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Brighton Festival 2024

The Making of Berlin


Genre: European Theatre, Experimental, Film, Multimedia, Theatre

Venue: Brighton Dome Corn Exchange


Low Down

Theatre tricksters Berlin evoke Germany past and present through the lens and on the stage in a fascinating study of what it means to hold to a truth and make real your vision.


It unfolds over two teasing hours with the slow-burn intensity of a thriller and, like the best of that genre, leaves you questioning everything you’ve just watched. Belgian theatre makers Berlin are world renowned for going deep into stories about places and people. This show is the final in their city portrait series which included the memorable Bonanza (actually a town with 6 inhabitants) seen at Brighton Festival 2014.

Berlin’s Berlin (it gets more confusing believe me) is filtered through the memory of elderly Friedrich Mohr, a Berliner who says he was the Berliner Philharmoniker’s stage manager during WWII. Mohr wants the theatre company to complete an unfinished project, the live broadcast of Siegfried’s Funeral March from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. But not in an opera house. Towards the end of the war it was too dangerous for the orchestra to play other than in air-raid shelter and bunkers. Mohr’s grand plan, to record the piece from seven different locations, was scuppered due to faltering technology. Can Berlin make it happen for him?

Director Yves Degryse steers this complex, multilayered epic with a remarkable lightness of touch given that is he also seen on film for much of the time, dealing with often exasperating circumstances, and is simultaneously on stage interacting with himself on screen. The levels of reality are pushed as the piece progresses, from a beautiful looking and sounding opening drone sequence to familiar documentary style footage of the company and Mohr on location. And while it has all the surface trappings of a documentary, with backstage scenes shot by Fien Leysen, Degryse and his team cleverly undercut what is said and what is seen until we are no longer certain of who these people really are. Perhaps Berlin, having made documentary films into a theatre form for so many years, began to question how truthful documentary can ever be…there’s always someone’s eye on the camera, pointing the lens. They moved towards this territory with 2018’s True Copy about a Dutch art forger (Brighton Festival 2019).

Mohr is the quiet heart of the piece. In demeanour a little like Werner Herzog (whose films are often as tricksy as this one) his younger life was fraught with danger, lost love, the cruel inhumanity of the Nazi regime and the transformative power of music. Music has power in the staging too, recorded and played live; Peter Van Laerhoven’s sound design even makes texts and typing interesting to hear. There’s a lot of both, as meetings are documented and interactions between the company and their co-producers rattle along on mobile phones, often whilst driving. Despite the modern day settings of office, road and city, the film’s colouring evokes an earlier Berlin, like footage from 1960s reportage.

During a tense meeting one of the team asks “Do we care if what we’re watching is truth or fiction?” Like the best detective stories, this one hinges on a coincidence. It’s one of the company’s many playful interactions in a work that’s tantalisingly hard to pin down, much like memories. In the finale, the Opera Ballet Vlaanderen (perhaps) play Wagner on seven screens, conducted by Alejo Pérez. Siegfried’s death feels the perfect choice to evoke the coming end of Nazi Germany.

A cunning, clever work of meta-cinema then, a genre which Berlin may have invented and which, like Bonanza, I’ll not forget. It’s in my memory now, right?