Rory MacLean meets Michael Schindhelm
Schindhelm’s remarkable life journey has taken him from quantum chemistry through literary translation to theatre, film, television and books. He has worked in Basel, Berlin and Beijing, lived in Moscow, Dubai and Hong Kong. His colleagues have been as diverse as Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom he worked as a chemist in the 1980s, and the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. He is an advisor to the Zurich University of the Arts and a member of the board of trustees of the German Food Initiative Welthungerhilfe. Around the world he now lectures on – and tries to define – ‘global culture’.
His journey began in Eisenach in 1960.
‘The East Germany that I grew up in was a kind of prison,’ he told me. ‘My home was near to the West German border. I could climb a hill near our house and see that country. Yet I couldn’t visit it. It was nearly impossible to imagine freedom, except by watching West German television. This had an enormous impact on my development as it forced me and my family to live a double life: distrusting the reality around us, depending on personal, private values.’
As a young man Schindhelm felt no sense of identity with East German society. Like many of his generation, he felt that he had to ‘camouflage’ himself. In order to escape the ‘prison’ he went to Merseburg’s School of Natural Sciences, because it exempted him from military service, and then moved to the Soviet Union to study quantum chemistry.
‘Suddenly I was free of my provincial country,’ he recalled. ‘The university was a kind of global village with students from Oman, Mauritius, Vietnam, even the UK. I immersed myself in its international community.’
In the USSR Schindhelm broke rules, as he has continued to do all his life. He socialised with foreigners, which was forbidden, and was accused of working for ‘Western intelligence agencies’. As a result he was coerced into collaborating with the Stasi.
‘I was forced to agree to collaborate with them only if a foreign secret service approached me,’ he explained. It was an agreement which he never intended to honour, and years later his innocence was confirmed by two public enquiries. ‘In the Soviet Union I learnt a very important lesson, but it had nothing to do with chemistry.’
The experience further soured his relationship with Communism in East Germany.
‘When in 1984 I returned to that crumbling, dying society, it didn’t feel like home,’ he said. ‘At the same time I felt that I’d left something of value behind in Russia.’
Schindhelm abandoned chemistry to work as a translator of Russian literature, finding both solace and values in the written and spoken word. When in 1989 the Wall fell he realised that ‘I no longer had to fear and that I had to rethink my life.’ At the same time he was disappointed by his fellow East Germans’ frenetic rush to western shopping centres.
‘I thought, “The West isn’t about freedom. It’s about shopping.”’ He avoided consumerist Kurfürstendamm and went instead to the America Memorial Library (Amerika- Gedenkbibliothek) in Kreuzberg. ‘But even there I felt that my dreams and values – many of which had sprung from books which had been banned or rare in the East – were diminished, in that the books were available everywhere.’
Luck then played its part, landing him the post of drama director first at the Theatre Nordhausen and next at the Theatre Gera.
‘I had no clue how to run a theatre,’ he recalled with a laugh. ‘But that proved to be a real advantage. Many of the old, East German ways had to be forgotten. Reinvention - both of myself and the theatres - made me somehow fearless. It was a pirate’s experience.’
Soon afterwards he was appointed artistic director of Theatre Basel, where he worked for ten years and developed a strong attachment to Switzerland. In 2005 he became director general of the newly formed Stiftung Oper in Berlin, the world’s largest opera group which comprised the Staatsoper Berlin, Deutsche Oper and Komische Oper. Budget cuts in the cash-strapped capital then brought him into conflict with the mayor and – after a series of slanderous accusations – he left the post after only two years.
‘In those days I was harshly critical of Berlin and Germany, both East and West,’ he admitted.
To the surprise – even indignation – of the arts world, Schindhelm then moved to Dubai. ‘One doesn’t really know whether the man is to be pitied or envied,’ commented Die Welt at the time, suggesting that the Gulf states were a ‘refuge for those who had substantially failed and now far away use gold to build fake artistic dreams and castles in the air...’
In Dubai Schindhelm’s job was to create - in the words of that country’s leader - ‘the most comprehensive cultural destination in the world’. But the ambitious plan was scuttled by the financial crash.
‘In my life I’ve been successful in some ways, and unsuccessful in other ways,’ Schindhelm admitted with humility. ‘I have never reached the “comfort zone”. As a result I must always ask myself, “What is the right thing to do?” In a way success can lead to one abandoning one’s own values.’
For Schindhelm, Dubai was ‘a laboratory of globalisation’. At the end of the 20th century cities around the world were reinventing themselves, as he himself had witnessed in Berlin and Moscow. In Hong Kong and Russia he set about advising government on changing urban culture. ‘For me the city is a stage, an environment for experimentation. It’s both a present and futurist narrative on which one can inscribe stories.’
The German thinker Theodor Adorno once wrote, ‘When you have nowhere to go, writing becomes a place to live’. All his life Schindhelm has been shaped and inspired by stories: survival narratives in both old East and modern unified Germany, classic European plays and literature, contemporary international urban narratives. Over the years he has written half-a-dozen novels and a remarkably honest ‘diary’ about his time in Dubai (which is banned in the emirate). He has also produced screenplays as well as documentaries on the music of Gobi Desert nomads and the making of Beijing’s Olympic Games Stadium.
‘In German we speak about our skin as something very close to our identity,’ said Michael Schindhelm. ‘We say ‘We take our skin to the market’, meaning that this is the identity that we show other people. Your skin is something you cannot change. In my travels abroad I have come to understand how much it matters to have a relationship to your identity and to the identity of your homeland, if you intend to keep your bearings outside your home country.’
In his 2002 novel Robert’s Journey Schindhelm wrote, ‘Ich bin ein Keinheimischer’, playing on the word 'Einheimischer' – meaning indigenous – and 'Keinheimischer', meaning someone who is indigenous nowhere.