In Search of Bruno S.


Bruno S. (photo by Ekkehard Wölk)

Don’t you hear the horrible screaming all around us, the screaming that men usually call silence?
–excerpted from Georg Büchner, Lenz (1835), opening sequence of Every Man for Himself and God Against All

It was almost ten years ago that I met the legendary actor, street musician, painter and writer Bruno Schleinstein (aka: Bruno S.) in Berlin, where he was born in 1932 and died in the fall of 2010.

At that time I was hired as a pianist, mostly with jazz duos, in a well-known small club called Joseph Roth-Diele in Potsdamer Straße, Tiergarten, a usually very crowded hangout for audiences coming from the nearby Berlin Philharmonic. The owners of this place, who became friends of mine, mentioned one day that they knew Bruno S., who lived for many decades just around the corner in Kurfürstenstraße in his old apartment, together with his grand piano. And that it might be possible that I meet him in person.


Bruno S. (photo by Ekkehard Wölk)

Strangely enough, long before this happened, I wondered if Bruno was still alive and how one could possibly find him. I was never able to forget the emotional impact that his performances in Werner Herzog classics Every Man for Himself and God Against All (a.k.a. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, 1974) and Stroszek (1977) had on me as a young cinephile.

I used to imagine him hovering around the sky and the vast areas of Berlin city as a street musician, mostly with his famous accordion, like the definite incarnation of Old Berlin’s mostly forgotten song traditions, which he authentically also presented in some of his few films, beginning with Bruno Der Schwarze (Lutz Eisholz, 1970) and continuing, of course, with Herzog’s Stroszek (1977).

So when my acquaintances mentioned the fact that Bruno indeed was still very active himself and living nearby, I immediately took my chance and suggested that they might invite him to their place on a Thursday night when I usually was playing. And so they did.

One evening, in the spring of 2004, while I was sitting at the piano, a small, bullish old man over seventy with rather shabby clothes and untidy hair suddenly entered the room and slowly sat in at one table. It was Bruno, for heaven’s sake.


Bruno S. (photo by Ekkehard Wölk)

In the breaks between playing, I was introduced to him by the patrons of the club who were treating Bruno with outstanding reverence and care, so we began to have a conversation.

Well… having a conversation with Bruno never meant a normal exchange of words between two people because basically it was Bruno who was talking all the time, in long enigmatic, unmistakably stylized monologues, which drew in poetic evocations of poems and songs of Berlin, associations from Kaspar Hauser and almost furious verbal condemnations of German society and people of the past and the present. These exhortations were only occasionally accompanied by shy intermissions from the intimated so-called “dialogue partner.” However, he was not single-mindedly antisocial but rather a man who was extremely aware of his surroundings and had invented a very personal system of communication to respond to that.

Men are like wolves to me.”
—Bruno S. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

Paradoxically, Bruno had been a well-known actor abroad, especially in America, where his Herzog films were received in wide circuit; he definitely seemed to be “lost” after the seventies. Being “Der Verschollene” (The Lost One) nobody outside Berlin really knew what he was doing after his short period of fame because he did not get any more film offers after 1977. He was probably much too individualistic for “ordinary” films.


Bruno S. (photo by Ekkehard Wölk)

Werner Herzog originally intended to cast him for the title role of his Woyzeck, based on Georg Büchner’s famous play, but then he decided to use a professional actor, his own superstar Klaus Kinski, in the challenging main part who, in terms of result on screen, turned out to fulfill this demanding job magnificently.

Still, I personally can imagine Bruno impersonating this part as well as Kinski, though, of course, in a totally different way. He probably would have added the special feeling of human warmth of a non-professional actor, with his distinctive rhythms of speech, the visible wounds of a vulnerable person who had been humiliated from an early age and who could get angry to the extreme of almost explode about this misery in regular intervals.

Bruno said it personally hurt to have this film role withdrawn; he received no further offers from Herzog. In February of 2010, Herzog, who was presiding over the Berlin film festival jury, met the actor for the last time; it was shortly before Bruno’s death, and from what I heard about this meeting, it turned out to be a reconciliation.


Bruno S. (photo by Ekkehard Wölk)

No wonder that some get furious; they have been robbed of their childhood.
—excerpted from As Estrangement is Death; Und die Fremde ist der Tod, by Bruno S.; Maas Media, 2004

It is well-known that Bruno S. suffered an incredibly cruel and tough childhood, growing up under horrible circumstances during the Nazi regime. Son of a Polish father whom he never got to know, he was sent away by his mother as a problematic, “abnormal” and probably unwanted child to National Socialist institutions for the “weak” or “mentally sick.”

To make it worse, this happened in a dark period of history when the fascists developed their barbarous theories of so-called “unworthy lives” and children who were considered to be mentally abnormal were sent to death. Bruno himself almost could have become a victim of these crimes of “euthanasia” but somehow was lucky enough to survive.

After the war he spent many years in psychiatric institutions or homeless shelters, even after he moved from the Eastern part of Berlin to the West as a fugitive in 1956. He always remained a broken child who never had the chance to experience a real youth, being thrown away as an outsider at a very early stage of his life.

All these biographical details are forcefully described by Bruno S. himself in conversation in the 2003 documentary film Die Fremde Ist Der Tod (Estrangement Is Death), directed by Miron Zownir. In that film you get a fascinating glimpse of Bruno playing on his grand piano in his Berlin apartment while he is reciting old German couplets,  and, of course, performing with accordion in various famous Berlin locations related to the city and to his personal biography.


Bruno S. (photo by Ekkehard Wölk)

Later, when I met Bruno several times again in the club at Potsdamer Straße, he would also unexpectedly do his anarchistic, “dadaistic” piano- playing in the breaks. But the first time we sat together, he was somehow checking me out as a person, finding out if I was “OK” from his point of view. It was said that he did not trust people approaching him and you had to gain his confidence and connect with him first. He clearly still felt hurt by society and institutions. The wounds of his destroyed childhood never healed in his conscience.

From the nineties onwards, when he regained his fame–this time as a painter—his work was exhibited in prestigious Berlin art galleries. He was pretty much surrounded by artists, friends, admirers or curious people who had heard about him and his eccentricities and wanted to find out more about him.

One evening at Potsdamer Straße he asked quite strange questions to me, always referring to The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, probably testing if I knew the film well enough. I was not really able to respond appropriately to some of his self-enclosed interrogations, like for example: “What did the fire-eater mean in the scene of the circus when he said this and that to the little king?”

Usually in the end Bruno finally came up himself with the only fitting answer and interpretation for those scenes he mentioned. I am pretty much convinced that he still knew by heart all his lines from Kaspar Hauser until the end of his life. Somehow he remained obsessed with the role he incarnated several decades earlier.


Bruno S. (photo by Ekkehard Wölk)

He mostly talked of himself in the third person, saying “Ja, der Bruno hat vielet durchjemacht.” (Yes, Bruno has gotten through many things.) And “Meine Lieben! So einfach is det! Und det sacht Euch Der Bruno! Jawoll!” (My dear ones! It is as simple as that! And this is what Bruno tells you! YES!). And “Den Bruno ham se immer wechjeschmissen.” (They have always thrown away Bruno.)

Somehow I seemed to appear sympathetic to him, and then he unexpectedly agreed to a project which I had proposed before: that I might be allowed to follow him on one of his legendary street tours through the Western part of Berlin with my old camera to catch some glimpses of the authentic “Bruno moods” in black and white.

Dear organ -grinder, please start again from anew.”
—Berlin song from the early thirties by Willi Kollo

A few months later, on a bright, sunny Sunday morning in the beginning of October, I took my way, together with my camera, to Charlottenburg, a well-known bourgeois district in Berlin, near Kantsraße. This obviously was one of Bruno’s favourite old areas as a “Bänkelsänger,” or minstrel musicians of the 19th or even 18th centuries in Prussia and elsewhere in Germany. These people used to play either with barrel-organ (“Drehorgel”) or with accordion and, in Bruno’s case, with lots of small and larger bells. He also used a hand xylophone, a concertina and, for special occasions at the end of the year, a bandoneon. All these instruments were carried by himself on a cart through the S-Bahn in Berlin when he decided that on a special day he had to play music in certain Berlin areas.


Bruno S. (photo by Ekkehard Wölk)

The street musicians historically represented an original branch of old German sub-culture from the so-called “Lumpenproletariat,” performing their popular songs and “Moritaten” (dark horror-tales in musical form, as a later example Mack The Knife from Brecht’s and Weill’s Threepenny Opera) in a somehow “broken” manner, oscillating between declamation of singing/talking (“Sprechgesang”) and mostly simple musical accompaniment.

Bruno complained that there were hardly any more real suitable backyards left in Berlin in the present times to play like he used to do in earlier decades. Now he had to sit right on the sidewalks of Kantstraße with all of his instruments, one of the most crowded roads in this district, alone amid parked cars, traffic noises and pedestrians passing by. On that occasion, sometimes some people greeted him warmly; he seemed to be quite well- known to certain people in this area.

It was evident that Bruno was completely dedicated to this kind of street music, that he was much aware of himself being one of the last performers of an old and possibly vanishing art form—an amalgam of verbally reciting couplet texts and adding to that original sound effects from the instruments he used, like the various chimes, the concertina and the xylophone.

In some of the songs—even though it was not “musical” in any traditional sense of the word—he put so much passion and sometimes fierceness in his renderings that to me it really turned out to be an unforgettable emotional live performance.


Bruno S. (photo by Ekkehard Wölk)

His show as a street musician displayed a moving, almost mythical image of a lonely man, a quite desperate soul, despite his wit and clever sense of humor. Still it seemed to me that he had always managed to maintain a natural tenderness and humanity as well as an inexplicable, almost “childlike” view on the world.

After approximately two and a half hours around several street corners, Bruno had gladly earned some money, and the two of us finally went to the nearly located Kant Café drinking some coffee and chatting a little bit.

Bruno seemed to be much more relaxed than usual after having performed music, and surprisingly he often smiled to me.

What must an outcast think when he dreams he is back home—he is shaken from sleep by a song from his native country and finds himself in foreign parts.
Und die Fremde ist der Tod

For me, the character of Bruno represented a joyful spirit of so-called “old Berlin” traditions. He loved his hometown wholeheartedly, never wanted to live anywhere else. But he also expressed hatred towards certain aspects of Berlin which had caused him so much suffering. Although being mostly solipsistic in a way, as an artist he definitely managed to create a fascinating ambivalence and surrealistic view on life through his works in the various fields of art. Nevertheless, the most impressive feature for anyone who met him was first and foremost his overwhelmingly non-conformist personality.


Bruno S. (photo by Ekkehard Wölk)

In 2009, Bruno surprisingly took part in his last film, Phantomanie, directed by Miron Zownir. However, for most of his remaining years, he concentrated on his paintings and, needless to say, on his music, very often performing in a cafe near Anhalter Bahnhof in Kreuzberg. By that time he seems to have already had some health problems. In many of the songs he performed and explicitly in many of his paintings, the theme of death and passing of time seemed to be plainly present.

Bruno finally died of heart problems in August, 2010 at the age of seventy-eight. He was buried on the Matthäi cemetery near Yorckstraße, the same place where the Brothers Grimm had found their final rest.

Werner Herzog first saw Bruno as a street musician in a now hard-to-find documentary Bruno Der Schwarze (1970) and cast him in Kaspar Hauser. Bruno turned out to be a paradigmatic protagonist in Herzog’s cinematic world of people and situations that transcend “normal” life. Herzog often depicts the extraordinary individual who follows sublime and often “crazy” ideals. His films portray a universe where characters are either too “big” or too “small” to function in the civilized bourgeois society. Nobody else but Bruno could have embodied Herzog’s bleak vision of the futility of the individual freedom in the Western world through his physical presence, his “damaged speech,” spitting out thoughts and ideas in irregular intervals, along with the effects of the tortures deriving from his own life always shining through his obvious vulnerability.


Bruno S. (photo by Ekkehard Wölk)

Right after Bruno’s death in 2010, Werner Herzog has been quoted as saying that, of all the great actors in his films, Bruno S. was most uniquely the best. “There is no one who comes close to him. I mean in his humanity, and the depth of his performance, there is no one like him.”

In the aforementioned collection of Bruno’s paintings and first-hand quotations Und Die Fremde Ist Der Tod/As Estrangement Is Death, one can find a genuine anthology of his misanthropic, personal obsessions, bitter views on German society. Although habitually formulated in a pessimistic and radically individualistic way, we also find an utopian way of looking at things and life in general:

“Today the 17th of May. I will stay home again—but on the 23rd I will go cold as ice in the backyards and make music.”

“How some stranger must feels who has landed in the wrong paradise of hopes, empty promises or—better to say—in the hell of avaricious hypocrisy?

When once asked how he imagined death, he answered, “If you are lucky, you can watch them dying. It is like sleep and when they wake up it starts again from the beginning.”

Thanks to Ehsan Khoshbakht for his assistance with this article.

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