When she was just 18 years old, Ms. Lemper secured a part in the Vienna production of Cats and later won prizes for her performance in the Paris-based show Cabaret. In 1992, she was cast in Savary’s Blue Angel in Berlin, a theater adaptation of the 1930 movie of the same name starring German actress and chanteuse Marlene Dietrich.
The play was not well received, and Ms. Lemper bore the brunt of the criticism and left Germany shortly after.
Twenty-four years later, she agreed to sit down with Die Zeit and C. Bernd Sucher, a former drama critic who wrote some of the most devastating reviews in 1992.
Die Zeit: Ms. Lemper, Mr. Sucher, how nice that we’re all sitting at the same table now! There’s this unpleasant history that connects the two of you, dating back to 1992. That’s when you, Mr. Sucher, in one of your critics called Ms. Lemper artificial, a Barbie doll – perfect, but without spark, without personality.
Mr. Sucher: Can I please just say something? Dear Ute, I’m really happy that you brought yourself to meet the person who wrote those things about you. But please keep in mind, that was 24 years ago, and I’ve learned.
Ms. Lemper: (patting his arm) Oh, my dear drama critic, you did a nice job rehearsing that. But I can put your mind at ease: I’ve long since forgotten about all that. Before our meeting, I reread your article, and I have to say: you were right about many things! The play was terrible.
You’re talking about the Blue Angel adaptation. Did the critic hurt you nevertheless?
Ms. Lemper: What a question! I’m a human being after all. The morning after the premiere I entered the theater’s canteen. I hadn’t even had breakfast yet, was still disheveled. After all, we had spent the night celebrating. And then everyone was staring at me, putting the reviews in front of me. I almost choked on my coffee…
Mr. Sucher: There were reviews even worse than mine.
But your review, Mr. Sucher, was crushing.
Ms. Lemper: Mr. Sucher for sure didn’t crush me, and neither did any of the others manage to do that. I’ve had a wonderful career over the past 25 years, I devoted myself to my job with body, mind and soul. Je ne regretted rien. I even enjoyed the butchered production of “The Blue Angel” and played my part as well as this unfortunate production allowed me to.
“You praised yourself to the skies and dragged all of us through the mud.”
Mr. Sucher, do you think you were mean in hindsight?
Mr. Sucher: On the one hand, when I read it now I still consider my text well written. On the other hand, I’m thinking what I wrote about Ute, what with nightingale and crow and all… Well, I think I wouldn’t be so in love with my own wording anymore today…
Ms. Lemper: Your article was full of self-love! You praised yourself to the skies and dragged all of us through the mud.
Mr. Sucher: One second, a critic needs to position himself, otherwise it would be boring!
“The critic leads a pretty petty life.”
The theater adaptation of the Blue Angel, a 1930 movie starring Marlene Dietrich, was much anticipated in Germany. Mr. Savary’s production didn’t meet many of these expectations. Yet, you, Mr. Sucher, and your colleagues mostly focused on Ute Lember in your criticism. Why?
Mr. Sucher: Yes, why? Because of all the non-brilliant people on stage she was the most intriguing. Ute, if you were at the center of all these hatchet jobs that shows how strong you were!
Ms. Lemper: I think there were many things conspiring to make this happen: Back then I was the only artist who already had an international reputation, Marlene Dietrich had just died. So everyone made me the black sheep of the show, and I had to shoulder that as a very young person. Luckily I’m a free spirit, and this damned, very German agitation didn’t scar me.
Ms. Lemper, you did something back then that artists usually don’t do: You hit back. You called one critic a shrew, another one a sexomaniac and grandfatherly sappy.
Ms. Lemper: I can hardly remember that. But in many interviews I was asked, aww, Ms. Lemper, how are you? And then I answered very spontaneously. Speaking freely, just like critics are writing freely. And put in a little stab here and there.
Is the critic also a closeted artist?
Ms. Lemper: (laughing) Oftentimes yes!
Mr. Sucher: Being a critic is an act of hubris. Who was I? I had just gotten my doctorate [in theater studies and Romance studies] and suddenly I’m sitting in Bayreuth pretending I knew what was going on.
Is it better for an artist to get trashed by critics than not to be noticed?
Mr. Sucher: That’s the worst.
Ms. Lemper: No, I disagree. I prefer having no critic in the audience than one who doesn’t understand what’s happening on stage and is defacing it in a disrespectful manner.
Mr. Sucher: Author Frank Wedekind once asked why critics are so malicious. His answer was because singers and actors make more money than them. If you don’t become famous as a critic, you become jealous eventually. Of course it’s nicer to be Ute Lemper than to be a critic for a local newspaper.
Ms. Lemper: That’s not true. The majority of artists live off laughable wages. But the critic amasses fame and recognition by writing about them.
Today you’re a world famous star. Do you still care about what your critics say of you?
Ms. Lemper: Of course. It has happened in the past that I redefined the psychology of my character, a crucial piece of the puzzle, based on the perspective of a critic. But by now I’m blanking out everything that’s too general, too personal. Still, I have to be able to tolerate the journalist’s position of power.
Mr. Sucher: My dear, this power is a myth. The ones surviving in art are artists, not critics. The critic leads a pretty petty life.
Back in 1992, you were calling the devastating reviews a witchhunt. In hindsight, would you say the reviews affected your life?
Ms. Lemper: In a way, yes. I had mega jitters when I was performing in Berlin’s Friedrichstadtpalast a year later. It was super packed, 2,500 people in the audience. Standing ovations at the end. It took my breath away, I couldn’t speak for minutes. One year earlier, people had read such nasty things about me, and now they showed me they loved me. That moment was truly overwhelming, truthful, a piece of life and beauty much bigger than any review.
This article orginally appeared in the German weekly Die Zeit. To contact: Redaktion@zeit.de