Neville Tranter, Nikolaus Habjan

Dead But Alive Puppetry for the Intrepid

  • by Karla Mäder

Looking at the way they hang in their storage-cages with their gaping mouths, contorted necks and twisted limbs, it is hard to believe how much magic these puppets unfold on stage. At Deutsches Theater, they are vital protagonists on stage – not as competitors of the living actors, but as their complement. There will be no less than five productions featuring puppets before the end of the season. Reason enough for the format DT Kontext to look at the art form of puppetry and to examine it from a variety of perspectives and with further experts in a mini festival, a puppetry special event.

“We are puppets, pulled on a wire by unknown forces, nothing, nothing ourselves.” A famous statement by Georg Büchner, featured in the play Der Auftrag (The Mission) by Heiner Müller, which we present together with Psyche 17 by Elemawusi Agbédjidji. Michael Pietsch has been carving marionettes since he was a child. What are his thoughts when he speaks this sentence on stage? “There is actually not much time for thinking while I’m saying this sentence. I am holding a puppet and standing on a rickety wire cage covered by a table cloth, trying not to slide off and slip between the bars. What’s more, the stage that I am standing on is revolving. I generally have no sense of orientation. And yet, the Danton-marionette is standing in the right place, looking the right direction and speaking the sentence at the right moment. I listen to the puppet. I don’t feel like an ‘unknown force’ at all. Instead, I feel like a listening accomplice.” It must be pretty exhausting, holding this not exactly small puppet on your outstretched arm? “In the best case, the puppet holds itself”, Pietsch laughs. “I don’t feel my sore muscles until the next day.”

© Armin Smailovic Beinahe zwischenmenschlich: Julia Gräfner mit Pietschs Puppen in „Der Auftrag von Heiner Müller/ Psyche 17 von Elemawusi Agbédjidji”.

Michael Pietsch continually enhances his puppets, experimenting with materials, sizes, and the mechanics of the control bar. He is currently working on another spectacular marionette, the white horse for Der Schimmelreiter (The Rider on the White Horse). For this project, Pietsch has been joined by Mr Panninger, a taxidermist from Berlin’s Museum of Natural History and a master in his field. What will the white horse look like? Surprisingly poetic, as it seems. “It will be large and robust, and at the same time flexible, malleable and delicate. Dead and alive. A challenge on all levels. I am looking for an element of the white horse in William Turner’s painting The Fall of Anarchy, which dissolves in a mysterious, light-filled mist.”  

Nikolaus Habjan, on the other hand, whose shows fill the major theatres in his native Austria, constructs rather grotesque and often droll types who are members of the moving-mouth family of puppets. In his puppetry, he likes to equip them with dialects like the famous Viennese “Schmäh”, or with a wicked dark humour. Habjan, who compares performing with a puppet to mastering an instrument, is a man of many voices. He is a virtuoso performer and switches between characters in the blink of an eye, using nothing but his voice. Does he benefit from his affinity to musical theatre, as evidenced in Böhm, for example? “I guess it is a general musicality that allows me to switch between the various speech melodies,” says Habjan, who not only holds a degree in directing musical theatre, but is also a master of art whistling.

© Lupi Spuma_Schauspielhaus Graz Nikolaus Habjan erweckt den Dirigenten und Mitläufer Karl Böhm zum Leben.

Of course, in his solo shows, puppeteer Habjan holds all the reins and rules godlike over organically dead material which he animates alone. In addition to his Böhm-solo, this season will feature another show of his: F. Zawrel – Erbbiologisch und sozial minderwertig is the story of a Viennese man who was exploited by the National Socialists for medical experiments in his childhood – a highly emotional production performed more than 600 times by Nikolaus Habjan to date. Are the horrors of National Socialism a dominating subject of his life? “Maybe not a dominating subject“, Habjan says, „but an important subject that continues to seize my attention. It may be because this era was pretty much disregarded in history lessons at school in Austria… My interest in the topic of the euthanasia murders was raised after I read an article about Dr Groß, the doctor featured in Zawrel. However, I didn’t want the perpetrator to be the main character, but rather the victim. Film director Elisabeth Scharang introduced me to Friedrich Zawrel and I went on to develop the play about his life. I feel that especially young people should be confronted with this era. And you don’t need any previous knowledge to watch F. Zawrel – Erbbiologisch und sozial minderwertig, the show is suitable for everyone.”


© Lex Karelly | Schauspielhaus Graz Unkaputtbar: Euthanasieopfer und Aufklärer Friedrich Zawrel inspirierte Habjan (re.) zu „F. Zawrel – Erbbiologisch und sozial minderwertig”.

In his first show at DT, Habjan will share the stage with a veteran master of the moving mouth puppet: Australian Neville Tranter, who is considered a virtuoso of the art form. The Hills are Alive (performed in English with German surtitles) is the fulfilment of both artists’ long-cherished dream of being on stage together. In this show, the moving mouth puppets belong to Neville Tranter: an old married couple, an immigration official who looks suspiciously like Hitler, and Arnold Schwarzenegger also makes an appearance.

During the 1970s, Neville Tranter was instrumental in opening the art form of puppetry to adult audiences. So what question would suggest itself more for the conclusion of this article than this: What can puppets do better than actors and what are their limits? “A good puppeteer can express every emotion through their puppets. Puppets are even better than actors when it comes to characters that are larger than life: They can, for instance, perform movements impossible for human actors. No person can open their mouth as widely or stretch their arms and legs as far as a puppet. Puppets can stare at you most impressively with large and shiny eyes. After the craziest actions, they can startle the audience with complete motionlessness. Puppets look funny and audiences are all the more affected when they turn out to be nasty.” So there is no need to be scared of puppets? “Only those who want to be strong at all times should be scared”, the virtuoso concludes. “And laughing or crying because of something a puppet is going through – has nothing at all to do with weakness.”

Der Auftrag / Psyche 17 The Hills Are Alive Der Schimmelreiter / Hauke Haiens Tod Böhm

Puppetry Special A Mini-Festival by DT Kontext

  • puppetry
  • perspective
  • interaktive

Delve deeper into the topic at the DT Kontext Puppetry Special: puppetry students from the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts, puppeteer Suse Wächter and Matthias Trippner will perform in a late-night concert. If you want to be active yourself, you can let the puppets dance for free in the interactive installation Strings in the Rangfoyer.

27. + 28.01.2024 at Deutsches Theater
Find the festival pass an further information at