At the Berliner Ensemble

Harry Stopes

On 11 March, the Department for Culture and Europe of the Berlin senate announced a pilot project for ‘the opening of cultural and economic events for a tested audience’. The Berliner Ensemble, the Philharmonie, the Deutsche Oper, the Volksbühne, the Staatsoper, the Konzerthaus Berlin and the Holzmarkt nightclub would run a series of performances between 19 March and 4 April. Numbers would be restricted, entrance and exit carefully regulated, audience members separated by unsold seats, masks worn throughout, and minimum standards of mechanical ventilation ensured. When you bought a ticket online, you would also book a free Covid test on the day of the performance. You would have to show proof of a negative result along with your ticket and ID to be admitted.

On Saturday, 20 March, I went to the Berliner Ensemble on Schiffbauerdamm, not far from the Bundestag, for a performance of Panikherz, based on the addiction memoir of the music journalist Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre. The testing process was quick and efficient. I was in and out in about two minutes, and my negative result came through by email before I got home (a twenty-minute walk).

The pilot project was conceived in a more hopeful moment than the one we are in now. A few weeks ago my amateur football team’s WhatsApp group was buzzing at the prospect of being able to play full-contact football again from as early as 5 April, if the seven-day incidence remained below 100 cases per 100,000 people. It was about 60 at the beginning of March. It’s now approaching 150.

By the time the pilot began on Friday 19 March, #NotBremseJETZT (‘Emergency Brake NOW’) was trending on Twitter. On the evening of Monday 22 March, Angela Merkel held a meeting with the heads of the 16 federated states. They came up with more of the same – most shops closed, but schools and most offices still open – with an extra five-day lockdown (no shopping for a couple of days!) over Easter. The Easter lockdown was rescinded the following day.

‘The principle “too late and too inconsistent” continues to rule,’ the Green Party MP Janosch Dahmen said. ‘We should vaccinate 24 hours a day, seven days a week!’ Problems with supply notwithstanding, there are currently around 3.5 million unused doses in Germany. ‘Our lack of humour, manners and friendliness mean we are often mistaken for a well organised country,’ our centre-forward remarked on WhatsApp. ‘We simply are not.’

The day that Merkel announced the U-turn on the Easter lockdown, the dance festival Fusion released their plans for the summer. Fusion, which has been held in north-east Germany every summer since 1997, was cancelled last year, but this year they are determined to go ahead. They are developing a laboratory for processing tests on site. Everyone will have a PCR test before being allowed in. In the early hours of Sunday morning, festivalgoers will have to leave and pass a second PCR test before being readmitted for the rest of the weekend.

‘We’re now over a year into the pandemic and have had to sit by and watch Germany’s failure in tackling it,’ the Fusion organisers say:

Culture has been seen as dispensable and simply shut down. At the same time, industry continued … and the pandemic widened the gap between the rich and poor. We’re tired of this lack of initiative and want to end this negative lethargy. We want to show that we can safely organise and host a festival during the pandemic and that there are feasible and responsible approaches that can give us back our freedom – even if that’s only for a few days.

With careful regulation, the theatre is amenable to the kind of managed reopening of the Berlin pilot project. Social distancing at the theatre is possible. But a dance festival, a night club or an amateur football game are about close contact. ‘Fusion with social distancing is not Fusion,’ the organisers say.

Even the clearing out of the Berliner Ensemble was orderly. After the curtain calls the lights went up and the tannoy announced that those of us in the balcony should wait until the stalls cleared, row by row. After a while we made our way into the empty balcony bar area, diligently spreading out while a staff member asked us to wait a few more minutes. Eventually he ushered us down the stairs: ‘See you soon, hopefully.’