• Germany edition
 
Happy birthday Heiner Müller
Photo: DPA

Happy birthday Heiner Müller

Published: 09 Jan 2009 16:23 GMT+01:00
Updated: 09 Jan 2009 16:23 GMT+01:00

The eastern German dramatist Heiner Müller was born eighty years ago on Friday. As the cultural establishment salutes his legend, Daniel Miller questions his legacy.

“Who is the corpse in the hearse about whom there's such a hue and cry?” asks a character in Heiner Müller's most famous play Hamletmachine.

The answer in this case is Heiner Müller himself.

Eighty years after his birth, Germany on Friday celebrates the deceased dramatist's life and legacy. In Berlin, the Arts Academy is holding two days of commemorations featuring cultural luminaries like Peter Weibel, Austrian Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek, and leftist politician Gregor Gysi.

Across the town, the Brecht Literature Forum will be hosting their own, smaller-scale reading in Brecht's former residence. Meanwhile in Hesse, the Schauspiel Frankfurt has programmed a three-day series of lectures and discussions, entitled “Experience with Heiner Müller,” in cooperation with the city's Johann Wolfgang Goethe University.

Müller himself would probably have felt ambivalent about all this festivity. “I owe the world a dead person,” Müller mused late in life to Alexander Kluge. “The state takes possession of the dead.” He would turn out to be more right than he realized.

In Müller's lifetime, the author achieved the rare feat of winning all the major literary prizes of both East and West Germany, picking up both the Mülheim and Büchner prizes of the democratic west, as well as the Heinrich Mann and National prizes of the communist east.

Thirteen years after his death from cancer, his reputation remains enormous. In 1998, the journal New German Critique devoted a special issue to his work. He is still the only playwright to have ever received such an honour. More recently, the powerhouse intellectual Frankfurt publishing house Suhrkamp last month issued a twelve-volume, doorstopper edition of Mueller's collected works.

The only twentieth century German dramatist who holds the same status is Bertolt Brecht. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Müller had a complicated relationship with the man he succeeded as director of the Berliner Ensemble.

Both authors were poets, theorists and public intellectuals, as well as men of the theatre. Both shared a commitment to socialism, and a taste for cigars. Both lived through tumultuous periods of German history, and both treated historical themes at length in their work.

Yet Müller was his own man artistically, and he remained consistently wary of Brecht's powerful influence. “To use Brecht without criticizing him,” he once wrote, “is treason.”

Based on this understanding, Müller developed a remarkably different style of theatre to his great predecessor. His was a free-wheeling, densely poetic strategy which upheld a logic of associations, rather than a logic of linear plot.

In Hamletmachine, this strategy drove Müller to borrow interchangeably from Shakespeare, T.S, Eliot, Jean-Luc Godard, and Manson Family member Susan Atkins. A terrorist quotation from Atkins, spoken by an updated Ophelia modelled after Ulrike Meinhof, closes the play: “When she walks through your bedroom with butcher knives, then you'll know the truth.”

“Theatre,” claimed Müller, “is a laboratory for the social imagination.” But the playwright ultimately ended up disappointed with the course that the German social imagination took.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Müller abrasively opposed reunification, accusing West Germany of “moral complacency.” He warned in the New York Times of a “resurgence of nationalism, racism and anti-Semitism” and that “a reunited Germany will make life unpleasant for its neighbours.”

Such as a stance was typical of Müller, who divided his time in the 1990s between writing poetry and appearing on talk shows, swirling ice cubes around in drained glasses of whiskey while offering dark, nihilistic pronouncements. But this abrasive aspect of his personality was tended to be downplayed in recent years, as his canonization has gathered pace.

“On stage,” Müller claimed, “you need an enemy. German history is my enemy, and I want to stare into the white of its eye.” But Müller has now become part of German history, leaving his legacy in a strange position indeed.

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Don't miss...X
Left Right
Today's headlines
Croatia extradites ex-top spy to Germany

Croatia extradites ex-top spy to Germany

Croatia extradited a former Yugoslav spy chief, Zdravko Mustac, to Germany on Thursday to face charges for the 1983 murder of a dissident on German soil. READ () »

German court jails Somali pirate for 12 years
An officer of the Lower Saxon Criminal Investigation Department (CID) securing evidence on the hijacked ship Marida Marguerite. Photo: DPA

German court jails Somali pirate for 12 years

A German court has sentenced a Somali pirate chief to 12 years in jail for hijacking a ship off the Horn of Africa and tormenting its crew during an eight-month ordeal. READ () »

New app helps clients find prostitutes
Photo: DPA

New app helps clients find prostitutes

While the German government is considering tightening prostitution laws, Berlin entrepreneurs have developed a smartphone app to connect sex-workers with clients. READ () »

Highs of 22C forecast for Easter weekend
Photo: DPA

Highs of 22C forecast for Easter weekend

The days running up to Easter may be cool and wet, but the holiday weekend should be a bit warmer for most of Germany, according to forecasters. READ () »

Berlin man must call himself a mother
The fight over the transgender man's right to be his child's official father has been raging since last year. Photo: DPA

Berlin man must call himself a mother

A transgender person who became the first man in Germany to give birth in March 2013 must be registered as the child's mother, a court has ruled after his year-long court battle to be named a father. READ () »

Study: rape convictions fall sharply
Photo: DPA

Study: rape convictions fall sharply

The chance of being convicted of rape in Germany has more than halved in the past two decades to fewer than one in ten, a major study revealed on Thursday. READ () »

SPD: Restore 45-percent investment tax
The tax privilege for investment income is unfair, says the SPD. Photo: DPA

SPD: Restore 45-percent investment tax

The centre-left half of Germany's coalition government has called for the old top rate of a 45-percent tax on investments to be brought back - to match standard income tax and fight the squeeze on middle incomes. READ () »

Customs find smuggled cash in every third car
Sniffing out the money. Photo: DPA

Customs find smuggled cash in every third car

The number of Germans smuggling large amounts of cash across the Swiss border into Germany rose dramatically last year. Customs officers said on Thursday they made a find in almost every third car they checked. READ () »

Crystal meth use hits record level
Crystal meth seized in Bavaria. Photo: DPA

Crystal meth use hits record level

Consumption of crystal meth in Germany appears to have reached a record level, according to government figures published on Thursday. READ () »

Child's near death sparks row over refugee homes
Leonardo had to have a finger and toe amputated after staff refused to call an ambulance. Photo: DPA

Child's near death sparks row over refugee homes

A political row has broken out in Bavaria after an asylum seekers' home failed to help a toddler who almost died of meningitis. The case has raised concerns about the treatment of refugees in the state. READ () »

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Photo: DPA
Rhineland
Elderly man taped €200,000 to his genitals
Photo: DPA
Business & Money
What's the unemployment rate in your area of Germany?
Photo: DPA
Gallery
Nine ways to celebrate Easter like a German
Photo: Galerie Bilderwelt
Gallery
World War I in colour photos
Photo: DPA
Society
'The mafia has infiltrated every sector in Germany'
Photo: DPA
Society
JobTalk: Why you should teach English in Germany
Photo: DPA
National
330,000 sign up against TV licence fee
Photo: DPA
Hamburg
School kids hospitalized after 'porno' party
Photo: Submitted
Frankfurt
'I'll get even with my old pal Schwarzenegger'
Photo: DPA
Gallery
The week in pictures: April 5th - April 11th
Photo: DPA
Gallery
Ten great inventions you (probably) didn't know were German
Photo: J. Arthur White
Berlin
Clashes in Berlin as refugees tear down their own camp
Advertisement:
Photo: DPA
Gallery
Munich's baby polar bears are finally named
Photo: DPA
Gallery
The 10 best German employers to work for
CurrencyFair
Sponsored Article
Why it pays to avoid banks when making overseas transfers
Mr. Lodge
Sponsored Article
How to find a furnished rental in Munich
Sponsored Article
How to make a lasting impression in business
Hult International Business School
Sponsored Article
What they don't teach you at Business School
Photo: DPA
Society
Nine jobs you can only do in Germany
Photo:ESL
Sponsored Article
How to integrate successfully in Germany
Photo: DPA
Business & Money
JobTalk: All you need to know about working in Germany
Photo: DPA
Features
The Local List Archive - Your guide to all things German
National
Share news tips with The Local Germany
Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

3,146
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd