After January and before his March visit to Sofia with A Horse Walks into a Bar, Samuel Finzi tells us why thinking and acting are more important than feeling when you’re on stage
Samuel Finzi has been living and working in Germany since 1989, and although he wanted to pursue a different path at first, he soon discovered that he belonged in front of an audience, be it on stage or in front of the camera. He eventually became one of the leading actors in the German-speaking world. His presence on leading stages in Berlin, Hamburg, Vienna, and Zurich, as well as being named Actor of the Year in the German-speaking world by the prestigious magazine Theatre Today in 2015, testify to his success. He has won many awards, including the Berlin Prize – he received it in 2011 together with the director Dimitar Gotchev, a close friend and collaborator in an ongoing exploration of the boundaries of theatrical space. We last saw him in January, Andrei Paunov's feature film debut, and on March 25 and 26 we can look forward to seeing him on the stage of the National Theatre in A Horse Walks into a Bar, based on David Grossman's novel of the same name.
Behind the scenes of January
"We are actors – we’re the opposite of people!" is a line from Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. What are actors? And just so we’re not as extreme as Stoppard, what makes them different from other people?
I've never really thought of myself as an actor, and I also haven't thought about what else I could be doing instead. I wanted to do something entirely different when I was younger, but I accidentally became an actor. (Laughs.) But then, as it became clear, or as I was led to believe, it turned out that maybe I had talent, and I found pleasure in speaking other people's words on other people's behalf – which isn't really all that true, because people don't change. We are what we are. As an actor, you can use one aspect or another of who you are, and bring out parts of yourself that you didn't think you had in you.
What makes me different? Maybe that I can stand in front of others a little more shamelessly, more brazenly, and say something. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but as an actor you're allowed to do it, you have that right. Those are the rules of the game. You can talk, you can jump, you can move, you can do whatever you want. You are protected. However, this is an extenuating circumstance. There's another difference that's more negative. Most actors really like to show that they are actors. We are used to thinking of them as artistic, free, entertaining, pretending to be something they are not. And we see that they are actually loud, overwrought, and consider themselves to be better than everyone else. That's the unpleasant part of being an actor, in my opinion. Otherwise, actors are just like everyone else.
In the last 30-40 years, theater actors of Bulgarian origin have taken over the stages of Germany more than any other country – Dimitar Gotchev, you, Ivan Panteleev have firmly established yourselves on the stage. How do you explain it?
There is also Ivan Stanev, and Janet Spasova, Teddy Moskov also worked a lot in Germany at one time. How do I explain it? German-speaking theater is quite liberal – people from all over the world work here, and the attitude there to what theater can be is really unique – realism is not necessarily the leading genre, so the way you speak the language doesn't matter much, and there's room for everyone. Also, when a theater doesn't need to support itself financially, your imagination is freer. Germany has always been open to influences, to outside artists and creators. I don't know the English scene very well, but I have the feeling that it's quite limited in that respect. In France we have Galin Stoev, but you can’t compare it in terms of sheer numbers. Well, that's what state policy in the field of culture can do.
Diary of a Madman, Deutsches Theater Berlin.
Your career has been marked by your collaboration and more generally your deep friendship with Dimitar Gotchev. What did you learn from him about the stage and about life?
If I've learned anything, it's how a body is positioned in the space of a theater. He was always talking about space. About how language is positioned in space and how the actor's body is positioned in space. That was important to him. He had a phenomenal sense of theater, I can't explain it exactly, you have to feel it. He was a very warm and at the same time a very fierce and sentimental person, who didn't have a drop of envy in him, only joy when he saw someone else succeed at something he enjoyed. Conversely, he would be angry if someone close to him failed, he would really express his disappointment. Out of affection, not for any other reasons. He respected all kinds of artists and had great respect, great affection for them. Real affection, not pretend.
How did your professional life change from when you arrived in Germany, when you were just learning the language, to today, when you are one of the leading actors in the country?
I haven't stopped working, generally speaking, since I arrived, thirty-two years ago. I came because of Ivan Stanev, I worked with the first troupe that I co-founded at that time, I left it, I started working with Dimitar Gotchev... It was never my ambition to do this at all costs. I just followed the circumstances – from one thing to the next, then the third. Chance must’ve played a part in the whole thing. When you do something, you get in touch with certain people and you decide that you can do something else together. And so on, step by step. In the 1990s, I went to the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg. I wanted to find out what it was like to be part of a company. After the first season I wanted to leave, but they persuaded me to stay for one more, and I left after that. I was a free artist again. Then I went to Volksbühne.
What do the Bulgarian performing arts look like from the perspective of Western Europe?
Thirty years behind, unfortunately. Alright, that's a bit of an exaggeration, because there are directors who follow the trends – Chris Sharkov, Yavor Gardev, who else can I name... They follow what's going on elsewhere and they stick to a certain standard, so to speak, to what's important today, and to the contemporary aesthetics of theater. But I have the feeling that in Bulgaria the mindset has not yet changed for actors. Bulgarian actors are always talking about feelings – who was crying, how they were crying. An actor should think and move on stage, not just emote. Feeling either happens or it doesn’t anyway. There is a lack of any kind of concreteness, or everything is given over to passions and experiences. That is not interesting to me. I like to be invested in what I'm telling, not how I'm telling it. The viewer should be experiencing all the feelings, not me. It annoys me a lot that in Bulgaria people always get up to applaud at the end of the performance. That wasn't the case before. That is shocking to me. Getting up on your feet – that’s for a real shared experience. The things you see on the stage don’t really call for standing up at the end of every performance. This pathos is quite unnerving and tiring.
Behind the scenes of January
What can Bulgarian politicians learn from their German counterparts about why culture is important and how cultural policies should be implemented?
Simply to treat culture with respect. Going to the theater, concerts, cinema, exhibitions – this educates the spirit of a society. Our country will not become poorer if the Ministry of Culture suddenly received five times more funding. If that happened, the people who work in culture would not be forced to do fifty other things and have to star in every tv show, if we are talking about actors, or in every advertisement. They don't do it just because they want to be famous, they just need to make a living somehow. In order for there to be some kind of professional ethics in acting, there also have to be some conditions that allow one to feel normal. And then we wouldn’t have to accuse actors of selling out, of doing sloppy work for a paycheck, etc. There should be more respect for cultural workers. This field is just as important as the economy of a country. During the pandemic in Germany, instead of cutting funding for culture, they doubled it – from two billion euros to four. The Culture Minister fought for that. So that the people who couldn’t do their work at the theater or perform in concerts etc. did not starve to death. Someone here calculated, as I recall, that the cultural industry brings in about 100 billion euro a year. Not to mention the intangible benefits. Bulgarian politicians, first of all, need to understand that this chest thumping over Bulgarian culture is... Alright, let's invest in Bulgarian culture so that we can finally see what it’s about.
A Horse Walks into a Bar, Photographer Arno Declair
At the end of March, the National Theatre will stage a performance of A Horse Walks into a Bar, based on David Grossman's novel of the same name, in which a stand-up comedian gives his final performance. How did this text win you over and what parts of yourself did you see in it?
Anyone who has lived a little can find something of themselves in this text, because it deals with our own faults and the lives all of us lead. It won me over because, in a very direct, very open, slightly cynical but also very human way, while entertaining others, one character manages to self-destruct and self-punish. There's something very relatable for any actor in that – you're working, you're exposing yourself and the material of your humanity to others. And not only do you expose yourself and await their judgment, but in the process of doing so, you condemn yourself in front of everyone. As a form, I found that very attractive.
What prompted your fiction debut An Autobiographical Novel – The Book of Samuel and how did you feel about an art form as different from theater as literature?
Ah, you've heard of this book? The circumstances are pretty banal. A literary agent came to me one day and said, "I'm sure you can write." I asked her how she was so sure. "When I look at the way you act, I'm sure you can and should write." Shortly after that, I wrote a piece about Dimitar Gotchev and published it in Die Zeit. A friend of mine, a famous writer, read it and said, "Do you write?" No. "You should write.” He encouraged me, as they say, and I got a contract with a publisher and sat down to write. It took a long time, because I'm not a writer. Maybe I'm an actor playing a writer. I told myself I would get into that role, again going back to the idea of extenuating circumstances. It's not that I wasn't scared, but it's more comforting that way. And here we are! The book comes out at the end of March. I wrote it in German, and for it to come out in Bulgarian, I’d have to write it again because I can't leave it to someone to translate. I won't be able to do it, I won't have time, but that's how life goes. It doesn't matter – whoever knows German can read it.
A Horse Walks into a Bar is at the National Theatre on March 25 and 26.