The scandal of William Tell: Berlin 1919


In December 1919 Leopold Jessner staged the play William Tell.  A native of Königsberg Leopold was born in 1878 and had started out as an actor before becoming a stage director in 1911. He was a member, albeit a somewhat passive one, of the SDP  which controlled the Prussian cultural ministry. He was initially appointed director of the Prussian State Theatre as a political appointee; the expectation being that he would be supportive of and abide by the regulations laid down by the SDP. However, Jessner had other ideas and intended to be as independent as possible. His ambition for the State Theatre was to transform it into a ‘showplace of the people.’ Jessner was extremely influential in theatrical circles in Berlin and as such helped to transform the theatre. He was a true Expressionist. He developed the use of abstract stage sets and discordant speech. One of his initiatives was the Jessnertreppe. This was a large set of plain irregular steps with no adornment which was placed centre stage and dominated the space which was usually bare of any other props. These steps were used variously by actors within the action of the play. This stage setting focused the action of the play on the actors upon the bare steps and thus reduced the audiences’ stimuli to a single point concentrating the mind upon the stream of consciousness behind the words. Jessner’s radical and challenging style of production gained him detractors on the right and advocates on the left both inside and outside artistic circles. In 1921 he directed Hintertreppe a hugely influential Expressionist film which laid much of the ground work the later films of F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and G.W. Pabst. His challenges to the establishment saw him dismissed from his post at the state theatre and by 1933 he was forced into exile.


On the evening of December 12th 1919 Leopold Jessner staged his production of William Tell. The play by Schiller was a favourite of right wing conservatives. As such the production at the Berlin State Theatre was unlikely to go ahead without comment. Despite, or indeed because, of the apparent conservative themes within the play, Jessner decided on a complete Expressionist recasting of the tale. This was William Tell as revolutionary son challenging his reactionary father. Rehearsals started with the stage brightly lit and the bare Jessnertreppe  placed predominantly in the centre. The text was cut to its bare bones with all references to the fatherland and patriotism removed. Fritz Kortner played the tyrant Gessler with a chest full of medals and cheeks full of bright red make up. The symbolism was anything but subtle. The music was strident; trumpets were used extensively which mimicked the car horn of the old Kaiser’s limousine. With this level of emphasis, it was unlikely that in the gossipy world of Berlin theatre rumours about the Jessner’s approach would fail to circulate. By the evening of the opening performance the political right and left and the theatrical establishment and critics were all in a heightened state of excitement.
When the doors opened there was a rush to the seats and battle lines were quickly drawn. Different groups sat in, and in some cases on, their seats yelling insults at each other, whistling and stamping their feet. The noise could be heard in the dressing rooms backstage. The situation became so heated that Jessner lost his nerve and called for the curtain to be brought down. Kortner and Albert Bassermann, who played Tell, along with the rest of the cast reassured Jessner and persuaded him to go ahead with the performance and the curtain was duly raised. The opening blasts of the trumpets could barely be heard over the audience who hooted and roared back in response. Kortner strode onto the stage and yelled down the audience who subsided and the action continued to the end of the first act and the curtain was brought down. The audience promptly broke into further roaring; the left wing were delighted by the evening so far and taunted the right wing as to the real story of William Tell. The right wing screamed obscenities at the left wing accusing them of disgracing the fatherland. The situation threatened to get completely out of control. The noise was such that the second act could not go ahead. Bassermann suddenly thrust himself through the curtains and his appearance startled the audience into silence when he shouted, ‘Schneisst doch die bezahlten Lümmel hinaus’, (Throw the bums out, they’ve been bought). A final roar went up from the right wing as they were ejected from the theatre and the play continued to an overwhelmingly positive acclaim.


The reaction to the evening’s performance was predictably polarised. The Spartacists and their fellow travellers were ecstatic at finding new revolutionary fire in what had previously been a traditionally conservative tale. For the conservatives the night had been a disaster. The left wing had been comforted and given new life by the wrecking of a classic Germanic tale. In addition Jessner had shown himself to be a reprehensible Expressionist artist. This double blow was not one that they intended to accept without retribution. Jessner did not have to wait long for that retribution to come. During the early 1920s he came increasing under pressure from the national socialists. He was attacked for his ‘un-German’ productions, his Bolshevik aesthetics and of course for being Jewish. Delegates to the Prussian state government made numerous attempts to remove him. These attempts failed, not because he had any great supporters amongst the other delegates but simply that the other parties saw, in blocking calls for his dismissal, a way of opposing the national socialists. Jessner remained at the Berlin State Theatre until 1930 and thereafter continued to work in several other theatres in the capital before finally emigrating in 1933. One of the major consequences of the William Tell night was the realisation by the right that the lack of legal framework on morality in the arts could lead to a lack of action on the part of the Sittenpolizei (morals police). They were determined that such an event should never occur again and that action should be taken in advance of performances and not afterwards. Censorship had to be applied across the board. If the left could ‘ruin’ a national classic such as William Tell there was obviously no limits to their debauchery and they had to be stopped by whatever means possible. Jessner’s William Tell gave the right all the ‘proof’ they required for the need for stronger censorship laws. Such was the artistic world of Berlin in 1919.


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