Max Reinhardt during the filming of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” 1935
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

Max Reinhardt

Max Reinhardt (1873-1943) was one of the most prominent stage artists of the 20th century. While based in Berlin, he had a major influence on European and American theatre. Reinhardt’s creative works established the era of director’s theatre and the exploration of new possibilities. He inspired countless artists and contemporaries in the first half of the previous century.

by Bärbel Reißmann

Born on 9 September 1873 in Baden near Vienna, the oldest of seven children to the Jewish Goldmann family of merchants, Max grew up under modest circumstances. It was during an apprenticeship at a bank that he discovered his love of theatre and took acting lessons. He had chosen the stage name Reinhardt right at the start of his career at Vienna’s Eleventheater in 1890.

“Schall und Rauch” Programme, 1901
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

From the provinces to Berlin

Having already been on stage in Rudolfsheim and Salzburg, new theatre director Otto Brahm brought him over to the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Max Reinhardt rented a furnished room at Friedrichstraße 134 and became a member of the ensemble at the best German-language theatre of the time. Awed by the metropolitan stage and the city, Reinhardt soaked up the many and varied impressions and learnt the new acting style of naturalism with Otto Brahm. Alongside famous co-stars, he featured in 95 roles, particularly in dramas by Gerhart Hauptmann. However, Max Reinhardt soon wanted even more. Along with Christian Morgenstern and a group of young actors and actresses, he would discuss new acting forms during their regular social meet-ups. In Café Monopol at Friedrichstraße train station they would plan tours and cabaret shows. From January 1901, the troupe had been entertaining the Berlin public under the name “Schall und Rauch” with parodies and pantomime scenes.

A theatre that gives people joy again

Sustained by this popularity, architect Peter Behrens was commissioned by Reinhardt to transform a dance hall at Unter den Linden 44 into a theatre which had been operating under the name of Kleines Theater from 1902. New life was to be breathed into the theatre, featuring enthusiastic performances, music, colour and light. Max Reinhardt vigorously supported the enterprise, also as director, and terminated his contract with the Deutsches Theater. From 1903, the artistic and financial success with Maxim Gorky’s play “Night Asylum” enabled him to additionally rent the Neues Theater at Schiffbauerdamm in order to satisfy the throngs of people. Reinhardt consistently pursued this path of combining all the arts in the interest of drama. He incorporated the entire stage area into the artistic design and, to this end, used all technical innovations of the time. He fervently wanted to use the revolving stage as a dramatic device.

The revolving stage model for the 1905 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – original on display in BERLIN GLOBAL
© Stadtmuseum Berlin
On 31 January 1905, in his famous production of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, the forest rotated on a revolving stage for the very first time. Everyone wanted to see this theatrical sensation in the Neues Theater. The performance, which drew worldwide attention, established Reinhardt’s reputation for decades to come.

Director of his own performance hall

With the aid of the smart and far-sighted finance strategy of his brother Edmund, in 1905, Max Reinhardt was able to acquire and completely renovate the Deutsches Theater. Full of determination, as director and owner of the city’s first drama theatre, he began to realise his various plans. On 2 October 1905, the drama school he founded at the Deutsches Theater began operating.

In Palais Wesendonck, the next generation for the ever-expanding ensemble of the Reinhardt stages was trained. It was here in this Palais, located at In den Zelten 21 in Berlin Tiergarten, that the theatre director also resided with his wife, actress Else Heims, and was henceforth part of sophisticated Berlin society. The premieres at the Deutsches Theater became a highlight of cultural life.

An exclusive atmosphere also prevailed in the Kammerspiele, an adjoining building which had already been converted into a theatre in 1906. On 8 November, the intimate venue was opened with Henrik Ibsen’s family drama “Ghosts”, for which Edvard Munch was in charge of the scenography. That same year Frank Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening” also premiered there, which was a great success.

Max Reinhardt breathed new life into the classics and Shakespeare plays, using the modern technical resources of his time. Each year, from 1907, he also played his productions in many other German cities, as well as across Europe in Budapest, Moscow, Stockholm, London, Riga, St. Petersburg, Brussels and Warsaw. 1912 saw his first guest appearance in the USA. A complete ensemble grouped around Max Reinhardt, the centre of theatrical creativity. Together with his colleagues, he built a theatre empire which, from 1915 to 1918, also included the Berliner Volksbühne and from 1919 the Großes Schauspielhaus.

Page from a newspaper (1925–1927): “Großes Schauspielhaus, the new Reinhardt stage in Berlin, constructed by Prof. Hans Poelzig”
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

Großes Schauspielhaus

The search to find suitable locations for the dramas led Max Reinhardt to the Arenatheater. In 1910 and 1911, following spectacular guest appearances at the Zirkus with his “King Oedipus”, he was after a suitable building for this form of theatre in Berlin, in which the audience could surround a circular stage. Finally, architect Hans Poelzig transformed the old Zirkus on Schiffbauerdamm into the Großes Schauspielhaus. The conversion into the uncompromisingly expressionist style gave rise to the most state-of-the-art theatre in Europe, featuring 3,200 seats and innovative technology.

. On 29 November 1919, director Max Reinhardt and architect Hans Poelzig were celebrated on the opening with the ancient tragedy “The Oresteia”. However, post-war events, the revolution and the struggle for the first German republic forced him to leave the uncertainty of Germany and relocate his activities to the peace and calm of Salzburg.

Co-founder of the Salzburg Festival

On 22 August 1920, in the square in front of the Salzburg cathedral, Max Reinhardt staged an outdoor performance of the show first performed in 1911 in the Circus Arena: “Jedermann” by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. This marked the beginning of the success story of the Salzburg Festival. Two years earlier, Reinhardt had acquired Schloss Leopoldskron near Salzburg and worked closely with Hofmannsthal on the idea of “festive theatrics”. He also opened the Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna.

Chiefly active in Salzburg and Vienna between 1920 and 1924, he returned to Berlin following the sensational success of George Bernhard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” – with Elisabeth Bergner in the title role.

Return to Berlin

Reinhardt was looking for a new venue in growing West of Berlin. A good opportunity came up at Kurfürstendamm 206, when the building’s planned conversion into a film theatre fell through in 1923. A delightful challenge tackled supremely by commissioned architect Oskar Kaufmann, who built a new small, elegant salon theatre featuring two tiers of box seats.

Although situated in the rear of the building complex, the theatre was accessible via an imposing main entrance directly onKurfürstendamm. The name “Komödie” was used to herald both the line-up and the new entertainment venue. It also marked the resumption of the artistic direction of the Berlin theatrical scene by Max Reinhardt.
Young Max Reinhardt during a holiday in Denmark, 1898
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

The gala opening in November 1924 with Carlo Goldoni’s “The Servant of Two Masters” was not only a great artistic success, but also a first-rate society event. Reinhardt organised revues to take place after the performances at night between 11 pm and 2 am, which were in accordance with the mood of the times.

Reinhardt was in charge of the extensive filming work along with co-director William Dieterle. The world premiere of the Oscar-winning film took place on 9 October 1935 simultaneously in New York and London. A large gala had been organised the previous evening at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Various eminent figures, including physicist Albert Einstein, honoured Max Reinhardt in speeches, which were broadcast on the radio. Yet, despite the acclaim and recognition, commercial success remained elusive. It signalled the end to any further film projects.

Stage festival plays in Berlin

Five years earlier, Max Reinhardt was still at the heart of the Berlin theatre world. To mark Reinhardt’s 25th anniversary as a director at the Deutsches Theater, in 1930 the Association of Berlin Press held a banquet in the Festhallen am Zoo following a gala performance of Johann Strauss’ operetta “Die Fledermaus” at the Deutsches Theater. A plethora of accolades, including honorary doctorates from the universities of Frankfurt am Main and Kiel, recognised the pioneering theatre work of director and stage manager Reinhardt. Everybody who was anybody celebrated at the Zoo. The next day, at a dinner organised for the Union of German Stage Artists with 2,000 guests. Max Reinhardt passed on the appreciation to his colleagues: “Everything I am and do, it has all come about from my love affair with you. And, therefore, the rich accolades which have come my way, are yours too.”

After the first performance of Hauptmann’s “Before Sundown” in the Deutsches Theater in 1932, Reinhardt retreated from directing for good. He left Berlin in early 1933, and on 16 June he declared his refusal to continue working in Germany in a letter from Oxford to the National Socialist German government. He bequeathed his entire life’s work, both conceptual and material, to the German people.

Refuge in America

Reinhardt was still able to direct in Vienna and Salzburg, and in autumn 1937 be travelled through the USA. However, following Austria’s annexation into the German Reich in early 1938, it became impossible for him to return, despite the fact he had had no intention of emigrating. That same year, his Schloss Leopoldskron was expropriated and his name was removed from the chronicles of the Salzburg Festival.

Max Reinhardt went to California and in 1938 founded the “Workshop for Stage, Screen and Radio” in Hollywood. Finally settled in America, he received US citizenship in 1940. In order to set up an ensemble theatre based on the European model, he moved to New York in 1942. However, all his theatre projects failed to gain the desired success. His final production, Bruce Henderson’s “Son and Soldiers” was staged in May 1943. A few weeks after his 70th birthday, he died on 31 October of the same year in New York.
Max Reinhardt on the cover of TIME magazine in 1927
© Stadtmuseum Berlin

Since July 2021, the Stadtmuseum Berlin has been presenting original testimonies from the life and work of the great theatre maker in BERLIN GLOBAL, the Berlin exhibition at the Humboldt Forum. These include Max Reinhardt’s travel bag from the collection of Professor Leonhard M. Fiedler.