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GoetheInstitute

28/12/2007

A general who no longer wants to act

Gert Voss, one of the grand old men of German theatre, talks to Peter Kümmel about playing Wallenstein, the state of the stage and his love of the cinema.



All photos of Gert Voss courtesy the Vienna Burgtheater.

Die Zeit: Mr Voss, you are 66 years old and these days you play the grand old men of the theatre. Is old age a threatening or a friendly continent for you?

Gert Voss: Old men have always fascinated me, if they keep their wits about them; that combination of deteriorating body with unbelievable curiosity and clarity of mind. When I was little I had a grandfather who had experienced astonishing things. He was a physicist and chemist and went to China and Mongolia to work for the German steel company Otto Wolf. At the end of the war he was imprisoned first by the Chinese, then the Russians. A Russian soldier rammed a rifle into his kidneys and he was terribly ill when he was released. He didn't have long to live. As a little boy I went to him and asked him all my questions. His room was full of books. The two things always belong together in my memory, my grandfather and his library. Basically to me old people are like big thick books.

Thanks to your grandfather you had an exciting upbringing. He lived in China, your father too. And you were born in Shanghai and spent your early years there. What brought you to Germany then?


We were repatriated. When the war ended the Americans and Chinese dispossessed all the Germans and sent them back to Germany on warships. My mother wanted to be absolutely sure we didn't end up in an internment camp first so she walked round Shanghai all day with my brother and me. And by way of a break she took us to the cinema. We often watched three shows a day.

The cinema was a kind of bolthole?


It stayed that way too. We were put on an American warship to take us from Shanghai to Bremerhaven. As prisoners of war we slept underneath the engine room, where it was unbearably hot and loud. My father managed to arrange for us to be allowed to sleep on deck. And there we watched films with the soldiers. They put up a big screen on deck and watched films all night. Dad said I should sleep but of course I watched. By 9 pm it was pitch black and the cinema started – and went on until dawn. Then during the day my brother and I acted out the stories we had watched at night.

So that's how your life as an actor began. Now you play the grand old men, most recently Shakespeare's King Lear directed by Luc Bondy, and from the 19th of December you are appearing as Schiller's "Wallenstein" at the Burgtheater in Vienna, directed by Thomas Langhoff. Lear and Wallenstein are both men on the brink of downfall.

Lear brings about his own demise through his baffling behaviour. He rejects those he loves the most. Wallenstein on the other hand goes under because he does nothing except for endlessly rehearsing possibilities of action. For a long time I would have said that Shakespeare was clearly the better dramatist and Lear the deeper character. But the more I have to do with Wallenstein the richer he appears to me. "Wallenstein" (english version here and here) is a very modern, dark endgame. The desperate attempt of a man to put order into his world three days before his death. A polar bear on a melting ice floe.



What makes Wallenstein so modern?


Everything that has to do with hope and utopia is lost. Its like today, the pragmatists are the ones left standing. Wallenstein himself is a man absolutely without scruples, a man who gets his job done. He was a kind of entrepreneur of war. Monarchs hired him to fight their wars with his mercenaries. He was unbelievably rich, a millionaire. Schiller doesn't make him a gambler. Actually for his sake you wish that he could be a gambler and be able to risk everything on a single card, but he can't. He lived well from war and in the end when he wants peace, it’s the end of him.

Studies regularly show that modern managers often make disastrous decisions. But that does them no harm as long as they keep their hands on the reins. Their reputation depends on decisiveness. Any decision is a good decision. In those terms Wallenstein is a dreadful manager. He always wants to wait and see.

He never carries through his plans. He wants to be forced into doing so by the others. Franz Grillparzer said that the decision is the hardest thing in the world not the deed. And Wallenstein never gets round to making the decision. He is homo ludens, an artist playing with ideas and fantasies. And when he loses the freedom to play he loses his life.

You actually wanted to play Wallenstein in Vienna in 2006 with the director Andrea Breth, but she fell ill and had to pull out.

That was a sad journey. Sad because it was never completed. Now with Thomas Langhoff we have started from scratch.

One of the great problems with staging Wallenstein is always how to represent war. Can theatre do war?


It's difficult. But I do know two fantastic war scenes. One is from Peter Sellars' "Ajax by Sophocles", where the general was an angry man imprisoned in a glass cell filled with foaming blood. The second scene is from Peter Brook's "Vietnam Discourse", where an American soldier sets fire to a butterfly with his cigarette lighter.

When Bertolt Brecht asked Karl Valentin how soldiers in war should be represented, Valentin’s reply was: "They’re white, they’re scared".

The first time you show this it’s fantastic. But it’s been done to death.

The effect has a limited shelf life. You just said you are starting with a blank sheet with Thomas Langhoff. But after such a long time in the theatre is it possible to start afresh? Don’t you end up repeating yourself after all? And don’t you feel overpowered by your own virtuosity of 10 and 20 years ago?


I have an ambivalent relationship to the word virtuosity, it is such an elevated word, one I would use for a great violinist, pianist or singer. Acting isn't so difficult that we need to resort to the word virtuosity. What is so virtuoso about it? That the man can remember his words? That he manages to do what the director asks of him? When I see great entertainers and musicians in concert, then I think: these are virtuosos.

Well what is the theatre if not about virtuosity?

In the end it’s always too naturalistic. In the respectable European theatre we are still a long way from the radicalism with which Chinese theatre, for example, creates a reality of its own. The good thing is that there's no risk of standing still: Never in my life have I been so satisfied with my work that I have felt able to say that I couldn't do better. Every evening our art is threatened by a thousand things – by our own lack of concentration, by a general lack of concentration in the company and the audience, by technical things. Under these conditions you are always starting from scratch. Theatre is never finished. It reinvents itself every night. And if it wasn't precisely this that excited me, I would have given up the profession long ago, it would be absolutely boring. The older I become the more I find the courage for acting. Ten years ago I wouldn't have been able to play Lear as I can now.



What's changed?

Life. Encounters, biology, change. The worst thing is if the mind dulls, if you lose your nerve as an actor, if you are satisfied simply to get by stage calmly and heroically.

Your Lear is a snow-white king appalled at what he has come to. What kind of person did you have in mind when you took on the role?

There is a wonderful film by Henri-Georges Clouzot, "The Wages of Fear", where Peter van Eyck plays a man who drives a lorry full of nitro-glycerine. Asked why he has such white hair when he isn't all that old, he replies that he experienced something terrible that turned him grey at a stroke. And as he says it the lorry explodes. That’s how I imagined Lear, with hair turned white by shock.

So it was a film image that inspired you. I'd like to read you a sentence from "Saturday" by Ian McEwan. The hero is facing a punch-up with a stranger, McEwan writes: "A century of movies and half a century of television have rendered the matter insincere." These two strangers know what they have to do, they only have to act it out. My question: How can a theatre actor hold his own against a century of film?

You can put it as negatively as McEwan does, but you can also say: one hundred years of poetry, condensed over a century. For me it’s like this. Film images merge with my life, and something new arises. Films move me if they help me to recognise my own experiences or to identify them at all in the first place.

Would you describe one of your favourite film scenes?

In one of my favourite westerns, "Yellow Sky" by William Wellman, there is a scene I'll never forget. A man has got involved in a shootout, but he has protected his body with sandbags. Nonetheless he gets shot dead because the protecting bags contain not sand but the gold he had been looking for all along. When he gets hit the gold dust pours out of the bag as if it were his own blood. Images like that last a lifetime for me.

Does that scene touch on a primal fear? The gold of life that trickles out of us inexorably?

Probably. Fear is a strong motivation, and that goes for both watching and acting. I most like playing things I'm afraid of. And I like films that don't have a happy end. I always wanted some other power to finish off the story rather than the hero himself.



Your father was a travelling salesman for Zeiss planetariums in Asia. He knew how to get along with Asian business partners. Could it be that his profession had a lasting influence on you? Is trade an aspect of acting?

Certainly it's selling people something. And you lie too, you represent your product in such a way as to give the others the impression that it’s the best thing in the world. But the difference between the salesman and the actor is that the salesman gets direct feedback. I can see if a customer believes me, I notice if he buys my story. But when I'm up there on stage I don't have the faintest idea who is out there in the darkness.

Doesn't the applause tell you that?

Applause isn't a measure any more, people applaud much less discerningly than they used to. Performances are celebrated without the least bit of criticism. It's not connoisseurs sitting there, but people who say: That was a nice evening. I also find that people are always so quick to laugh. In the theatre I almost never experience anything that really makes me laugh.

Are you disappointed by today's theatre?

In so many performances I have the impression that they are evading difficulty. Instead of allowing themselves to be vulnerable, instead of exposing themselves to the risk of an honest emotion, they hide behind irony.

Is this because of the rhythm of today's media, the fear of being zapped by the remote control?


Probably. But to name one example, when Peter Zadek did "Othello" he would never have changed anything about the play. He faced up to the challenges of the piece and did so in such an incomparable way that you suddenly thought, that’s the only way to do Othello. Today I often think they take the play and cherry-pick what interests them. And the rest they smear.

What does that mean?

The way they treat old language. They dim it down, they bark it out. You can still recognise the melody but something's not right. This superficial stuff is just unbearable. That's why there's no confrontation with the audience any more either. The audience accepts it and what’s more, consumes it.

Actually we once set out with the resolve not to become too consumer-friendly. And today the theatre is consumer-friendly, it's all just about having a good time. Recently I saw Nicolas Stemann's "Ulrike Maria Stuart". The audience is showered in liquids by the actors, but not before plastic sheets were handed out for the front rows. In the old days you would have done something like that without preparing people first.

But surely Stemann intended the plastic sheets as an ironic twist?

Maybe. But I still suspect that they really wanted to spare the audience, and keep everyone in a good mood.

George Tabori, one of your favourite directors, died in the summer. He was 93.

He came back to Vienna once this year, to accept a prize. We went together to the places where he had lived and where his theatre Der Kreis stood. We even planned another play together: Lenin and his wife travelling in a sealed railway carriage through Germany. When we met up I was rehearsing Lear at the time, and I told George: "My inner Lear looks just like you do now." It was true too. The longer I worked on the piece the more Lear took on George's face.

Tabori was the quintessence of creativity in old age.

Even at the very last he was still writing a new piece, the last thing he was doing was thinking of the end. For me he is the person who exercised his profession with the greatest humanity. As a director he behaved like a lover. He wanted something but he never ordered it in the commanding tone of a sergeant major.

You once said that Peter Zadek was the most important director for you.


From him I learnt the most, there's no doubt about that.

They say Zadek has his own key for every actor. What was it with you?

In "The Jew of Malta" Zadek said to me after one run through: "What you did on stage today was a disgrace, I had no idea that Mr Voss was capable of that. Please let's have no more of that." The next day he said, “It was wonderful today." To this day I have no idea what was different between the two rehearsals.



It's like the story of the Zen master who torments his pupil for seven years. The student lets it happen, but in the seventh year he can’t bear it any more and is about to strike his teacher a mortal blow from behind. The teacher turns round in a flash, deflects the blow and says: "Now you are ready to start learning."


Zadek might like that story. The worst torment was a Chekhov role, Ivanov. He said to me: "I dont know who Ivanov is either. All I can say is, he's not like you play him." Then after the first night he told me everything had been wonderful. Then when we were invited to the Theatertreffen festival with the piece he told me before the performance, "All the others have made progress, except you." I was so angry with him. Then the performance was a huge success with an unhappy Voss, and that was exactly the emotional state Ivanov had to be in.

How come you hardly ever work with younger directors these days? Are they all scared of you perhaps?


I don't know why it is. Often there are simply scheduling problems. I would work with any of those who turn up at the Burgtheater these days. And nobody should be scared of me. There have been actors of a very different calibre on stage. Many years ago I sneaked into a rehearsal with Bernhard Minetti and Claus Peymann, who were rehearsing Thomas Bernhard's play "Appearances Are Deceiving". Peymann, directing, read out a sentence to Minetti, acting, and Minetti said with his quiet hiss: "Stop it, Claus, you're deflowering my sentences." Now that’s what I call authority.

*

Peter Kümmel is a theatre critic for Die Zeit.

This article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on 13 December, 2007.


Translation: Meredith Dale

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