Judging by the Schaubühne repertoire, Thomas Ostermeier has found in French literature many kindred spirits. Looking for works about social (in)justice to develop for the stage, his search took him to France, where a new generation of writers have broken with past literary and intellectual traditions to create explosive new narratives. The bestselling works of literary stars such as Dider Eribon, Édouard Louis and Virginie Despentes have now joined the Schaubühne fold. Their bestselling works feature in the repertoire and are even taken on tour to France, where they never fail to spark the greatest interest among audiences and critics alike. Ostermeier (who speaks excellent French) is adored by the media and is a VIP in France, as well as the proud recipient of no less than the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France’s highest cultural distinction. Unsurprisingly, he was in Paris when we caught up with him last month.
You’re speaking to us from Paris – what are you doing there at the moment?
We were doing our tour, taking our Richard III over for the second time, but it was cancelled due to the very high number of corona cases here. Together with Lars Eidinger, who would have played the lead role, we spontaneously invented a project. A kind of “open rehearsal”. And we’re now doing that over five performances.
If you look through the Schaubühne’s repertoire, in the last 10 years you’ve presented 12 productions of French plays or adaptations of French novels. After Ibsen and Shakespeare, have you switched to becoming a francophile?
I don’t really think in terms of nations; I think in terms of class. There is a new generation of writers in France that, in what they write and their style, have distanced themselves from the previous generation – Didier Eribon, Édouard Louis and Geoffroy de Lagasnerie – and I think we need to add Virginie Despentes to them. The first three in particular are activists trying to rethink the old role of the French intellectual – the tradition of Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus or Pierre Bourdieu. So French literature came to me at a time when I was just looking for something like that, about social justice, a theme that has accompanied me throughout my work.
So did you find in those French authors something you couldn’t find here, in Germany?
Yes, because, it wasn’t present in Germany at the time. A book like Eribon’s Retour à Reims (Returning to Reims) was a very important text for many intellectuals and politicians, and a strong influence on many writers here in Germany, like Christian Baron for example. This kind of autofiction and coming-of-age biography are now being intensely written in Germany. So if I started doing so much French literature, it wasn’t because it was French or came from France, but because of the way it explored class issues. The French were tackling these topics I was interested in when the Germans weren’t.
What about Virginie Despentes, for example? What is it that interested you?
Vernon Subutex combines questions of social justice with gender identity, but also an accelerated capitalism after the rise of the new Right in France, which is further along than it is here in Germany. Édouard Louis’ Im Herzen der Gewalt (History of Violence) is part of that, as is Returning to Reims. And of course Qui a tué mon père (Who Killed My Father) by Édouard Louis, which we are bringing back in April. That is a special production because, in it, the author himself is on stage. I asked Édouard if he could see himself performing the stage version himself.
Do you feel that the French realities these books are rooted in are readily relatable to a Berlin audience?
I don’t see any great cultural barriers. We are all living in the pacified zones of capitalism. And we’ll see what the French election will bring in April. There might be a catastrophe on the horizon. If it doesn’t come to this, to an extremely right-wing president, then I think that the political similarities between Scholz and Macron are greater than their differences. In Paris, Virginie Despentes focuses on survival in the urban areas that are being destroyed by the grotesquely inflated property prices and gentrification, and Airbnb culture. She looks at it in Paris, but we have the same problem in Berlin.
Do you detect a special fascination for France in Germany? French authors like Eribon or Despentes but also Houellebecq are huge here, selling better than anywhere else in the world!
There has always been a great fascination for French literature, also French philosophers and sociologists in Germany. France is a Sehnsuchtsort, a place we Germans admire. But it also goes the other way around. Berlin is an almost utopic island, and we have to keep telling them that the utopia has been lost for a long time. In the early to mid-1990s, there were still other possibilities in Berlin. Nevertheless, Berlin is still something that Parisians long for. And I think that both cities, both metropolises, both creative sectors, are still fascinated by each other.
What do you think the French like so much about Berlin?
It’s the promise of freedom, and economic security because of the myth that still exists that you can rent and live cheaply in Berlin. When you compare the two, that is of course true. Property prices here are still about a third of what they are in Paris. And I think that many French people see Berlin as an ever-changing city. This is true. When you’re in Paris – I drove here in my car this time – you rarely have to take new bearings because the cityscape only changes in the very small details. The streets, the boulevards, they remain the same. In Berlin things are constantly changing. And of course, before the pandemic, the French envied Berlin’s nightlife and club culture. There aren’t a lot of places in Paris with the kind of extreme nightlife that we have in Berlin – around the clock at the weekends. And if I might, I’d also mention theatre, and Berlin’s five large stages and their ensembles. Since the 1990s and the Reunification Berlin has been making ground- breaking theatre.
France is a Sehnsuchtsort, a place we Germans admire, but it also goes the other way around.
Are there big differences between the French and the Berlin stage traditions?
There are big differences. Except for the Comédie Française, the theatres there don’t have ensembles. This means that every theatre in Paris is a hosting venue where different theatre companies, different productions are invited to appear. And only very rarely do they produce their own work. Theatres in Berlin, with the exception of HAU and our FIND festival, are not theatres that invite external productions but make their own.
This French tradition of ‘hosting venues’ has enabled you to almost become a fixture of the Paris stage. Are there collaborations you particularly value?
Of course. We have several partnered theatres in Paris with whom we frequently collaborate. We’ll be bringing Vernon Subutex to the Odéon in June. This is a very important location for us, a very important partner, and I’m also very much looking forward to seeing how this Parisian novel will be accepted in German. No other French director has yet brought it to the stage. I’m also going to be working at the Comédie Française again this summer, doing King Lear. There’s also the Montpellier festival, and also the festival at Avignon. Other theatres in Paris are: the Théâtre Les Gémeaux in Sceaux, the Théâtre de la Ville, where I did my version of Return to Reims in French.
These artistic collaborations seem to have morphed into personal relationships, even lasting friendships. The actor Denis Podalydès has even written a book about his work with you, titled Les nuits d’amour sont transparentes!
It’s about our production of Twelfth Night or What You Will, and it’s something very special…. But yes, some French authors, like Didier (Eribon), Édouard (Louis) and Geoffroy (de Lagasnerie) have become my closest and most important friends. Their reflections about art and politics are extremely valuable to me.
Is there something that France and Germany can learn from each other?
I’m careful about assigning national mentalities. I think that the upper class in Paris isn’t very different from the upper class in Berlin, but that the difference between an existence in the banlieue in Paris as a single mother differs very considerably to an existence in the 16ème [wealthy district of Paris] as part of an upper-class family. I think class differences are greater than national ones. So I find it very hard to generalise what one could learn from the other. But if you want a tabloid kind of answer, then I would say that we could take a bit more time and care for our food!