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An epic friendship

A new exhibition at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin shows the complicated relationship between the thinker Walter Benjamin and the poet Bertolt Brecht.


Benjamin and Brecht. Thinking in Extremes – "Benjamin and Brecht. Extreme Thinking – is the title of the "stereo exhibition" just off Bellevue S-Bahn station in Tiergarten in Berlin. At the opening, the crowd stood like a herring in a barrel. A hitherto unpublished newspaper article by Walter Benjamin drew particular attention: "What is the epic theater?" Was once clear on the desk of Frankfurter Zeitung, but was eventually withdrawn by editor Bernhard Diebold, who had little to spare for Brecht's epic theater concept . In the margin you can see Diebold's polemical comments scribbled down with pencil. He believed that the epic theater was simply nonsense ( "Affentheater"). About Brecht's new form of theater, Benjamin wrote: “The epic theater questions the entertainment character of the theater. This shakes the societal importance of the theater by depriving the theater of its function in the capitalist system – and criticizes its privileges. "Brecht wrote:" Epic theater is not the poetic or the political or the biographical or the emotionless. The epic of epic theater is purely the epic itself. […] The new form of the collectivist theater can just be epic. ”

Common project. The relationship between Brecht and Benjamin was complicated, but equally diverse and productive. The recently released Benjamin biography of Lorenz Jäger devotes an entire chapter to the relationship between the two. Here Benjamin is best described as one who follows Brecht. He sneaks in on the playwright, refuses to let go of him and is eventually accepted by the persecuted. In 1924, the two were introduced to each other for the first time, at Benjamin's request. It was not until 1929-30 that a friendship was established between the two intellectuals, which eventually resulted in several joint projects: Brecht and Benjamin develop a typology about living, discusses accustomed thought patterns og furnished thinking. Another project was a Crime Series (The murder in the elevator shaft) that was never published. They planned a magazine called "Crisis and Criticism" in collaboration with the publisher Rowohlt. This was to be a publication intended to promote some form of interventionist thinking; in the language of our time, it could perhaps be defined as intervention thinking. "Criticism of the present is the only true attitude of the intellect," said Benjamin. "I'm solely for the production of intellect," Brecht seconded.

Biography. Bertolt Brecht (b. 1898) began writing poems as early as childhood. From the age of 15, he published the student newspaper Die Ernte with a friend, and wrote prose texts and a play (The Bible). After 1914, Brecht published various patriotic reports and criticisms in various newspapers in his hometown of Augsburg. Together with friends he composed songs that he accompanied with guitar. Brecht's distinctive method of working proved early: to realize projects in teams with close ties to other art forms such as scenography, music and graphics. Brecht studied medicine and philosophy in Munich. There he became acquainted with expressionist literature, which resulted in the play Baal. In 1918, Brecht was mobilized as a sanitary soldier at a military hospital. After the November Revolution in 1918, he participated in the Labor and Soldiers Council at the hospital. In the 1920s, Brecht moved to Berlin where he worked on various film projects. Brecht became a convinced Communist with clear political goals. His major breakthrough came in 1928 with the musical The Twelve Shillings Opera which he created with composer Kurt Weill.

"Criticism of the present is the only true attitude of the intellect." Benjamin

The cessation of the Verkaura. Brecht's epic theater was analytical. The spectator should be urged to reflect and to ask questions rather than to be compassionate. Later, Brecht called the new theater form "dialectical theater". He did not want to interpret the world, but to change it.

Like Brecht, Benjamin was strongly influenced by World War I. Benjamin (b. 1892) grew up in Berlin, studying German language, philosophy and art history. In order to avoid commingling for World War I, he moved his studies to Bern, Switzerland, where he eventually earned his doctorate. Later he worked as a writer for a number of newspapers and translated Baudelaire and Proust. In 1921 he bought the watercolor New angel by Paul Klee, after his attempt to publish a magazine by the same name failed. Benjamin argued that the unlimited reproduction of music, painting, yes, in short of all art forms, led to the loss of the aura of the artwork. The technical reproduction of LPs, radio recordings, art prints et cetera resulted in a loss of value of the original. Benjamin's analysis predicted a continuous decline of the aura of modern art, as well as that of epic theater and film. The new art forms foster a materialistic demythologization and take on such a function in society's liberation struggle, Benjamin said. By having a positive outlook on the masses, Benjamin goes beyond the philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer, who claim that the masses seek diversification in the arts, while in fact requiring the viewer's concentration. Photography and film represent the beginning of the end of traditional art, he believed: History-changing forces were set in motion.

Thinking and theater. Also physically, the two intellectuals separated: Brecht with his narrow head and short hair, Benjamin with his powerful lug and robust face. One was a thinker, the other was a poet. Brecht wrote texts for the theater scene, which to this day are part of the regular repertoire of most international theater scenes. Benjamin wrote literature that had lasting influence in posterity.

"Brecht was very fond of Benjamin. They always played chess together, "said the Danish actress and Brecht mouse Ruth Berlau, whom Brecht met just after he fled to Denmark in 1933. Hannah Arendt stated that" the friendship between Benjamin and Brecht is outstanding: the greatest living German poet met our most important critic of the time ». Benjamin visited Brecht three times in Svendborg, Denmark, where the latter had sought refuge from the Nazis. Both were on the run from Hitler-Germany. In Svendborg, they discussed Benjamins The work of art in the age of reproduction and Brecht's poem "The Legend of the Book of Daodejing's Origin on Lao Tse's Road to Exile".

Brecht's method of working proved early: to realize projects in teams related to art forms such as scenography, music and graphics.

Intellectuals on the run. The exhibition's subtitle, "Extreme Thinking," is a quote by Benjamin, a confession of dialectics. Benjamin expresses his sympathy for communism in the following way: “A shipwreck floating on a shipwreck exposes even greater risk by climbing to the top of the ground-eaten mast. But here at least he gets the opportunity to send a rescue signal. "

How to establish a friendship between two great intellectuals? As manager of the archives of Benjamin and Brecht, Akademie der Künste organizes the material using simple means. The exhibition is sober. In the beginning, you walk through a "forest" of quotes that illuminate the Brecht / Benjamin relationship by quoting friends' statements. At the same time, a critical look is cast on the protagonists: "Under Brecht's influence, Benjamin is only acting foolishly," insists philosopher Adorno. Cultural critic Siegfrid Kracauer records: "I had a heated discussion with Benjamin about his submissive, masochistic attitude to Brecht." Another exhibition space has been transformed into an imaginary library with 16 large walls. Under key titles such as "Baudelaire", "Kafka" and "Broadcast", the duo is put into dialogue with each other using original quotes and excerpts from archives. About German broadcasting, Brecht says: "Suddenly you had the opportunity to say everything to everyone, but you had, if you think about, nothing to say." Benjamin writes: "To be in competition with what radio and cinema technically dominates in our day is hopeless." The exhibition is complemented by artistic comments from various international contemporary artists. A chess computer programmed for the occasion in India, one of Brecht's and Benjamin's chess pieces is playing live.

Benjamin's suicide. The two refugees met for the last time in 1938. The news of Benjamin's suicide reaches Brecht, in California exile, with a ten-month delay. He writes: "Walter Benjamin has left me, the Qurulant with tremendous knowledge, always in search of new wisdom." As if he refuses to accept what has happened, a shocked Brecht notes: "WB / just the memory of the changing of the seasons / should have held you back.

The exhibition lasts until January 28 at Akademie der Künste.

Hans-Georg Kohler
Hans-Georg Kohler
Kohler is a regular reviewer for Ny Tid. Artist.

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