German Unification The Thalbachs – a German-German Theatre Family

Anna, Katharina and Nellie Thalbach (from l. to r.);
Anna, Katharina and Nellie Thalbach (from l. to r.); | Photo (detail): © Michael Petersohn

East Berlin plays a major role in the life of Katharina Thalbach. Her great stage career began there, and her daughter Anna was born there. Today the two women work together – and the next generation is also involved.

It’s really very simple, Katharina Thalbach says, when someone asks her about her complicated family story. There’s just one thing you need to know: “We are all Berliners, or to put it even more precisely, East Berliners.”

The person saying this is from one of Germany’s best known theatre families. Her father, Benno Besson, came to Berlin from Switzerland in 1949 at the invitation of Bertolt Brecht. Initially the actor and director worked at the Berliner Ensemble, where he got to know the actress Sabine Thalbach. Today their daughter Katharina, born 1954, is regarded as the Grande Dame of German theatre. The list of prizes she has been awarded for her stage and film performances is long. Her daughter Anna Thalbach, born 1973, is also very successful. Mother and daughter look very alike, with their slight build and big blue eyes, so they often play relatives or else portray the same figures at different stages in their life. Recently, grand-daughter Nellie, Anna’s daughter, is also to be seen on stage. And then there are Katharina’s half-brothers, Pierre Besson, actor, and Philippe Besson, director.

Joint appearance at the Theater am Kurfürstendamm

Benno Besson, the family’s “Urvater” who died in 2006, would probably be very satisfied with what his descendants staged at the Theater am Kurfürstendamm in 2014, namely, Roter Hahn im Biberpelz based on a work by Gerhart Hauptmann. The play was directed by Philippe, while the other family members performed on stage. The reason they wanted to put on a piece by Hauptmann was because they could then really speak their Berlin dialect, said Katharina Thalbach. She has cultivated the Berlin vernacular with great conviction since moving to West Berlin in 1976, out of love for Thomas Brasch, her partner of many years.

Katharina Thalbach’s father, Benno Besson, went to the GDR voluntarily, buoyed by the hope of a better social system. Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble was Thalbach’s nursery, with her father as a director there and her mother an actress. When Sabine Thalbach died in 1966, Katharina, who was twelve years old at the time, suddenly stopped growing. She wanted to move to her grandmother in the West, but she was not given a permit to leave.

Thalbach grew up with foster parents, while Bertolt Brecht’s widow, Helene Weigel, ensured that she received training as an actress. At the celebrations marking Weigel’s 70th birthday, Katharina Thalbach made the acquaintance of the writer Thomas Brasch. One year later, when the singer Wolf Biermann was expatriated from the GDR “because of serious violations of his civic duties”, many of his artist-colleagues protested, thereby incurring the displeasure of the regime. Subsequently Brasch and Thalbach also left the GDR. “We didn’t want to go, but we had no choice.” They fled by night to Thalbach’s grandmother, whom she had not been allowed to move to as a child. The West they found themselves in had become alien to them.

Katharina’s daughter Anna was three at the time. She began acting at the age of six. Brasch was more or less a father to her. He died in 2001, but he remains a great presence in the family. In 2013 mother and daughter did a joint reading of his poems – at the Berliner Ensemble, where else?

Criticism of statements made about the GDR

Does Katharina Thalback really still see herself today as an East Berliner, after all these years? “Not really,” she says. “I feel much more at home meantime in West Berlin than in the eastern part of the city.” She was severely criticised for publicly stating once that she was glad to have been in the “GDR experiment”. She has felt forced to repeatedly explain her relationship to the GDR. She certainly did not wish to whitewash anything. “I have always said that I’m very glad that I left.”

As for her audience, it is of very little importance to them – 25 years after German reunification – whether Thalbach performs at the Berlin Ensemble in the eastern part of the city or at the Theater am Kurfürstendamm in the heart of the western part. In 2014 she celebrated her 60th birthday there – with the Hauptmann play as part of the family festival. Privately, she also has her roots in the west, as she lives in the Charlottenburg district. Anna and Nellie live on Prenzlauer Berg in the former eastern part of the city. The current Prenzlauer scene however has very little to do with the East Berlin of the past.

Nellie was born in 1995, six years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, so she did not experience the GDR. Roter Hahn im Biberpelz is the not the first play in which mother and grandmother have performed together. They were also on stage together in the comedy Raub der Sabinerinnen. No one is forcing Nellie to be an actress, according to her mother Anna. Nellie is simply growing into it, like she herself did. Little wonder in such a family!