December 18, 2018, 21:51

“Returning to Reims”: A German Theatre Company’s Meditation on the
Politics of Working-Class Families |

“Returning to Reims”: A German Theatre Company’s Meditation on the Politics of Working-Class Families |

In “Returning to Reims,” a production of the Berlin-based theatre
company the Schaubühne at St. Ann’s Warehouse, in Brooklyn, the German
actress Nina Hoss plays Katy, an actress who has been hired to read a
voice-over for a documentary film based on a memoir by the French
philosopher Didier Eribon. Eribon’s book, “Retour à Reims,” was published in France in 2009; it is a lucid,
astringent account of his estrangement from his working-class parents,
and his own coming to terms with his identity as a gay man and an
intellectual. The play, like the memoir, asks, How do we become who we
are, not only in love and in work but at the voting booth? Hoss, who is
best known here for her role as a German spy on the Showtime series
“Homeland,” looks like a loose-limbed Liv Ullman, and shares Ullman’s
emotional agility. In the play, she spends most of her time seated at a
table, simply reading excerpts from Eribon’s text in a steady, almost
trancelike tone. Eribon writes,

During my childhood, my entire family was Communist. How could my
family have turned into one in which it seemed possible, even natural
sometimes, to vote either for the right or for the extreme right? What
had happened to create a situation in which so many people would begin
voting for the National Front?

“Returning to Reims,” which was commissioned by the Manchester Festival, came about after a series of telephone conversations between
Hoss and Thomas Ostermeier, the artistic director of the Schaubühne,
when Hoss was in New York City filming “Homeland” in the fall of 2016.
On a rainy afternoon in Brooklyn, Ostermeier, a very tall, contemplative
man dressed in a plaid shirt, told me, “She spoke to me about how
America was in turmoil—before and after Trump’s election. It was a ‘How
could they do this to us!’ moment, but, to her, that wasn’t the point.
The point was the failure of the left, which allowed people to vote for
a right-wing candidate.” At the Schaubühne, Ostermeier had been planning
to stage a production of “The Human Voice,” a monologue by Jean Cocteau
in which a woman talks to her lover on the phone on the eve of his
marriage to another woman. Hoss told me, “It interested me—I hadn’t done
a monologue—but after my experience in New York, and the aftermath of
Trump’s election, I thought, For now, I can’t do this.” After Ostermeier
sent Hoss Eribon’s memoir, they decided to work on an adaption of the
book instead.

The play is a departure for Ostermeier, who is known for his
iconoclastic versions of canonical plays. (Last spring, The Schaubühne’s
German-language production of “Richard III,” at BAM, featured a
near-naked Lars Eidinger as the mad king, hectoring the audience.) He
knew that he didn’t want to do a dramatic adaptation, casting Eribon’s
mother and the father, and so on; the play is less a traditional drama
than an electrifying meditation. Ostermeier built his film-within-a-play
around real documentary footage of Eribon’s life, which unwinds on a
large screen above Katy’s head as she reads the text: video of Eribon
himself returning to visit his mother, in Reims, after an absence of
twenty years, and later looking with her at old family photographs.
These domestic interludes are interspersed with other images: shots of
the housing project near Reims where he grew up, photographs of the
local factory where both of his parents worked; footage of protest
marches in Paris in 1968, a billboard advertisement for Marine Le Pen.
For both Hoss and Ostermeier, telling Eribon’s story became a deeply
personal project, leading them both back into their own family
histories, and to what Eribon calls “originary scenes.”

Both Nina Hoss’s father and Didier Eribon’s father were born in 1929.
Hoss’s father, Willi, was born in Vaals, the Netherlands, and worked as
a boy as a farm laborer in Germany, and then in factories. Active in the
Communist Party as a teen-ager, he was selected to study Marxism in East
Germany, and was smuggled across the border. On his return to the West,
he became a union organizer and a founder of Germany’s Green Party. In
the nineteen-nineties, he spent the last years of his life travelling
often to Brazil, where he championed the rights of indigenous people.
Eribon’s father was born into a French working-class family. At the
time, mandatory schooling there ended at the age of fourteen; higher
education, Eribon writes in his book, was “for other kinds of people,
for people ‘of means.’ ” (Eribon underscores that his ability to attend
high school, and then university, was, for all intents, a miracle,
funded by his mother’s work in the factory and as a cleaning lady.)
Eribon’s father was a factory worker as well, a job that was waiting for
him when he got out of school; he became an alcoholic, and, after years
of voting for left-wing candidates, ended up voting for the right.

Ostermeier was interested in the contradiction between these two men’s
stories: What were the conditions that made different choices possible
for Willi Hoss, who turned left, and for Eribon’s father, who turned
right? After Ostermeier learned Nina Hoss’s family story, he suggested
to her, as the director in the play does to Katy, that they incorporate
it into their project. In the final scene of the play, Katy tells the
director, who is played by Bush Moukarzel, about her father’s life, and
he projects the images she has on her phone onto the screen above her
head. Before the preview, sitting in the large atrium of the theatre, I
asked Ostermeier, who was born in 1968, in Germany, about his own
father. He thought for a moment, then said, “When I read Didier’s book,
my first reaction was ‘I am not alone.’ ”

Alois Ostermeier was born in Landshut, a town in Bavaria, near Dachau.
During the Second World War, an outpost of the Dachau concentration camp
was set up in Landshut; prisoners worked as slave laborers in local
factories. After the war, Germany was demilitarized; when, in 1952, the
country was again allowed to maintain an army, Alois Ostermeier
immediately signed up. He later explained to Thomas that he was in the
Army to “protect democracy.” Ostermeier told me, “I’m not sure of that
excuse. Like Didier’s father, he voted conservative. My father was a
soldier of very low rank, and my mother worked in a shop. He was beating
up my mother; he was beating me up. I stopped talking to my father, at
fourteen.” He continued, “But, after reading Didier’s book, I reviewed
that experience, with my father. Like Didier, I have some regrets. I
only saw my father as a pig. I never asked myself, ‘Why did he become
such a pig?’ ”

In 2002, Alois Ostermeier came to the Munich Kammerspiele, to see “Der
Starke Staam” (“The Thick Trunk”), a play that his son was directing, by
Marie Luise Fleisser, a writer who had been suppressed by the Nazis and
whose work addresses working-class life and domestic violence.
Ostermeier told me, “As I sat watching the play, I thought, What can he
be thinking? And, afterwards, he said to me that he wasn’t sure that I
knew, but there had been this kind of violence in our family . . . there
had been a distant uncle who behaved like that.” Ostermeier shook his
head at the memory. “It was the last time I saw my father. I asked him
if he wanted me to take him to the station in a taxi, and he said, ‘No,
I’ll take the tram.’ After he died, we went to his apartment, and I saw
that he had saved all my clippings. Stacks of them.”

“Returning to Reims” ends with home movies and photographs of an
ebullient Willi Hoss in the Amazon, where he was involved in efforts to
pipe drinking water into tribal communities. Both of Hoss’s parents are
now dead, but her father’s sister came to see the play. “My auntie
worked on the assembly line, like Didier’s mother, for thirty years,”
Hoss told me. When her aunt saw the play, she said, in a kind of
wonderment, “ ‘I didn’t realize I had a choice.’ ” Hoss explained, “She
thought she was choosing not to go to school. But it was the
circumstances of her life that made that choice for her. And from that
came other choices that also weren’t choices.” The final image of the
film is a banyan tree against a cloudy sky. The stage gradually darkens,
as Katy chats to the director and the sound engineer about her father.
Hoss told me, “For the first time, this production has nothing to do
with great acting. It’s the freedom onstage to have this conversation.
We put it out there.”


Related posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

eighteen + 9 =