Michael Thalheimer

© Iko Freese
Born on 28 May 1965 in Münster near Frankfurt am Main. Apprenticeship as drummer, from 1985 to 1989 studied at the University for Music and Theatre in Bern/Switzerland, graduated with a degree. Then he was hired as an actor in Bern, Mainz and Bremerhaven.

From 1992 to 1998 he worked as an actor and director at the municipal theatre in Chemnitz. Other productions in Leipzig, Basel, Freiburg and Dresden. Today, Thalheimer lives as a freelance director in Berlin and Paris.

Since 2000 he has been working at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg. In this time he has also produced three plays at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin and one in Frankfurt am Main. In 2001 he was awarded the 3sat Innovation Prize at the Berliner Theatertreffen, in 2002 the Viennese Nestroy Prize and the Berlin Friedrich Luft Prize.

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Portrait: Michael Thalheimer

Michael Thalheimer is a shooting star of modern German theatre. At the latest it was his double invitation to the 2001 Berliner Theatertreffen (with Molnár’s “Liliom” and Vinterberg’s “The Celebration”) that justified his reputation as one of the most aesthetically unique directors in the German-speaking world. His signature is as significant as it is undisputed. He is considered to be a radical reductionist who cuts back classical texts to the essence, as with an anatomist’s knife, revealing their core. “Being faithful to the work has nothing to do with being faithful to the text,” he says.

He wants to recognize the basic substance of a text, free it of all acquired baggage and translate its emotional effect to the modern world. Milieu, colour, historical context – he avoids all of this. Only what is timeless and at no fixed location is what interests him in plays, the “universal character” of the theatre. He distances himself from the “deconstructionism” of a Frank Castorf – he sees too much arbitrariness at work here. He is always saying that he is more concerned about accuracy, preciseness and compulsoriness.

That is why he doesn’t want any vague moods or any decoration evoking familiar memories, no props that the actors can hold onto. Thalheimer always sets his productions in vast, empty spaces where people wander about in front of wooden, stone or metal walls. (For many years these spaces have been designed for him by set designer Olaf Altmann.) The cast is always kept to the minimum, marginal figures do not appear. Thalheimer does not allow any traditional psychological analysis, instead he relives of body-language expression. The essence of a person is expressed in a few, sparse gestures and expressive poses.

Thalheimer revealed the entire repertoire of this specific way of reading classics for the first time in his “Liliom” production at Hamburg’s Thalia Theatre in 2000 – after exciting approaches that could be seen in his early work in Chemnitz, Basel, Freiburg, Leipzig and Dresden. The sentimental Vienna Prater romance was turned into a drama of existential speechlessness, the depressing love story of two underdogs whose bodies were constantly shaken by silent implosions or excessive eruptions. This radical approach to a moving play stuck in trivial production traditions caused a minor scandal at the premiere; later the production became a celebrated success, even when it was a guest productions, e.g. at the Vienna Festival 2002.

Since “Liliom” Thalheimer has tried out his reductionist methods at several theatres and on many other plays. At Hamburg’s Thalia Theatre, to which he feels particularly attached, Schiller’s “Cabal and Love”, Schnitzler’s “Playing with Love” (this, too, was invited to the Berliner Theatertreffen in 2003) and, in 2004, Wedekind’s “Lulu” have been produced. Lessing’s “Emilia Galotti” at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin (2001) became a “cult production”: furious catwalk theatre that develops a tremendous melodramatic current with film music being used suggestively. Here, once again, a classic was thoroughly stripped to the bones, Thalheimer called it “an essence of Lessing”.

His reinterpretation of Büchner’s “Woyzeck” in a co-production between the Thalia Theatre and the Salzburg Festival (2003) was received more controversially: the director made the poor devil Woyzeck, a victim of circumstances, into a self-confident perpetrator, a desperate madman.

Critics are clearly divided in their assessment of Thalheimer’s work. It is certainly undisputed that Thalheimer’s rigorous way of reading means that plays at risk of sentimentality – such as “Liliom” or “Playing with Love” – can be regained for the modern theatre. However, the risks of such a procedure could be seen with other texts, such as “Cabal and Love”, but especially with Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin in 2003: Schiller appeared anaemic and Chekhov’s characters faded to grey templates. At best, he magnificently rehabilitates plays, at worst they set in the spiritual exercises of a cold conceptual theatre.

Gerhard Jörder

Productions - A selection

  • Molière "Tartuffe"
    2013, Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, Berlin
  • Hans Fallada "Little Man, What Now ?"
    2013, Schauspiel Frankfurt
  • Hugo von Hofmannsthal "Electra"
    2012, Burgtheater, Vienna
  • William Shakespeare "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
    2012, Residenztheater, Munich
  • Euripides "Medea"
    2012, Schauspiel Frankfurt
  • Dea Loher "Innocence"
    2011, Deutsches Theater, Berlin
  • Leo Tolstoi "The Power of Darkness"
    2011, Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, Berlin
  • Friedrich Schiller "Mary Stuart"
    2011, Schauspiel Frankfurt
  • Gerhart Hauptmann "The Weavers"
    2011, Deutsches Theater, Berlin
  • Bertolt Brecht "St. Joan of the Stockyards"
    2010, Burgtheater, Vienna
  • Bernard-Marie Koltès "The Battle of Black and Dogs"
    2010, Théâtre des Amandiers, Nanterre (Paris)
  • Johann Friedrich Hebbel "Die Nibelungen"
    2010, Deutsches Theater, Berlin
  • Anton Chekov "The Cherry Orchard"
    2010, Staatstheater Stuttgart
  • Sophocles "Ödipus Rex/Antigone"
    2009, Schauspiel Frankfurt
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart "The Abduction From the Seraglio"
    2009, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin
  • Arthur Schnitzler "The Round Dance"
    2009, Thalia Theater, Hamburg
  • William Shakespeare "As You Like It"
    2008, Thalia Theater, Hamburg
  • Henrik Ibsen"The Wild Duck"
    2008, Deutsches Theater, Berlin
  • William Shakespeare "Hamlet"
    2008, Thalia Theater, Hamburg
  • Gerhart Hauptmann "The Rats"
    2007, Deutsches Theater, Berlin
  • Bertolt Brecht "Herr Puntila and His Man Matti"
    2007, Thalia Theater Hamburg
  • Jon Fosse "Sleep"
    2006, Deutsches Theater Berlin
  • Aeschylus "The Oresteia"
    2006, Deutsches Theater Berlin (Invitation to the Berliner Theatertreffen)
  • Gerhart Hauptmann "Rose Bernd"
    2006, Thalia Theater, Hamburg
  • Johann Wolfgang Goethe "Faust. The Second Part of the Tragedy"
    2005, Deutsches Theater, Berlin
  • Eugene O'Neill "A Long Day's Journey Into Night"
    2005, Thalia Theater, Hamburg
  • Giuseppe verdi "Rigoletto"
    2005, Oper Basel
  • Leos Janacek "Katja Kabanowa"
    2005, Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin
  • Johann Wolfgang Goethe "Faust"
    2004, Deutsches Theater Berlin
  • William Shakespeare "Hamlet"
    2004, Schauspiel Köln
  • Heinrich von Kleist "The Schroffenstein Family"
    2004, Schauspiel Köln
  • Frank Wedekind "Lulu"
    2004, Thalia Theatre Hamburg (Invitation to the Berliner Theatertreffen)
  • Gerhart Hauptmann "Lonely Lives"
    2004, Deutsches Theater Berlin
  • Georg Büchner "Woyzeck"
    2003, Salzburg Festival/Thalia Theatre Hamburg
  • Rainer Werner Fassbinder "Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?"
    2003, Schauspiel Frankfurt
  • Anton Chekhov "Three Sisters"
    2003, Deutsches Theatre Berlin
  • Friedrich Schiller "Cabal and Love"
    2002, Thalia Theatre Hamburg
  • Arthur Schnitzler "Playing with Love"
    2002, Thalia Theatre Hamburg, invitation to Berliner Theatertreffen
  • Gotthold Ephraim Lessing "Emilia Galotti"
    2001, Deutsches Theater Berlin
  • Ferenc Molnár "Liliom"
    2000, Thalia Theatre Hamburg, invitation to Berliner Theatertreffen
  • Thomas Vinterberg/Mogens Rukov "The Celebration" 2000, Staatsschauspiel Dresden, invitation to Berliner Theatertreffen
  • Bertolt Brecht "The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui"
    2000, Freiburg Theatre
  • Ödön von Horváth "Kasimir and Karoline"
    1999, Schauspiel Leipzig
  • Fernando Arrabal "The Uncontrolled Laughter of the Lilliputians"
    premiere 1998, Basel Theatre
  • Fernando Arrabal "The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria"
    1997, Chemnitz Theatre