On the Border

Martin Kušej’s powerful and sensual production of Schönherr’s Weibsteufel excites crowds at the Akademietheater

On The Town | Peter Quince | February 2009

Nicholas Ofczarek as Grenzjäger and Birgit Minichmayr as Weib (Photos: Reinhard Bimashofer)

Some yearn for theater to tell us we’re all in it. Some yearn for theater to tell us we’re all in the same boat, despite our disparate woes — that even we, the respectful audience, can be united with actors grazing in some common tragic pasture.

But O’Neill or Ibsen addicts should take a look at Karl Schönherr’s Der Weibsteufel, a popular Austrian Volksstück (folk play) from 1914, which Austrian director Martin Kušej gave an important new staging at the Akademietheater in September 2008.

This three-person trivalent battle for love and lucre, set in the Tyrolean Alps, shows us the romance of using another human being in your battles. In Schönherr’s godforsaken Tyrolean mountain landscape, eerily embodied in Martin Zehetgruber’s jungle gym of giant plastic logs, a farmer, called Mann, played by the German actor Werner Wölbern, adds to his income smuggling.

Mann senses that his illegal activities might be threatened by a new border guard Grenzjäger (Nicholas Ofczarek), who he learns is setting out to seduce Weib (Birgit Minichmayr), to leech smuggling information out of her – and perhaps obtain a little gold star on his guard’s cap. But Mann intends Weib to launch a pre-emptive erotic strike, thus throwing Grenzjäger off the scent. Morosely, mechanically, she refuses.

But soon enough, Weib develops a taste for connivance; her erotic duel with Grenzjäger then veers off into an abrupt, anguished love affair – and hastily concealed footprints in the mountain snow.

But the plan begins to unravel. The love-struck Grenzjäger hesitated to report the meager information Weib fed him as bait, and now each man could blackmail the other. The non-aggression pact Mann and Grenzjäger accordingly devise freezes out Weib, who then sets her sights on inheriting large townhouse at the village’s main square Mann has just bought with his smuggling fortune in order to prove his manliness to his wife.

In Kušej’s staging, their very biometrics seem to clash during a final, fateful Abschiedstrunk, with Minichmayr tripling some forgotten waltz, clutching three wine bottles to her chest while Ofczarek lies splayed out nonchalantly against a tree trunk and Wölbern stands rooted to the spot, trapped in his footloose, heavy-handed frame.

Weib finally goads Grenzjäger into murdering Mann – and then sends him packing. Weib, the object of lust used by the men, has in the end outsmarted them both. Kušej, who with this production concluded his work in Vienna, explained his approach in an interview with Der Standard that despite the pre-fascist world in which Schönherr was writing, this is a play of emancipation.

"The victory of the woman is evident. But still, a stale aftertaste remains, as I have always noticed in rehearsals with the leading actresses… The realization of a radical liberation-utopia has its costs!"

The Tyrolean writer Karl Schönherr (1867 – 1943), a doctor by profession, became well known as a playwright in early 20th century. The Weibsteufel was his best-known play, premiered at the Burgtheater in 1915 and adapted for cinema as early as 1918. However, the famous realizations were of 1951, featuring Hilde Krahl (Marei) and Kurt Heintel as Grenzjäger, and 1966 by Austrian Film Director Georg Tressler, that was also nominated for the Golden Berlin Bear that same year. The Tessler version is particularly successful, with a ‘cinema verite’ starkness to the rugged mountain landscape, the primitive drives echoed in, and perhaps even demanded by the setting.

Schönherr, although married to a Jewish woman, not only welcomed Austria’s ‘Anschluß’ in 1938, but was also allowed to continue writing by the Nazis, and became one of the proponents of the Blut-und-Boden ideal of rural Nationalism.

Kušej’s production has been completely drained of this brand of fascist determinism, rather divvying up the life force into orderly, inalienable archetypes. The three characters remain quite constant in their views, tempi and dynamics. One-dimensional, perhaps, but that could be the point: Together, they comprise three dimensions, a polyphony of purposes.

Alongside Kušej ‘s convincing stage realization, the otherwise one-dimensional drama comes to life in the dramatic-sensual acting of the cast. Mann (Wölbern) has his best moment when, switchblade in hand, he is unable to kill the taunting Grenzjäger – but his trembling fists pack a ten-fold wallop. He quakes with nobility, even confidence, completely avoiding clichee.

Conversely, Grenzjäger Ofczarek croons the play’s most waif-ish lines ("It’s so confusing! I want to go to work, and I end up here seeing you.")  Ofczarek, among the most musical of Austrian actors, often follows a short sentence with a pause of exactly the same length. Could this be instinctive technique – a pause for a clause? Certainly, it is an eloquent symbol of Grenzjäger’s dependence on Weib: he craves answers, and only hears the mountain echoes.

Perhaps, because they appreciate the mysteries of dialect, both Austrian actors Ofczarek and Minichmayr seem to relish acting in a way the German Wölbern doesn’t (although he too takes awkward stabs at Schönherr’s patois). Only Minichmayr could get laughs with lines like "I’m not a die-er", when Grenzjäger suggests joint suicide as the only honorable recourse.

Just as Weib has wheedled Grenzjäger into coming back for the disastrous farewell drink, she remarks disingenuously, "Actually, I don’t know what I really want"— and we believe her: Her Weib knows only what she needs to know at any given moment.

Perched on their logs, the three characters never forget to size up the human terrain. In Minichmayr’s final monologue, as Weib’s fantasizes about entertaining men in her townhouse, she is swept up into thin air in an acrobat’s sling, where her lithe arabesques – stretching every which way – show us that the course she has decided on is only one of many.

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