” – quite possibly with the prospect in mind of “perhaps managing a theatre myself one day”.

Christine Wahl

Productions - A selection

  • William S. Burroughs, Tom Waits, Robert Wilson "The Black Rider"
    2012, Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, Berlin
  • M. de Voltaire "Candide"
    2011, Residenztheater, Munich
  • Gerhart Hauptmann "Lonely People"
    2011, Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, Berlin
  • Paul Brodowsky "Regen in Neukölln" (i.e. "Rain in Neukölln")
    2011, Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, Berlin
  • Sophocles "Antigone"
    2011, Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, Berlin
  • Bertolt Brecht "The Good Person of Szechwan"
    2010, Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, Berlin,
  • Johann-Wolfgang Goethe »Wilhelm Meister«
    2009, Staatsschauspiel Dresden
  • »Dann heul doch (eine szenische Installation zu Postfeminismus)« (i.e. "Then Start To Cry (A Scenic Installation about Postfeminism"))
    2009, Thalia Theater, Hamburg
  • Botho Strauß »TRilogy of Reunion«
    2009, Schauspiel Stuttgart
  • »Doktor Faustus – my love is as a fever
    2008, Akademietheater, Wien
  • Rafael Spregelburd »Die Dummheit« (i.e. "Dulness")
    2007, Schauspiel Stuttgart
  • Peter Handke, »Spuren der Verirrten« (i.e. "Tracks of Estrays")
    2007, Akademietheater, Vienna
  • Thomas Mann »The Magic Mountain«
    2007, Schauspiel Frankfurt
  • After Iwan Turgenjew »Fathers and Sons«
    2006, Schauspiel Stuttgart
  • Peter Handke »Die Unvernünftigen sterben aus« (i.e. "The Unreasonable Die Out")
    2006, Akademietheater, Vienna
  • Elias Canetti »The Glare«
    2005, Schauspielhaus, Graz
  • DBC Pierre »Jesus von Texas« (i.e. "Jesus of Texas")
    2005, Schauspielhaus, Köln
  • Peter Handke »Underground Blues«
    2005, Akademietheater, Vienna
  • Anton Chekhov »Iwanov«
    2004, Deutsches Theater Göttingen
  • Viktor Pelewin "Generation P"
    2004, TIF Dresden
  • Kathrin Röggla »fake reports«
    2003, Schauspiel Köln
  • Neil La Bute »Day of Atonement«
    2003, Akademietheater, Wien
  • Igor Bauersima »Norway today«
    2002 Münchner Kammerspiele
  • After Robert Anton Wilsson "The Illuminates"
    2002, TIF Dresden
  • Marcel Luxinger "BONDage-Agent entfesselt" (i.e. "BONDage-Agent unleashed")
    2001, TIF Dresden
  • After Michel Houllebecq "The Elementary Particles"
    2000, TIF Dresden