Germany's greatest actor lies on emptied backdrop DATELINE: GERMANY


April 15, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- The signature of the actor and singer Ernst Busch scrawls across his rough granite tombstone like one last autograph.

His champions say that during his lifetime Ernst Busch was Germany's greatest actor.

Unfortunately, his champions tend to be the old comrades who often think of the times before the fall of the Berlin Wall as the good old days.

But he had many friends and admirers in the West who also thought he was a very, very fine actor and a wonderful singer whose rough, lyrical tenor was perfect for the revolutionary marching songs that were his specialty.

He's buried against the wall of a municipal cemetery in Pankow, a district of Berlin where many high Communist functionaries of the defunct East German government lived.

About 50 yards from his grave, Communist Party members lay in rigid rows under uniform gray stones like cadres called to some silent rally.

Just over the wall behind his tombstone is the home he lived in for the last 14 years of his life. He loved it. It became a gathering point for East German artists and intellectuals. It remained a cultural center after his death. He fought to be buried by the wall.

"Then I can see over there," he told Erwin Burket, a film director who made a documentary of Mr. Busch's life. "I can watch over what you do. Watch out!"

Rich West Germans who once owned these houses are now reclaiming them, Mr. Busch's home among them. And Berlin, embarked on a kind of cultural cleansing, doesn't care about preserving the memory of an old Communist.

Mr. Busch only became an official member of the Communist Party after World War II. But he was a radical leftist all his life.

He liked to tell people he was 7 years old when he sang "The Internationale," the Communist anthem, at his first public performance, during a May Day celebration in his hometown of Kiel.

Mr. Busch was a mainstay of the Berthold Brecht's renowned Berliner Ensemble during the 1950s, a time many theater people the East and West thought it was the world's finest theater company. He was an old and valued friend of Mr. Brecht's. He had performed in the 1928 premiere of "The Threepenny Opera" in Berlin. In G. W. Pabst's 1931 film of the play he sang the song now famous as "Mack the Knife."

Mr. Busch was a very popular film star in the early 30s. He was something of a Red matinee idol. But he fled Germany in 1933, when the Nazis were rounding up leftists and jailing them in the first concentration camps.

During his long exile, Mr. Busch performed for 1 1/2 years in Moscow and later sang for Loyalist troops in the Spanish Civil War. He was in Brussels when Belgium fell to the Germans at the start of World War II. He was interned and spent the rest of the war in Nazi prisons.

Mr. Busch moved into the house in Pankow in 1966. After his death in 1980, the East German Academy of the Arts took over the house, and it was dedicated as the Busch Memorial House.

But soon as the Berlin Wall fell, the old owners from the Nazi era staked out the house. The city said it couldn't afford to buy it for a cultural center. The Academy of Arts, about to be dissolved itself, couldn't raise any money.

The old owners got the house. Mr. Busch's effects were taken out: his books, his scripts, his guitars, his piano, his costumes.

His old comrades stood on the sidewalk and played records of his old marching songs.

The music drifted across the wall and over the grave with its scrawled signature. But the house became empty anyway.

"The people of today don't want him," said Mr. Burket, who loved Mr. Busch like a son. "He was a Communist and an antifascist. He was a part of German history the new bosses don't want to know about."

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