Sunday 22 November 2015

Interview: Sibylle Berg

 [written for Exeunt]

Ok, so...

Historically I haven’t really done a lot of interviews. Part of the reason is that they’re extremely time-consuming. An hour of conversation can cover ten pages of Word no problem. Typing it up takes *hours*. And then there’s the fact that the accepted convention for feature interviews in mainstream media is highly editorialised. All the power lies with the “interviewer”, because they go away with the tape of the conversation and then create a narrative around it: the writer gets to describe their subject, to refer to other pieces of information about their subject taken from the internet that were never mentioned in the room, and so on and so on... Viewed charitably, this is just to make the piece easily digestible, and to add a sense of what it was like to actually talk to the person. So often, though, it resorts to clichés about actresses wafting into rooms and everyone turning to stare at their perfect skin and blah, blah, bullshit blah. The general format for any mainstream media interview is, I think, predicated on those weird merry-go-round interviews that film stars do 20 of in a day in a hotel suite. Stretching out 15 minutes of bland, repetitive material over 1,000-2,000 words. Theatre people seem happy to offer more time, and are maybe prepared to say more, or more that they are prepared to put out there in the public sphere. (The extent to which even very successful actors self-censor is both fascinating and scary.)

My project when doing interviews has been, wherever possible, to be as honest about the process and to the conversation that took place as space and likely interest will allow. Very few people actually speak in perfect grammatical sentences. Most people have a “like” or a “y’know” or an “I think” that they use to slow down words and give themselves time to think. It doesn’t make people stupid to leave these in, it makes them sound human.

At the same time, the dynamic of the interview is really weird. On one hand, as often as not, you meet a perfect stranger and ask them intrusive questions. You’re like a drunk bloke on a bus trying to start a conversation. You’re an annoying barber asking about the weekend. On the other hand, they know you’re coming, and will have been interviewed a hundred times before.

All of which is preamble to excusing the amount I’ve got to interpolate and explain this forthcoming piece. Sibylle Berg is a German novelist, playwright and newspaper columnist, little known in Britain, but directed by Sebastian Nübling at the Gorki in Berlin (which gives you some idea of the disparity). Her English is excellent, but non-native, and I’ve left that, as I think it reads more honestly. What you really have to understand, though, is that she’s mostly joking.

So, do you want to talk about this play?

[beat] No?

Ok. You started as a novelist...

A hundred years ago...

And then also started writing plays...

I think the first book – maybe it’s boring – the first book came out in ‘95, I think? Until now I have sixteen or seventeen novels. Twelve years ago – because unfortunately I can’t make a living just from the books – I think, ‘What else can I do?’ I love theatre, but I get bored most of the time in theatres; so I think, ‘I have to try and do it better...’ So that is why I started [writing plays].

Did you have any literary inspirations in the theatre?

Yes! Not from the words side, but I don’t know if you know Alain Platel? This was my theatre awakening. For ten years [I saw] all this German classic theatre bullshit... Die Rauber... / Bleugh...

/Poor old Schiller...

/And then I saw this Platel and think I go mad, and I thought, ‘Aha! This is how theatre can be!’ The same time, the same year as this, I saw Improbable’s Shockheaded Peter, and these two pieces gave me hope. I thought, ‘Ok, you can do something wild in the theatre.’ So I started with a really wild thing. Helges Leben [2001]. I think it’s translated into English, but the translation is bullshit.

[some discussion of the play and translation]

Well, you can hear my English is okay, but I can’t really say if something is a good translation. For example, Nils, my theatre agent, he is also a translator, and I think it’s hard to catch the humour...

[some talk about cultural difference]

So that is why I don’t have success in the UK!

Well, Elfriede Jelinek has no success here...

She doesn’t? [pauses to think] But then she’s not funny...


Well, no, she is funny...

I had also a bad experience here with a book. It was a bestseller in the German speaking world and the Queer scene love it. It’s about a hermaphrodite... And then I had an agent here and he just gets all the publishers saying no. I think maybe – really – it’s because you have your own people here.

We are bad at selling/buying “foreign” authors.

[Agent: talks about difficulty of selling work by foreign playwrights to English theatres]

I think that’s not so... I mean, the Brits have quite brilliant writers. So maybe they don’t need others. I don’t know.

[Agent: but the Germans have brilliant writers and the French have brilliant writers and the Argentians have brilliant writers, but they still bring others...]

But the German [writers] are boring.

A lot of our writers are boring, too...

I don’t know any Argentinian writers. The French they have Houellebecq, but who else a little bit funny, a little bit modern? In Germany it’s the same, what do you have there? I mean, Elfriede’s quite funny in the theatre, but the books... oof.

They are quite heavy.

And then you have all this German [thing of]: “My grandfather was in the Waffen SS...” I mean, really boring shit...

Maybe that’s another thing that happens in Britain. That we perhaps have pre-prepared narratives for German writers. If you write about how it was very sad in the DDR, great start; if you write about the terrible things the Nazis did, we’ve got all the time in the world for German books about that. Normal life in modern Germany? I don’t think many British people see that it’s relevant.

Although maybe now people are more interested in the/a perspective from the New Europe. I mean, you’re Swiss now, aren’t you?

I’m a good Jewish Swiss now, ja.

You were granted Swiss citizenship in 2012. Does that affect things? The perspective from which you write?

No. It only makes me happy not to be in Germany. I haven’t made it to LA, so I sit there...

Is that serious, or er...

It’s serious, ja.

You want to go to L.A.?

Yes, but I need a fucking bestseller for this.

That’s interesting. You want to write novels for the Americans?

America is completely another story. A friend of mine is in Rammstein – I don’t know if you know them [I do] – and they tried for ten years to go to America. Now they’ve made it in America, but it takes them ten years. Oof. That is hard, and I’m too old for this bullshit. I must stay in fucking Switzerland.

Switzerland’s very...

Cute. [spits word]

It’s very clean.


And the trains run on time...

Yes, ok. But they piss me off a little bit now. They are all over the right-wing, they’ve gone a little bit more right wing now. And you think WHY? You have no problems here. You have money. What reason is there to vote right-wing?

You feel that, even in Switzerland (which is outside the EU)? That Europe is becoming more right-wing?

Sure. The whole society is becoming more right-wing and angst[y]. And you think, What? You all have to die. What’s this angst? They’re all loaded with money and they have this angst. This is so all over Europe. The Germans go completely nuts. Angst! ANGST!

You’re writing about young people, now.

This was not actually my idea. Nübling, the director, suggested we should work together... I don’t know if you know the German theatre scene: we have Pollesch, he is funny, and then from the directing side we have Nübling and he works mostly with youngsters and he’s really oof! Anyway, he has the idea to do something with young women, and I say, ‘Ok, let’s do something with young women.’ So before I write this play I meet a couple of young girls – the actresses [in the Gorki production] – and talked with them, and I realised that they are the same like in my time. Nothing has changed. Ok they have iPhones now. Big deal. But all their problems are the same. They are young and they think the know everything better. But they do all this body torture bullshit. For women especially; this ‘how you have to look’ – the way you are comparing yourself with some Kardashians and bullshit – this is a little bit heavier than in my time.

Did living in the DDR have no impact? Being a young woman in East Germany then is essentially the same as being a young woman in United Germany now?

No. Well. There are differences. Ok. First difference is that I never see myself as a “young woman”. That was not really a thing. There was complete equality. There was nothing where I think, ‘Oh, I can’t be a cosmonaut’ or whatever. More, in the other direction, as a woman you felt a little bit stronger, because most of the men you saw in the daily life were alcoholics. [laughs] It was actually the women who ruled everything in the East. Another difference, but I’m not sure it’s to do with the East, is all this what you have today, this: “I have ADHD,” or... They all have sicknesses today.


You are aspergers or you are this and... If you are complicated you are complicated and if you are sad you are sad. You’re not depressive. This bullshit didn’t exist...

[I don’t agree with this, for the record. Something else I realise during this interview, is that it’s not really my job to change an interviewee’s mind. Also, that I’m not wholly convinced, had we been speaking in German, the above would have come out the way it does in English here, but maybe it’s a generational thing. Perhaps erasing it from the transcript would be better? I don’t know.]

But it’s nothing to do with being a young woman. Also the system was very hopeless. I grow up and I thought, I have to stay here for the rest of my life? It’s fucking boring.

It’s interesting because in the West we had this story about what living in the East was like sold to us over and over, about the terrible fear you all lived in...

No. It is bullshit. They get drunk like all over, the fuck like all over. We listen to the same music, in a way... It was only a little bit more... Fuck! There’s the wall and you are here.

So you prefer united Europe?

I think it’s going to the dogs. I think this European idea was complete bullshit. I don’t know if my English is good enough to answer. But you know it for yourself. This capitalism... The same [currency] and we do it only to sell our products to all over without borders. It’s bullshit. I think the Europeans before, they felt like Europeans, you don’t need all this bullshit and all these laws from Bruxelles, I think it can’t work. And now you see with all this refugee bullshit how it goes kaput.


But I’m really too stupid to understand all the details. Every day now I think ‘I don’t know enough’ about this refugee situation. I don’t know who in Syria? What? Where? Who’s really behind all this bullshit. Every day I feel a little bit more stupid. But I think I share this feeling with everyone.

I don’t know how it is here, but it feels like there is a “they”. But who are “they”? “They” keep the humans busy with hating each other... It’s a little bit like Nazi times, they make them hate the foreigners, and hate the homosexuals, but the real people to hate are there sitting in Nestlé or...

So, I give up. I’m too stupid. What I do is stupid.


Yeah. A little bit. I have the feeling it’s not really important. Stupid little plays. You know?

[Agent: connects the above to both the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the feeling of information overload also present in And Now: The World!]

I am on my computer, online 24 hours. I don’t know why, but I get bored if I’m not connected. They make us... They? “THEY” make us addicted to this bullshit!

What sort of things are you watching/reading

Actually all day I have the TV on. I have seven TVs.


Yes really! They cost nothing any more, so... I have two flats and in every room I have them on, so they talk, and I have the computers. So, I am a little bit...

And you write with all that going on in the background?

Absolutely. I don’t listen to music I just... You have all this information now, but your life didn’t change. I don’t know, maybe your life changed. But really we just live our normal life still, but we feel some pressure, some new electricity, but where’s the problem actually? And you have to work more. This I realised. I thought as I get older in the German speaking area I’m quite comfortable, but the generation above – Elfriede, Haneke – they live quite well now. I live *good* but I thought I could work less when I get older. But I work three times more and have the same money. So this is maybe... Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis.

Although moving to Switzerland... I mean, it’s expensive there...

Yeah. This was bullshit actually. I could live in Ukraine in a palace. How is the life here?

I think it’s got much worse for people recently. It’s a catastrophe.

Yes. I should move to Poland. Poland has a nice government now...


I’m not sure I’m going to be able to make that joke work on paper. Right-wing playwright Sibylle Berg said...

This could be my success. This could be my way to Benedict Cumberbatch...

Speaking of Benedict Cumberbatch, have you seen any theatre since you’ve been in London?

I look in the internet to watch Benedict Cumberbatch in the theatre, and I was like ‘What the hell are they doing here? It’s like theatre in Germany fifty years ago. There was a table, and some old fucker. He plays Churchill. I think he plays Churchill [pause] But they speak nicely. But who the fuck would watch these kind of plays?

Oh, everybody. Everybody does.

But now he plays some Shakespeare bullshit? And they transmit it all over the world in cinemas? That is fame! This is what I want.

That’s true. Yes. If you get Benedict Cumberbatch in one of your plays...

And this little girl from Game of Thrones. I want her. The little one with the sword. I want her and Benedict.

[cackles] You should write it! Obviously it’ll have to be done in the Gorki Theater and directed by Sebastian Nübling first...

No. I have this nice play, you must read it. It’s a monologue for a man. An angry man. I don’t know if you have them, but in Germany you have all this Pergida, and it’s this middle-class, middle-aged men and they are so ANGRY, and you ask why they are so ANGRY, so I wrote this. It’s a fucking good play. Really. That’s for Benedict, I think.

I’m not sure how I’m going to make this joke fly in a written interview.

I’m not so serious.

It’s my big problem in Germany. They don’t know really where to put me.

That must be true.

They go mad. Most of these men... Middle-aged men hate me. Really, Hass, Hass. I don’t know why, I’m cute. And in the theatre before the Nübling – I start now for the first time to direct by myself – I don’t know, it was a disappointment. But, er, they don’t know what to do with me. They seem that the German humour is something, I don’t know, so they put the jokes, they put some funny hats and found it funny. Or the take the set apart... I don’t know.

But that is diffcult isn’t it? Because the whole German *thing* could be characterised as being very serious/ and straight-forward.

/Fucking serious.

/And it hadn’t struck me about you, but maybe saying something and not meaning it, in that context...

I don’t know. Maybe it’s the Jewish thing, or maybe it’s the... I don’t know. But I realised from the beginning that they take everything so seriously and half of my stuff is jokes. They hate me for this. I don’t know about over here, but now in Germany they are all making political theatre.

The second part of this play [this play = And now: The World! Second part = Und dann kam Mirna] – I think the idea is me and Nübling, we do it now until we die, until the end of our lives, we make every play with these four girls – the second part of this play is fucking funny. (In Germany it’s four girls playing the protagonist.) And in this one they have a ten-year-old. Really funny. In the Gorki again. And the first review I read was all, “Ja, it is nice, but aren’t there more important subjects at the moment?”


This is the 900th piece on Postcards From The Gods. Christ.

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