Berlin’s Talking Statues

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Have you ever wondered what stories statues might tell you if they could talk? Which stories of the past would these talking statues share?

Thanks to a Danish filmmaker named David Peter Fox you don’t have to wonder anymore! Day after day, Fox passed through King’s Garden, a public park nearby to where he lived, with his two children, Alfred and Leah, in tow. On each trip, they passed several statues of historical figures, including Hans Christian Andersen, Denmark’s most famous writer and poet, and Queen Caroline Amalie, the consort of Denmark between 1839 and 1848.

The Idea Behind Talking Statues

After repeatedly telling his kids the story behind the figures in the park, Fox began thinking about how he could share these stories with a wider audience. At first, he thought that he’d put the skills of his profession to use and make a film about each one. Instead, he decided that the statues should speak for themselves. By September of 2013, Fox’s plan to give the statues of Copenhagen a voice was set into motion.

This video shows the Hans Christian Anderson statue in Kings Garden, Copenhagen. This was the first Talking Statue in the world.

The first talking statues still stand in King’s Garden in Copenhagen. There are also now hundreds more chatty statues around the world. From Copenhagen to London to New York, cities have embraced this interactive method of sharing stories of residents’ past.

An official map of London's Talking Statues. This project is organized by Sing London.
An official map of London’s Talking Statues. The project in London is coordinated by Sing London, an organization dedicated to orchestrating participatory art installations across the city.

So how does it work?

Anytime you walk past a Talking Statue, you can pull out your phone to capture the QR code posted nearby, and presto: your phone starts to ring. You will soon find Billie Holiday or Bertolt Brecht on the line ready to tell you a little bit about their pasts. The scripts are written by local experts, and the entertaining history lessons are read by famous actors.

Meet Berlin’s Talking Statues

The official map of Berlin's Talking Statues, which is available for download.
The map showcases where in Berlin you can find these famous Talking Statues. You can also download the official map here for free.

Talking Statues first came to Berlin in 2015 as a pilot project, launched by Kulturprojekte Berlin. As part of the Long Night of Museums – an annual all-night festival featuring Berlin’s many museums – the first five statues in the city began telling their stories. These included Käthe Kollwitz, Heinrich Zille, Lise Meitner, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and Gaul’s Lion.

Standing in front of the Zille Museum in Nikolaiviertel, you can hear story of how Zille became best known for his (often funny) drawings from his talking statue.
Standing in front of the Zille Museum in Nikolaiviertel, you can hear the story of how Zille became best known for his (often funny) drawings. He was always catching the characteristics of people, especially “stereotypes”, mainly from Berlin and many of them published in the German weekly satirical newspaper Simplicissimus. Photo by author.

In September of the same year, a local newspaper put out a call to the general public. Local residents were invited to vote on which Berlin icons they wanted to see featured as a Talking Statue. The historical figures that got the most nominations were Bertolt Brecht and the Captain of Köpenick. They both now have their own installations in the city. Beginning in the summer of 2017, both Brecht and the infamous Captain of Köpenick were calling visitors.

The Captain of Köpenick

My favourite Talking Statue is the Captain of Köpenick.

A screenshot of what it looks like when the talking statue of the Captain of Köpenick calls you.
A screenshot of what it looks like when the Captain of Köpenick calls you after scanning your QR code. Photo by author.

Indeed, he was a man with a lot of chutzpah.

In the early 1900s in Germany, people seeking employment in the regimented society sometimes faced a dilemma. Wilhelm Voigt was one of them. He could not get work because he had no papers. And he could not get any papers because he had no work. He could not even get a passport that would have enabled him to go abroad and seek opportunities elsewhere.

One day, in 1906, Voigt found an impressive captain’s uniform from the 1st Regiment of the Prussian Guards in a secondhand shop. He purchased the outfit along with a pair of shiny army boots and a captain’s hat. He then went for a promenade around the town.

Casually walking around, he was astonished at the attention he suddenly attracted and the respect everyone now showed him. This gave him a feeling that he possessed a new and special power.

Voigt was inspired to action when a platoon of 10 soldiers passed by and smartly saluted him. He ordered them to halt and then commanded them to follow him. He told them he must execute some official matters of importance. The “captain” then marched his troops directly to the town hall.

All Voigt originally had in mind was to force his way in to get a passport. When he arrived, however, he discovered that the passport office was not in the town hall. Rather, it was located at the opposite end of town. In desperation, he spontaneously arrested the town’s mayor and treasurer for what he called ‘irregularities committed in connection with the public sewage works.’

The sight of the captain, soldiers, rifles, and bayonets instantly deflated the mayor and the treasurer. They submitted to arrest and obeyed the captain’s order for the confiscation of the municipal treasury. In total, they handed over the total amount of more than 4,000 Reichsmarks to him. They waited as the ‘Captain’ departed to count the money, confident that he would find nothing amiss and come back to free them soon. However, the captain —and the municipal treasury—simply disappeared.

The captain’s moment of good fortune and glory did not last. He was arrested ten days later and subsequently tried and sentenced. His story should have ended there, but remarkably it did not. Within days, word of his absurdly successful charade had spread like wildfire all over Germany and the world. The irony was not lost that an ordinary shoemaker had outsmarted the Germans, who were well known for their attention to order and their robot-like Prussian discipline. What’s more? He had even robbed them with their own weapons. Even Kaiser Wilhelm II is reported to have laughed out loud when he heard about the Captain of Köpenick.

A star is born

Street art on a shop's shutters featuring the Captain of Köpenick, the subject of the only talking statue in this Berlin suburb.
Street art featuring the Captain of Köpenick on the main street of the Berlin suburb. Photo by the author.

Inspired by the incident, a playwright named Rottländer wrote a five-act drama of Der Hauptmann von Köpenick in 1912. In 1930, Carl Zuckmeyer penned a similar drama. And that same year Wilhelm Schäfer also wrote a novel about the infamous captain. In 1956, Heinz Rühmann played the lead role in Helmut Käutner’s motion picture version of Der Hauptmann von Köpenick.

And what happened to Wilhelm Voigt, the man who started it all? He was sentenced to four years imprisonment, but he was pardoned earlier by the Emperor. Voigt then traveled around Germany, earning money by selling postcards adorned with his own portrait. He lived out his final days in Luxembourg, after touring various countries, but ended up dying in poverty. His memory lives on in Köpenick, with his portrait remains plastered everywhere. Visitors can even take home souvenirs of this wannabe Captain’s crusades from any number of local trinket shops.

Find Berlin’s 7 Talking Statues

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