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Published in: New York Times, on December 24, 2008


The singer and painter Bruno S. at the Stadtklause in Berlin.
Photo by Oliver Hartung for The New York Times

BERLIN — The other evening Bruno S. sang at an old bar here called the Stadtklause, a cozy wood-paneled dive near the remains of the Anhalter Bahnhof, the grand railway station torn down after the war. Franz-Josef Göbel, who runs the place, invited Bruno a couple of years ago to come sing whenever he felt up to it, not for money, just to have a place to go, and since then Bruno has stopped by on the odd night.

As usual he set himself up in the entryway, on a low green stool, cradling his accordion, his little bells on a table beside him. A plastic bag, parked at a corner of the table, contained his bronchitis pills. He sang the songs he always sings, about prison and despair, bloodshed and lost love, songs Berlin street singers have sung for hundreds of years. Customers mostly squeezed past him, oblivious. A few stopped to listen. One woman wept.

“Do you know who that is?” my friend Ingrid had asked me when she came by my family’s apartment one day late last spring. An old musician was seated before a rickety cardboard box below the window. He sang in a croaking voice on the empty sidewalk in the afternoon sunshine, his back toward the brick church across the street.

“That’s Bruno S.,” Ingrid said excitedly. She looked as if she had come across Marlene Dietrich, returned from the dead.

His real name is Bruno Schleinstein. Everybody has always called him Bruno S. Years ago he was famous, a kind of movie star, although that’s not quite the right term. It summons to mind George Clooney.

During the 1970s Bruno was the star in two remarkable Werner Herzog films, “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser” and “Stroszek,” in which he occupied the roles of damaged characters so completely and genuinely, so uncannily, that it was never quite clear how much he actually understood about what use was being made of him by the director. His performances were riveting, but he was obviously not well mentally, and even as he came across in his own way as knowing, he was at the same time simply being himself, and the question hovered: How much was fiction, how much reality?

Then he dropped down the memory chute.

When we introduced ourselves that day, he kept his eyes firmly cast downward. He was toothless and shaggy, and he spoke haltingly, forcing out his words, but there was something gentle about him. He agreed we could come see him at home.

And so we began to visit him in his cluttered apartment on a street full of prostitutes where he lives alone. During the summer he sang for us. During the fall he showed us a painting he was working on. He is an outsider artist, a good one. Endart, a gallery in town, sells his work. The proceeds supplement his small government pension.

Recently, with Christmas coming, we dropped in to ask how he was doing. This is not a good season for people who are alone. He said he hated the Christmas markets around town, where “the gentlemen who go in come out like plucked chickens with all their feathers flying, and such beautiful colored feathers.” That’s how Bruno tends to talk. He makes up words and phrases or borrows them from old songs and gives them a twist. Liederbann: a spell of songs. Das Loch der vergessenheit: the hole of forgottenness. He says he transmits (durchgeben) his songs, he doesn’t sing them.

When the conversation turns to Mr. Herzog or to his mother or brother and sister, words tend to fail him, and he becomes distraught. Otherwise he’s mischievous, puckish, remote but always glad for the company.

Born in 1932, he was abandoned as a baby to an orphanage, becoming a Reichsausschusskind; in psychiatric clinics the Nazis performed experiments on mentally disabled children whom they called ausschusskinder, the discarded children, a word no German would ever use today. Nobody visited him. He knew who his relatives were, but they declined to know him. After the war he learned to play the accordion in the institutions through which he was shuffled. Music gave him a measure of solace and a way to escape his loneliness.

On his own as an adult, he got a job as a laborer and began to sing in courtyards around the city, as musicians had done for ages. Mr. Herzog came across him in a 1970 documentary, “Bruno the Black,” about street musicians. It’s hard to imagine today what an international celebrity and figure of fascination to German intellectuals that Bruno became, a real man about town, but then, in the way of such things, he drifted into obscurity, resentful and confused.

“Everybody threw him away,” Bruno likes to say, preferring the third person to refer to himself.

At Stadtklause he sang “Mamatschi” (“Dear Mama”), in which a poor boy grows up wishing for a little horse. The horse arrives years later pulling the hearse that bears his dead mother away.

Between stanzas Bruno mixed in a German Christmas tune and “Holy Night,” playing the melodies on the bells. These had been arranged on the table in no obvious order so that he fished around like someone searching frantically through a messy drawer looking for a lost key.

He sang other moritaten, black-humored ballads out of which eventually came “Threepenny Opera” — the music plied by roving hurdy-gurdy musicians with whiny voices whose partners displayed hand-painted pictures, multimedia entertainment for the masses until the Nazis banned it.

“Once upon a time there was a beautiful town,” Bruno sang in the bar the other night. “You could go everywhere, in all the courtyards and on all the streets,” he added. “After the wall fell, everything changed.” Ingrid collected a few coins from patrons gathered for a holiday party. Bruno won’t ever ask for money.

We visited him a couple of days ago. In what is not a large apartment, he swims in an ocean of papers, magazines, records, biscuit tins, fans, lamps, old phonograph equipment, old tape players and radios, antique sewing machines, antique coffee grinders (he has a whole collection of them), two pianos, a large wooden model of a castle on which is painted “Brunos Burg” (“Bruno’s Fortress”), a machine for sewing shoes, a dental chair, an operating table (from Mr. Herzog, he said) and boxes of indefinite content. The piles leave narrow passageways through which to navigate gingerly.

There is too much, in too much seeming disarray, to take in. In the kitchen, next to the stove and amid the muddle of pots and blenders, Bruno has wedged a low glass tabletop on which to paint.

He has been working on the same painting at least since the late summer, protecting it under layers of newspapers, towels, pens and paint, which he peels away, as one doffs heavy clothing.

The picture shows a vast conflagration. A vase falls from a tottering column, which Bruno explains is the incident that started the fire, a recurring dream he has about Berlin. A man flees; another screams. Above it all the symbol of the city, the Berlin bear, wears a golden crown, surrounded by a rain of black crosses.

“I gave the Berlin bear a solemn crown, but when your mother town is estranged from you, death can’t be far away,” Bruno said, cryptically as usual.

“I wish she could see it," he said, now talking about his mother. “If she did, she would die straightaway of a heart attack because she would see her son’s death.”

He calls her Mrs. Bremse, which translates both as “brake” and “horse fly.” It turns out that he had been playing all those months ago near the church up the street from us because his brother, long dead, used to live in the neighborhood.

Bruno sang for us again. He sang “Mamatschi” and “Die Gedanken Sind Frei” (“ Thoughts Are Free”). To Bruno, who often says he feels imprisoned, it’s a song about the impossibility of finding refuge even in one’s thoughts.

“Ah!” he exclaimed, lighting up when we asked what he was doing on Christmas Day. “He will transmit,” he said about himself. He’ll be at the spot where we met him on that spring day months ago.

“He will take his accordion and his bells and go around the houses, and one of the songs for sure will be ‘Mamatschi,’ ” Bruno announced. “Because this will touch people.”

Bruno Schleinstein (born 2nd June 1932) is a German film actor, artist, and musician. The illegitimate son of a prostitute, he was often beaten as a child, and spent much of his life in mental institutions. He is a largely self-taught musician, who, over the years developed considerable skill on the piano, accordion and glockenspiel. He would play in back gardens performing 18th and 19th century style ballads at the weekends, while sustaining himself financially working as a forklift driver at a car plant.

Schleinstein was spotted by director Werner Herzog in the documentary Bruno der Schwarze - Es blies ein Jäger wohl in sein Horn (1970). Herzog promptly cast Schleinstein (under the name Bruno S.) as his lead actor in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), even though he had no acting experience.

Schleinstein also starred in Stroszek (1977), which Herzog wrote especially for him in four days. Stroszek has a number of biographical details from Schleinstein's life, including the use of his own flat as the home of Bruno Stroszek. He also plays his own instruments.

Herzog has claimed that Schleinstein was deeply suspicious of the director, and nervous of performing in front of the cameras — so had to be "listened to" for several hours on set in order to build his self-esteem.

Schleinstein remains somewhat enigmatic and has not acted since. Instead, he took up painting and music. Some of his artwork was shown at the 2004 Outsider Art Fair in New York City. He has now stopped smoking and drinking, and performs nightly. Recently, he released a CD of his music and songs.

Here is a song that Bruno sometimes sings (translated):

Sabine was a young lady, pious and virtuous was she.
She was a good servant to her master and ever so faithful she was too. (until a certain day...)
Then came from Treuenbrietzen a young man passing through. (false hopes...)
He wanted so to love Sabine and was a cobbler boy.
(a worshipper, a proletarian. And now comes hardship...)
His money he had drunk away with Schnaps and also with beer. (cheers! cheers! cheers!)
He came running to Sabine and wanted some more from her. (he went like this!)
she couldn't give him any.. cos none was to hand..
so he went to her master's goods and stole 6 silver spoons..
(stuck it all into his sack -- before this he'd only kick her rear)
but before 18 weeks passed, the deed came to light..
with ravings and shameful words they drove Sabine out of the house..
Until a certain day
When a young man came from Treuenbrietzen (a town near Berlin)
He really would have liked to have Sabine
He was a shoemaker
(spoken:) An adorer, a proletarian
But there comes misery:
He had wasted all his money on schnapps and on beer, too
(spoken:) Cheers, cheers, cheers
So he went to Sabine
And demanded some money from her
(spoken:) So he went like this... (gesture)
But she couldn't give him any
Because there was none
So he stole six silver spoons
From her good master
(spoken:) Down his pocket, that's how he kicked her ass
But already after eighteen long weeks
The theft became obvious
And Sabine was thrown out of the house

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR MICAEL KIMMELMAN: He is an American author, critic, columnist and pianist. He is the architecture critic for The New York Times and has written on issues of public housing, public space, infrastructure, community development and social responsibility. He was the paper's longtime chief art critic – "the most acute American art critic of his generation," in the words of the Australian writer Robert Hughes. In 2007, Kimmelman created the Abroad column, as a foreign correspondent covering culture, political and social affairs across Europe and elsewhere. He returned to New York from Europe in autumn 2011 as the paper's senior critic and architecture critic, and his articles since then, on Penn Station, the New York Public Library, saving a Phoenix house by Frank Lloyd Wright, redevelopment after Hurricane Sandy, as well as on public space and protest in Turkey, Rio and post-revolutionary Cairo, among other issues at home and overseas, have helped to reshape the public debate about urbanism, architecture and architectural criticism. The magazine New York titled an article about him "The People's Critic".

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