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Lars Eidinger – Sein oder nicht sein

Director: Reiner Holzemer (Germany). Year of Release: 2022

A theatre in Salzburg. The stage and most of the seats are empty, but we hear the sound of actors doing vocal exercises. Eventually, the camera fixes on Lars Eidinger, the star of the show. Eidinger is in his 40s, and is one of the most reported on actors currently working in Germany today. I hesitate to say that he’s one of Germany’s best actors. Before watching the film, I wasn’t really sure how I rated him. After seeing it, I’m still not much the wiser.

I must have mentioned Eidinger before in film reviews on this blog. I seem to remember saying that his speciality is in playing man-children – people who are unwilling to take up responsibilities suitable to their age. This seems to fit quite a lot of his stage work, which I hadn’t really been aware of before. There’s quite a lot of gratuitous semi-nudity, fat suits and acrobatics. It’s as if Eidinger is scared that he might lose the audience’s attention for a fleeting moment.

There was little chance of such indifference at this evening’s showing – a New Year’s Eve special, before the film will be officially released in March. Going on tonight’s audience, Eidinger’s main fans seem to be women of a certain age who find him a little irresponsible and want to look after him. In the film, he talks vaguely (as he often does) about finding in theatre the family ties that he never had. I guess he appeals to people who recognise his vulnerability and want to help.

Eidinger has built up a friendship and a working relationship with Thomas Ostermeier, who has been running the Berliner Schaubühne since he was in his mid-20s. We see Ostermeier’s productions of Hamlet and Richard III, each of which starred Eidinger in the leading role (the film’s subtitle “Sein oder nicht sein” is the German equivalent of “to be or not to be”). Once more, Eidinger’s performances are athletic, and draw attention to himself at all times.

There’s a certain logic to this. If you’re putting on a play that has been shown thousands of times before, you need something to justify yourself – to make your performance memorable and different to everything which went before. It cannot be denied that Eidinger puts his all into the role – at a Q&A with him afterwards, one of the audience told him that, frankly speaking, she doesn’t know how he does it and is worried about his health.

He’s at it again in Irma Vep, a French tv series directed by Olivier Assayas. I presume that the other actors are playing in French but Eidinger plays a drug-addicted German actor who declaims in English and wantonly throws furniture about. We see a rehearsal where his character goes berserk at a garden party, and evokes the memory of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, screaming that art should be dangerous. From our point of view, it looks like a kid’s tantrum and not very dangerous at all.

Which brings us to the big question – what does Lars Eidinger believe? You’d have thought that a documentary about him would be slightly interested in this question, but this is too much of a hagiography to ask any awkward questions. So, we see the odd scene of Eidinger mumbling, sometimes shouting, that Art should be scare the horses, without him really saying what this means. And he rarely expresses an opinion on anything outside the world of film and theatre.

Two real life controversies are mentioned in passing. There is the time when he posed with a €550 Aldi carrier bag in front of a homeless person. Apparently it was a big deal in the tabloid press. I didn’t follow the row at the time – there are just so many hours in the day – but there was a big fuss. The film provides Eidinger with the opportunity to give his explanation of what happened. But he doesn’t say much more than that he was misunderstood, a phrase which recurs in the film.

Then there was the occasion when he burst into tears at a Berlinale press conference. If the press footage that we see in the film was all there is, this was less a public breakdown, and more him looking a little sad. Again, the press almost certainly magnified the event into something much more scandalous than it actually was. But we don’t really get a sense of what really happened. If this event was remotely important, the film does not really investigate what happened.

When asked about the event, Eidinger seems genuinely perplexed. He says that society says that men should be allowed to cry, but when he did, he was pilloried for being too weak. Maybe this is exactly what happened, but the film’s vagueness makes you wonder. We see headlines accusing Eidinger of being a privileged white male, and his response has the evasiveness of an Incel asking “what’s wrong with sexy?” You feel that he should answer the questions directly or not at all.

There is, of course, a perfectly plausible and innocent explanation for all this. Eidinger could well be at heart self-effacing and his on-screen ebullience is his way of dealing with this. In the film we hear fellow-actors call him arrogant, but that just may be his manner. A less obsequious film could have shed some light on this. The tragic irony is that this film’s eagerness to make us like Eidinger actually makes him less interesting than he could have been.

So, is Lars Eidinger the great hope of German film and theatre, or is he an over-produced fraud? To be honest, I’m none the wiser. The person who we see in this film might well be a great actor but he doesn’t come across as a compelling person. Although even this is quite possibly more to do with the sycophantic direction than the man itself. File under: more information needed.

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