Berlin’s Talking Statues

Have you ever wondered what stories statues might tell you if they could talk? Which stories of the past would these historic figures 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. 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. And, thus, by September 2013, the 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.

While the first talking statue can still be found in King’s Garden in Copenhagen, hundreds of such statues can be found in cities 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. 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. In most cases, the scripts have been written by local experts and the entertaining history lessons are read aloud by famous actors.

Berlin’s Talking Statues

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 the story of how Zille became best known for his (often funny) drawings, 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 so that local residents could vote on which Berlin icon they wanted to see featured in their city as a Talking Statue next. The historical figures that got most nominations — by a long shot! — were the Bertolt Brecht statue located in front of the Berliner Ensemble and the statue of the Captain of Köpenick which stands in front of Köpenick Town Hall. Beginning in the summer 2017, both Brecht and the infamous Captain of Köpenick were calling visitors.

The Captain of Köpenick

Of the seven Talking Statues found throughout Berlin, my favourite is the Captain of Köpenick.

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

Indeed, the so-called Captain of Köpenick was a man with a lot of chutzpah. His story goes like this:

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. This meant that he could not even get a passport that would have enabled him to go abroad and seek opportunities elsewhere.

Then 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 and dressed up in that 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.

When a platoon of 10 soldiers passed by and smartly saluted him, Voigt was apparently inspired to action. He ordered them to halt and then commanded them to follow him, to “execute some official matters of importance.” The “captain” then marched his troop 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 found out that the passport office was not in the town hall but located at the opposite end of town. In desperation, he immediately 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, handing its total amount of more than 4,000 Reichsmarks to him. They then waited as he departed to count the money, confident that he would find nothing amiss and free them soon. They ended up waiting a long time before discovering that the captain—and the municipal treasury—had disappeared.

The captain’s moment of good fortune and glory did not last. Ten days later he was arrested 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, then Europe and the world. An ordinary shoemaker had outsmarted the Germans, with their attention to “Ordnung” and their robot-like Prussian discipline, and in essence he had 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 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 in the same year Wilhelm Schäfer 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? Although sentenced to four years’ imprisonment, he was soon granted a free pardon by the Emperor. He 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 to this day, his portrait remains plastered across the whole of Köpenick and visitors can take home souvenirs of this wannabe Captain’s crusades from any number of trinket shops.

Find Berlin’s Talking Statues yourself

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