Margarita Broich

Rory MacLean meets Margarita Broich

© Margarita Broich
© Margarita Broich
An actor’s job is to become another person, to transform him or herself into a character. In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, an affair between two modern actors – Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons – is paralleled in the Victorian characters who they are playing. In one of cinema’s most revealing moments, Streep and Irons start to rehearse a scene. Their first run-through is clumsy and unconvincing.

‘Let’s just do it again,’ says Streep, frustrated by her performance. She and Irons glance at their scripts, compose themselves and then, before our eyes, they become their characters. No special effects are used. The music doesn’t swell. No soft-focus filter is slipped over the lens. Their artistry alone takes them – along with their audience – out of themselves and into a different world.

That moment of transformation into character has long fascinated me. But I’d never considered its flip side, the performer’s conversion from exemplar back to the mere mortal, until I saw Margarita Broich’s remarkable portraits of her fellow actors.

Ben Becker © Margarita Broich‘It is a strange, lonely, special moment,’ she told me during a break from hanging her exhibition When the Curtain Falls (Wenn der Vorhang Fällt). ‘The actor comes off stage, or off the set, and he or she is exhausted but their body is still full of blood, full of steam. They exhale and the props, the costume, the make-up which only a moment before had been theirs – and their character’s – become extraneous trappings. Yet the role is still in their eyes, in the face. It’s that moment between curtain fall and dressing room which I want to capture with my camera.’

Broich is one of Germany’s major actresses but before stepping onto the stage she trained as a photographer. At home in Neuwied both her father and elder brother were avid amateur snappers and Broich inherited their passion. At thirteen she had her own darkroom. She chose to study photography at the Fachhochschule Dortmund and, aged 21, became official photographer of Bochum’s Schauspielhaus. Then in 1983 she switched to drama school in Berlin.

‘I never chose one profession above the other,’ she told me, hair blonde hair wild and tangled. ‘But on the day I moved to Berlin, all my equipment – four Nikons, two Leicas and 12 lenses – was stolen. I was so shocked that I didn’t pick up a camera again for years.’

For the next two decades Broich focused on her acting career: performing dozens of roles at the Deutsches Theatre and the Schiller Theatre, joining the Berliner Ensemble, starring alongside Kate Winslet in The Reader.

Self Portrait © Margarita BroichThen one evening in 2001 at the end of a performance of Christoph Schlingensief’s Rosebud she caught her reflection in the dressing room mirror. ‘My character had been killed in a car accident and, in the mirror, I saw myself covered in stage blood, looking terrible yet real and beautiful in a way. The next evening I brought a camera and took my self-portrait.’

During the play’s run, and in her subsequent appearances, Broich began to photograph her fellow actors, trying to hold on to ‘that strange state’ at the end of a performance.

‘I could only photograph friends or colleagues who I knew and respected. I couldn’t take a picture of a stranger. I’m much too shy,’ she said with a laugh, her green eyes shining.

At that point – after years of treading the boards - she had begun to lose her love of the theatre. But her portraits – and close observation of the art of performance – restored her love for the profession. ‘I saw theatre’s ancient Greek roots – the link between mortals and the gods,’ she explained.

‘At the most I have ten minutes to take a photograph. When the actor or actress comes off the stage, and drop their role, they want to relax, to take a shower, to drink a beer. So I work quickly, with natural light, without an assistant. Every actor understands instinctively what I am trying to do. Kate Winslet saw it as soon as I showed her my pictures.’

Kate Winslet © Margarita BroichBroich’s Berlin show, When the Curtain Falls, displaying 60 of her most arresting and powerful portraits including those of Klaus Maria Brandauer, John Malkovich, Kate Winslet, Clemens Schick and her husband Martin Wuttke, is at the Martin-Gropius-Bau until the end of May. A catalogue of the exhibition is available from Alexander Verlag Berlin. At the same time the Contributed Studio for the Arts is offering prints for sale. This month also five of her largest portraits are on show at Hamburg’s Haus der Photographie.

‘I don’t see the world behind the curtain as an exotic place because I am a part of it. The theatre is my home...or at least my second home.’ Then she added, ‘For me it makes sense that these two circles – acting and photography – have come together.’

With those words, and with her iPhone ringing, Margarita Broich gathered herself to return to the gallery. ‘You know, the reality for almost all us actors and actresses is that the phone may not ring for a week or two,’ she said. ‘But then suddenly the days can get so busy. This is what life is, and I like it.’

Rory Maclean
April 2011
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Weblog: Rory’s Berlin-Blog

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