In bed with Ida Hattemer-Higgins

Ida Hattemer-Higgins is no stranger to insomnia and vivid dreams. The premise for her well-received debut novel “The History of History: A Novel of Berlin” came to her in a nightmare.

In bed with Ida Hattemer-Higgins
Photo: Sigrid Malmgren

Her book follows the fantastic journey of an American woman who, after awaking from a state of amnesia, is haunted by the ghosts of WWII-era Berlin and the Third Reich. She spoke with Exberliner magazine’s Cara Cotner.

Like your character Margaret, you left the US and moved to Berlin to study at the Freie Universität, worked as a tour guide and live in Schöneberg. Why did you choose to insert all of these autobiographical details?

Basically out of insecurity. I was writing a first novel, and I didn’t trust myself to dream up radically new or farfetched material. However, that said, the book is a fantasy of what my life might have been had I been a significantly more disturbed, isolated, and troubled individual than I am.

What was it like to work as a tour guide?

To be honest, giving tours is extremely repetitive and quickly becomes very boring. But the job had a very powerful effect on me. I ended up becoming really angry about the way history is not only reduced, but transformed into mythology.

Can you give an example?

For one, people strongly identify with those who resisted the Nazi regime and with its victims, although statistically, almost all of us would have been perpetrators. And the problem is that everybody puts a lot of effort into thinking about what it must’ve felt like to be locked up in a concentration camp, but they’re very slow to try to understand what was happening psychologically to the people who committed these atrocities.

Do you feel that your book romanticizes history?

I feel like the book’s subject is the romanticization of history, in other words, the process by which history is transformed into myth. So the book is performing what it’s critiquing, and I think that’s the reason it’s being widely misread by critics. They see it as only taking part in a certain discourse on the Holocaust rather than critiquing that discourse. There’s an ironic stance, not an enthusiastic involvement in that narrative.

Do you feel it’s impossible to write a novel about the Holocaust or World War II without adding to the mythology?

It is. I think that if you’re going to write a novel, you have to seduce the reader into identifying with a certain romantic way of thinking, because if you don’t, the reader won ’t have any way of understanding what exactly is problematic in the thought patterns presented. If you manage by the end to have come to a point where you’ve deeply unsettled the reader, so that the seduction has proven to be in some ways a trap, then I think that the work has vindicated itself.

The book deals with German cultural amnesia. Do you not feel Germany’s reconciliation with its past has been achieved?

I feel it has. I was very interested in the process by which a person or a society wakes up from a state of amnesia, not the amnesia itself, but the process of remembrance. When thinking about how to describe what Margaret should be going through, I was definitely thinking a lot about what Germany went through as a nation.

What keeps you awake at night?

There’s always something keeping me awake at night: cooking up a new plan for my life; thinking about China, where I used to live. Recently my mind has been churning over critics’ misreadings of my novel. That keeps me up.

Ida Hattemer-Higgins will read from her novel at EXBERLINER’s Wednesday

Night at Kaffee Burger on May 25 at 9pm.

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German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Walk around the German Alpine village of Oberammergau, and the chances are you'll run into Jesus or one of his 12 disciples.

German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Of the 5,500 people living there, 1,400 — aged from three months to 85 — are participating this year in the once-a-decade staging of an elaborate “Passion Play” depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Dating back to 1634, the tradition has persisted through four centuries of wars, religious turmoil and pandemics — including the most recent Covid-19 crisis which caused the show to be postponed by two years.

“I think we’re a bit stubborn,” says Frederic Mayet, 42, when asked how the village has managed to hold on to the tradition.

Mayet, who is playing Jesus for the second time this year, says the Passion Play has become a big part of the town’s identity.

Oberammergau Passion Plays

Posters for the 42nd Oberammergau Passion Play – which was originally scheduled to take place in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmth

The only prerequisite for taking part in the five-hour show, whether as an actor, chorister or backstage assistant, is that you were born in Oberammergau or have lived here for at least 20 years.

“I remember that we talked about it in kindergarten. I didn’t really know what it was about, but of course I wanted to take part,” says Cengiz Gorur, 22, who is playing Judas.

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‘Hidden talent’ 

The tradition, which dates back to the Thirty Years’ War, was born from a belief that staging the play would help keep the town safe from disease.

Legend has it that, after the first performance, the plague disappeared from the town.

In the picturesque Alpine village, Jesus and his disciples are everywhere — from paintings on the the facades of old houses to carved wooden figures in shop windows.

You also can’t help feeling that there is a higher-than-average quota of men with long hair and beards wandering the streets.

Religious figurines Oberammergau

Religious figurines adorn a shop window in Oberammergau. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

An intricate image of Jesus graces the stage of the open-air Passion Play theatre, where the latest edition of the show is being held from mid-May to October 2nd.

“What has always fascinated me is the quality of the relationship between all the participants, young and old. It’s a beautiful community, a sort of ‘Passion’ family,” says Walter Lang, 83.

He’s just sad that his wife, who died in February, will not be among the participants this year.

“My parents met at a Passion Play, and I also met my future wife at one,” says Andreas Rödl, village mayor and choir member.

Gorur, who has Turkish roots, was spotted in 2016 by Christian Stückl, the head of the Munich People’s Theatre who will direct the play for the fourth time this year.

“I didn’t really know what to do with my life. I probably would have ended up selling cars, the typical story,” he laughs.

Now, he’s due to start studying drama in Munich this autumn.

“I’ve discovered my hidden talent,” he says.

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Violence, poverty and sickness

Stückl “has done a lot for the reputation of the show, which he has revolutionised” over the past 40 years, according to Barbara Schuster, 35, a human resources manager who is playing Mary Magdalene.

“Going to the Passion Play used to be like going to mass. Now it’s a real theatrical show,” she says.

In the 1980s, Stückl cut all the parts of the text that accused the Jews of being responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, freeing the play from anti-Semitic connotations.

“Hitler had used the Passion Play for his propaganda,” Schuster points out.


Christian Stückl, the director of the Oberammergau Passion Play, holds a press conference announcing the cancellation of the play in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

The play’s themes of violence, poverty and sickness are reflected in today’s world through the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, say Mayet, the actor playing Jesus.

“Apparently we have the same problems as 2,000 years ago,” he says.

For 83-year-old Lang, who is playing a peasant this year, the “Hallelujah” after Christ has risen for the final time in October will be a particularly moving moment.

“Because we don’t know if we’ll be there again next time,” he says, his eyes filling with tears.

By Isabelle Le Page