After a stint in the US shooting Homeland, film star Nina Hoss returns to the Schaubühne stage for a collaborative work with Thomas Ostermaier based on French sociologist Didier Eribon’s bestseller.
Returning to Reims was an immediate success when it finally hit German bookstands last year, and you can tell why: In his 2009 sociological memoir, Eribon paralleled his estrangement from his homophobic working-class father, a former communist turned National Front voter, to that of the French Left from its electorate. It struck an obvious chord among German liberals shocked by the right-wing populist AfD’s electoral successes. To Eribon’s story, the Schaubühne production added Hoss’ personal reminiscences of her own father, a true working-class hero who also experienced disenchantment with party politics – but who, unlike Eribon’s father, went on to fight global poverty in the Amazon. She narrates both stories over moving images of Europe’s working-class saga directed by Sébastien Dupouey and Thomas Ostermeier in the sober staging of a sharply designed recording studio by Nina Wetzel.
Did you know Returning to Reims before? How did Thomas Ostermeier approach you about it?
I was shooting Homeland in New York for half a year, and I arrived there when the Trump/ Clinton campaigns were first starting. It was a time of craziness, but also a very exciting time. I knew I was going to get back to Germany just after the election and Thomas and I were going to work on a new play together. We were talking about doing a monologue, and he suggested adapting Cocteau’s The Human Voice – which is a text I love and have a history with. However, I quickly realised post- Trump’s victory that I couldn’t imagine working on a play where I’m a desperate lover trying to get her partner back over the phone, or that anyone else would be interested in it right now. Either we had to make a comedy or address what was going on.
How did you experience Trump’s victory?
I was surrounded by liberal New Yorkers, and some of them kept saying, “How could they do this to us?” It made me think. What about: so many people feel they have been left behind, and this is their only way to give their message to the elites at the top? I talked to Thomas about this feeling that it is also the fault of the liberals, the Democrats, people like us! There is an arrogance that fuels people’s resentments and leads them to vote for something they feel represents them against this elitism… I told Thomas about my dad and his generation as an example. And then he told me about Returning to Reims – he had read it and was really impressed, so I ordered it immediately.
And what was your reaction to the book when you read it?
It just hit the spot. It really related to my experience and what I saw happening in the US during Trump’s campaign and election. I wasn’t able to analyse my feelings as beautifully as Eribon does, he has this very personal approach…The main character, he Eribon, comes back home (Reims) after 20 years to realise it was the power of the social world that kept him and his father apart. It’s a very sad epiphany but it’s also very honest and truthful.
Eribon parallels his estrangement from his working class family to that of the Left, which abandoned the people they’re supposed to represent… is that what you felt here too?
Yes, the Left has lost its way. And even now, even after the big electoral failure, they still won’t talk about what they should be talking about. People feel left behind and betrayed… but be it in France or in Germany, all they talk about right now is immigrants. But that is not the issue. Immigrants are just a diversion from the real issues.
How can you give respect to these people without falling into the immigrant trap?
By not taking health care away, by not closing down schools, by not taking their public swimming pools, the library, the youth clubs. That’s when hate occurs. That’s why I’m so confused why politicians don’t work on that. No one seems to be interested.
Blair and Gordon Brown, Schröeder, Mitterrand… in the production, you out the ‘traitors’ to the leftist cause. Do you think it’s all similar?
It is in what has happened, in how it shifted and how we were all told that “every single one has to be responsible for their own life”. That’s neoliberalism: you’re free to do anything, but if you don’t make it, it’s your fault. On the other hand, the Left idea is solidarity. Who has more, gives more. Now even the middle class is cracking. We have a very low unemployment rate because people do several jobs. What kind of employment do they have? That’s the next question you have to ask. What is society shifting towards?
But then populist parties come to the rescue – they’ll care for those people, or so they say.
If you feel threatened already and you see other people are coming, and they get a room or a voucher for food or whatever, you think, “They are gonna stay, they will take our jobs away.” Whether that’s true or not doesn’t matter – you believe it. So it’s fear. They work with fear and they always have, and that’s not a new thing. But can you actually condemn it so easily? At least we have to make the effort to understand where it’s coming from and then work, very concretely, to make sure that these people don’t have to fear.
Do you see any politicians who are tackling this?
I know that some people in politics are really working for it – they might not be in the media. There are a lot of people in the background who work hard. I don’t think they are all corrupt and cynical; it’s just very, very hard to get through with the ideas.
It must be complicated for you as the daughter of a man who was such an incorruptible idealist, whether as a unionist, a communist or a Green party MP.
I wasn’t so aware of it while I was living with him, because then you just think it’s normal. Now I very clearly see that must have cost him a lot, because everyone is so very corruptible. I don’t want to be judgemental. Of course you have to live. But there are moments when you have to have the courage to check yourself. That’s what I got from my father, and that’s what a lot of politicians don’t do anymore.
Do you still believe in political action? Do you join demos, for example?
Yeah, after Trump I immediately went to Washington for the Women’s March. I think it’s necessary to voice your opinion. Will it change something? I don’t know. But you have to start somewhere. Even little steps, little communities that come up with demands, that’s also our responsibility. We can’t just lie back and say, “Here, politicians. Please create a great world for us.” We need to be involved.
Could this play be your own political contribution?
No, I don’t think theatre or art can really change anything, but it can stir some things up. We can shy away from the topics and what’s going on around us, but I’m the happiest when I leave the theatre and I see everyone having discussions.
Your mother was an actress and a theatre director; your dad a politician. You’re kind of bringing your whole DNA on the stage with this play. Does it feel like that?
I think that’s why I feel so comfortable with it. This is anyway what is in me – both sides. And it developed very organically: we basically brought our discussions to the stage. We share the process with the audience.
And how has the audience reacted so far?
There are some who really don’t like it because of what we’re talking about. Also because they might think that it’s not theatre – why am I listening to this when they are not ‘acting’? Others are completely fascinated and come to me afterwards, saying they have so much to think about now. So I think that’s both sides, and it’s not often that a theatre play does that.
Returning to Reims (Rückkehr nach Reims) Nov 22, 25-28 (with English surtitles) | Schaubühne, Wilmersdorf
Born in 1975 in Stuttgart to unionist Willi Hoss and stage actress, director and intendant Heidemarie Rohweder, Nina Hoss rose to fame through her work with director Christian Petzold in films like Yella (for which she won Best Actress at the 2007 Berlinale), Barbara (2012) and Phoenix (2014). She joined Schaubühne director Thomas Ostermeier for Returning to Reims after finishing a 13-episode arc on acclaimed American TV series Homeland.