Christian Friedel sits on a very wide staircase in the Schauspielhaus with his hands folded. A ceiling with many individual spots of light can be seen above him in the background. Black and white photo.

Actor Christian Friedel on staying grounded and his favourite ice cream parlour in Oberkassel

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“In Düsseldorf, you get greeted with wide-open arms and audiences are very loyal once you’ve won them over.”

Christian Friedel is undeniably multi-talented, appearing not only at the Düsseldorf Schauspielhaus, but also in world-class films. You might have seen him in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon or the hit series Babylon Berlin. In Düsseldorf, he’s played the main character Nathanael in a version of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Sandmann by star director Robert Wilson. Friedel also plays Wilson’s ‘Dorian’, a role which has seen him creep, crawl and whirl across the Schauspielhaus stage over the past year and a half almost. But that’s not all: the play based on the novel by Oscar Wilde also sees Friedel make an appearance in his capacity as the lead singer and songwriter of the Woods of Birnam, an art-pop band.
The 44-year old, originally from Magdeburg in eastern Germany, recently played Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the 150th time at  Düsseldorf’s Schauspielhaus , and once again the Woods of Birnam were heavily involved. Friedel will shortly be appearing on the big screen alongside Sandra Hüller in The Zone of Interest by Jonathan Glazer. The film was awarded the Grand Prix by the jury at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Friedel and Hüller were also both nominated in their respective best European actor categories for the European Film Awards. The Zone of Interest has been selected as one of the UK’s official entries for the 2024 Oscars. And yet, in the foyer of the Schauspielhaus before a performance of Dorian, Friedel still finds time for an interview.

Actor Christian Friedel, black and white portrait.

Recently, you played Hamlet for the 150th time. You’ve been playing him since 2012, when Roger Vontobel’s celebrated interpretation had its opening night at the Dresden State Theatre. In an interview with MDR, you once said that repetition bored you and you were always on the lookout for something new. How does the Hamlet repetition sit with you?
You’re right, 150 performances is a lot. But a good few years have passed between Hamlet in Dresden and Hamlet here in Düsseldorf. Things happen, life happens, and we change, which means the performance changes too. When Hamlet moved to Düsseldorf in 2019, some of the cast changed, bringing new blood to the show. I’m very happy that Hamlet has been running for so long and works so well. It’s very rewarding.

Another play that premiered in Düsseldorf to great success is Dorian, staged by Robert Wilson. It went on to be regularly staged in Dresden as well. The play sees you keep the audience on the edge of their seats for 90 minutes in a solo performance. The text is rambling, full of stops and starts and omissions. You swap in and out of roles and costumes on the fly, it’s breathtaking just watching you. How do you cope with an evening like that and how do you even learn the lines.
Yes, that was probably the hardest text I’ve ever had to learn. It’s coherent within itself but lots of passages are chaotic and full of associations. It’s easiest to learn a text like that while you’re actually rehearsing. You need physical and visual prompts to be able to link the individual lines with what’s going on on-stage. It means that Dorian is one of those plays for which I need to mentally prepare the day before the performance. The more at ease and, as we actors say, the more authentic we are as the evening progresses, the more accessible we make the play for the audience. Ultimately, it’s not a matter of understanding and getting to the bottom of every association. It’s more about individual moments and emotions and what you take away with you. Besides Robert’s wonderful aesthetics, that’s what’s so great about the play: that every member of the audience can arrive at their own conclusions about art, beauty and the transcience of being.

A section of the staircase at the Schauspielhaus. Colour photo, the steps are carpeted in orange.

How do you unwind after a performance like that?
I usually have a long shower, meet friends from the cast or watch a series. A Dorian evening is very tiring but I always feel elated afterwards. Before the performance I sometimes wonder how I’m going to manage it, which is only natural. My dear friend Sandra Hüller once shared something important that a director told her: your form on the day is part of the role. That’s such a liberating thought. It doesn’t matter how you’re feeling − your form will add a new dimension to your role.

You live in Dresden, often appear at the Dresden State Theatre and make guest appearances in Düsseldorf too. We partly have Wilfried Schulz to thank for that, who took over as artistic director in Düsseldorf in the 2016/17 season. Are audiences in Düsseldorf different to audiences in Dresden? Do you notice the Rhineland mentality?
I’ve known Wilfried for 17 years and it’s great to be able to grow together and experience different kinds of audience. In Düsseldorf, I have the feeling that people are quick to get excited about a production. You get greeted with wide-open arms and audiences are also very loyal once you’ve won them over. Perhaps there is somewhat more exposure to beautiful images or music here than elsewhere, but I love the fundamentally open attitudes and enthusiastic receptions. The Rhineland mentality is fun-loving and positive − and optimism is something we could all use right now. When a Düsseldorf-based audience notices that you’re giving it your all as an actor on the stage, it’ll let itself be immersed in the story and there’s a really good vibe. We feel that at our concerts too, when we play as the Woods of Birnam. We played at zakk recently and were overwhelmed by the passion and euphoria, it really touched us.

Your band has become part of the Dorian production. How did Wilson react your idea of incorporating the band?
I’m extremely lucky to have met Robert. Working with him is very educational and inspiring. All aspects of the arts are incredibly important to Robert, from lighting and stage design to costumes and music. It was amazing to be able to be a part of Dorian and see it come together right from the start. As far as the live music is concerned, unlike productions with a large orchestra, Robert tends to envisage his monologues with recorded music. But he was intrigued by my suggestion of using live music in the production, which was quite a challenge because Robert works very intuitively and responsively. He especially liked the song ‘On the Wild Sea’, and often had it playing on repeat at rehearsals.

The author interviewing Christian Friedel. Both are seated on stools.
Christian Friedel (right) talking to Ilona Marx.

You once said that vanity is an actor’s worst enemy. How do you steer clear of it?
Deep down, there’s something vain about acting, trying to present a near-perfect image of oneself. But when on the stage or filming, an actor’s own personality must take a back seat and let the persona of the role take over; it doesn’t matter what my ideal image of myself is in that situation, or how I like to see myself. Taking that to heart really helps. But you still have to be careful when your ego is being fed. The perfect self-image must not become more important than the image you’re trying to convey.

You’re not only an actor and singer, you’ve also worked as a composer and theatre director. Are there enough hours in the day for all of your projects and plans?
So far I’ve always managed to combine my projects but, of course, I’d love to appear in more productions in Düsseldorf if it wasn’t such a long way away. I do have to be very selective to ensure that I can realise all of my plans.

You were born in Magdeburg, in eastern Germany. When did you come to Düsseldorf for the first time and what did you make of it?
(Laughs) In 2004, I was on my way to Tunisia via Düsseldorf, I went for an evening walk along the Rhine and ate a kebab. That was only a very brief first impression. But even back then I was impressed by Düsseldorf’s location on the Rhine. I gradually explored the city and got to know it a little better while rehearsing for Sandmann for the first time in 2016. My opinion of Düsseldorf has only improved since then.

You’ve been a frequent visitor to Düsseldorf for the last seven years. Can you go for a coffee here in peace or do you get recognised and approached by strangers everywhere you go?
The number of people who recognise me has increased but it’s not like I need to leave the house wearing a cap pulled down low and a false moustache. I can move around freely, I can even go jogging on the Rhine of a morning. I like that.

Actor Christian Friedel, black and white portrait.

Is there anything that has impressed or surprised you about Düsseldorf?
When we were rehearsing for Sandmann, I lived in MedienHafen with my colleagues Rosa Enskat and André Kaczmarczyk and we would have breakfast together and then walk to the rehearsals. I noticed how many different sides to Düsseldorf there are. On the one hand, you’ve got the luxury stores on Königsallee, and on the other hand, there’s the Moroccan quarter. Many different worlds coexist in Düsseldorf.

Is there somewhere in the city you always like to visit when you’re here?
I love to eat ice cream and have discovered Gelateria La Romana 1936 in Oberkassel. The ice cream there is fantastic and it’s served with cream or chocolate cream and melted white or dark chocolate. I also really like Brasserie Hülsmann. I took my family there the last time they visited in fact. It’s got a great flair and they serve traditional rustic dishes with an interesting twist. I like TenTen on Oststrasse for a latte, while the Wilma Wunder restaurant is always a good bet for getting a delicious soup or salad, and I love Heinemann for fried egg and spinach. And not forgetting the record shop in the Schadow arcades, A&O Medien. They’ve got a brilliant classical and jazz section. I like to pick up a bit of vinyl there.

Where will your next trip take you?
I’ve spent the last few months travelling around North America to promote The Zone of Interest and will keep doing that for the next few months. Promoting a film in the US is very different to here. The competition is huge. It’s really important to present the film in its entirety and to actually be there in person. Actors get a very different reception in the US than in Europe. Americans are very quick to treat you like royalty − but it’s important to stay grounded and not get carried away believing all the promises. And that’s exactly what I do when I’m on stage here in Düsseldorf. Because being celebrated is all well and good but it takes a lot of hard work to get to that point. And luckily work is exactly what I love!

If you’d like to see Christian Friedel on stage, visit dhaus.de for more information.

Interview: Ilona Marx
Photos: Markus Luigs

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