Socialist Worker

The Captain of Köpenick: toy soldiers in east Berlin satirise militarisation

by Sally Campbell
Issue No. 2340

In 1906 Wilhelm Voigt, a cobbler just out of prison, dressed up in a captain’s uniform, commandeered ten soldiers and marched on Köpenick Town Hall, south east of Berlin.

He arrested the mayor and “confiscated” his money.

Ordering the soldiers to stay and guard the mayor, he made off with the cash.

He was later caught and imprisoned, but this Captain of Köpenick became a folk hero—and a symbol of the widespread militarisation of everyday life in the Kaiser’s Germany.

Some 25 years later playwright Carl Zuckmayer used the story as the basis for this gentle comic satire on the dangers of blindly following authority. He wrote the play in 1931—two years before Hitler was made chancellor.

Zuckmayer was a humanist and an individualist. He sought to defend the “unpolitical” individual in a time when you had to pick sides.

He was a contemporary of the socialist playwright Bertholt Brecht, but rejected Brecht’s consciously political approach. He looked to Voigt in an attempt to appeal to the emotions of “ordinary Germans”.

Voigt is a classic “little man” being pushed about by a bewildering and arbitrary bureaucracy.

He has no papers and therefore he doesn’t exist. The brilliant sets show us a grimy and overbearing Berlin as Voigt seeks shelter in a hostel or goes on the run from brutal police.

Anthony Sher plays Voigt as a ground-down man, who is then a delight to watch as he puts on the uniform and experiences respect for the first time.

Unfortunately the play plods along, killing the humour. Though this is a new adaptation, it is not actually updated.

Without the context of the crumbling Weimar Republic it does little but uphold cliches.

The Captain of Köpenick

Director Adrian Noble

National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX.

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Tue 12 Feb 2013, 16:39 GMT
Issue No. 2340
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