Nina Hoss
Nina Hoss | © Pascal Bünning
Both the author of these notes and the notes themselves are, of course, fictitious. Nevertheless, such people as the writer of these notes not only can but must exist in our society – taking into consideration those circumstances in which our society was formed. I wanted to bring before the public more distinctly than usual one of the characters of the recent past. He is a representative of a generation that has survived to this day. In this fragment entitled The Underground, this person introduces himself and his views, and apparently wishes to explain those reasons as a result of which that generation appeared and was bound to appear in our midst. Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Judith Gerstenberg: Fyodor Dostoyevsky published Notes from Underground in 1864 in the St. Petersburg monthly magazine Epocha. In order to explain what he was trying to achieve he added the preface above. The text marks the beginning of the main phase of his writing and it opens up the philosophical horizons that would feature in the great novels that followed. Dear Nina Hoss, you are currently immersing yourself in the thoughts of the character who is supposed to have written these notes. Who are we going to meet in the year 2023?

Nina Hoss (laughs) That’s what we’re busy trying to find out. We’ve reached the end of our first block of rehearsals and I’m aware of the huge challenge that this text represents. As an actor developing this character, right now I have a hunch but no firm knowledge as yet. I like that. The text demands an intense level of engagement and it shakes up assumptions I’ve happily accepted until now. I feel caught out by many of the ideas it articulates, but I can also see the contradictions in them and I am dubious about their resistance to logic. This makes it hard to absorb the lines – and yet I’m absolutely fascinated. This text plants questions inside me that then make me judge my everyday life in relation to them. In almost every situation I find myself in I feel I am engaged with these thoughts. That’s something I really enjoy about working in the theatre: the chance to spend a lengthy period of time occupied with such a strong literary partner, trying things out and looking for things. In the film industry, where most of my work has been in recent years, that’s almost inconceivable. You ask who people are going to meet here…

… yes, whether the generation that this character belongs to has survived into our own time, even though the text is more than 150 years old?

NH Absolutely. This person, who is speaking here, will inevitably survive as long as we human beings continue to exist. Because the underlying basis of the text has to do with the belief that we can control ourselves and everything around us. But it appears – and again the present is demonstrating this very clearly – that humans are unable to do this. Every time he thinks he’s behaving in a »civilized« fashion and thinks he’s on top of everything, something throws a spanner in the works, something irrational and at times destructive. Even if it’s just wanting to smash everything up so that he can then put it back together again. A will suddenly emerges that defies all logic. Evidently people are not concerned with attaining their objectives but with continuously striving to do so.

The text shakes up assumptions I’ve happily accepted until now. Nina Hoss

Humans, we are told, can be distinguished from animals by free will. This free will is confirmed negatively. It can be contrary to their own interests, contrary to all reason, contrary to all the laws of nature. And they can act on it simply because they can. And that’s what the person telling the story does here.

Barbara Frey: This is the text’s dark centre. Dostoyevsky’s protagonist articulates a vehement protest against the Enlightenment project that is still a core part of our Western identity today. This tells us that humans will progressively evolve to become nobler, better creatures if only we can finally understand ourselves. But we don’t understand ourselves and never will. And that leaves a deep wound. This enigma of human nature is what we are exploring in this year’s Ruhrtriennale programme. So far, no form of psychoanalysis, no critical theory, no philosophy and no science has been able to provide us with definitive information. It is something the first-person narrator in Dostoyevsky’s text points out and we see that as a provocation. Heiner Müller once said, elaborating on one of Dostoyevsky’s ideas: The real problem is there are solutions everywhere. We don’t have too many problems, but too many solutions. Solutions suggest that there is some form of knowledge that we don’t have or aren’t using otherwise we wouldn’t destroy that basis for our own lives.

Has Enlightenment failed as a project?

NH  Can we even think that? At least the character is struggling to be truthful and that’s why his vehement protest is directed against our belief that everything is always improving and that we can leave the bad things behind us: which is what our laws, our education system and our humanist view of the world are all based on.

BF The Enlightenment project is what drives all our striving, but also our faith in reason and intelligence. But that’s what’s so fascinating about the text. It asks why the world then is the way it is. What is society not achieving? Where does its failure lie? Why isn’t humanity becoming nobler? Why are we still fighting wars? Why do we treat each other so cruelly? And the insistence of the questioning also creates a comedy that is something I really like about the text and that immediately made me think of Nina Hoss. It needs a mind like hers, which is capable of making all the facets of this stream of consciousness shine and teasing out the humour in it. Nina is a great comedienne. This might surprise anyone who’s only seen her film work, where she tends to play darker, more serious roles.

NH You really do get caught up in this text like a spider’s web. This leads to a number of comic situations because there is no way out of the entanglement of being part of what you are criticising.  This person is expressing what he’s thinking in the moment, the process, the digressions, yet he’s claiming to have planned each and every detail in advance. We can see that this character really delights in phrase-making and beautiful language, in continually searching for a more telling expression. And sometimes it knocks him off his stride and leads to contradictions. This monologue, this self-interrogation is very lively. And that’s why I don’t find the text depressing, even if its view of humanity is extremely unflattering.

BF I also think the character is cunning and enjoys deception and trickery, the sentences take sidesteps, go round corners and relish artistic and literary expressions and the assertive power of language.  The fact that the character rejects the formula 2+2=4 is proof of his own existence, it is how he constructs his own ego. And that’s why I also interpret Notes from Underground as a manifesto for the desire to live.

NH Ultimately it is also a text about how art is created. How many doubts have to be overcome, in order to take action. At the end, the character, criticising his own lack of action, says that he is now going to start writing. And he clearly sees this as an opportunity. It will give shape to his thinking. And there you can see how important encounters are for him, as they are the only way that that shape can be tested. The character – so he claims – has deliberately turned his back on society, on active life, and retreated underground but there is also a kind of activity in his attempt to understand his own criticisms, to be true to himself.

Here I see art’s cathartic method of making people aware of their misery and taking away their superficial satisfactions. The underground of the title, which you just mentioned, refers both to a marginalised place of refuge away from society but also to what is unconscious and repressed (even if Freud would not emerge until later). Our underground is on the top floor of the Mischanlage at Zeche Zollverein. Why did you choose this location?

We’re there in the Mischanlage in the midst of a dream that has died. Barbara Frey

BF Here we are entering a building that has lost its purpose. The only reason these spaces still exist is because they are protected monuments. The process for which they were originally built no longer happens there. Their lack of meaning is something you experience physically. And the text erupts into that vacuum, filling its emptiness with ideas. Ideas that were already questioning the positivistic belief in progress, in the development of technology, the ability to control nature and the enlightenment of human beings back in the middle of the 19th century. And the text has been vindicated. We’re there in the Mischanlage in the midst of a dream that has died – and we become aware that more than anything else, progress has meant destruction. Of course, I like the fact that these spaces still speak to us. You can imagine hearing the voices of the people who worked and suffered there. This vision of the past is just as present as our awareness today that re-evaluates that vision. And that friction is valuable for artistic purposes. 

NH Art is capable of accepting things and people and of showing them the way they are. It doesn’t place a value on them, it doesn’t look for answers and it doesn’t correct them. That’s challenging. It forces you to look yourself straight in the face, warts and all, with no mercy. It challenges your own thinking when you’re reading, listening and watching. It productively upsets convenient assurances.   For this reason, I find the text hugely liberating. In it, someone says something out loud that is monstrous, disappointing but true. And that is why engaging with it is so intense – and right now it's driving me mad.

From the decades she spent working on Dostoyevsky, the translator Swetlana Geier was convinced that not a single word was ever superfluous: every sentence, every repetition, every fine detail of the syntax was part of a brilliant rhetorical pattern. Nina, how do you find his language?

NH Voluptuous! It’s someone who is passionately enjoying listening to himself, someone who knows just how beautifully he can put words together. And, of course, it’s very theatrical.

BF This voluptuousness is evident in the fun of finding one more argument against the supposedly shining edifice of the Enlightenment. At the time when Notes from Underground was written, this had actually materialised in London in the form of the Crystal Palace built for the Great Exhibition. That illusion of transparency is what the character speaking here rages against. And the same arguments can also be used against today’s plate glass corporate headquarters and parliament buildings. The character loves exaggerating shamelessly. His rage is quite manic. But within that excess there is also a desire to make things known.

NH This fury also has an eroticism and a desire to seduce, to break someone else’s toys. Its comedy lies in his savagery and at times injustice, but also in the fact that here someone is claiming to have everything under control while at the same time he’s saying this claim is humanity’s big mistake.

Dostoyevsky’s I is male. What happens to the text when it spoken by a woman?

BF I like imagining a woman’s voice in this industrial architecture shaped by men, the mixture of the bitterly cold mind of Dostoyevsky’s text and the charm of Nina Hoss. Lots of things go through your head in a place like this – some of them very dark. As a woman it’s possible you see things differently, but – above all – you are also seen differently. That does nothing to change the fact that the ideas expressed here are universal and not tied to one specific gender.

NH Perhaps it is still surprising for a woman to speak like this and to give herself so much space to talk, apparently with great self-confidence, about fundamental things. I admit that acting out this attitude is also great fun.

NINA HOSS, born in Stuttgart in 1975, is a multi-award-winning, international film and theatre actor. This interview was conducted in February 2023, in the Studios am Hansaplatz in Berlin, where rehearsals were held. A few days later, her latest film, Todd Field’s award-winning music drama Tár, was shown in competition at the Berlinale. She has a long artistic association with the director and Ruhrtriennale Artistic Director BARBARA FREY, which began in 2005 at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin and continued at Schauspielhaus Zürich. JUDITH GERSTENBERG is Lead Dramaturg for Theatre, Dance and Performance at the Ruhrtriennale.

Translated by David Tushingham