René Pollesch Obituary Yes, Nothing is OK

René Pollesch died very suddenly aged just 61.
René Pollesch died very suddenly aged just 61. | Photo: Daniel Karmann/dpa

René Pollesch was not only a remarkable artist, he was also an exceptionally empathetic individual. The sometimes unforgiving theatrical world will remember the late Volksbühne director for far more than countless entertaining, thought-provoking plays.

By Peter Laudenbach

Only a fortnight ago, the Berlin Volksbühne hosted the premiere of René Pollesch’s last production: a deeply perplexing, pessimistic solo by and with Fabian Hinrichs. The play’s title was one of those typical Pollesch statements that sum up an atmosphere, a surprising idea or personal condition quickly and memorably, like pop songs, often comedic and invariably ambiguous, preferably all at once: “Yes, nothing is okay.” Following René Pollesch’s sudden death, the title now resonates with poignant bitterness. The director of the Berlin Volksbühne for the past two years died unexpectedly on Monday morning aged 61, the theatre has announced. This is a profoundly sad blow not just for the Volksbühne and Berlin.

For the past two and a half decades, René Pollesch has demonstrated with astonishing ease and inner freedom that the theatre can be both entertaining and at the forefront of advanced sociological discourse. His shows were masterfully performed, effortlessly casual, consistently surprising, and never dull. Indeed, they contained more intellectual stimulation per minute than any other production in an entire season. They critiqued capitalism with an element of fun and subtle entertainment akin to the finest boulevard theatre, preferably to the accompaniment of the Beach Boys or Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon”, alongside occasional condemnations of heteronormativity or mockery of “home office setups”, decades before anyone talked of remote work. No wonder so many theatregoers attended only Pollesch’s productions, if possible several times over – it was certainly not the worst theatre programme.

When René Pollesch was studying applied theatre science at Giessen University in the 1980s, writing and staging around one new play a week with fellow students, he quite rightly called one of these productions “I Edit Faster”. This was no exaggeration. In the past 30 years, Pollesch has written and directed some 200 plays, many of them as magnificent as their titles: “Tod eines Praktikanten” (Death of an Apprentice), “Sozialistische Schauspieler sind schwerer von der Idee eines Regisseurs zu überzeugen” (It’s Harder to Convince Socialist Actors of a Director’s Idea) or “Mädchen in Uniform – Wege aus der Selbstverwirklichung” (Girls in Uniform – Ways out of Self-Realisation). The best is a play title that sounds like the answer to the question: What happens when Humphrey Bogart and Adorno say goodnight to each other?: “Ich schau dir in die Augen, gesellschaftlicher Verblendungszusammenhang!” (I’m Looking Into Your Eyes, Social Context of Deception!)

In many respects, Pollesch’s entire artistic practice embodied what the title of his degree course promised: applied theatre studies, a reflection on theatre, including its deceptions, within the medium of theatre itself. This was evident, for example, in his satirical treatment of profound kitsch, the wallowing in sentimentality or claims of “genuine” emotions on stage, or when he mocked “authentic cows” and championed pure immanence. In theatre, just like in pop culture or Andy Warhol, only the surface is apparent: a face on stage is not a mirror of any soul, but a display, an interface between humans and society.

You could learn a lot from Pollesch, for example about self-realisation as the antithesis of freedom

“I’m Looking Into Your Eyes, Social Context of Deception!”, International Festival Buenos Aires (FIBA), 2011 “I’m Looking Into Your Eyes, Social Context of Deception!”, International Festival Buenos Aires (FIBA), 2011 | Foto: Festivales de Buenos Aires
The point was that this critique of the theatre was simultaneously a critique of society, executed with theatrical means. Pollesch teaches us that the pursuit of “self-realisation”, including self-realisation within the workplace, is antithetical to freedom. He also highlights his distrust of the overbearing expectation that employees engage in their job as a “whole person” – as if a company could lay claim to its employees’ emotions.

A few years ago, sociologist Andreas Reckwitz identified a “society of singularities” in which self-presentation as an especially individualistic persona is not an act of non-conformism, but simply the fulfilment of a social expectations and the desire for competitive advantage, particularly in professional contexts. Pollesch fans were already familiar with this concept from his productions back in the early 2000s. This is another reason why, a few years ago, Pollesch admirer Diedrich Diederichsen lauded the director for having developed “the first artistic agenda that corresponded to the new era”, namely, a contemporary form of capitalism in which emotional experiences and subjectivity are also becoming a market resource.

And because Pollesch often only needed a good punchline to make fun of how people commodify themselves, a character in one of his early Volksbühne plays delivers a beautifully cryptic confession about successful cosmetic surgery: “I have cut myself to meet the needs of the market.” This statement encapsulates the exact opposite of Pollesch’s ethos. His focus is not on achieving commercial success and certainly not status, but on fostering exchange. This is why the prompter is as important as the lead actor (she used to come onto the stage for the applause). And the director is certainly not the dictator of the stage who basks in the cult of his own genius. Pollesch defines his role as follows: “I am the service provider of Sophie Rois.”

Despite staging productions at virtually every major theatre in Europe, from Vienna to Hamburg, from Munich to Zurich, the Berlin Volksbühne remained Pollesch’s artistic homebase from the early 2000s. When stage designer Bert Neumann and dramaturge Aenne Quiñones introduced him to the theatre in 2001, he was an intriguing outlier in the Castorf cosmos: influenced by queer pop theory, unmistakably shaped by his West German upbringing and openly gay. This stood in stark contrast to Castorf’s anarchic theatre with its slightly Stalinist leanings and actresses in high heels and suspenders.

Pollesch preferred to focus on his own reality, clever, unconventional and subversive

And it was precisely because of this contrast that it worked. Pollesch’s somewhat radical dismantling of theatrical conventions would not have been possible at any other theatre at the time – for instance, his polemics against naturalistic, representational and empathetic acting where national theatre actors play homeless people or refugees. Pollesch preferred to make his own reality his subject matter, but he did this so cleverly, unconventionally and subversively that the dialogues of a love affair seamlessly transitioned into critiques of ownership – all ownership structures. The fact that he took over as artistic director of the Volksbühne in 2021 during such turbulent period was a very selfless act of solidarity with this unique theatre.

Like all important playwrights and directors, Pollesch forged his own form of theatre. This is more than just a style, it is also his approach to work – in Pollesch’s case, an overtly non-hierarchical, even anti-hierarchical approach. The actors with and for whom he wrote his plays – Sophie Rois, Christine Gross, Fabian Hinrichs, Kathrin Angerer, Inga Busch, Volker Spengler or Martin Wuttke – were not mere performers but rather co-authors, and he rarely allowed other directors to restage his scripts with different casts.

Theatres are not always kindly places. René Pollesch was not just a remarkable artist, he was also an exceptionally kind, empathetic, reserved and warm-hearted person. This was another invaluable gift he bestowed upon the theatre.

This obituary was first published in Süddeutsche Zeitung.