We caught up with the German actor about lockdown, the role of the artist in times of crisis and whether this year’s upheavals will spark meaningful change.
How did Corona become tangible for you?
It’s the first time I’m talking about Corona, because I don’t feel I have any more to say than any other person. Why should it be any more interesting to hear what an actor has to say about this? But I suppose for me, there was this suddenness to it – I had the opening of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (John Bock’s one-man piece at the Schaubühne), and I was working a lot. Of course, the focus is always the opening and you invest so much work and passion into it. We played it six times and then suddenly it stopped.
You were very busy at the Berlinale this year with two lms – Vadim Perelman’s Persian Lessons and Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond’s competition title My Little Sister. The sudden rupture must have been quite a shock…
It was terrible. People tell me that I work too much and that I should do less. I do a lot of things in parallel – I work as an actor, a director, a photographer, as a DJ… It was always a dream for me to be so active, and it’s now a reality. When I was not allowed to be on stage, not to DJ… I felt like I was losing everything that I love so much. Some people say that they now understand how privileged they are – I was always very aware of what I had.
When I started at the Schaubühne I wasn’t allowed to do too much. My first movie was in 2006, and I was always hoping to get chances. Not to be able to express myself is tough, especially not having those moments to express myself so intensely in front of people.
That communion with the audience is very present in your stage performances, especially when you break the barriers between those on stage and those watching, with some radical improv at times.
Maybe Thomas (Ostermeier– the director of the Schaubühne) wouldn’t say this now, but when we started about 20 years ago he said: “We want to jump with our naked arses into people’s faces.” I was the only one who took this quite literally! (Laughs) But I like it. People could feel that danger, that intensity. Even if I never did, there was a chance the actor could have jumped into the audience. It’s an atmosphere you create, one in which people sit on their seats and realise that they are not safe, not relaxed, not removed from the drama. It’s happening right now. In Corona times, this is not allowed anymore, and that will be the most difficult thing.
The Corona crisis has had a huge impact on culture – and the effects will continue to be felt, with seating distancing and smaller audiences. Thomas Ostermeier said that putting plexiglass in theatres might be a way of getting more people to attend shows. How do you view these developments and the way they’ll impact your craft and your communion with the audience?
The Volksbühne Theaterschaffender Carl Hegemann used to say that theatre should be lions in a cage, but the cage is open. And I think that the plexiglass and all these distancing rules give audiences a sense of safety, and I’m a bit afraid we will lose a certain intensity. But then again, maybe it creates some kind of intimacy and beautiful exclusiveness – I mean that in the sense that I’d be playing in front of only a few people. It’s a connection and partnership, and while it’s a bit strange, I have noticed that the bigger the audience, the more anonymous they get.
So, the smaller the better?
Maybe. Then, you can see people’s faces. It’s not surprising that artists like Prince used to give little concerts to get this feeling again. So maybe it can be an advantage. But the communion with people is what I need the most. This is the beauty of art – it has to do with communion and reflection, to get the attention and reaction of others in order to further a reflection about life.
During the Corona lockdown, there have been livestreamed performances – what are your thoughts on the digitalization of shows?
For me, that’s not theatre and not my world. Maybe I’m nostalgic or conservative, but I didn’t do any livestreaming. This is not what I’m good at. And why should I be sitting at home in my kitchen reading something? Usually, we rehearse for two months and bring it to life – I don’t like the idea of reading a text two times and then recording it, and then it’s online forever. I did do a performance with a piano player – at a distance, of course – with extracts from Brecht’s Die Hauspostille. It was a livestream for one hour and then it was gone. That makes more sense to me. I like the idea that it was motivating people to stay home and them watching on the spot.
During the lockdown, you also signed a letter in French periodical Le Monde, adding your name to a long list of actors and creators, stating “No to a return to normal”. Can you tell us more about that?
Juliette Binoche wrote to me and asked me to give my name to this letter. This is something that really got me. At the beginning, everybody shared this kind of numbness and later on, the first headlines and slogans came out, citing a return to normal. I really liked the thought: Why shouldn’t we take this as an opportunity? Why should we go back to ‘normal’? And what does ‘normal’ even mean? If someone is sick because of an unhealthy lifestyle, for instance, and that person gets the chance to become healthy, that person should consider changing their life.
Are you optimistic that people will change their ways and their relationship with nature and others in a post-Corona world?
On the one hand, I think there are some people who always blame the system. I grew up with the slogan “Fuck the System” and I think this way of seeing things is understandable. But I try to question myself first, like if it’s necessary that I fly within Germany. I’ve started driving an electric car – I’m trying. I’m not blaming other people, and I’m starting with myself. Did you follow what happened earlier this year about my bag?
Yes, there was this online shitstorm about your advertising campaign for an Aldi bag. (Eidinger advertised a controversial designer tote bag-for-life in a January shoot that was accused of aestheticising misery.)
The idea came from a good place. The idea was to find something which you can use long-term that had the same use as a plastic bag. People asked why I was using leather – which is understandable. I respect this line of argument so much, but I thought that that was better than using three plastic bags a day. That was the idea of the Aldi bag. People can laugh all they want about it, but the idea was something pro-environment.
But ultimately, do you think that people have the capacity to learn from crisis or will it be business as usual and a return to bitching about bags?
There’s a part of me that says human beings are so destructive that it’s a question of ‘How long until we destroy ourselves?’ I think we have to face the fact that the way we’re living and the way we treat nature is a perverted form of existence. We are always talking about nature as something that is foreign to us. But we are nature. And this can help us make some change – to reunite with nature. It’s a time of change in so many aspects – the way we face racism, sexism, pollution.
I read somewhere that 2020 is not the worst year and that maybe it’s a moment when we wake up and change. I have this part in me as well. It’s like when children understand that cigarettes are poisonous but still see so many people smoking. I have the feeling that, right now, we’re in a state of cold turkey and that it’s healthy for us to be in this state.
I came across this quote describing Peer Gynt as “a life based on procrastination and avoidance” which isn’t exactly what you’re about, what with the Le Monde letter, your comments about racism this year at the Berlinale, and your presence at the Black Lives Matter demonstration at Alexanderplatz. Do you think that artists need to show that they’re not in a state of avoidance?
I may be an actor but that doesn’t make me a better person. I don’t get why the media and people expect actors to be in any way heroic. I make the same mistakes as everyone else. When I went to the demonstration, it wasn’t about showing my face or being in front of the wagon. It wasn’t my place to say anything about it – we should listen. I had a very helpful discussion about ‘All Lives Matter’, as the first impulse as a white person is to say that all lives matter, but then it was explained to me why this is not the right description.
It’s also a phrase that’s been noxiously appropriated.
Yes, it denies discrimination, and I understood why it wasn’t at all appropriate. This is something I started to understand and, for me, it was important to listen and to learn. I went to the demonstration to show that I question myself as part of those who have white privilege. It was the same at the Berlinale. There was a clip of me crying, and it’s annoying because so many times, they show a clip devoid of its context – I was blamed as someone with privilege who had no right to burst into tears.
At a press conference, I was telling people about this Stefan Zweig speech in which he said that we should have a medium that is full of love and not hate. Society is poisoned and traumatized and I was saying that we have this medium now – the internet – and we use it for hate. It provoked me emotionally because people don’t learn.
Do you fear that we won’t use these moments to make a positive evolutionary leap?
This image of George Floyd being killed by a police officer is like John F. Kennedy being shot or airplanes flying into the Twin Towers. Especially for me as a German – and this was what I was talking about at the press conference at the Berlinale. I have the feeling of trauma because my grandfather killed people during WWII and my father was born during the war. Everything I do as an artist is in inluenced by this. And of course it touches me when I realise there’s been no development, or, on the other end of the spectrum, when people demonstrate together in a peaceful atmosphere and say “Let’s change this”. I think this crisis is good, because I’m losing some of my privileges now and I’m ready to give them away even if it hurts. I have the feeling that now’s the time to give.
I grew up with the slogan “Fuck the System” and I think this way of seeing things is understandable.
Do you get the impression that even if celebrities speak out with the best intentions, there’s this sense that whatever you do, it’s going to be met with a shitstorm? It goes back to that time when you were on the jury for the Berlinale in 2016 and Meryl Streep shared some advice.
Yes, what she told me really touched me. She told me that with one sentence you can ruin your credibility. But of course, as an artist, I need to be free. I want to say this one line that will destroy my credibility. I was wondering whether I wanted to live in a society in which I wasn’t allowed to say this sentence. What I always try to do when a shitstorm happens is to question myself. I don’t want to go into a “They were wrong and I was right” stance – I want to start to think about other people’s points and opinions.
I’m aware that whatever you do, if it’s deep or complex, there’s a level of ambivalence. There are always things you can find wrong. One big problem in our society is that there’s no culture of failure. If I say this line that destroys my credibility, where is the forgiveness? There’s this quote from Lenny in The Simpsons: “People make mistakes, otherwise there wouldn’t be a rubber on a pencil!” That’s what humankind is about.
It goes back to what you were saying about people holding celebrities to unattainable standards.
It can provoke conflict that leads to meaningful discussion, and it would be very frustrating to do something that doesn’t provoke an impact. The hope is always that it leaves a mark. But for me, art is more about seduction rather than provocation, and I have to seduce people into a conflict.
Some productions are getting back on track and you’re scheduled to go to Vienna soon for the Sky Original TV series Ich und die Anderen (Me And The Others) – have they established any directives to keep everyone safe on set?
I had my first COVID-19 test today and I get the results tomorrow, and they’ll be asking the actors to get tested every two days. There will be zones where people are allowed to be, and after the shoot every day, we’ll be asked to go straight to the hotel and not meet up with too many people. It’s a big risk in many ways – especially with this production where so many actors are coming from Germany and Austria – Tom Schilling, Martin Wuttke, Katharina Schüttler, Sophie Rois… I have to admit I was surprised that production was starting up again so soon.
Lastly, during these past few months, have you witnessed any reactions – from people around you, Berliners, the government – that have surprised you?
I feel very connected to Asia and I had a wonderful experience when touring A Doll’s House in Taipei. It always impressed me that they’ve been wearing masks for a long time because they want to protect others. That’s something we don’t understand and we will never understand.
At the beginning of Corona when I first went to the supermarket with a mask, there was a guy standing next to me grumbling: “Today it’s masks, tomorrow it will be full hazmat suits if the government tells them”. That’s something I love from my experiences in Asia – people take care of each other. It has made me feel alien amongst my own people.