Actor Johannes Heesters circa 1937
WHO COULD HAVE BELIEVED it? Tonight, in the world-renowned Berliner Ensemble on the capital’s Schiffbauerdamm, musical star Jopi Heesters will tread the boards once again in a much-anticipated premiere. Heesters, who reached the truly biblical age of 106 last December (I wrote about it here), is by far the world’s oldest performing actor.
The musical is entitled The Island Comedy, or Lysistrata and NATO. It is a modern and tongue-in-cheek retelling of the ancient Greek comedy by Aristophanes. In the new version, the women on a Greek island go on a sex strike against their husbands and lovers until they prevent the Americans from buying land to build a new NATO base. Heesters will appear in a small speaking role as the King. The play’s author is the celebrated German dramatist Rolf Hochhuth (79), who is best known for his explosive play The Deputy, a Christian tragedy, depicting Pope Pius XII’s alleged collaboration with the Nazis during the Third Reich. Hochhut’s version dates back to 1974. Pianist Florian Fries wrote the music for the musical version, which is premiering tonight and will run for at least eight performances through early August.
Johannes Heesters was born in the Netherlands in 1903 and later moved to Berlin, where he became one of Germany’s leading song and dance men, starring in numerous plays and films musicals through the 1930s and 40s. He was best known for his portrayal of Count Danilo in Franz Lehár’s Merry Widow, which he has performed over 1,600 times.
After the war, Heesters settled in Vienna and became an Austrian citizen. Since then he has never left the stage, the TV studio, and the silver screen. His most recent movie performance was in 2008. Even today, Heesters’ detractors still call him a “Nazi.” Are they justified in doing so?
It's largely a matter of guilt by association. Heesters was never a member of the Nazi Party and there is no record of him oppressing anyone or making any anti-Semitic statements. He wasn’t even a German citizen. Yes, it’s true that Heesters, like so many other “Aryan” performers of the 1930s, profited immensely from the removal of Jewish stars from the stages of Berlin’s Admiralspalast, the Metropol, and the Komische Oper. He probably did perform at a concert for SS guards at the Dachau concentration camp in 1941, despite his protestations to the contrary, and he enjoyed a reputation as “Hitler’s favorite actor” for his portrayal of Danilo.
Despite all his many achievements, there's one thing
Heesters never managed: to stop smoking
So how should later generations deal with Heesters? That’s up to each individual to decide, of course, and yet I think we might take a lead from playwright Rolf Hochhuth, who has long been known as one of Germany’s most “anti-Fascist” authors. Hochhuth, who was just fourteen years old when the Third Reich came to an end, recently had this to say about his decision to cast Heesters in a play that is to be performed in a theater founded by anti-Nazi author Bertolt Brecht:
I belong to an age group condemned to good fortune. I never had to go to war, I wasn’t even in the Hitler Youth. And when one has been protected by fortune in such a way through the blessing of being born late, then it is simply not permitted to slam down the gavel. How do I know if I too wouldn’t also have become a hanger-on if I had been born a few years earlier? I have no right to play the moralist. I will not cast the first stone against Heesters!
Even the Dutch have reconciled themselves with their antediluvian prodigal son. After literally chasing him off the stage during a performance of The Sound of Music in 1964, they gave him a standing ovation in his hometown of Amerfoort in 2008.
So break a leg, Johannes Heesters! (Figuratively speaking, of course.) I’ll bet the cast party will be awesome.