The German stage and film industry is just as rife with sexual harassment as Hollywood – if not worse. So where’s the big outcry? Three female insiders talk about the reasons for their silence.
In the months after the Harvey Weinstein revelations and the subsequent #MeToo campaign against Hollywood sexism and abuse, the German film industry remained conspicuously silent. Surely it couldn’t be that innocent here? But then, in early January, the first German #MeToo story broke out. The subject: 75-year-old Dieter Wedel, a film, TV and stage director as famous for his polyamorous lifestyle as he is for his influence in the German television industry. In an article in Zeit magazine, three actresses described how he’d convinced them to audition in private hotel suites, then forced himself on them while pointing out his power to make or break acting careers. Wedel has denied the allegations, which date back a good 20 years.
When the Wedel allegations came out, nobody was surprised, because these things are so common in the business.
Interestingly, the two accusers who opted to have their names published – Jany Tempel, 48, and Patricia Thielemann, 53 – no longer work as actresses. “I don’t know anyone currently working in the business who would speak out about sexual harassment happening now. Not even anonymously,” says 48-year-old actressturned- career coach Anna Momber-Heers. In her 15 years of coaching, she has helped a number of actresses get out of sexually abusive situations, but says that she can only offer her aid to those who are ready to accept it. In the case of women who repeatedly work with certain men in the film, TV and theatre industries, she says, “You can tell what is going on and that it’s not okay, but most of the time there is nothing you can do.” She describes a claustrophobic scene where reputations and rumours travel fast. Karin*, an actress and acting coach in her mid-40s, confirms: “When the Wedel allegations came out, nobody was surprised, because these things are so common in the business. Film or stage, it’s the same everywhere.” But no one talks about it in public.
This includes Karin herself, who won’t name the notoriously abusive directors, producers, editors and scriptwriters she has had to deal with and hears about on a regular basis. She is worried that anything she might say, even anonymously, could allow colleagues to identify her or others – which could cause serious damage to their careers. “As a coach, I’m bound to professional discretion and my clients need to be sure I don’t leak anything to the press.” The fear around the topic is existential, with women afraid to lose their jobs and income. “The market in Germany is absolutely tiny compared to Hollywood or even France,” explains Momber-Heers. “This means that networking and getting along with people is incredibly important, and you don’t want to complain and be branded as ‘being difficult’.” The scarcity of jobs is hard on everyone, but especially women, who feel more pressure to seize opportunities before they are considered “too old” for a majority of roles. Contracts are short-term, pay is usually low and getting one job doesn’t necessarily mean there will be another. “As an actress you find yourself in quite a dependent position working with, say, a writer who gets to decide what will happen to your character in a TV-series. That sort of power imbalance can quickly turn what could otherwise be an innocent flirtation into a very uncomfortable and problematic situation,” says Momber-Heers. Karin concurs: “When you have scored a role and need the work because you have a child to feed, you might think twice before telling your boss or colleague to take his hand off your crotch.”
The fear of professional consequences is paired with that of not being believed. Ursula*, an actress who worked with Wedel in the late 1990s and is still active in the profession, is reluctant to talk for precisely those reasons. “In the absence of factual evidence, the one with the better standing is more likely to win the public argument.” Initially involved with the article in Zeit, the 50-year-old decided to withdraw her testimony at the last minute. However, under the condition of anonymity, she agreed to speak with Exberliner about her experience with Wedel. The incident she remembers happened in the late 1990s. She had known Wedel for some time, and they got along well. He was preparing a TV series and, as is not uncommon, they were supposed to meet in a hotel lobby to discuss the project. “He came rushing in, saying he had left the script in his room and would I quickly come upstairs with him. I didn’t think anything of it.” As she was standing in the corridor of his suite, he quickly changed into a bathrobe and made it clear that “he wanted to have sex with me right here, right now – I was so shocked, I couldn’t believe this was happening.” Ursula, who was in her early 30s at the time, left immediately. “So I was surprised when I found out that I’d actually been cast for one of the main roles in the series,” she says. After the first day of shooting, however, the director called to complain about her acting: “He asked where all my talent and sex appeal had gone.” As shooting went on, the abuse got worse. “He would constantly shout at me in front of the entire cast and dozens of extras. He would turn to someone and ask ‘Is she acting yet? I can’t see any emotion in her eyes.’” Some of the other actresses on set expressed how awful they thought he was being to her. “He basically made it look like we had had an affair but I wasn’t up to the job, and he had made a mistake by casting me.” To this day, Ursula believes that if she had said anything, people would have thought she was just being vindictive after getting dumped by Wedel. She decided to keep quiet because she saw no way of proving what was really happening – a course of action fellow accuser Tempel says her agent also recommended.
Ursula retracted her Zeit testimony not only because she believed it would be useless in the absence of any evidence, but because of the futility of singling out an individual man in what she sees as a greater systemic problem. “It’s useless to let heads roll in the #MeToo debate. We should be focusing on how these things happen and raising awareness so that young actresses don’t have to learn the hard way. Thinking back, I cannot believe how naive I was to follow Wedel to his hotel room.”
Karin says that it’s important for actresses to understand there’s always the option “to say no”. “I always defended my boundaries, because that’s just the way I am. Whenever I felt icky about, say, a private dinner invitation, I would always decline. But I understand it’s not easy for everyone.” She also concedes that it came at the price of turning down career opportunities, at least on two occasions, which she won’t describe on the record for fear of being identified. In the wake of #MeToo, she and her colleagues have been debating the best way for young actresses to protect their integrity while still doing the work they want to do. Her best advice is to get a second source of income to make it easier to refuse unwanted advances. “At the academies, acting is still taught as if it was a safe job. You’re taught to overcome inhibitions and taboos, to completely submit yourself to the creative process. But nobody tells you that it’s okay to draw lines and walk away when you’re asked to do something you’re not comfortable with.” This is especially tricky, she explains, because it’s so easy for directors to punish or humiliate actors on stage or in front of the camera. “They’re the ones who set the scene, and if they want an actress to be naked and wiggle her tits or get beaten up on stage, that gets by as their ‘creative decision’.” That’s why she herself found it so important to coach in parallel with her acting career. It gave her the financial means she needed to be truly independent in a business where too many women feel “trapped”.
As a career coach, Momber-Heers has her own imaginative recipes to ward off unwanted flirtation. “You have to be clear about limits, but present it in a friendly, humorous way so as not to offend their egos.” She advises her clients to see it as part of their professional persona, another role they play when they are at work: “At this point it’s still a men’s business, no two ways about it. If you’re not aware of that, it’s like running onto a football field with a ping-pong bat – you’re not doing yourself any favours.” She cites useful tricks like defending personal space by “placing an object between you and your ‘flirty’ colleague”, and using inoffensive but clear words and body language to assert that the relationship won’t be escalating further. In the case of one actress whose TV show producer kept knocking at her dressing room door a bit too often, the coach got creative: “We tried to make her husband look like the bigger player. At first we organised some blingy jewellery for her to show off, but that didn’t do the trick. So we did some research on the guy and what might impress him. In the end we rented a Porsche. The actress’s husband picked her up at the studio in the Porsche, and that was that. The producer left her alone.” Doesn’t that kind of strategy support the very sexist stereotypes on which the patterns of abuse are based? Momber-Heers concedes that it doesn’t solve the problem, but it’s the best and most pragmatic way to deal with the current situation until the industry becomes more equal.
But how is that going to happen? The German actors’ union Bundesverband Schauspiel is planning to provide a complaints office, and members are working on a code of behaviour: at least three people must be present at auditions, and hotel rooms are a definite no-no. From Karin’s perspective, #MeToo has already caused an increase in awareness: “Among actors, things can be a bit touchy-feely, people hug and kiss a lot. But I’ve noticed that some male colleagues have started to ask permission now. I like that, it shows a sense of respect and equality.” Momber-Heers says that so far she hasn’t seen much change at all. What is especially missing, she says, is outspoken supportive men in the industry – film star Til Schweiger, for instance, responded to the Wedel allegations by claiming, “A figure like Harvey Weinstein simply doesn’t exist in Germany.” Karin, Ursula and Momber-Heers support statements made by prominent actresses like 63-year old Corinna Harfouch and 67-year-old Iris Berben, both of whom have addressed the atmosphere of sexism and abuse that plagues the German stage and film business. “They don’t have to fear for their careers or prove their talent any more, so they can afford to speak up and use their privileged position to help out the younger generation,” Momber-Heers says. The worst that could happen now? Both she and Karin agree: For the debate to die down too soon, and everything to stay as it’s always been.