Kasper and the Nazis – How women broke the ice in the culture of remembrance

by | Jun 24, 2022 | Raise the curtain

On the occasion of the blog parade “Female Heritage – Women and Remembrance Culture“, KOLK 17 Figurentheater & Museum interviewed Silke Technau. We present her work in remembrance culture and at the same time remember Martha Stocker and Heidi Lohmann, the founders of the first German women’s puppetry stage in an era of male domination. 

Silke Technau, born 1955 in Berlin, studied German and Theatre. Based in Lübeck since 2006 she has been a puppeteer in the KOBALT Figurentheater Ensemble since 1980. Silke Technau takes part in international symposia with specialist lectures and is an editorial member of the professional journal “Das andere Theater” of the Union Internationale de la Marionnette. 

Interview with Silke Technau on the topic of women in the culture of remembrance

KOLK 17 Puppet Theatre & Museum: This November, as in previous years, the anniversary of the bombing of the Hanseatic city of Lübeck on the 28th of March 1942 by British planes during the Second World War will be commemorated. As part of the culture of remembrance, the puppet theatre has created a very interesting series of events. What exactly took place at your theatre? 

Silke Technau: When we moved to Lübeck, we noticed that every Palmarum (when the Nazi party destroyed synagogues) the townspeople gather on the market square to commemorate the bombing. This is not a National Socialist march, but an event in the history of this city. Lübeck was the first German city to be bombed in the Second World War. It simply commemorates the war and the situation of the city of Lübeck.  

We created a series of events called “Propaganda, Survival, Resistance

We recounted what it was like in German puppet theatre history between 1933 and 1945 and what profound changes were planned by the Nazis. We tried to glean from biographies how far these changes went into everyday life. The Nazis were planning a great upheaval and wanted to use the all puppetry for propaganda purposes! 

There were forms of survival, ways of surviving, and there are stories about this that modern puppet theatres have brought to the stage. In this series of events, we provided the historical information and then showed modern productions on the theme of resistance. 

KOLK 17: What drove you to deal with the topic of puppet theatre in the Nazi era and thus become an actor in remembrance culture? 

Silke Technau: When I started learning puppetry in the 1970s, parallel to my theatre studies in Berlin, there were very few puppetry stages. And the ones we learned from simply belonged to the generation that had been teenagers or children during the Nazi era and had learned their craft during that time. They were basically the ones who taught us since there was no other training in West Germany or West Berlin. 

We had to turn to the old, experienced ones and see what we could learn there. That’s why I focused on this generation and looked at where it actually came from. 

KOLK 17: How does it feel to have initiated more than one discussion with your essay “Kasper and the Nazis” and the production of the puppet theatre grotesque “Zasper” by Matthias Brand, which you premiered with your colleague Kristiane Balsevicius in 1984? You broke the taboo of examining breaks in biographies more closely and made intensive discussions possible … 

Silke Technau: We wrote and published this essay in 1982, and then the grotesque Punch and Judy show came along … That’s how we got into a discussion. 

To explain: the Association of German Puppet Theatres had hired a young woman as press spokesperson at the end of the 1970s. She said in an interview that the Punch (in Punch and Judy) character had fascist tendencies, which upset the association beyond belief. There were a lot of Punch and Judy players in the association to whom the figure of Punch meant a lot. 

In fact, Punch was misused by the Nazis as a propaganda figure in a very nasty way! In any case, the Punch and Judy players in the association were quite paralysed, and on top of that came our essay in which we dealt with the propaganda machinery. 

In our Kasper grotesque “Zasper” we tried a completely different style of play! Up until now, Kasper had been played very finely, very neatly by the Hohnsteins. We wanted to try something different in a grotesque for adults and also went out of the stage with the puppet. 

This grotesque, our essay and the description of the Kasper as fascist came together, so that at first tempers were rather frayed. Our colleagues were very angry with us. But I stood up to them because I wanted to know something from them. Because I was interested. We argued terribly! But that finally broke the ice. 

Some old puppeteers knew that we were the only offspring and they had to deal with us. Interesting conversations gradually arose and the old puppeteers told their life stories. That’s how we ended up with Heidi Lohmann and Martha Stocker. 

“We argued terribly! But through that, the ice was finally broken.” 

KOLK 17: Those were two very interesting women! They founded the first women’s stage in 1947 and then you and Kristiane Balsevicius founded the second one in 1975. What can you tell us about these two women? 

Silke Technau: Heidi Lohmann had an almost clichéd biography. She had been drafted into the BDM, where she could live out her temperament. She was very dominant, strong. She led girls’ groups, played the accordion and led puppet theatre groups. She got her love of puppetry from her father. This was followed by training as a kindergarten teacher. 

When she returned to Mühlheim in 1945-1946, Heidi Lohmann approached the public order office to register the founding of a puppet theatre group. 

Martha Stocker came from a very musical family. The parents and the children had done handcrafts together and played a lot. Her cousin loved shadow puppetry and later became a very well-known shadow puppeteer. 

Martha Stocker had two small children. Her husband was missing. She too came from Mülheim, went to the council office and said she wanted to register a puppet theatre. The public order officer there told her that someone had already been to the office for this reason just two days before and that perhaps they could pool their resources. In fact, the two women did just that and built a stage together.   

They had that womanly power that you had to have in and after the war. Caring for two small children, the husband missing, everything was uncertain! 

Heidi and Martha teamed up, they raised Martha’s children and built their livelihood. Although they occasionally worked with men, they remained an all-women’s stage and did everything themselves: making their own puppets, their own stage and following their own direction. 

KOLK 17: In 1987, Heidi Lohmann explained in an interview on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the stage that it was important to her to talk about the years 1933 – 1945 and stated that she had been a puppeteer with the BDM. Why do you think that was important to her? 

Silke Technau: Well, the “fascist Punch” had already been in the press and a scholarly book by Melchior Schedler “Schlachtet die blauen Elefanten” (Slaughter the blue elephants) from 1973 had critically written about the idol of the puppeteers, the Hohnstein puppeteer Max Jacob – who, by the way, was very much supported by the Nazis. Then came our essay, and she noticed the atmosphere of the situation. 

One could no longer simply withdraw and say, “We forget the time!” 

Many in the association, and teachers too, wanted to talk about the Nazi period so that the young people understood what it was all about. So they explained of their own accord. That was probably the reason why she wanted to tell what it was like for her in her interview in 1987. 

Encouraged by this, we went out to interview others from the association. And they were very willing to tell their stories. We heard life stories: for example, building up a business or a theatre with smaller theatres under one umbrella so to speak. This private business was a very big topic, and the other topic was play mediation by the Nazis. 

The puppeteers of the Nazi era did not necessarily have to orient all their content ideologically when they played fairy tales, for example. But they were of course judged by quality criteria and assigned to propaganda in schools or HJ events. Some thought the period from 1933 to 1945 was good! One was provided for. unbelievable but true! Some had taken part to avoid being drafted. Or they were too young, like Heidi Lohmann, who used her time with the BDM to train and learn how to lead groups. 

I don’t know if they were all ardent Nazis. One ardent Nazi who was already in the party before 1933 was Georg Deininger. The stage still exists today. Their work was of a high standard and their carvers were excellent! But Deininger very quickly had nothing more to say. He appeared too radical even to the Nazis in public.

KOLK 17: It was something very special for women to become puppeteers. How did the theatre work of these two women differ from that of their male counterparts? Or was it just something special because they were working in this exclusively male-dominated profession? 

Silke Technau: From the beginning, they wanted to play for children, even small children. They also did something for adults now and then. I saw some of those, very funny ballads told with barrel organ or accordion accompaniment, but it was not their heart’s desire. 

They had invented a Punch who was not always the clever one and the victorious one who freed a beautiful princess. Instead, it was about this small Punch being a little kid with big googly eyes who also sometimes made mistakes and had to apologise. In this manner they were able to detach themselves from the Punch and Judy stereotype quite early on. They also used their duck character “Wappwapp” as an identification figure. The children loved this duck! The duck splashed around in the bathtub and somehow fell down and did everything that little children do. 

I hold both Martha Stocker and Heidi Lohmann in high regard: they even performed a play about sexual abuse. This was, as now a big problem though at that time it did not receive the media attention it gets today. The play always caused great consternation. 

The teachers found it very difficult to deal with. It was a taboo subject! But Martha Stocker and Heidi Lohmann had also noticed that affected children were in the audience! That was too intense for them. They couldn’t deal with what they had caused in the end either. But the fact that they dared to put the subject on stage at all, I don’t think any other group would have done that! It was only taken up again many decades later in the 1980s, again by a women’s theatre. 

Martha Stocker und Gisela Lohmann

KOLK 17: Unfortunately still a highly topical issue today! Isn’t it? 

Silke Technau: Yes, today you can talk about it much easier and more openly. Plays on the subject of sexual abuse are now more often performed in puppet theatres, so that children can be allowed to feel comfortable to talk about it, so that educators, pedagogues or therapists can if necessary intervene. 

KOLK 17: Martha Stocker pleaded for puppeteers to receive sound training and saw the course of study in puppet theatre at the State University of Music and Performing Arts in Stuttgart as a good start. Where did the desire for this kind of qualification for young puppeteers come from and how much does this have to do with Martha Stocker’s own professional wish to become a puppeteer? 

Silke Technau: Whether it had anything to do with her own desire to become a puppeteer, I don’t know. Both Heidi Lohmann and Martha Stocker were very active in cultural politics. They were always in the forefront when attempts were made to found professional associations. Even as early as 1948! The Association of German Puppet Theatres, which is still very active and works well today, was founded in 1968. The two women were founding members and soon became board members. They were very aware of cultural politics and wanted to be involved, also internationally. 

Heidi Lohmann was very interested in UNIMA’s work. UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionnette) is the international association of puppeteers and people interested in puppetry, it’s a very open association. She became intensively involved in the work there. 

Professor Harro Siegel, a German(!), initiated the first UNIMA meeting after the war in Braunschweig in 1959. And everyone came again! 

Martha Stocker and Heidi Lohmann very quickly had a good car, which we always admired and with which they travelled a lot. They travelled to the Czech Republic and Poland. They also knew their way around the “Obraszov Theatre” in Moscow as well as in France! 

They recognised the beneficial training situation in the so-called Eastern Bloc countries, which had well thought out courses of study and trained their puppeteers for the permanent houses which had sprung up everywhere. Martha Stocker wished that the level in West Germany should also be raised. In East Germany, there had been university training since 1971. 

But, as a younger puppeteer said at the time, the whole period from the 1920s to about 1946 was characterised by the Hohnsteiners, who had a very specific style of puppetry and gave countless courses.  It’s almost impossible to imagine.  They had dominated the whole German development. 

When the opportunity arose in the 1950s to travel elsewhere and take part in UNIMA meetings, also in Bulgaria or Romania, the German awareness was explosively awoken from it’s slumber becoming aware of what was actually possible! and developing rapidly thereafter!  

Both women dedicated themselves to training the next generation in Germany so that they would reach a different level. 

KOLK 17: In your work “Ein Beruf im Wandel” (A Changing Profession) you describe in great detail how the profession of puppeteering has changed and has always been subject to political and social circumstances. What obstacles did you have to overcome in your journey to become a puppeteer? 

Silke Technau: In the 70s, puppetry wasn’t fully recognised as a profession. Hardly any young people were interested, and when I wanted to become a puppeteer, it was regarded very strangely by my family. I had a reasonably good leaving certificate from school, I might not have been able to study medicine straight away, but somehow I was expected to do something like that. Or law. But I wanted to study theatre studies which led me to focus on this niche! I found the resistance resistance in my private life difficult, but I went through with it anyway, and at some point it was understood that there was a consequence behind it. I was then no longer impeeded. 

We didn’t have a proper training option and had to seek out courses. The association described in my book “A Profession in Transition” was founded in 1968 to promote training, among other things. It had opened a free training centre in Schleswig-Holstein where ‘professionals taught professionals’ for a week. We often went there and learned a lot. That was progress! 

We had developed through self-study, questions, the answers to which we had to find ourselves. I found this autodidactic approach very positive! It is often rejected as amateurish, but since everything was picked up and developed by professional people, I enjoyed this training situation very much. Still, you had to grow into it and come to terms with it! 

The professional recognition came only gradually – perhaps through the course of study. The question of whether you could make a living out of it and all that stupid chatter decreased albeit slowly. Finally, Puppetry was recognised as a real profession – also by the Künstlersozialkasse (Artists’ Social Security Fund). We probably achieved all this through our defiance and today it is a profession! 

Another difficulty which needed to be overcome was the presentation of evening performances.  However finding a performance space in Berlin was very difficult and very expensive. The rents! We had to do enormous advertising campaigns, because audience awareness was not what it is today. But those who did come were enthusiastic and spread the word! 

Kristiane Balsevicius and I founded our theatre as a couple. Kristiane came from a completely different cultural background. I grew up in West Berlin, graduated from high school and studied there. Kristiane Balsevicius had a grandmother in West Berlin, but she grew up in South America and commuted back and forth between Colombia, Panama and Berlin. She did her examinations in Columbia. She’s also Catholic, and of course she brought all that into the mix. I learned a lot from her and vice versa because we were so different. 

We were also completely different in our understanding of what we actually wanted to perform. This explosive mixture led us repeatedly to stage different and varied pieces. When you saw one of our works, you didn’t know what we were going to do next, but at the same time, neither did we. There was no set style, which was not easy. We didn’t always find the same language either! Sometimes we just wrote letters to each other. But there was always the will to deal with each other. And I find that – now in retrospect – very enriching! 

Kristiane Balsevicius und Silke Techau 1987

KOLK 17: It must also be rewarding, because cultural-political engagement is also an opportunity to bring about change within society. How important is it for you to be involved in this?

Silke Technau: There is no one particular cultural-political issue that I have pursued in my life. But when it was necessary to stand up or stand together, we did! We founded several working groups in Berlin to present this profession to the Senate of Culture as worthy of support. 

From a dramatic standpoint, I’m very interested in not showing this “super clown” but putting fragile puppets on stage with which people can identify with. The children have to see who they want to sympathise with, or whether they should sympathise with a situation! I look at how the characters put on stage behave. At some point, the female perspective gradually and increasingly came into play for me! 

Female role models! For example, I was very impressed by the opera “Rigoletto” by Giuseppe Verdi. But unlike the libretto, we chose the perspective of Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter, for our production. In this way, we strengthened this female character. 

When we rewrite the pieces to put them “in the mouths” of the female characters in particular, I make sure to use more distinctive sentences and short pronunciation, and that what they say is strong and self-confident. 

For me, that’s an indirect way of making cultural policy. 

More about Kobalt Figure Theatre

Article by Silke Technau on this blog

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