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with Iris Berben

The grande dame of German film was in the city to receive the honorary Golden Eye Award at the Zurich Film Festival and to present her new film, “Das Unwort”. A conversation about the global changes this year, Generation Z, accepting criticism and the advantages and disadvantages of digitalisation.

By Barbara Kallenberg October. 13, 2020

Iris Berben, what’s at the front of your mind at the moment?

I think it’s the issue that concerns us all, a kind of new era. And I believe that we should have stopped deluding ourselves a long time ago into thinking that our normal life, which so many people are demanding, will continue uninterrupted. I feel that we’ve reached a point that was overdue. The motto “higher, faster, further” is being adjusted. Our duty in life, and I think this is also wonderful, is that we have constantly to confront ourselves and all changes. The reason why the events of 2020 are so drastic is that they’re happening all over the world. It has something of an upheaval. The question is how we deal with it globally. What also concerns me a lot during this time are the people who are left to their own devices, who are overwhelmed and anxious. They’re easy prey for populists, for Pied Pipers. When I look at the current possibilities for political leadership around the world, when I have to think about the fact that democracy is once again being called into question, then I know that this is a very great danger, and our society is called upon to take action.


What’s the most important lesson you take away from 2020?

I’ve felt a great sense of togetherness. But I also saw the pictures of the anti-corona demonstrations in Berlin. This is only a small segment, but there’s a risk that it will grow larger. I believe, however, that we’ve arrived in a society so entrenched that we can rely on it more than on world conspirators and loud, radical and backward-looking nutcases.


Does it sometimes scare you when you see something like that?

Since I’ve been dealing with these issues for many decades, I’m naturally familiar with resistance, insults and threats. You learn to deal with things like that. In that sense, it doesn’t scare me. It’s a logical continuation of what’s possible. In fact, it makes me rather angry.


One of the major social problems of recent years is the renewed rise in anti-Semitism. This is a topic you’ve been involved with for a long time and one that your new film, “Das Unwort”, also explores. What’s this story about?

“Das Unwort” is about the bullying of a Jewish pupil in a school where all nations and religions are represented. It’s a film that may succeed in helping people to understand a certain problem more easily. We must always find new ways to draw attention to such issues, no matter how tedious or distressing it may be for others. The director, Leo Khasin, tells this story with great lightness. And that’s the most difficult thing to do: telling a difficult story lightly, without betraying the characters. It also shows us how differentiated and diverse the discussion and points of view are in our own communities. I liked the film precisely because it doesn’t give that “one” big answer, but more or less holds up a mirror to people. You have to keep checking yourself and your own prejudices, even if you think you’re a liberal. This is also true for me. I have to face this regular reflection just like everyone else. If a film can do that, then that means a lot. And that’s why it’s so important to have this festival.


You’ve been given the honorary Golden Eye Award at the Zurich Film Festival. What do such awards mean to you?

You have to differentiate. There are awards you get for your film work, and those for your stance or commitment. The award that I’ve received here is particularly significant for me because it was presented to me at a time of “cautious re-engagement” with our industry, an “opening”. It’s also about the desire to reconnect with the audience. And an award always comes with a platform. When you win an award, you have the right to speak. And you should seize that opportunity. So, I made a little speech. About culture, why it’s important, and why it should not be economised out of existence, as is often done instinctively, because for many people culture is something elitist, which is wrong. We need culture like the air we breathe. It’s our way of exchanging, networking, getting to know each other and recognising each other. Of course, you’re also flattered. You want to be loved for what you do. That’s true of everyone! It’s a good motivator. But not come hell or high water, and not by everyone. And what I find amazing, of course, is that the Zurich Film Festival is taking place at all. It’s remarkable and admirable, and that’s what I wanted to tell the organisers in person.


What do you prefer personally: Netflix or cinema?

(laughs) Both! I also think that both will coexist. There will always be television, streaming and cinema. But they will be used in different ways. Streaming offers creators completely different possibilities. You can be much bolder and broader in the narrative. And it’s a convenient and exciting way to entertain. The cinema, however, is a place of communication and therefore extremely important for our society. There are not many places left where we can meet strangers and connect with them on an emotional level. Laughing, crying, being frightened – whatever is shown on the screen. And this is immensely important for social solidarity – especially in times like these. Coming together and not dividing. I know that social distancing forces us to stay away. But proximity and togetherness must never be called into question.


We’re experiencing tremendous changes. What has not changed so far, however, is the age issue for female actors. Unfortunately, it’s still true that only very few manage to be as successful over a long time as you have been. Did you ever fear that this could happen to you?

You never stop being afraid. Thirty years ago, 40 was the magic number for women, after that it was usually over for them. This has changed. But the fear of no longer being part of it, of no longer being involved in this creative process, what character do I want to play and how do I even create her, who are my collaborators – no, this fear doesn’t stop. Acting is not a profession where you can say, “I’ve arrived.” It’s always a challenge. You start over again with every new film. Of course, you have to know your craft. But you want to grow, so fear or uncertainty is a constant companion. I also know that I’m rather an exception at my age. But I don’t want it to be an exception any more. The telling of our stories should be a matter of course. We still don’t yet earn as much as men. We’re still failing to offer women the opportunity to combine family and career. There are still many shortcomings and power structures that are rooted in centuries of history. We need to work on them. But I also think that we women have become more confident. And we have many smart men on our side.


An important statement that you’re making. Because I, too, have seen that most men are very supportive of us women and are not our “enemy”.

Exactly. That was a big discussion in the #MeToo movement when I pleaded not to start segregating again. I had already experienced that in the 1960s with emancipation. Emancipation can only be achieved with men. Every change must be accomplished together. I’m always on an equal footing with men, and I enjoy working with them. And the worst thing you could do is to create a bogeyman again. No change will happen in this way.


What career did your parents have in mind for you?

None. My parents separated early, and my mother was passionate about freedom. She always supported me in my desire to be free. She was definitely a kind of role model for me. She lived in a very unusual time and was very self-determined. And it’s this self-determination that’s most important to me. As a young woman, I actually wanted to study law, but I ended up taking a completely different path.


Is this also something you would like to pass on to the younger generation? Self-determination and standing up for yourself?

Absolutely. In my opinion, the greatest freedom you can have is self-determination. But it’s not easy to talk about only “one” young generation. They’re as diverse as life itself. There’s a Greta Thunberg and her followers, who have devoted themselves passionately to the problems of our environment. In other words, these are very political young people. And there are young people who believe they’re inspired by role models who present themselves rather one-dimensionally on YouTube channels. It’s never a good thing to have the benchmark set by others. Define and set your own! Be yourself, because you’re unique. You never stop working on yourself or on life. You have to cope with adversity, with love, with success and failure, and with loss. And the way you cope with them will also change over time. I would say to young people: focus on yourself, but don’t shut out the rest of the world. Go through the world with your eyes wide open. Don’t be afraid of the unknown or the new. Embrace what you like, recognise your strengths and weaknesses, and learn to deal with both. But don’t let anyone else tell you what your weaknesses are. You’ll find that out for yourself! It’s then that you can conquer the world, because there’s so much that can inspire you.


Who is allowed to tell you that you’re wrong?

First of all, I think it’s fundamentally important to be able to make corrections, no matter what you’ve accomplished. Who is allowed to tell me that I’m wrong naturally also depends on what it’s about. It goes without saying that the people closest to me are relevant for me, because that’s where I’m my most genuine self. And if one of them tells me something, I should be prepared to deal with it. In the industry, those will always be people who I feel are doing this job with passion and respect. You want clever, knowledgeable and experienced people to criticise you – people who know what they’re talking about. You should never get the feeling that something else might be behind it.


Are there any issues on which you have your point of view and would find it difficult to back away from it?

I have great difficulty dealing with stupidity (laughs).


Who comes to mind when you hear the word “successful”?

My son. He has followed his path very consistently. Oliver is analytical, very confident and much more strategic than me. He has the ability to excite people in this industry about issues, encounters and unexpected casts. He is passionate, precise and bright. So when I think of success and how to get there, I think of him.


The year 2020 is also a year in which digitalisation has become even more prominent. How digital is your everyday life?

Not very much. I do use my iPhone and iPad. I still prefer my books to be paper, but I also read the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” newspaper on my iPad. I don’t use social media myself. But I’m fully informed, I like to participate and I appreciate digitalisation, the whole process of it and the technology that allows us to use it in a smart and, unfortunately, often also in a very disgraceful way. But this has always been true of all achievements and progress.


How many times a day do you check your mobile phone?

Not very often. I use my mobile phone to communicate with my office and the people closest to me. Only few have my number. I can be reached only by a small group of people. As such, it’s more of an accessory that’s there, that’s helpful and makes my life easier.


What was the most recent song you listened to?

“Chuva” by the Portuguese singer Mariza. I think she is one of the most fascinating singers, because she is one of those who made fado fashionable again! I spend a lot of time in Portugal, where I grew up. Someone sent me this song, and I’ve been listening to it over and over ever since. It’s this solemnity of the people in Portugal, this saudade, this eternal longing. She sings of the rain with such a great voice and intensity – goosebumps! You absolutely have to listen to it.


You’re in Zurich for two What do you associate with the city?

The Zurich Film Festival, of course, which I’ve attended several times. We also filmed the TV series “Zwei himmlische Töchter” here 45 years ago, so I got to spend some time in the city back then. I’ve done readings here, also political ones. It always gave me great pleasure to be invited to do so here too. I have fond memories of my performances with Daniel Hope. And I love Zurich because the publishing company Diogenes Verlag is here (laughs). I’m a book person. I knew Daniel Keel, the founder, and now Philipp Keel, his son, and I receive books even before they come out, which is great. I just love this publishing company! That, for me, is Zurich.


Right now, we’re sitting here in one of the most beautiful hotels in Switzerland. Someone who travels as much as you do – when do you really feel comfortable in a hotel?

When the entire service is natural and not contrived. I need 24-hour room service because we have strange shooting times during film productions. And I love hotels where I can flip switches. Nowadays, you often need an instruction manual to turn on the light. Please, just use simple switches (laughs). The Dolder Grand is a jewel. A place like this is a gift, allowing for small and big escapes from everyday life.


What drink do you order from the bartender?

A port and tonic! Do you know it?


Yes, from Portugal, right?

Exactly. After all, this is where port wine comes from. White port, tonic, lots of ice, a little lemon – superb!


What’s your wish for the future?

I have no wishes. I’ve been granted so many wishes that I didn’t even ask for. I just want to be around for a long time, stay alert and enjoy life. I love life!