Saturday 7 February 2015

German Writers on Stage and Screen

This post is going to be one long caveat – I know next to nothing about German theatre. But I recently read this piece by Holger Syme about the Theatertreffen, a festival that invites productions in German to Berlin in the hope of showcasing what's going on in the theatre right now. Syme is troubled that there are four brand new plays in the festival, three book or film adaptations and only three older plays. It took me a while to grasp his point – which is that there has traditionally been a strand of German theatre that uses the classics "to speak to the present" and that this strand is missing from the festival. Because my immediate reaction was, great, new plays getting recognition! Perhaps this is because I'm still annoyed by the British habit of putting Nazi uniforms into productions of German classics – Woyzeck, for goodness' sake! Think harder! I wanted to shout. But I didn't, and it was a very long time ago. At any rate, I'm not sure I share Syme's concerns (after all, this is just one year of one festival) but I'm glad someone's writing about German theatre in English.

I was particularly glad that there are four new plays on the programme and only one novel adaptation. I'm not the only person to feel uncomfortable about these, which are common on German stages. When I've seen them I've come away feeling disgruntled – my readings of novels are so personal that a director's version feels to me rather like a violation, and the brutal abbreviation that's necessary to squeeze a slow-moving novel into a couple of hours' entertainment doesn't help. People who know more about this than me seem to agree that a good book-to-stage adaptation has to go a long way away from the original – embracing that act of appropriation, perhaps, as something creative rather than violent. I think that makes sense. I can only imagine that the book adaptation on the Theatertreffen programme falls into this category, because Judith Schalansky's Atlas of Remote Islands is not a traditional narrative work.

There are reasons for these novel adaptations, though, and they're partly economic – audiences will be familiar with the books' names, at least, and publishers are getting better and better at selling rights for film and stage adaptations. What makes me sad is that a lot of German-language novelists also write for the stage, and have traditionally done so. Off the top of my head: Elfriede Jelinek, Lukas Bärfuss, Kristof Magnusson, Daniela Dröscher, Julya Rabinowich, Max Frisch, Thomas Bernhard, Nino Haratischwili, Feridun Zaimoglu, Kathrin Röggla. And they write plays that don't need adapting, they're made-to-measure pieces for the stage written by astoundingly talented people, and yet the novel adaptations often seem to be a bigger deal. Sheesh, I wish I knew enough about theatre to say that they're actually better quality. I wish I knew enough about theatre to define quality.

Films, I can do a bit better. But there's little point writing the five millionth piece about how page-to-screen adaptations fall short, right? So here, two fabulous things to do with the writer Clemens Meyer, one of my translatees. He's just been awarded a big sparkly prize for best (unfilmed) screenplay, along with co-writer Thomas Stuber, for an adaptation of his short story "In den Gängen". You can read the original story in English in All the Lights. And director Andreas Dresen's adaptation of his debut novel Als wir träumten is competing in the Berlinale as we speak, then on general release in Germany from 26 February. 


Chris Kurbjuhn said...

Novel adaptations are far inferior to well written stage plays. The reason, that german theatres do so many of these idiotic adaptations is, that they are written by the director or the "Dramaturg", who then will receive royalties for the adaptation.
German theatress have alienated professional writers in the past twenty years. You really must be out of your mind to try to write professionally for the german theatre, if you can find work elsewhere. But that's too long and too sad a story for a blog commentary.:)

kjd said...

You know, I can actually relate to a director's desire to make a book their own by adapting it for the stage, because that's also one of my motivations as a translator. I just don't think it turns out that well for audiences, in many cases.

Chris Kurbjuhn said...

The problem is simply that many (most of?) german directos who do these adaptations no next to nothing about storytelling. If you talk to them and use professional terms like "plot point" or "exposition" they either give you a blank look or refer to these things as "dated stuff". Problem is that you simply must use this "dated stuff" to capture an audience.

Chris Kurbjuhn said...

Sorry, "know next to nothing" was what I wanted to write.

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