If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims does not easily lend itself to a stage adaptation: this memoir by a leading gay French intellectual about facing the stigma attached to his working-class background is both a highly intimate autobiographical work and an occasionally dizzyingly theoretical one, in which Eribon uses the example of his own family to try to understand why the traditionally leftwing French working class has turned to the extreme right. Yet German theater director Thomas Ostermeier rose to the challenge, correctly sensing that Eribon’s ideas would be even more timely today than when the book was first published in 2009. Ostermeier’s Schaubühne Berlin production Returning to Reims—which had its American premiere this February at St. Ann’s Warehouse—initially hews close to Eribon’s text by staging a reading: Nina Hoss, known for her starring roles in the films of Christian Petzold and a recurring part on Homeland, plays Katy, an actress at a sound studio, recording the voiceover for a film based on the memoir. She reads from Michael Lucey’s beautiful English translation of Eribon’s first-person narrative, while footage of the author in his hometown, filmed by Ostermeier and Sébastien Dupouey, is projected on a screen above her. The session is interrupted when Katy and the film’s fictional director, Paul (played by Bush Moukarzel), have a surprisingly compelling and relatively lucid showdown over Louis Althusser and Pierre Bourdieu’s conflicting ideas of an evil will guiding the world.
The real tour de force comes in the second recording session, where Ostermeier finds a way of furthering the book’s ideas—and perhaps even offering a glimmer of hope—through Nina Hoss’s story of her own father, Willi Hoss, a former Communist, trade unionist, and founder of the German Green Party. I had the pleasure of discussing this thrilling production with Ms. Hoss on the occasion of its Brooklyn run.
Nicholas ElliottWhat drew you to Didier Eribon’s book?
Nina HossThomas Ostermeier, I must say. We were in talks about doing a project while I was shooting Homeland in the US, a year ago. I was here between the moment Trump became the candidate and when he was elected. I participated in the march the day after his inauguration. It was an incredible time for me to be in New York and witness this. I was continuously thinking about what was going on at the time in France, in the Netherlands, in Hungary—this move toward the right. This kind of outcry from the working class.
What happened? What is this break all of a sudden? But then I thought, Hang on, I know them, that’s how I grew up. I got detached from it, though. And why did that happen?
So, I was talking about that with Thomas, and he had just read Returning to Reims. He wanted to do something with the book but wasn’t thinking about working with me on it. At the time, we were about to do Jean Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine. I said: “Oh my God, Thomas, I can’t think of working for three months of my life now on a play about getting a lover back with all the means a woman has. I’m really not interested right now.” And he said, “Why don’t you read this book?” So I did and found everything that was chaotic in my mind beautifully laid out in front of me, and written on such a personal level. It’s a gift that Eribon shares this with us, because it’s a vulnerable position. I felt very touched by his book, and even though I can’t say that I’ve experienced the same things, I know exactly where he’s coming from.
I started talking to Thomas about my father and how I grew up—in fact, it’s not only my father. My mother also comes from a working-class background, and later became an actress and the head of two theaters, but both of them were always politically active. So I had these two parents who were so engaged politically, and I always thought I was too—until I realized, Hang on, everything we think is a given, and which our parents’ generation fought for and no intelligent person would want to vanish, is in danger all of a sudden. I clearly felt that. That’s why Thomas and I, for similar and different reasons, thought, Let’s just try and see what we can do with this material. It was an experiment; neither Thomas nor I have ever done a project like this. It was something we just had to deal with and see what came out of it.
NE Beyond the working-class background you share with Eribon, there’s the importance of your respective fathers. In Eribon’s case, the father is a tremendously problematic figure and more an absence than a presence, but nonetheless he haunts the book. In the play, you bring your father in, and there’s this extraordinary moment when you talk about your father breaking with his union because the union didn’t represent the guest workers [the immigrant workers in Germany] and no one seemed to care about that. The question that came to me was, Why did your father have this basic, decent, human instinct, while so many others didn’t and don’t, including, apparently, Eribon’s father? It’s a huge question; it’s everything that Eribon is trying to understand, but it’s so magnificently addressed in the play that I have to throw it at you. Why was your father ready to do the right thing while so many others weren’t?
NH It’s great that you get that, because I sometimes wonder if people understand why I tell the story of my father. I can’t do it in as much detail here as in Germany; I would have to explain so much around it. But I hope the essence is there, and people don’t just think I’m telling a story about my father.
Your question actually points to one of the main things. In hindsight, I think that some people are just special, and even though this is my father and it’s a bit awkward to say this, I think he was one of them. That’s why he could work with other people so well and make them enthusiastic about causes. Because he had a different approach. He truly believed—and he kind of passed this on to me, though he didn’t put it on me, he never put anything on anyone, he just laid it out there—that you have options and that it’s your choice what path you want to take. And if you do something, it’s your choice whether or not to consider the other person in doing it. For my father, the question was clear: Why aren’t these guest workers represented? They work under the worst circumstances, why shouldn’t they be represented? It was natural for him to do something about it.
And then, when you have momentum, you find so many people who just need a little [snaps her fingers]: yes, how can we gather, how can we be strong together, how can we fight for certain rights or fight for… what is happening here. I have the feeling that more and more people here in the US are thinking, We have to raise our voice now because otherwise it’s going to be too late. Sometimes you just need people who dare to start the process.
I know that my father was often frustrated with his colleagues, and that’s what I totally get in Eribon, when he talks about the “entity of the working class.” We all know we should create a world in which everyone can live a worthy life in dignity, but to actually get people away from being seduced by the consumer world is very hard to do, and understandably so. It’s not simple, but nothing is simple. I have the feeling, and this is what Eribon so beautifully describes, that though we might still say, “What can we do for them? Let’s help them with some money,” that deeper kind of thinking, and taking people seriously in their needs, has vanished. Especially on the left. Like Eribon says, they stopped talking about the oppressed and the fact that there is exploitation in our Western civilization. Of course, there is! I only have to step outside here in Brooklyn and I’ll see it immediately.
I read J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and other books like that to get a better understanding of what’s going on in America, but I don’t only have those people in mind. I have the black community in mind, everyone who’s suffering under a systemic problem and who isn’t addressed. You would expect, when the left is in power, that they would at least try their best to deal with this. That’s my frustration, that’s Eribon’s frustration, that’s Thomas’s frustration. We don’t have any answers, but we can at least start a conversation, like so many other people are doing right now. I’ve met incredible people with this play. There’s so much going on that it nearly puts me at ease.
NE The actress you play in Returning to Reims is doing a voiceover for a film. One might easily imagine that the actress comes in, does her voiceover, gets a paycheck, and that’s it. But as you play her, the actress is far more involved: eventually you get in an argument with the director and have a real influence on the film he’s making. Even while reading the text, you are visibly responding to the film on the monitors next to you and on the screen above. Your critical faculties are fully engaged. How aware are you of your performance serving as a counterexample to complacency?
NH I guess I took that from myself. I never do a job just for a paycheck—it’s actually the last thing I’m interested in. Often I have to remind myself that this is my livelihood. I need to be engaged. I sometimes do experiments where I don’t quite understand the project or I’ll give myself over to a vision. And then I realize, Oh, this isn’t so nice, but all right, that’s also the life of an actor. Returning to Reims is all about that. It’s surely not me on stage, but it had to be a character who is interested in what she’s doing and who knows the film director. You can only do that kind of arguing in the play with a friend. My character, Katy, and Paul, the director character, know each other, and in my storyline I appreciate what he’s trying to do, that he tackles such a topic, and tries to bring Eribon’s book to life. So, Katy needs to be very engaged because otherwise we can’t get into a discussion at all.
It’s important, also, that the character is already thinking, What am I doing? What did my father do? Seeing the film images evokes everything that Katy talks about later. The footage of the Prague Spring—I have a connection to that, I know what happened afterward with my dad. I know what happened to the Communist Party, I know what happened in Germany, the frustration for a lot of people when the Wall came down—not frustration but sadness that the experiment didn’t work. Although everyone knew, no one was naïve, yet there was a certain disappointment that this system didn’t work. And then this lack of utopia in the world. I think this is what Eribon is talking about: we need new theories. He leaves us a little bit hanging in the air, and why shouldn’t he, he’s not the one who has to give us the message or new ideas. He’s just saying that’s what everyone has to work on. We can’t just pretend to continue. That’s also what the film within the play eventually expresses, even though my character criticizes the end. Of course this would be the next story to tell. We just scratch the surface of that, but what happens to the working class when there is no work for them? And then you can continue: Why is there an opiates crisis? You could even go into a conspiracy theory. What do you do with people who can’t find work? So, we need new ideas, otherwise we’re going in the wrong direction.
I’ve never been part of a play where people seem so engaged. Many tell me about their family story or what they’re trying to do right now. It’s very touching to experience that as the outcome of our experiment.
NE How did you develop the experiment in practical terms? How did you figure out that you would tell your own story?
NH It was really like in the play. Thomas always thought I came from a bourgeois background. And he was like: “Oh my God. I never knew that about you! Can we somehow incorporate this?” And like in the play, I said, “I don’t know how, but yeah, let’s try it.” Initially, the voiceover was on the telephone. Because we had been working together on Cocteau, we first thought that the director and the actress should have a love relationship, but then we figured out that was all overloaded. We went in other directions and we also improvised to find a set-up that felt right to us. We had long talks, always recording our conversations and then, when Bush Moukarzel came in as Paul, he took on the conversations that Thomas and I had, but also added to them. Same with the actor Ali Gadema. It was never foreseen that someone would rap in this play. That happened because Ali [who is also a poet, rapper, and street performer] was in Manchester showing Thomas around for the film. Thomas wanted some working-class faces from Manchester and when he came back he said we needed Ali in the play [he plays the sound engineer]. I thought that was great, because the characters of the director and the actress talk about class, but with Ali there’s a guy where you don’t have to talk about it much. You just see the differences. And you can take from that whatever you want, there’s no lecturing.
I don’t like theater that lectures at anyone. There are many aspects in this play that just came together, that were not planned, which I really enjoy. Every night is different, because we have a lot of freedom. On opening night, for example, someone came in late and walked right past the stage. I dealt with it, and the audience felt my response—that’s not always possible, because in some plays, it would destroy the magic theater can have. But with this play, if Bush or Ali, for example, are in a different mood than the day before, I can handle it, and vice versa. You can say things that come into your mind. It’s very fluid work. It’s also an experiment for me in that sense.
NE It seems to me that everything transforms between the first and second recording session of the play. In the first part, we know your character is a woman called Katy, but in the second part, you tell a story that anyone who has looked at your Wikipedia page will know is your own. The director goes from being, in my view, a pretty oafish mansplainer to being the one who opens the way for you, who asks the questions and listens. Even the movie—and this is a personal response—in the first part, it opened Eribon’s book up for me, but if I were to see it with your voiceover in a movie theater, I would find it to be a bad movie. But in the second half, I think it becomes a good movie. Are these transformations intentional? Do they serve to remind us that change is possible, that, as your father put it, we have options?
NH I understand what you mean, but these are the things that come from an outside look. I really don’t know. All I know is that our only communication about how to read Eribon’s text was that it should be as internal and as much of a thinking process as possible. To not interpret too much. Just trying to honor his path, to figure out where he’s going, what he experienced, and how that brings him to the political analysis. Then it makes a lot of sense that in the second part, he and I are one, let’s say. Because I’m a hundred percent with him in that thought process. And then it doesn’t matter who’s talking, I feel, whether it’s a woman, a man, young, old, whatever. It’s the state of our world right now and we’re all trying to grasp what went wrong and what the solutions could be.
NE It’s so interesting to hear you say, “He and I are one.” It’s true, but a big part of the spectator’s experience in the first part is to hear you, a woman, say words like “my transformation as a young gay man.” And we see Eribon himself on the screen above you. That creates a distance, but in an odd way that I can’t quite explain, the distance brings me closer.
NH It’s interesting because I should feel the same, but I never for one second, not even in the very beginning, had a moment when I thought, “But I’m a woman, why should I read this? it’s so bizarre.” I think it doesn’t matter.
NE I think you’re right.
NH I understand what he’s talking about even though I haven’t experienced it in his way. As an actress, I haven’t experienced a lot of the things I pretend to have experienced, because that’s my job. So I’m like, Why shouldn’t I understand Didier Eribon’s story and his emotions going through his past again? But I think you’re right about a certain distance that it creates. And I would agree: it can bring you closer. Because our experiences are not identical, you can kind of weave them together, or weave between them. And then it’s not just one gay man’s story, it opens it up for everyone.
NE I think you’re touching on the play’s essential generosity. But especially in the American context, we are increasingly in the habit of determining who is allowed to say what and who can speak for whom. And here, in this play, we have such a stripped-down, clear example of people being able to hear and understand each other across quite a few different categories. That’s tremendously powerful. It’s significant that you’re relating to each other through class: what working-class people do with their time and their lives. It pushes aside these questions about who may be allowed to represent whom. That’s not where most of the conversations are today.
NH No, that’s true. On the contrary, we shut down conversations a lot of the time. I find that very scary. And you put people in groups and then these groups fight one another or they seek revenge. We need to let some air in and talk to each other again. I truly believe that deep down we do understand each other. Because, in a way, we go through the same things—hardship, joy, tough life, luck, whatever. I feel this longing to acknowledge that we do understand each other. And maybe this is what this group of people making this evening of theater is looking for. We don’t want to harden a conversation, we want to open it. I’m just saying this now as I’m thinking about it in our conversation. Maybe we weren’t even really aware that this is what’s happening, but it’s beautiful if you can take that from the play.
NE And now, talking to you, I think that the ultimate example of people understanding each other is your father saying, “I’m not going to be in the union because the union is not representing the guest workers.”
NH Well, he would have stayed, but the union threw him out. He was twice kicked out by the people who he thought were his gang—the Communist Party and the union. They threw him out the moment he created this new group. The idea was that they all stay in the union and eventually get the others in, but the union hardened the conversation: “You’re not part of us.” Because the guest workers weren’t really necessary. That’s the hard truth of it all. It doesn’t matter what happens to them.
NE Which is not how Communists and unions should think.
NH Exactly. And that’s where Eribon goes, Man, something went wrong here, and we have to name it. I guess that’s what I took from my father: Always look at yourself, continuously. Be able to admit, Ooph, I went the wrong way, I have to adjust and go this way. There’s nothing bad about that. It’s better than trying to harden up and go a certain way because you once decided you’d do that. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “It’s the wrong thing, let’s go the better way.”
NE What do you think about when you’re on stage?
NH I don’t know… With the reading, for example, it’s a little bit like meditation. Because I know the text so well now, my brain wants to wander away. I just have to make sure that I have a new experience with this play every time. And since it’s so open, as I was saying earlier, I can’t allow myself to think of anything other than what I’m doing right then. That’s the joy of that performance for me—I forget what I’ve said the previous night. Otherwise I couldn’t be aware what the other characters’ moods are, or react if they say things differently. If I’m not there in this moment, I can’t experience it and it would get boring. It’s only alive if we’re right there and really trying to figure something out—even though we know it’s scripted.
I still don’t have the answer to Althusser and the notion of inherent evil. Sometimes I think, Oh Katy, of course, there’s no evil will. But on other days, after reading the newspapers, I tell myself, Let me at least think about it. It’s possible that there’s an evil will behind it all.
This conversation is alive and it depends on who you’re having it with. Sometimes you side with Katy’s opinion, and sometimes Paul’s. Bourdieu says the result is the same no matter what and that, for me, is clear. There is definitely an exclusion of certain groups of the population and they are growing. Looking at what Trump does every day, what kind of decisions he makes, it’s dangerous. How can this be turned around? Who is behind this? And why? It’s clearly the large corporations. Maybe that fact was less obvious a few decades ago, but now it’s right in our faces. That’s scary. It is necessary for us to see this.
NE Now we know.
NH Now we know. We did know before, but we didn’t want to see it. Now we can’t pretend it’s not there. And that’s why this piece is very much alive.
Returning to Reims runs through February 25, 2018, at St. Ann’s Warehouse.
The Select Equity Group Series on Theater
Nicholas Elliott is the New York correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma and a contributing editor for film for BOMB. His writing on film has also appeared in 4 Columns, Film Comment, The Criterion Collection, and anthologies about the films of Chantal Akerman and Philippe Garrel. His translation of William Marx’s The Hatred of Literature was recently published by Harvard University Press.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.