Poster for Fräulein Julie, at Renaissance Theatre Berlin. Photo: Vasilis Triantafillopoulus

Lockdown means knockdown?

(Berlin): Second lockdown of culture hits Germany’s theatres in great despair. Commentary by Thomas Irmer.

In the new production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie at Renaissance Theater in Berlin Judith Rosmair fancies her flight with Jean via Germany to Switzerland. In Hamburg, Julie claims, they will go to the theater and see exhibitions – «if they are open!» 

The improvised line pours into the thrilled audience that knows this is one of the last two nights for theater in Germany. The final curtain calls for a long and warm applause.

From Monday, 2 November, all theaters will be closed again at least for the rest of the month. Based on a decision by the prime ministers of the German states together with chancellor Angela Merkel from yesterday. The fight against increasing cases of Corona in Germany includes drastic measures in the field of culture. Museums, cinemas, concert halls, exhibition venues and theaters must be closed again. 

Almost everybody in the field of culture agreed with the first lock-down in spring that lasted for many well into summer. In late August most theatres resumed their work with detailed measures for safety and social distancing in rehearsing, on stage and for the public. The season started of course with reduced seating for the sometimes absurdly entrance-channeled audiences that was required to wear masks in smaller venues. But it worked and proved that theater was possible with the pandemic.

Now the first reactions on the second lock-down are quite different. The main argument of artistic directors and other administrators is that theaters have carefully prepared for all regulations and no single spreading incident has been documented in German theaters and opera houses. Therefore the closing of all theaters is seen as unjustified and compared with less safe places like public transport or shopping malls as even unjust. The first protest was launched by a joined statement of all Munich theaters and operas still while the chancellor and prime ministers were negotiating their pandemic plans on Thursday.

Underlying the first protests is a debate about the value of culture in general. The second lock-down seems to prove that culture is of no priority as it was a point of reassurance for theater people by the government(s) in spring. Moreover, what is now at stake means the existence of even well-subsidized theaters, not to mention the much more vulnerable independent troupes. They all just started to recuperate from the first crisis with anticipating huge losses at the box office for this season. Now they start rethinking what the efforts were worth and meaningful in German culture. Much dissent will be heard in the next days, like it was already stated by Ulrich Matthes, star actor of Deutsches Theater and president of the German film academy. Also the Berlin Academy of Arts demanded in a first statement that «such measures must be more differentiated.» German culture in unrest, rightly so.

Berlin, 30 October 2020