All Together Now: Well-Meaning Commune-ists

At the Akademietheater, Thomas Vintenberg’s Die Kommune is an honest homage to the “undertaking” of communal life

On The Town | Peter Quince | February 2012

From left: Anna, Virgil, Erek, Freja, Ole, Steffen, Mona and Ditte (Photo: Georg Soule)

In Thomas Vintenberg’s 1998 film The Celebration, his hand-held camera peeked at a pater familias’ birthday bash as casually as any clueless guest.  But when the movie’s actual "moment of truth" came – when dad’s grown son stands up to describe the sexual abuse the father had dished out – that slipshod camera seemed to swerve out of "truth" into a topsy-turvy, psychotic break.

Vintenberg’s cinéma was already so vérité that once the plot thickened, there was nowhere to go but surrealism.

In Die Kommune, Vintenberg’s new play at the Akademie Theater (written together with Mogens Rukov), hippie types founding a commune are joyfully played by Burgtheater actors with oodles of technique, crowned with cunning hippie wigs. This play is far more lighthearted than the film, but in both, an alloy of truth and dare lends art an unexpected advantage over life.

People who founded communes nahmen sich was vor – they undertook something, instead of just taking something. They decided to decide. "Let’s have a vote on whether we’ll vote on this," says Tilo Nest as Ole, when something really tricky comes up. But the high-minded desire to do things differently stagnates, unless the floodgates of perpetual revolution are thrown open. And who’s ready to do that in their communal kitchen?

Psychology and pop songs taught baby boomers that revelation is to be found within: When questioned about having kids, Ditte (Alexandra Henkel) says simply, "I’ve got a bunch of feelings about that". The resulting slide from honesty to sincerity to hypocrisy was foreordained – often with a final U-turn back to brutal candor. Erek (Joachim Meyerhof) declares to his rejected wife as she clings to him on the threshold of moving out: "All you are anymore is disgusting".

But compared to the self-conscious aspirations of the 1968ers, Vintenberg’s play is charmingly, gratefully lightweight. In Stefan Mayer’s true-perspective set, we don’t always notice how many people are scattered around the commune’s generous, decrepit parlor. Although constructed around a love triangle, the plot is episodic, with a kooky birthday party in bed for Mona and a Christmas tree made out of a ladder.

The love triangle is believable, ergo banal, with poor Anna (Regina Fritsch) happily married at the outset to Erek of the huge dulcet voice and choleric rages – "How dare you call me the boss?" he shrieks at Frenchman Virgil (Fabian Krüger).  Unfortunately, their hippie homestead is Erek’s property: "It’s almost sneaky the way my father left it to me," he notes just humorlessly enough for the audience to giggle.

Anna and their teenage daughter Freja (Elisa Plüss) are not pleased when one night the 25-year old Emma (Adina Vetter) steps naked out of the shower; Erek later confides to Freja that he didn’t eat for days when he first met this demure enchantress. Her eyes are huge but hooded, her adolescent body burgeons, but her head hunkers back towards her shoulders, perhaps recoiling from the force of the teenage platitudes rattling out her mouth.

Communes often exposed the schism between idealism and everyday life, although by rights a commune should be idealistic about everyday life. But acting should also devolve from a healthy idealism about everyday life, and that’s why Vintenberg’s homage, as performed by these expert actors, is possibly more rewarding to watch than commune living itself. The least savory 1970s communes, trumpeting truth and sensitivity, had some affinity to the dreariest school of method acting. Sadly, commune-ists like Erek couldn’t let themselves appreciate moments of communal farce. But Vintenberg can. He makes a delectable set piece out of simultaneous, audible bangings, offstage right and offstage left, with Hartinger and Vetter outdoing each other in the nonchalance of their subsequent strolls to the toilet.

Still, Vintenberg has not quite penetrated to the hard core of peace-love farce. A friend of mine who had rudely opted out both of a commune and of the city it was in, was required to fly back for a weekend of nonstop bathroom cleaning, to atone for her undone chores when she had actually lived there. Surely that would make the perfect vantage point for a flashback chronicle of commune living.

Stagecraft lets Vintenberg turn the tables with an effortlessness that real-life hippies might envy. The strongest scene comes when a very naked Meyerhof slaps his clothed wife across the face with an obviously faked theater slap: instantly, theatrical artifice triumphs, crystallizing the kind of hypocrisy hippies of Erik’s ilk so struggled to contain and camouflage. Technique means these actors share their characters with us with a leisurely wink. Skinny, unshaven Fabian Krüger gives the most casual performance imaginable, his trumped-up French accent a sly, elegant grunt – stonewashed as his jeans.

Playing a cheerful, inarticulate fish-cannery scion, Dietmar König somehow convinces us that his straggly toupé is both a wig and real hair—and the feckless, milk-toothed smile he flashes is a perfect foil for it. König tosses that hair around in afterthought, as if he’s actually emitted its grease. It’s as if, through brilliant wig acting, he’s finessed the do-good, expressionist hippies’ quandary: be true to yourself and be a good person. In the end, so much self-involvement may only be endurable if you wear a wig.


Other articles from this issue