Hilpert, Heinz

(1890-1966)
   Director, actor. Hilpert is considered one of the leading German directors of the 20th century for several reasons. First, he staged numerous significant world premieres during the Weimar period; the ones by Ödön von Horvâth, Ferdinand Bruckner, and Carl Zuckmayer established Hilpert as a director with a singular aptitude for discovering plays by then-unknown playwrights, which audiences and critics subsequently found both thought-provoking and highly entertaining. Second, Hilpert's conduct during the Third Reich was remarkable, for he was an outspoken opponent of the Nazi regime even as he worked directly for Joseph Goebbels as head of the Deutsches Theater from 1934 to 1944 and indirectly when he ran Vienna's Theater in der Josefstadt. Several witnesses attested to his outspoken contempt for Adolf Hitler, and Hilpert's published cynicism about the National Socialist cultural agenda is public record. A third basis for Hilpert's reputation is his work in the postwar period, staging the German premieres of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire (1949), Federico Garcia Lorca's Yerma (1953), and John Osborne's The Entertainer (1957), along with world premieres of Zuckmayer, Max Frisch, and numerous others, while running the Deutsches Theater in Göttingen.
   Hilpert's career began as an actor after his release from a German regiment stationed in Damascus with the Turkish army. His remarkable voice and agile movement got him jobs as soon as he returned to his native Berlin in 1919. He soon began directing as well, beginning with the German premiere of John Millington Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, Jules Romains's Dr. Knock, R. C. Sheriff's Journeys End, and Zuckmayer's Pankraz erwacht (Pankraz Awakens). Hilpert was to have staged the premiere of Zuckmayer's Der fröhliche Weinberg (The Merry Vineyard) in late 1925, but Zuckmayer's contractual obligations elsewhere forced the Berlin production to premiere one day before Hilpert's in Frankfurt am Main. The Merry Vineyard proved to be an enormous hit that ran for years in scores of theaters, and Zuckmayer consistently credited Hilpert for its success. Both men felt their relationship recalled the one between Otto Brahm and Gerhart Hauptmann from 1889 to 1912, and Hilpert's subsequent premiere of Zuckmayer's Der Hauptmann von Köpenick (The Captain ofKöpenick) in early 1931 testified to the vibrancy of the artistic affinity between the two men. Köpenick became the most frequently performed play in Germany during the 1931-1932 season and it remained in the Deutsches Theater's repertoire until the National Socialist takeover. Perhaps even more eloquent testimony to Zuckmayer's relationship with Hilpert was the director's 1947 premiere production of Zuckmayer's Des Teufels General (The Devil's General) in Zurich, which took place 10 years after the two had lost contact with each other. Hilpert's premiere stagings of Horvâth's plays in Berlin were likewise remarkable, especially Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald (Tales of the Vienna Woods) in late 1931 with Peter Lorre.
   In 1932 Hilpert became director of the Volksbühne am Bülow Platz in Berlin. That theater had been built in 1914 by the Social Democratic Party, and Joseph Goebbels had for years attempted to erect a Nazi alternative to it. In 1933, however, Goebbels had the power simply to expropriate it and nearly all other theaters in Berlin as he saw fit. He then pushed Hilpert to give up the Volksbühne post and instead accept the directorship of Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theater, ownership of which Reinhardt had been forced to relinquish.
   Goebbels had long admired Hilpert, though the director showed signs early in the Nazi dictatorship that he would not be easy to control. In May 1933 Hilpert had staged The Trial of Mary Duggan by U.S. playwright Bayard Veiller (1869-1943). Though the play had premiered on Broadway in 1927 and been made into a movie starring Norma Shearer in 1929, Goebbels was unaware that the play featured a distinct anti-death penalty thesis. Goebbels closed the production after four performances.
   Hilpert hesitated to become the new tenant in what was essentially stolen property, but after receiving Reinhardt's approval, Hilpert accepted Goebbels's offer. He openly stated that he would run the Deutsches Theater the way Reinhardt had and that he was merely a steward of the Brahm and Reinhardt tradition. Both Reinhardt and Brahm were Jews, and Goebbels was outraged.
   Why would Goebbels have offered it to Hilpert in the first place? Zuckmayer's answer was that "after the Nazis had cleaned out the Jews and the cultural Bolsheviks, there weren't that many good directors left" (Zuckmayer, Geheimreport [Göttingen: Wallstein, 2002], 25-26). Goebbels regarded the Deutsches Theater as a significant institution in German culture, and he also wanted to be patron of a Berlin theater like his competitor and rival Hermann Goering at the State Theater (Michael Dillmann, Heinz Hilpert: Leben und Werk [Berlin: Akademie der Künste, 1990], 110). Skeptics doubted Hilpert's intentions, even after Hilpert publicly declared his wish to maintain the Deutsches Theater as Reinhardt's house, with its longstanding tradition of excellence and innovation. Nazi officials likewise greeted the appointment with suspicion. Reichsdramaturg Rainer Schlösser detested Hilpert because of his work with Zuckmayer, whom the regime had officially declared anathema. Others knew Hilpert had close relationships with many Jews. Hilpert apologized to nobody, denied nothing, and made few promises to anybody. Yet he realized there was little room to maneuver around Goebbels, who paid all his bills, dictated what plays he could or could not do, and had the right of final approval on any decision he made. Goebbels meantime learned that Hilpert was less than a pliant subject, one capable of defiance and "interminable foot-dragging."
   Goebbels naturally demanded that Hilpert present the work of regime favorites, especially "blood-and-soil" playwrights. Hilpert usually took about two to three years to see such productions completed. In numerous diary entries, Goebbels complained that Hilpert refused to "have the right contact with the regime," or that he was "boxing himself in," or that he was simply "difficult." When Hilpert nevertheless hired Erich Engel as a director, Caspar Neher as a designer, or other artists objectionable to the regime, Goebbels backed down. Hilpert's productions were at least well attended, which helped Goebbels in his ongoing rivalry with Goering for cultural supremacy in Berlin.
   Working in daily proximity with and under direct supervision of Nazis gave Hilpert ample reason to consider the overall purpose of the German theater and his role in it. He began to write and publish essays that, to many, sounded preachy. Herbert Ihering cynically called Hilpert the "Pastor of Köpenick," deriding both the content of
   Hilpert's musings and the fact of Hilpert's proletarian roots (he actually grew up in the Prenzlauer Berg section of Berlin, not the suburb of Köpenick). In his essays, Hilpert differentiated himself from other directors, both his predecessors and his contemporaries. He maintained that the most important figure in the theater was the playwright; second was the actor, but only insofar as the actor played the role the playwright had created. Third was the director, whom Hilpert saw primarily as the servant to the playwright, guide to the actor, and explicator for the audience.
   Goebbels likewise derided Hilpert's musings as sentimental, noting that a theater director was the artistic embodiment of the Führerprinzip (leadership principle) he had long touted in the political arena. By 1943 Goebbels found himself so frustrated with Hilpert and the director's unwillingness to conform to his definition of "leadership" that he began openly referring to the Deutsches Theater company as "a concentration camp on furlough." The inference was that sooner or later, he would replace them all with individuals more attuned to his bidding. When Goebbels closed all German theaters in August 1944, he arranged for Hilpert to work in a Telefunken factory. The factory was destroyed, but Hilpert managed to escape injury and ultimately to escape Berlin before invading Soviet troops conquered the city.
   Hilpert soon began directing in Zurich, then in Frankfurt, Constance, and finally in the university town of Göttingen, where he settled for the remainder of his career. In Göttingen he gathered around him several actors and designers with whom had worked throughout the Third Reich, many of them with well-established careers in film or in Berlin. Not everyone was happy to see Hilpert working again. Bertolt Brecht witnessed Hilpert's German premiere of Frisch's Santa Cruz in 1948 and denounced Hilpert as a standard-bearer in the postwar period of "Nazi theater." The "ruined acting" he saw in Santa Cruz was "analogous to the ruined buildings everywhere in Germany." Brecht decided after seeing Hilpert's production that all German acting "would have to be razed to the ground and rebuilt from scratch" (Brecht, Arbeitsjournal, ed. Werner Hecht [Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1973], 2:829).
   The distinction between Hilpert and Brecht is helpful in understanding the intense passions that ran through the German theater in the late 1940s and 1950s. Brecht wanted a wholesale revision, not only of German acting but also of the entire method used to create theater in Germany. Hilpert remained mindful, as he had been in 1934, of the German theater's nonpolemical traditions. Brecht soon became a target of anticommunist boycotts in West Germany, yet Hilpert was among the first to advocate Brecht's plays in open defiance of such efforts; he himself played the cook in Göttingen's production of Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (Mother Courage and Her Children). Hilpert's theater in Göttingen did dozens of plays by little-known playwrights, in addition to lesser-known works by Zuckmayer, such as Barbara Blomberg (1949), Song in the Fiery Furnace (1950), and Ulla Winblad (1952). Many of these productions featured Brigitte Horney, Carl Raddatz, Erich Ponto, Elisabeth Flicken-schildt, and others who made Göttingen a replica of Berlin's Deutsches Theater in the Weimar period, realizing a goal Hilpert had set for himself and his company when he rechristened Göttingen's municipal theater in 1950.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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