Der Panther läuft immer schräg aufwärts

Text: 10 to 11. TEN TO ELEVEN

Text: Professor Erich Wonder (Vienna) has done stage design for Heiner Mueller / For the Mueller productions 'The Mission', 'The Scab', 'Hamlet' and 'Tristan' / He talks about this cooperation and a main characteristic of Mueller: HE'S GOT TIME - -

Text: THE PANTHER ALWAYS RUNS DIAGONALLY UPHILL / Stage designer Erich Wonder about Heiner Mueller's sense of time

Text Trauerbinde: Goodbye Heiner Mueller

Text: January 16, 1996

Erich Wonder: I see that in a rather abstract way, I mean, the descending coffin is not a naturalist action, even if it actually happens. But for me it's completely abstract. There was a moment at the funeral today, when the former wife of Heiner Mueller dropped a whiskey bottle on the coffin, and that suddenly made this huge noise, like an explosion. And suddenly this mix of abstraction and actuality, or natural action, since throwing bottles is a natural action after all, and she brought these things together, the abstraction and the real action, and I thought that was fascinating, awe inspiring ...

Text: Erich Wonder, stage designer

Alexander Kluge: And everyone warmed each other. They were terribly cold, weren't they. And they kept each other warm.

Wonder: Yes … yes … well, I also believe that you are not that cold in that moment , even if it's freezing, but … to be honest, funnily enough, I always go to funerals in winter when it's cold. I don't know funerals in summer. It has to be cold and foggy. That's also a kind of dramaturgy, I think.

Kluge: For which plays did you do the stage design for Heiner Mueller?

Wonder: The first one was “The Mission”, that was at the theater in Bochum. And that was a hilarious experience, I have to say, because Heiner is, and that was a wonderful quality, he's not a professional stage director. And I always found that fascinating.

Kluge: What does that mean, he's not a professional stage director?

Wonder: Well, he is not a so-called skilled director. He tries out things, and has an incredible sense for space, for people and humans, and doesn't stage-manage in a traditional sense. And except for him, I only know directors who do their job and ...

Kluge: How do you define stage-managing anyway? Arrangement of people in space? What does a director do professionally anyway?

Wonder: Eh, a professional …

Kluge: A conductor is responsible for making them play in time, isn't he? What does the director do?

Wonder: Well, a conductor does a bit more than just play in time, but first of all, the director has to structure the whole story, he has to ...

Kluge: manage the play.

Wonder: he manages the play; and then he can bring in a perspective that he thinks the play is written from. But Heiner didn't comply with any of what a director does. In the beginning I was terribly confused, during “The Mission” as well. Then I did “The Scab”, then “Hamlet”, “Hamlet-Machine” and the opera “Tristan and Isolde” in Bayreuth. And at first I always thought: man, he doesn't say anything. Does he dislike what I do, or does he like it? I don't know. And then I asked him: What do you think? And he went: Hm, hm. And I was totally confused, because normally the director says: That's great, and then I can do that, and I can do that, and do that … and Heiner Mueller didn't do that. He also had a different idea of the artist, I mean we talked for a few days about it, then we met after two, three months, and I showed him the stage design, and he accepted it as a product of art so to speak, as a work of art, and didn't talk about it either, I realized eventually.

Kluge: He tries to figure out if he and his words can live alongside, or live inside it, right. Or possibly just live next to it, right. To see if they can be neighbors.

Wonder: Yes.

Kluge: But works of art are autonomous for him.

Wonder: Absolutely autonomous.

Kluge: There's no sovereign who says: I am ruler of a total work of art, so to speak.

Wonder: No, he said: The stage designer Whatshisname did this, therefore it is what it is. And because I like him, it's alright.

Kluge: Just like during a concert one singer does not interrupt the other either.

Wonder: Yes, something like that. I mean, exactly like that. Whereas the traditional understanding of the director's relationship to the stage designer is completely different.

Kluge: Like a CEO to a department manager.

Wonder: CEO. Yes. Work, work … eh, this has to this way, that works like that. And I gave him really difficult stuff, where a normal director probably would have run screaming ...

Kluge: For instance?

Wonder: Well, Heiner said during “The Mission”, he wanted a black panther. And I said, what, how?

Kluge: What like a big cat?

Wonder: Yes, a big cat, yes. And … that's the story … there’s this elevator story with the … that happens in “The Mission”, it's part of “The Mission”. And, I said, how? Yeah, I don't know, painted or I don't know how. And I go to the zoo in Bochum, I said: I would like a panther, a black one. And then the manager said: You are crazy, you can't have a panther put in the auditorium, I don't want a panther in the middle of the auditorium. And Heiner said: Yes, a panther. A real panther. And then he had to produce that. And the panther did what we wanted.

Kluge: Why, but it wouldn't listen, the panther, would it?

Wonder: Yes! It did … I built a catwalk right through the auditorium, so that the people who were sitting on the left couldn't see who was sitting on the right, and vice versa. And a see-through catwalk for the panther.

Kluge: Did it go through glass or netting wire?

Wonder: That was mesh wire.

Kluge: Mesh wire?

Wonder: Mesh wire.

Kluge: But it could have broken through that with its paw.

Wonder: Nah.

Kluge: No?

Wonder: Maybe. I don't know. But I wanted it to be a bit blurry, I didn't want it to be so open, but somewhat blurry, so that you can't see it that well.

Kluge: But at the circus they build a huge fence before the panther is let in.

Wonder: Well, there was a basic fence, but other than that, it was mesh wire. And then we put the panther in, it was a somewhat young panther, and the zoo director said: Yes, no problem, it was a young zoo director who grew up with the panther, it lives in the apartment with him. And then he put him inside, and we made a fence, and Heiner said: We need opera music, and the panther needs to walk through the auditorium to this opera music. And everyone said: You are crazy, that's not possible. And then we tried it, and it always worked.

Kluge: It moved very dramatically.

Wonder: It crossed the auditorium, and then I asked around to find out why, and it turns out that it always wanted to sleep, the panther. And panthers always sleep high up in bare trees.

Kluge: Oh, so it goes uphill.

Wonder: They always go uphill. And that works, I don't know, in twenty, thirty performances, and the panther always got its cue: opera music, and walked through the audience, like we wanted it to, because it laid down again up there. So it went uphill to sleep.

Text: The panther's catwalk

Text: The panther

Text: What is “The Mission” about?

Kluge: Could you just explain briefly the plot of the “The Mission.”

Wonder: I don't even remember it all that well anymore.

Kluge: Three delegates of the French Revolution come to the Carribbean, right?

Wonder: Yeah, well there's the plot ...

Kluge: … they are supposed to incite a revolt of the slaves against the English. In the meantime, the regimes change, and the revolutionary mission is taken care of. And now they fight each other. Is that correct?

Wonder: Yeah, I don't know, I don't know … much more interesting I think is the history that led up to it and that no one knows about. So, I did, one or two years before that, I was visiting Heiner here at his place in East Berlin, und I said: I would like a text for a project that I'm planning. And he said: Yeah, and so on, and we waited, and then he pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. And there, he said, there, he read out loud, he had written down a dream. In fact, the dream was that he had to go see Honecker. And it was a real dream, not made up by the poet, but just written down. And he told me this dream, the entire dream. And I wanted to adapt it, but I didn't manage, I wanted to do it without words, and it didn't work. And that's basically how the play originated for me. So I wasn't interested in the political facts at all.

Kluge: And you nevertheless filmed his dream, regardless of the text that Heiner Müller had written in the meantime.

Wonder: Yes, that's basically what I did, and … you can't dwell on a story, I believe, when you create a space. If you are a conventional stage designer and you illustrate and make sceneries, that's different. But I tried, or try, in such situations to create spaces that have an independent effect ...

Kluge: It's one space the entire time?

Wonder: Just one space the entire time. And then there was a cue from Heiner who said: The people in the audience are voyeurs. And I thought: Ah, and wrapped the auditorium and the portal and only left a triangle. The audience looked in through a triangle and often saw the actors only down to their knees or halfway or completely, depending on where they were.

Kluge: Oh, the play is partly hidden.

Wonder: Yes.

Kluge: A fantasy shot, so to speak …

Wonder: It was partly in the off ...

Kluge: … and you had to complete it.

Wonder: Yes. It was in the off, partly. And I had no … I didn't need a stage design anymore. Because of this idea to take away the portal and turn it into a triangle, I actually got the situation that he needed. It snowed, it rained, there were natural phenomena.

Kluge: You did that.

Wonder: Yes.

Kluge: But you only ever saw the triangle.

Wonder: It … it, just the triangle, and that also got shut, the triangle, or opened. But it wasn't a stage design in the traditional sense.

Kluge: But you would bring in natural disasters, right.

Wonder: Yes, everything was wet and fog and rain and … and then he wanted a concert grand to make an appearance, and I said: Well, it would have to swing. A concert grand has to swing in the snow flurry, like a pendulum, and then ...

Kluge: But how do you do that?

Wonder: Well, and because the stage was too small, we built a grand piano perspectively that was only 50 cm deep, but the audience thought it was actually a 3.20 meter long piano. And it actually really swung in the snow flurry. And that kind of stuff was what it was about. I mean, what I was interested in was the German Theater, for instance. That was just in the process of being renovated by the government, in gold and red velvet. And when you reached behind the velvet, you found concrete. In the West you still had a layer of fabric behind it. Everything was cheap. And then there were still these sliding doors that I believe Goebbels had had made, so that, when all the people were inside, he could enter, and close the sliding doors, and he had a pathway to his loge. And all that still existed. And that was Honecker's favorite theater. And I was interested in reacting to that. And I disrupted the theater. And I wanted to damage it a little. I built an iron rail that went from backstage up to the chandelier, in the middle of the auditorium, and made an incredible noise … and on it waggons moved with an insanely harsh light and speakers and did … on steel-plates, and it rattled terribly and made noise, and with a chain ...

Text: → Swinging piano

Text: Set design for The Scab / “Destruction of the German Theater”

Text: Erich Wonder, stage designer

Kluge: Oh, you have with a [UNVERSTAENDLICH] so to speak.

Wonder: I disrupted the velvet and the brocade. Was the first to ruin that.

Kluge: Through industry.

Wonder: Yes, that's what I was interested in. I'm not actually interested in the content of the play, but the situation.

Kluge: An iron vehicle on an iron machine in dangerous extension …

Wonder: Over the heads of the audience ...

Kluge: Over the heads of the audience up to the chandelier …

Wonder: And I knew that all the government people were sitting in the first row. And that's what I was interested in. Destroying. Destroying. And … but I've jumped ahead, I'm talking about “Hamlet” now, for “The Scab” I did ...

Text: Iron rail to the middle of the auditorium

Text: Hamlet

Kluge: That was “Hamlet” that you talked about just now.

Wonder: That was “Hamlet,” I've jumped ahead …

Kluge: And now this “Hamlet”, could you keep telling us about that?

Wonder: Yes...

Kluge: Is that the big “Hamlet” that he did in 1989?

Wonder: Yes, yes, the seven-hour-“Hamlet”.

Kluge: Seven hours.

Wonder: “Hamlet,” and “Hamlet-Machine”.

Kluge: While at the same time outside history was being made.

Wonder: Yes, it started in West Germany, no, in East Germany, and the premiere was in West Germany. So there were rehearsals for six months, and the preparation took a year. And that was fascinating to see, so I kept having to cross the border. I walked with Ulrich Mühe, the Hamlet-actor, through the old commuter rail station, and the East German People's Police (Vopos) were still there and simply said: “Just go ahead through.” And Ulrich Mühe turned to me and said: “This is the watchtower I used to guard back when I was a soldier,” our Hamlet-actor, “that's where I got my ulcers.” Suddenly that dissolved, but right at the time when no one really knew where these …

Kluge: Why is it seven hours long, the play?

Wonder: Well, Heiner had an idea. He said, it starts as ice cube and ends as cube for boiling stock, as we used to say, the fun ends in the desert. And that's what he wanted to show, this idea. And “Hamlet-Machine” was embedded in the middle, so to speak. And the funny thing was that we had a lot of ideas for Shakespeare's “Hamlet,” for “Hamlet-Machine” we couldn't come up with anything.

Kluge: Nothing much occurred to you, right?

Wonder: I said, I can't think of anything, and he can't think of anything either. For his own play, we didn't have any ideas.

Kluge: But it was the catalyst … it was the catalyst, so that you have many more ideas for “Hamlet”, right, than you'd normally put on stage.

Wonder: Yes, yes, but you have in the middle.

Kluge: It's actually a huge commentary, right, on “Hamlet”.

Wonder: Yes, yes, but that's why it works … I mean we did not manage to put proper scenes together for “Hamlet-Maschine”, but it was just integrated in this overall concept.

Kluge: But when you present yourself as a kind of genius of destruction, right, and constantly re-build spaces against the grain, right, and all that in an admittedly very agitated political landscape – out there, the so called “Fall of the Wall” is basically happening in fast-forward, after all … the monetary reform.

Wonder: I always had a camera with me and I constantly took pictures, for example I did one from the restroom. …Erich Honecker was admitted to the Charité with cancer, on the top floor …

Kluge: You could see that.

Wonder: You could see that from the restroom. I went to the restroom window and always took pictures of the Charité.

Kluge: But – curious about the outside, but at the same time you sit here like in an armored car, right, and drive, it has a high driving speed, right, because you constantly brush the building here against the grain now, right, and what does that look like what you do? Does that look like a “Tristan” stage setting?

Wonder: No, I mean I tried to keep a certain, eh, sparseness, but still keep it very refined, just like you can work with trompe l'oeils. Very simple, but still, I didn't do Heiner Müller, I basically did the opposite. I mean I never … responded to Heiner Müller in the way people imagine it. I was never interested in that. I just did what I thought ...

Kluge: He doesn't respond to you either, after all, but it's like two blocks of ice, right, that grow together, that's how different works of art form a natural collage here. Could you say that?

Wonder: Yes ...

Kluge: Or a tolerance towards each other, like a city.

Wonder: Yes, a tolerance. So not in the sense of a well-balanced production, not at all.

Kluge: Could you describe the last scene. The last scene always has a great importance for Heiner Müller, after all, right? The second to last scene includes the bribing of the audience, eh, a gift for the actors, so that they can really let off steam for once, that there is some real acting, maybe even a musical number – that means, he's friendly in the second to last scene and hard in the last one. What was that like here?

Wonder: I still remember the second to last one.

Kluge: What was that?

Wonder: That was the funeral scene with the grave diggers.

Kluge: What's there?

Wonder: I made a backcloth, that was one of the few decorative elements, with a camera shot from below from the grave. So it actually plays out in a reversed perspective. You lie in the grave and look up. I can still remember that. And I don't remember the very last scene anymore, here it actually took place in a sort of desert. At first he wanted to have crocodiles and stuff, animals, and of course we didn't do that, but we used red sand, for instance. And then Ophelia fell and was injured badly and bleeding, and they only had toxic colors here for dyeing, and then we had to go to the West by car, to get non-toxic colors from the opera, and they were very expensive, and here they didn't have any money, and then the people in the West told us that if we bring them a load of railroad boards, then we can have the non-toxic colors for the desert sand.

Kluge: And so a barter was made.

Wonder: Yes, actually we did the entire lighting ...

Kluge: What did they need the railroad boards for?

Wonder: I don't know.

Kluge: Also for a production.

Wonder: That's what they wanted. I mean, we also gathered the entire lighting, which the people in accounting don't even know yet, we brought together all this garbage and put it together here, and carried cloth in suitcases over here ourselves, to make all this possible. Because I said, I want a black cloth, and they said: Well, there might be black cloth in maybe half a year, because it's their factory in Dresden that makes it, but they are non-committal, they only make brown cloth right now. I said: But the premiere is soon, I need a black cloth. And then we went to a theater in the West and looked for stuff in the trash. The stage setting for „The Scab“ wasn't doable either, and then …

Kluge: You really were kind of a bootlegger at the same time.

Wonder: Yes, really, it was like after the war, when my parents used to smuggle bacon. And then there was the set rehearsal for “The Scab”, and there wasn't any cloth. And then they said: We don't have any cloth, there's nothing. I wanted a shiny silver old cloth. And then we said, yes, let't take a break, and then I went into the backyard, and there was a pile of bricks, and it was covered with a canvas, one of these truck covers. I said: That's the cloth right here, we'll take it. Yes, that's no problem at all, that's a military product, I can get hundreds of meters.

Text: Heiner Müller's character / His ability to wait - -

Kluge: Could you describe Heiner Müller's character, at work, during a production, like you got to know him.

Wonder: Well, he doesn't fight in the obvious sense of fight, he simply waits. And that's what all the people here did, they all waited. There wasn't any measure of time. Here I was completely irritated at first, there was no measure of time. For example, when friends of Heiner's were sitting in the auditorium, and I would stand in front of them so that they couldn't see anything. Someone from the West would have gotten up and sat next to me in order to see.. But they just stayed put and looked at my back. They simply weren't able to see anything for half an hour. So there's a different measure of time.

Text: Erich Wonder, stage designer

Kluge: They didn't see anything because you stood in front of them.

Wonder: Yes, I stood in front of them on purpose, so that they really couldn't see anything.

Kluge: And they didn't go to any effort to move sideways …

Wonder: No. They didn’t move one seat over. They have time. They have time.

Kluge: And that leaves …

Wonder: And Heiner Müller had time as well. He also has a different relationship to time. You can see that in “Tristan” as well, I think. That he's in no hurry to produce, rather he waits.

Kluge: He actually managed a lot, really, which you could only see in the close-ups, right, when you film it.

Wonder: Yes, that went totally unnoticed.

Kluge: The singers do a lot, right, you just don't see that in a long shot.

Wonder: Yes, everyone misunderstood that.

Text: THE PANTHER ALWAYS RUNS DIAGONALLY UPHILL / Stage designer Erich Wonder about Heiner Mueller's sense of time

Text: 10 to 11. TEN TO ELEVEN