The extraordinary story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in I Am My Own Wife
The award winning play I Am My Own Wife written by Doug Wright is coming to Midsumma. Rachel Cook speaks with actor Ben Gerrard about the life of the extraordinary, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.
Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s story of survival from both the Nazi and Communist regime is at once inspiring and complicated. On the one hand the fact that she was living as an out transgender woman during this brutal era is astounding, but the means by which she did survive is, for some, more than questionable.
Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, originally named Lother Berfelde, was born in 1928. Her father was a member of the Nazi party and during the deportation of the Jews von Mahlsdorf bought and collected their belongings. These belongings eventually became part of her famous Gründerzeit Museum. These actions along with the fact that when her Stasi file was made public in the early 1990s it revealed she had informed on her friends in order to keep her museum and stay out of jail meant she became a social pariah.
Like Doug Wright, actor Ben Gerrard has struggled to reconcile von Mahlsdorf’s decisions, but he says the importance of the play is that is raises these ethical dilemmas and ultimately asks, what would you do if you were in that same situation?
“The Stasi noticed that because of the life she was living she was in contact with a lot of potential dissidents,” Gerrard says, “they saw her as vulnerable to having her arm twisted.”
“She had this beautiful museum and lived openly as a transgender woman and she wanted to maintain the identity she had worked so hard for. She was a very easy target to force to surrender the names of people in her circle, and it was under duress that she gave them the names, but as a result of that those lives were ruined.”
After the Stasi file went public, due to public condemnation von Mahlsdorf left Berlin and her beloved museum and moved to Sweden. She had gone from being something of a queer icon for living as her authentic self in a time when many would have been too afraid to do so, to being known as a traitor.
While Gerrard says he doesn’t think she ever fully recovered he also believes public opinion has softened on von Mahlsdorf over the years.
“I do think as the decades have past Germany as a whole has come terms with the fact that so many people were twisted into becoming informants and that the Stasi really did put people in the most obscene situations where they had no choice but to cooperate. Charlotte was just one of many people.”
“There is empathy towards what she had to do to survive. I think that’s especially the case with new awareness about transgender lives and what an enormous thing it was for her to just be who she was.”
While I Am My Own Wife is essentially a conversation between von Mahlsdorf and the playwright, who in real life spent hundreds of hours recording conversations he had with his subject, 30 other characters are also featured. There’s von Mahlsdorf’s father, her aunt, Nazi soldiers, American soldiers, her best friends and the countless journalists who interrogated her over the years.
Gerrard who originally performed the play in 2015 at the Old Fitz Theatre in Sydney was working fulltime on Foxtel’s comedy sketch show Open Slather by day and rehearsing for the play by night.
“It was a very structured year, Gerrard says. “I’d be filming during the day playing a million characters and at night I would come home and study the text, work with dialect coaches, read the history and I read Charlotte’s autobiography. There is a lot of German in the play and about a dozen different accents I had to conquer that I hadn’t done before like Japanese and Indian and I wanted it to sound second nature so it took a long time.”
The hard work paid off and Gerrard was nominated for a Sydney Theatre Award for Best Actor. The play itself has won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2004.
Besides all the accolades, for Gerrard it is the heart of the story which drew him in and continues to motivate him to play von Mahlsdorf, who died in her museum while visiting Berlin in 2002.
“I love any story that is prepared to confront the grey in human choice and human experience. We can never reduce a person to simply being a ‘goodie’ or a ‘baddie’ and I really think this play is such a stunning dissection of that attitude.
“The play is set up with this beautiful grannie type character who we later learn has done some pretty dark things, but then at the end of the day does that undo her entirely? Or ultimately, are we still able to appreciate someone in the face of their flaws?
I Am My Own Wife, January 17 – February 5, fortyfivedownstairs, midsumma.org.au
(Ben Gerrard as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in I Am My Own Wife. Image supplied)