Portraits of the Past: the House of Bertolt Brecht

‘Hungry man; reach for the book: it is a weapon.’ 

They say you never really understand a person until you see where they have lived.

The house of Bertolt Brecht seemed wholly unremarkable from the outside. Tucked away on Chausseestraße in Mitte, a stone’s throw away from the Berliner Ensemble that Brecht and his wife Helene opened in 1949, I almost missed the house as I approached it.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was a German theatre practitioner, playwright and, I recently discovered, a poet. Marxist and mastermind behind the genre of Epic Theatre, Brecht addressed contemporary issues through a didactic form of theatre that employed techniques to distance his audience from emotion and steer them towards analysis of his political messages.

During the period of World War II and the rise of Nazism, Brecht fled first to Scandinavia and later to the United States, returning to East Berlin after the end of the War. He spent the last three years of his life in this house. But this did not appear to be the home of an exile. 

Brecht’s house is arranged exactly as if he still lived. His possessions are minimal, but significant. Everything looks as if it had been placed there intentionally. A living museum.

Brecht and his wife Helene lived here together, albeit in separate apartments. After Brecht’s serial affairs, this is how they agreed to make it work.

The first of Brecht’s rooms acted as a space for reading. Brecht’s bookcase displayed literature on Communism, Fascism, Ancient philosophy, Confucianism, Buddhism, writers from around the world like William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, William Shakespeare – a confluence of international influences arranged in the shelves and manifested into the space. On the wall is a portrait of Confucius himself gazing out at Brecht’s reading space – a visual anecdote for how Eastern philosophy often touched his plays with its influence. On a wooden table, a picture of Lenin, the most potent symbol of Brecht’s beliefs, resides.

A selection of three antique masks are displayed proudly on an adjacent wall, vying Confucious with their steely gaze. It’s said that these were some of the few possessions Brecht travelled with while in exile. When fleeing a country, you would suppose that you would travel light with only a few important items. Brecht considered these items essential, for what reason we don’t know. The unsolvable mystery behind the mask.

Brecht’s days were evidently coloured by travel, exile, political activism, but artistic promise, concepts that are vividly mirrored in his apartments. Brecht was a visionary. An individual that trusted art to make society a better place.

In contrast to the intimate domain of his reading room, his second study was a wide open space filled with light. I imagined it strewn with paper; Brecht pacing up and down the wooden floorboards, pipe in hand, gazing out at the magnolia tree. Pictures of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels occupy his writing desk, while the back wall is occupied by two biblical figures; their identity obscured by erosion. Every possession seemed to fit into a harmonious collage of influences – ideas and concepts that coloured both his life and work – occupying space in both his mind and his home.

In a corner of the room, a wooden table with various chairs and a sofa made of horse hair stood majestically. Brecht’s guests would be seated on this throne beneath the weighty stare of another, much larger, portrait of Confucious, while he would recline on a rocking chair. In Brechtian theatre, the physical level of an actor on stage could visually determine the status of their character. The poor would be on hands and knees at one with the dirt, while the rich would glide across the stage with importance, chins up, eyes raised. This image of Brecht stooped on a rocking chair before his guests reminded me of this. Brecht honoured his guests, their minds, their skills, and seemingly remained humble in their presence.

Brecht’s sense of minimalism, of only having important objects occupy his space, extends to his bedroom, the smallest of the rooms in his apartments. It looked, to my surprise, like a monk’s cell. A bed, not too comfortable, with three objects placed above its head, and a single Chinese portrait. A doubting man absorbed in thought. I felt like I had discovered a dimension of Brecht I never knew. A man who was almost monastic in discipline and contemplative in mind.

His wife’s bedroom downstairs suggested a contrast between their two personalities. Her life was arranged chaotically around her bed: heavy scripts laden with dust, pin cushions, pictures of her children, wild plants that loomed over the sheets, a television straight in front of the bedstead. Work and rest collided. It had a kind of minimalism, coloured by traces of the actress within her. The windows were framed by gilded wood of gold and green and weighty curtains resembling a proscenium arch stage.

Brecht and Helene’s garden was always green, square and trim, unoccupied by flowers or a vegetable patch, a symbol, perhaps for how everything in their house had to have a use, a sense of importance. Like the lifetime of influences Brecht chose to incorporate into his plays, Brecht and Helene chose their possessions with care, arranging their rooms with images of their life. Two people’s spaces in one home. Two parts of a whole. Two people that could not live together all the time, but made things work based on mutual artistic admiration.

So what brings us to the houses of the dead? Its simple, we seek to understand the context, the history, behind the great minds of literature. We seek to piece together their narratives and understand the influence that life and experience had to bear on the words they wrote.

Brecht’s house, now a ghosted vessel filled with emblems of the past, is a space where his presence is made palpable. I entered this building, sceptical of what a sparse collection of possessions could reveal about his person, and left feeling like I had climbed into his skin.


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