The Sexual and Political Chameleon of Berlin: The Ambiguities of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s Life in “I Am My Own Wife”

By Henrik Eger

(Originally published by All About Jewish Theatre)

Berlin 1930s: Else, Famous German-Jewish Poet and Exile

“She was as slim as a boy. You couldn’t cross the street with her [. . .] without the whole world coming to a halt to look at her: her extravagant gown or trousers, her amazing overcoat [. . .] “‘Prince Jussuf’ she liked to call herself [. . .] more than once she was arrested in the streets of major European cities on account of her outlandish appearance. To Else, life itself was a work of art [. . .] a poem that was to end in the hideous ugliness of the Third Reich,” according to Gottfried Benn, poet, surgeon, and one of the lovers of Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945).

One of Germany’s most famous Jewish poets in the 1930s, Else was attacked viciously by Nazi thugs in Berlin and fled to Switzerland. Eventually, she made it to her beloved Palestine where she was not allowed by the rabbis to give her famous poetry readings because they were in German—in spite of her protests and references to Theodor Herzl, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and many other Jewish writers and leaders who had written in German, too.

Berlin 1930s and Beyond: Charlotte, Famous German Femme Fatale

Lothar Berfelde, who lived as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, one of Germany’s most colorful and famous transvestites whose life was an endless series of dramatic ups and downs, was attacked by Neo-Nazi thugs in East Berlin—an event which drove her to move to Sweden in the 1990s

In the latter part of the Third Reich, she collected clothing and furniture of German Jews after their deportation to labor and concentration camps. Subsequently, she built a museum around these remnants of the past. Her Gründerzeit Museum, inside her “huge, weather-beaten mansion made entirely of stone,” presented the art and artifacts of the evolving German Empire (circa 1870-1900). Later, it also contained furniture and clothing from East German refugees who had fled to West Germany:

“When families died, I became this furniture. When the Jews were deported in the Second World War, I became it. When citizens were burned out of their homes by the Communists, I became it. After the coming of the wall, when the old mansion houses were destroyed to create the people’s architecture, I became it.”

I saw Charlotte as a charming hoarder, a pack-rat with a taste for clocks, gramophones, and other items from Imperial Germany, a man who dressed like a woman, at times even looking like a nun, a chameleon who left more questions than answers, a human being with as many flaws, “Nicks and cuts. Stains [and] Cracks” as the old antiques in her mansion. Ultimately, her very vulnerability and ambiguity made her a bridge between many different worlds:

Son of a Nazi, forced to join the Hitler youth, nephew/niece of a Lesbian aunt, murderer of her abusive father, political opportunist, exploiter of Jewish Berliners who got deported, but also great supporter of Jewish culture and Jewish people, survivor of two oppressive regimes, informer for the Stasi (secret State Police of Communist East Germany), role model and icon of the gay community in East Berlin, founder of the Gründerzeit Museum, and author of her biography Ich Bin Meine Eigene Frau, and subject of countless interviews, articles, books, films, and Doug Wright’s play I Am My Own Wife.

Given her opportunism, her knack for surviving even some of the most difficult circumstances, I could not help but think of Charlotte as a transvestite Mother Courage who, like Bertolt Brecht’s heroine, was aware of the dangers but, in order to survive did a lot of things that so-called upright citizens would find abhorrent.

In an interview, I asked Doug Wright, the award-winning author of I Am My Own Wife, how Jewish theatre goers and critics responded to the fact that Charlotte apparently horded artifacts and clothing from Jewish people who had been deported:

“They no doubt found it as vexing as I did! In general, I have to note that Charlotte felt real compassion for the Jewish Community. Her first love was a fellow named Levinsohn, with whom she worked at a second-hand antique shop in Mahsldorf as a child. When she arrived at work one morning, she learned that he had been deported, along with his entire family. He’d been her soulmate, and she never saw him again. It plagued her for the rest of her life. And it’s true that she gave a huge record collection of largely Jewish music to the Jewish Museum in Berlin. None of this excuses the fact that she may have appropriated Jewish belongings in a less-than-noble fashion. But it does point to her complexity.”

Charlotte: Connections with the Jewish World

During the Third Reich, the young Charlotte, fully aware of the dangers of being associated with Jewish people and Jewish culture, preserved old records by Jewish composers, like Mendelssohn and Offenbach, by changing the labels to Aryan-sounding titles:

“At one time I had many such records—Mendelssohn and Offenbach. But during the time of Hitler it was very dangerous to possess music from Jewish composers. And so I thought, I must save these records. And so I took old paper—brown grocery paper—and I cut it in the shape of labels. And I wrote with ink false titles: Aryan polkas and waltzes, yes? And I glued them onto the records, for safety. And when the war was over I took a sponge and with water I took off the labels back off. And then the Hebrew titles with the dog Nipper were visible again.”

Charlotte most convincingly described her escape from prison in Nazi Germany in 1945, trying to evade the Russian pilots who were bombarding Berlin: “Like the Jews, we were wild game. [. . .] Berlin was destroyed. I would turn a street, and there was coming Russian airplanes with the splatter bombs—so close you could see the pilot with the helmet and the goggles. [. . .] and I ran. I ran. I ran. Through the iron gates. Past the ruins of the old Jewish synagogue. [. . .] And it was spring! And the birds were singing in the trees! And it was an awful war.”

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf: Political Chameleon of Berlin

How did this most unusual topic reach an American from Texas? I am My Own Wife is one of the few plays in theatre history where the playwright includes the genesis of the evolving drama and his own persona as part of the character-play. John Marks, Berlin Bureau Chief of the U.S. News and World Report, introduced his friend, the young playwright, to the story of Charlotte, a famous transvestite in Berlin, but added, “I’m afraid my editor will say her story’s too extreme. Still, I think she may well be the most singular, eccentric individual the Cold War ever birthed. Have I piqued your interest?”

Wright’s interest was indeed piqued and he read her autobiography, corresponded with her, flew to Berlin, at great cost to himself, to meet the aging transvestite whose life made for a riveting story of a gay icon who had struggled and become a survivor. He even became friends with the famous Charlotte. Her story and her personality intrigued Wright so much that he went all out to turn her experiences into a play:

“I am listening to our interview tapes every chance I get. On the treadmill. In the car. I’ve also started reading the works of Magnus Hirschfeld, and studying German history since the time of Wilhelm II. Still, all I can think about is the story of your life. You are teaching me a history I never knew I had. Thank you.”

Full of admiration, he wrote to Berlin, “The Nazis, and the Communists? It seems to me you’re an impossibility. You shouldn’t even exist.” He confessed to Charlotte, “I would love the opportunity to continue to study your life in order to write a play about you. With your support, I can apply for funding, fly back to Berlin, and begin to write in earnest. As far as grant applications go—forgive me—but from where I sit, you’re a slam dunk.”

All seemed to go well for the young writer, until the sky fell onto the stage of his evolving play when Charlotte allowed him to read her journals which revealed her involvement as an informant for the Stasi. As a result of her reports to the East German Secret Police, even some of her closest friends were sent to jail. Wright became distraught and disillusioned:

“I need to believe in her stories as much as she does! I need to believe that [. . .] Lothar Berfelde navigated a path between the two most repressive regimes the Western world has ever known—the Nazis and the Communists—in a pair of heels. I need to believe that things like that are true.”

Deeply conflicted when confronted by disparate realities of Lothar-Charlotte and revelations about Charlotte-Lothar, Wright decided not to continue with the manuscript for six years. And then, at a writers’ workshop, someone suggested that he could complete the play if he were to include himself as a character and present the chameleon-like characteristics of Charlotte, leaving it to the viewers to make up their minds.

At that moment, the play took shape with colorful characters in Berlin and from around the world, praising or attacking Charlotte, for example, a correspondent from London: “Did you know that the very man responsible for your medal recently told his newspaper—and I quote—‘Whenever Charlotte von Mahlsdorf opens her mouth to yawn, she’s already begun to lie’.”

Another correspondent rode a similar attack on Charlotte: “According to records we’ve obtained, you valued furnishings torn from the homes of dissidents, of political prisoners, of the wronged and the oppressed. [. . .] Isn’t it true that the Stasi hired you to appraise furniture?” Charlotte, in her inimical way, responded: “You are from the West, yes? Did the Stasi ever come to your door? Tell me, I ask you!”

Charlotte: Sexual Chameleon of Berlin’s Bohemia

Like a lizard, Charlotte evolved as an extraordinary political and sexual chameleon of the German capital, a man-woman who used her color-changing ability to both blend in with her surroundings but also to attract like-minded people in the Bohemian world of Berlin. In the play, Charlotte is portrayed mainly as an individual, a survivor, a manipulator, a tourist guide at her museum, but in parts she also seems to act as a little madam for a private post-Weimar brothel at her mansion:

“And there was over the bar an attic. When a boy or girl met a man, and wanted to go upstairs, they could. Two men, two girls, a boy and a girl—it didn’t matter. And they’d go into this room. A divan, a sofa, a chaise longue, a bed. A screen separated each space. Every piece of furniture was always in use. A pair in every seat!
And anyone with an interest in sadomasochism, whether it was two or four or six, could have the room to themselves for a few hours. Whips and things to beat on the behind.
And the Stasi—the Communist secret police, the most feared government spies of all the world—was coming, and they were looking in the windows, and they were saying, “What’s this?” So what could I do? I painted all the windows black.”

However, there are also a few scenes where Charlotte seems to be close to engaging in erotic activities herself:

“One day I had an appointment to visit a clockmaker in Köpenick. And on the way I saw a man. And he said, ‘Fräulein, nicht so stolz!’ Lady, not so proud! So, I smiled. And I was wearing my leather shorts, and he said to me, ‘You have such a nice backside. A nice ass for whipping.’ And I thought, Yes. And he asked me to go inside the public tramway station, to the toilets. But only a few shops away there was . . . waiting for me . . . eine alte Standuhr . . . a standing clock. . . made of oak, with a perfect mechanism from the last century. And to be late for a clockmaker is unhöflich. Too impolite.”

Acquiring yet another “standing clock” seemed more important to Charlotte than fulfilling the fantasy of a sadist who wanted to whip her leather-clad behind.

The overall atmosphere seemed erotically charged on more than one occasion, even when Charlotte only wanted to visit her best friend by delivering a gramophone record, where she encountered a young man who thought that she had come for a sexual encounter: “You can’t ring Alfred now. He has one man or two men with him. Just wait till he’s ready, when he’s done with his sexuality.” The audience on many occasions burst out laughing at such misunderstandings, such use of language.

Caught Between Three Countries: Nazi Germany, Communist Germany, Modern Germany

As someone who was born and raised in Germany, who experienced East and West Germany, I am disappointed at times when I see some American writers who seem to have a tough time distinguishing clearly between the different countries that carried the name “Germany” during the last eighty years: Nazi Germany, Communist Germany, Modern Germany. It seems as if the citizens in those countries and eras are basically portrayed more or less as if they were identical. Some Europeans seem to fall into the same trap when they portray Americans as if they were Hawaiian shirt-clad tourists with a camera hanging around their neck, chewing gum, and insisting on pepperoni pizza in Paris and hamburgers or steaks at the Vatican.

Wright clearly does not fall into that category. On the contrary, I consider I am My Own Wife one of the most complex and original American plays of the last ten years, with every detail carefully and thoughtfully researched, including the minutiae of the musical instruments in Charlotte’s museum: “Polyphones, gramophones, phonographs, juke boxes, symphonions, Pianolas, Spieldosen, orchestrions, Amberols, paper rolls, hurdy-gurdies, organettes [. . .].” Each line rings true.

For example, when Charlotte receives the Bundesverdienstkreuz (the Federal Cross of Merit) from the Minister of Culture of the Bundesrepublik (contemporary Germany), Wright’s fine eye for details creates a realistic portrait of modern Germany when he describes the audience’s reaction to Charlotte’s great day of national honor: “Picture it. An elderly man, in a skirt and a string of pearls. Nobody laughed. No catcalls. And, at the end of the ceremony, the Cultural Minister himself even leaned down to kiss her hand.”

However, a classical case of Stilbruch, a breaking or clashing of styles or genres, occurs when the stage directions call for “pompous music.” If a Minister of Culture kisses a transvestite’s hand in front of millions of TV viewers, something I could not imagine in the U.S., clearly we are dealing with a mature moment in the cultural life of a society. Most likely, classical or modern music was played, nothing “pompous,” as those days came to an end in 1945.

Feeling somewhat uncomfortable about this stage direction, I asked Wright, who explained: “As a playwright, I took the liberty of prescribing ‘pompous music’ so that the official, state-sanctioned ceremony would stand in stark opposition to Charlotte’s humility in her little black dress.”

To this German critic, everything else that Wright writes sounds authentic and real, down to his picking up the frequently made error by German-speakers of English who mix up “get” (“bekommen”) with “become”: “A short time after I became the Bundesverdienstkreuz”—a linguistic error used powerfully by Wright as it creates wonderful ambiguities in English.

Given Charlotte’s linguistic error, one of the most widely quoted of her statements, takes on a whole new meaning: “When families died, I became this furniture.” In German, she would have said, “When families died, I got this furniture.” In short, Wright’s play takes us on a fascinating tour de force at a pace that rivals that of the acrobats at the Cirque du Soleil.