In the context of the 1933 “Reichs-Brahmsfest” rumors had emerged that the Hamburg composer was of Jewish descent (his last name was supposed to have been derived from “Abrahamson”). Peri Arndt, Das Gerücht über Brahms’ jüdische Abstammung, in: Arbeitsgruppe Exilmusik am Musikwissenschaftlichen Institut der Universität Hamburg (ed.), Das „Reichs-Brahmsfest“ 1933 in Hamburg. Rekonstruktion und Dokumentation, Hamburg 1997, pp. 119–120. Whether Berger knew of these rumors is not known, interestingly though, he also discusses the origins of the Brahms family name in his speech.
Ludwig Berger, born in Mainz in 1892 as the third son of the established upper middle-class Bamberger family of bankers, had a special relationship with both Brahms and the city of Hamburg: He recalls one of his earliest childhood memories from 1897, when the then five-year-old found his mother crying. Her explanation was: “Brahms has died – one day you will understand what that means.” Ludwig Berger, Wir sind vom gleichen Stoff aus dem die Träume sind. Summe eines Lebens, Tübingen 1953, p. 20. As a young girl, Anna Klara Bamberger, née Lewino, had met the Hamburg master in person while she was a piano student of Clara Schumann’s, and she remained an admirer of his person and work for the rest of her life. Ludwig’s father, Franz Michael Bamberger, bank director and president of the local chamber of commerce, was a passionate amateur violinist. Joseph Joachim, a famous violin virtuoso of the time who was friends with Brahms, was a frequent guest at the family’s home in Mainz.
For one season (1917 / 18) Hamburg became the second station in Berger’s rapid rise as an opera and theater director, which took him from the Stadttheater Mainz to the most important stages in Berlin in the course of only two and a half years. Before and after the war Ludwig Berger often visited the Warburg banking family in Blankenese, with whom his family had friendly relations. He adapted the second part of Goethe’s Faust as a radio play for the Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk (NWDR) radio station, which was aired on August 28, 1949, Goethe’s bicentennial. It was also at the NWDR that Berger became a pioneer in the new genre of television plays as of 1954. Berger staged several plays at Hamburg’s Deutsches Schauspielhaus theater (for example, Lessing’s Minna von Barnhelm in 1954), and he was repeatedly invited to give readings and lectures in Hamburg, particularly on film aesthetics.
Young Ludwig was an all-round musical talent, he excelled at playing the cello and the piano, painted, had ambitions as a poet, and studied art history in Munich and Heidelberg, where he earned his doctorate in 1914. In August 1914, 22-year-old Ludwig, like many others, was gripped by the widespread enthusiasm for war. However, his attempt to demonstrate his German patriotism by enlisting failed: periostitis had left his right knee paralyzed and he was exempted from military service.
The Bamberger family identified completely with the classical-humanist German tradition in education, as was typical of the assimilated German-Jewish middle class. All their sons were baptized as Protestants, and in their assimilated enlightened household only one religion was observed, as Berger writes in his memoir, – namely “chamber music.” Ludwig Berger, Typoskript Mein Psalm. Psalm 23. Jüdische Kultursendung des Kirchenfunks des Senders Freies Berlin, 22. 5.1967, Ludwig-Berger-Archive, Academy of the Arts, Berlin, folder 2241.Berger dropped the prefix “Bam” from his name – which hinted at his Jewish roots – the moment he entered the public as an artist for the first time: when the Stadttheater Mainz premiered an adaptation of Mozart’s opera The Gardener of Love written by Ludwig with his older brother Rudolf on October 28, 1915, the program notes listed “R. and L. Berger” as its authors.
After he had been hired by Erich Pommer in 1920 to work on movies, Berger scored one of the few worldwide successes for Weimar-era cinema in 1925 with his fifth movie, Ein Walzertraum, which was based on a comic opera by Oscar Straus. This success earned him an invitation to Hollywood in 1927. In 1931 Berger returned to Germany to shoot two of the most successful musical comedies in early sound film for Ufa, Ich bei Tag und du bei Nacht [I By Day, You By Night] An English-language version called Early to Bed, also directed by Berger, was released in 1933. (premiered in November 1932 at the Ufa-Palast Hamburg) and Walzerkrieg [Waltz War] (1933). It was only in 1936 that Berger went into exile, working in the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain, where he was involved in the production of Alexander Kordas’ internationally successful adventure film The Thief of Bagdad in 1939. Berger survived the war and the German occupation regime under still largely unknown circumstances. In contrast to Berger, his mother remained true to her Jewish faith until she passed away peacefully in 1942 in occupied Amsterdam while his father, who had died in 1926, had secretly received a Protestant baptism, as Berger found out later. His brother Rudolf kept using his original family name even when he worked as a set decorator for the theater or on his brother’s films. He met a tragic end: in 1938 he fled to Luxembourg, where the Bamberger family owned a brewery. He was arrested by German occupation forces in 1944 and deported to Auschwitz, where he was killed in January 1945. Ludwig’s eldest brother, Ernst, had managed to emigrate to England and returned to Germany from exile in the 1950s.
Berger never got over the death of his brother Rudolf. After the war he spent a long time sounding out job opportunities in the Netherlands, Great Britain, and the United States – he did not want to live in Germany “among my murderers.” Ludwig Berger, Letter to Wilhelm / William Dieterle, August 6, 1951. Deutsche Kinemathek Berlin, estate of Wilhelm Dieterle, folder 4.3 - 198024-2. He initially settled in Luxembourg, from where he made tentative visits to his former home country, for example in 1947 in order to stage Goethe’s play Stella at the Deutsches Theater in (East) Berlin. Berger had to fight in the courts for years in order to have his house in the spa town of Schlangenbad in the Taunus restituted to him, the interior of which, once tastefully decorated by his brother Rudolf, had been vandalized during the 1938 November pogrom. Ludwig Berger, correspondence with Philipp Wirth, Ludwig-Berger-Archive, Academy of the Arts, Berlin, folders 1587 and 1588.
Outwardly, Berger rarely betrayed his reservations against the nascent Federal Republic and its restorationist tendencies. One of the few exceptions was his criticism of the government’s intervention in the film adaptation of the screenplay Stresemann (1956), which he had co-written with Axel Eggebrecht. Berger felt that it was motivated by the intention to portray Stresemann as a direct predecessor to Adenauer by virtue of his conciliatory policy towards France. In the West German cultural and theater scene, Berger had the reputation of an unpolitical gray eminence with the wisdom of age, and in 1956 he was appointed head of the newly established section for performing arts at West Berlin’s Academy of the Arts. A year later, on the occasion of his 65th birthday, the West German government awarded him the Federal Cross of Merit and the city of Mainz presented him with the Gutenberg Medal. The invitation to give the commemorative address during the Brahms celebration in 1958 most likely was also a result of his literary work. In the previous year he had published a volume of prose sketches on famous composers, borrowing his title from Shakespeare: “If music be the food of love.” One of these “14 variations on gratitude,” as the book’s subtitle reads, was dedicated to Johannes Brahms’ unfulfilled love for Clara Schumann.
In his Hamburg speech titled “About Johannes Brahms the man,” Berger picks up on several motifs of his prose piece such as his argument about the composer’s love for his North German homeland; the down-to-earth straightforwardness of this person whose shyness towards others was often misinterpreted as rudeness; his disappointed hopes of being given a permanent position that reflected his talent; and a tragic isolation, as it were, which according to Berger formed the basis for the composer’s unique artistic creativity. It is not hard to (also) see a kind of self-portrait of Berger’s in many of the thoughts on Brahms he expressed before the audience.
When he emphasizes the importance of the German folk song tradition for Brahms’ work, this is reminiscent of the way in which he related his own work to German cultural traditions. In the program notes for his 1923 film version of the Cinderella story, Der verlorene Schuh [The Lost Shoe], for example, Berger had interpreted the fairy tale genre as a genuinely German form of expression that had directly sprung from the German folklore tradition – and thus implicitly defined himself and his creative work of adapting this folk tale as genuinely German as well. Ludwig Berger, Der verlorene Schuh, Decla-Bioscop-Film der Ufa, Berlin 1923, p. 6. The above-mentioned discussion of the meaning of the name Brahms can also be seen in this context. Berger argues that “in Germany planta genista is still called ‘Brahm’ where it grows naturally, in the regions of Dithmarschen and Holstein. And ‘Brahms,’ or actually ‘Brahmst,’ with a ‘t’ at the end, means ‘son of the heath’.” He portrays the composer as the representative of a regionally anchored, uniquely German artistry: “Thus the landscape that becomes the primal source of the North German master’s strength is already embedded in his name”. Here, too, a parallel to Berger’s own biography suggests itself, for he maintained close ties to his home, Rheinhessen, (a region of South-West Germany) throughout his life. In 1943, while in exile in Amsterdam, he wrote a poem paying homage to the Taunus region near the small town of Kiedrich, where “love rests on a bed of beholding” [wo Liebe sich ins Bett des Schauens legt], which he sent to his friend Carl Zuckmayer. Ludwig Berger, Kiedrich (written in Amsterdam in 1943), Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach, Manuscripts collection, Carl Zuckmayer 86.1421/11.
At the same time, Berger observes that a yearning for recognition and belonging had shaped Brahms’ biography, “always hoping that the place where he belongs will give him an opportunity to work there”. Berger’s postwar life was also shaped by such efforts. After various attempts at establishing himself abroad had failed, Berger in the early 1950s made efforts to find a position in the Federal Republic that corresponded to his self-image as an important film and theater director, for example as artistic director of a major German theater. In the struggling West German film industry at the time, Berger was unable to realize any of his various film projects. Despite public recognition for his work, Berger’s lack of permanent employment meant an unsteady life marked by a constant search for commissions.
Thus Berger’s Hamburg eulogy for Brahms as someone who was denied the recognition he deserved in the place “where he belonged” reads like a subliminal lament on his own fate as an outsider at times, or as a “German Requiem” by someone who, like Brahms, identified as a “true son of Germany” and a representative of the German culture he passionately loved, but who after the experience of persecution and exile carried a Brahmsesque, unfulfilled “yearning for home and hearth” in him. In light of this it seems more than appropriate that in 1969, after Berger had died, a work by the North German master was chosen for the memorial held in Mainz for “this great son of the city”: During the Mainzer Liedertafel concert held on November 28 of that year, Johannes Brahms’ “German Requiem” was performed.
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Christian Rogowski, a specialist in German studies and film historian, is G. Armour Craig Professor of Language and Literature am Department of German at Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts (USA). He studied in Mannheim, London and Harvard and wrote a dissertation about Robert Musil. He has published about literature, drama, history of ideas, opera and films, with a special focus on the culture of Weimar.
Christian Rogowski, Love for One’s Homeland and Longing for Recognition. Ludwig Berger’s Commemorative Speech on Johannes Brahms (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, March 29, 2019. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-248.en.v1> [June 12, 2021].