Rory MacLean meets Erika Rabau
‘I have over a million negatives in my apartment,’ she told me when we met near her Wilmersdorf home. ‘You have to step between the piles, jump from island to island. That’s why no one is allowed inside my home.’
Erika was born in Danzig sometime in the first half of the twentieth century (‘You can ask my age but I won’t answer you. I don’t think it’s important. All that matters is being an honest human being.’). As a child she dreamed of being an actress, playing at the age of eight Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
‘On the first night I was so nervous,’ she told me over afternoon coffee. ‘I peeked through the curtain at all the expectant faces and froze in my tracks. The director had to shove me onto the stage and my sudden entrance was such a surprise that people started to laugh and applaud. I loved performers and performance from that moment.’
At seventeen she fell in love and eloped to Buenos Aires. But after three months she left her husband, who expected her to stay at home to cook and clean for him. ‘I had other plans,’ she said. Those plans took time to reach fruition, not least because Erika spoke no Spanish. But she taught herself the language, found work in a bookshop and then landed a job as assistant photographer at the Teatro Colón, one of the finest opera houses in the world.
‘I loved being a theatre photographer, being at the centre of action,’ she said. ‘Above all I loved the actors and actresses. They fascinated me. They have a charisma which is beyond description.’
Her parents tried to entice her home to Europe. Four times she flew back to Germany, and finally she settled in West Berlin. At first she eked out a living shooting weddings and portraits of children. Then her gift for languages – she spoke four by the late 1960s – landed her job as an interpreter at the Berlinale. She brought along her camera and – as she snapped the stars - Alfred Bauer, the festival director, noticed how people engaged with her. Erika chatted in fluent Spanish, French or English and her subjects responded by opening up to her. Bauer immediately appointed her as the festival’s first official photographer.
‘Why do I always speak to my subjects?’ she asked while toying with her looping bands of charms and neck chains. ‘Because I’m curious. Because I want to make a connection with them. Because their faces change when we speak to one another.’
Over the years she has snapped the world’s finest film and theatre artists including Liza Minnelli, Martin Scorsese, Robert de Niro, Claudia Cardinale, Romy Schneider, Antonio Banderas and James Stewart. Melina Mercouri danced on the table for her and Jack Nicholson stroked her cheek. She went clubbing with Geraldine Chaplin and Carlos Saura. Hanna Schygulla has become a personal friend.
Erika has also appeared on the other side of the camera.
‘Once I was on my knees, shooting a festival reception at Schloss Bellevue, when I looked up to see Wim Wenders taking pictures of me,’ she recalled with a laugh. ‘He had a little Minox – in those days it was a special camera – and we started talking. I asked him why he wanted my photograph. Wenders responded, “I would like you to be in my next film.”’
The film was Wings of Desire, one of the two or three greatest films ever produced about Berlin. In the movie Erika played herself, a crew and cast photographer, performing alongside actor Peter Falk. Erika also played cameo roles in thirty other films, including ones directed by R. W. Fassbinder and Lothar Lambert.
Three years ago she broke her hip and was forced to give up her other great passion: sailing. ‘After the accident I could only walk with crutches,’ she told me, shaking her head. ‘I waddled like a lame duck.’
On her first evening back at work Karl Lagerfeld strode along the red carpet. Erika reached for her camera, but didn’t know what to do with the crutches. ‘I simply shoved them at the person standing next to me. “Take them,” I told the man. “Of course Erika,” replied Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit.’
Like Scheherazade, the mythical Persian princess who told spellbinding stories through a thousand and one nights, Erika seemed to have an anecdote for every one of her one million photographs. Her buoyant positive energy and elfin size reminded me of Shakespeare’s Puck, full of tricks, mischief and good fun, a ‘merry wanderer of the night’ (‘Do not ever telephone me before two o’clock in the afternoon!’ she told me).
Our meeting also had a personal resonance for me. Thirty-five years ago I first worked in Berlin as assistant director on a film starring David Bowie. During the shoot Erika had dropped by the set to take some photographs. I’d never seen the images and – as we parted – I asked her if she might be able to lay her hands on them.
‘Impossible,’ Erika Rabau told me with a smile. ‘I’m such a messy person, and no one would ever find them in my apartment.’