Interview with actress Iris Berben


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 4 2016)

The courage to speak out and to not simply gloss over potential grievances. It has always been important for actress Iris Berben to stand by her opinions. She has always remained true to herself – both in her personal life and in her career. She vehemently defends and loves those things she believes in, whether people or projects. We had the privilege of meeting her for an interview in Berlin and took the opportunity to poke around in her life a little.

Ms Berben, when and how did you discover that you wanted to act?

I think it was a process that took place over very many years. It was not at all one of those typical considerations such as ‘I want to be an actress’. Actually, I was planning to study law, something I was initially resolutely determined to do. I developed a very strong sense of justice at an early age, something that my mother mentioned on a regular basis. I wanted to be the voice of the voiceless and an ear for those people unable to understand or comprehend certain things. So, acting was initially not even on my radar. This more or less came about when I was asked to leave my final boarding school because I – or rather they – had failed to integrate me into a community or make me ‘conform’, as the expression was back then. I was a difficult child. A child that needed to be occupied and challenged. My schooling was very much like this. I then emerged in the era of the 1968 revolutionary period in Germany, the student movement of the time and the Hamburg Art Academy – the Lerchenfeld art scene. Basically, this was where all the demonstrations were planned and prepared. So, I immersed myself into this fascinating world of resistance, self-responsibility and questioning the status quo, and took part in all the demonstrations. I listened to what was being said, and it was this that sharpened my instincts which – to this very day – have always guided me in the right direction. At the Hamburg Art Academy, I created my first cinematic works in collaboration with two young colleagues. We were influenced by Andy Warhol, which is why we tried to create similar projects. These were in turn seen by the former king of critics Uwe Nettelbeck who was – among other things – working for ‘Die Zeit’ newspaper and was also somebody way ahead of his time with regards to film. He looked at various things I’d done and was aware that there was an opening for somebody like me in Munich at the time. So, I set off for Munich, introduced myself and shortly after found myself featuring in my first movies by Rudolf Thome. However, many years passed before I realised that this was precisely what I wanted to actually do.

How did you acquire most of the skills required in your profession? 

I am like a ‘magpie’ – basically a thief. I steal everything that my co-actors are good at. I love watching others on set whenever I’m not filming. I love observing them, seeing how they work their magic and I also love talking to them about it – about how they approach things and what they feel insecure about. I believe that empathy is my greatest potential. I have never distanced myself from people, because if you want to interact with people – with all their distinct character traits and all their considerations – then you get to be up close and personal with them. This is the only way to experience their diversity and, sometimes, their simplicity. 

How do you prepare for acting roles? How do you prepare to slip into the most varied characters? 

I am currently in the process of preparing for my final film of the year. For me, this is really exciting – although I should actually be very comfortable with this by now. In terms of content, I am an older actress who has been performing for many years now and has experienced what losing recognition is all about, among other things. An actress who, with a fair amount of irony, is trying to get to grips with becoming older, with a sense of I-am-no-longer-needed, finding a niche in which she can one last time throw a more or less relevant shadow. To be able to portray this kind of character in an authentic manner, you often have to look deep inside yourself. You listen to your inner voice, but you do need an excellent text or very well-written scripts, because the words explain a lot. However, the most important thing is, and remains, the fact that you have to identify with a character: how much do I know about her, how much more do I want to know and where do I get the energy and creativity to portray her from? Because, if you don’t know what you are portraying, then you will be unable to reflect the text to the best of your abilities. The rest is simply learning your lines off by heart and structuring your performance. 

Despite all the great roles that you have been casted in over the many years of your career, your profession still has a lot to do with authenticity. 

Yes, this is something you have to constantly look out for. Staying authentic is good, particularly because this profession can be very seductive and you can easily lose your way as a result of success or failure. Today, I know that the benchmark I have set myself is mine – and not one that others have set for me. But it is also the passion and the craft that you have to learn along the way. This all requires a huge amount of discipline, because acting is always something that also only works when you are part of a team. You are never the standalone act – I believe that every star, if there is such a thing, is actually only a star because he or she has had the support of many other people. 

What characters do you prefer to play and why? 

I can’t answer that really, because all roles have something powerful about them. However, I always find those characters that are most different to me in real life hugely interesting. Those characters that function completely differently
to me – with all their diverse peculiarities. But I also love playing historical figures – such as Bertha Krupp, for instance. To focus on these people, to see the constraints surrounding these people at the time, why they were the way they were and why they were unable to free themselves from these constrictions. Basically, I am constantly fascinated by roles that require me to work hard. 

What character have you identified most with to date?

I was in a film about the Red Army Faction student protest movement. This is the era in which I came of age. Today, this is very frequently reflexively associated with terrorism. But our current democracy is, to a great extent, the result of what the 1968 student movement initiated back then. It was a mother-and-daughter film about this era with the wonderful Katharina Schüttler, called ‘Es kommt der Tag’ (The Day will Come), which focuses on the inner turmoil of a woman who went underground at the time and gave up her child to do so. 30 years later, the child wants to know why her mother abandoned her. I have to say, this was a role that was hugely rewarding, because it forced me to personally take another look at the period, particularly at the prejudices of the various political forces at the time. This was the kind of work that makes me think that it is truly wonderful that a film is able to achieve something important, that a film raises certain questions – for you as an actor but also for the

When do you think a film has real substance? 

Having substance can also mean being entertaining. By the way, comedy in the sense of the genre in the English-speaking world is highly regarded. The greatest stars of the silver screen appeared in comedies. Here in the German-speaking world, this is still viewed as something of a ‘side dish’, because it is considered ‘light’ entertainment. But comedy is the most difficult genre of all, something that we should regard as the top of the class. I know this because of the ‘Sketchup’ series which I was involved in for three years. There is a very banal saying: “It is much easier to make people cry than it is to make them laugh.” And that is so true. Comedy also has a lot to do with timing, with understanding certain things. Therefore, films have substance for me if they ultimately have sufficient content to be entertaining. 

Outside of your work, how important are books to you? 

Books have always been really, really important to people. And they are also hugely influential in my life as well. They provide us with access to other characters and scenarios and hence to other worlds. I am very indebted to my mother for this passion of mine. Books were her lifeblood. I had a wonderful discussion on books with Schimon Peres who has sadly passed away. He too had been shaped by books, books he had been given by his grandfather. Whenever Schimon was in Germany, he called me – and I called him when I was in Israel. When you meet people who treasure books, this is always a wonderful springboard for conversation. Unlike electronic books, those made of paper simply have a completely different quality. I am a very tactile person – for me, touching the paper is also something truly sensual. And we must never forget: paper is omnipresent in our lives. I can’t imagine living without it. For this reason, I love having books and I am more than willing to pay for excess baggage when I fly. I also provide the voice for many, many audio-books and am also involved in public readings. Listening to a text allows you to create your own images in your head – giving your imagination more space to develop. I believe that this is so important and worthwhile, especially for children. Nevertheless, I truly hope that parents continue reading to their children, as this allows them to delve into the world of books and the written word more intensively.

When did you last pick up pen and paper and give your thoughts free rein?

Yesterday, actually – because it’s something I often do. I’m somebody who loves writing letters and similar things. I am somebody who has countless notebooks for whenever I want to write something down. I try so much harder when I write by hand than when I tap away at the computer keyboard. I feel like you automatically use different words with a computer than you would with a pen. Which is why my home is full of bottles of ink, fountain pens and lots of pencils and ballpoint pens. 

What do you find so magical and charming about the written word? What hidden strength do you find in words?

With the written word, you very often have to first think about a sentence. I often find myself flicking back through the pages of a book to take a second look at certain passages, so that I can understand the context – and that is something that I find truly exhilarating. Furthermore, I believe that words have an endless strength and power, both in the positive and the negative sense. Words can help us, but they can also destroy and create despair. I find language so incredibly exciting and I believe you have to treat language with the commensurate care and respect.

Do you have any favourite writers?

There is not any single writer that I love in particular. I’m constantly fascinated by the most diverse authors and would hate to focus on just one. I am forever discovering new things. Diversity is important to me.

Your profession allows you to constantly draw attention to political issues. You are very engaged in fighting marginalisation, xenophobia and anti-Semitism in your private life. How important is it to have a clear opinion and to stand by your beliefs?

Like I said at the beginning of this interview: having your own opinion is part of life. The political situation of the 1968 movement once again gave me a special sense of responsibility. To this end, I think that we should all take a close look at the past and our own history. I believe this forms an important basis for ensuring we create a sound present and future for us all. For this reason, I very pragmatically use my popularity to ensure we remain a democratic country. 

What special role does Israel play for you within this context?

I received my history lessons in Israel as an 18-year-old girl – not at my school in Germany. Because there was no talk about National Socialism, the Nazis and World War II in the 1950s and 1960s – nobody dared utter a word about them. They simply weren’t part of our history lessons. Our immediate past was simply brushed under the carpet. This is precisely why Israel is important to me, because it was there that a window to my history was opened. From then on, I regularly visited – and continue to do so – this wonderful place and I have a huge number of friends there.

How do you define freedom?

I believe that freedom starts in our heads. Choosing freedom and being able to explicitly decide certain things – that is so incredibly liberating. And I’m not talking about political elections and generic politics. Being able to choose what you want to do, who you want to be and where and with whom you wish to be, those are the greatest freedoms of all. Creating honest independence for yourself is a lot about saying: “This is me, this is what I’m all about.” But this does not automatically mean that you can’t learn new things. It’s about being what you are, and being careful about it. I think that is a major part of what freedom is about. 

Ms Berben, who has impressed you most in your life and why?

My mother had a major impact on me by showing me what it means to be very self-determined at a time when it was very unusual to do so. And my grandmother also left a lasting impression on me, because she made something truly special out of her own life and her seven children. And despite being a simple person, she taught me what it means to be charitable like nobody else has. Because seeing and sensing when people need our help is frequently not God-given, remaining with the subject. But my son is constantly impressing me as well, of course. With the path he has chosen to take, with his passion for his vocation and his family. But Schimon Peres – with all his optimism, the hope that he maintained until the very end, despite being 93 – also impressed me endlessly. I am very simply impressed by people who have a certain attitude – people who can endure themselves and certain situations and do not give up.

Picture credits © Jim Rakete/Photoselection

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