„The Inheritance“ opened the 2023 Berlin Theatertreffen. The play’s director Philipp Stölzl spoke with the TT Blog about privilege, hard work, and a love of art.
TT-Blog: Philipp, why did you decide to create a play that is seven hours long in these times of fast-paced, short attention spans?
Philipp Stölzl: Even today, there has to be room in the theater for intense experiences. I felt like doing a long play because I myself was inspired by long narratives on stage. At the Theatertreffen, too, there have often been long plays like Castorff’s „Faust“. It’s great to spend the day in the theater and surrender to a narrative. It does something to you.
TT-Blog:In what way?
Philipp Stölzl: There’s a difference between leaving this world again after an hour and a half – eating, drinking, returning to the real world. Or immersing yourself in a story for hours.
TT-Blog: … that doesn’t just briefly push the everyday away but draws you deep into a world. „The Inheritance“ was sometimes announced as a play about the LGBTQ community and HIV. But it was also about emotional connections between people. About how relationships change. What themes should get more attention in film and theater?
Philipp Stölzl: In terms of „The Inheritance“, it irritated me that it was discussed primarily as a play about the AIDS epidemic. The epidemic plays a role in the characters‘ past. But I think it’s more of a social panorama of that time. It’s about relationships – how you love and desire and disappoint each other. About how one fails because of one’s own self-lies. But also, about the theme of loss: of love, of people who pass away. What the souls that continue to surround us tell us. General human issues are dealt with. In a broad but serious way.
TT-Blog: In other words, topics that appeal to a wide range of viewers.
Philipp Stölzl: If you look at the audience, of course, there are people who are part of the LGBTQ community. But there are also a lot of people of other sexual orientations – older people, hetero couples – who the play touches deeply. Even though it’s exclusively about gay men. Because it is told in such a way that you can relate to it. Reading Dostoevsky also immerses you in a world long gone. Nevertheless, it is powerful literature that still tells us a lot today. One characteristic of powerful texts is that they move people, even though they are about people who are different from oneself.
TT-Blog: Does the statement reflect your own view of art?
Philipp Stölzl: Art has the potential to create a projection surface for one’s own feelings and thoughts. At certain times in life, elements from a production connect with oneself. Art also has to do with overwriting. I once made a music video for Madonna, for the song „American Pie.“ I asked her why she was taking a German to film an American song. She said she wanted a view from a distance – because that gives clarity. Sometimes it helps to see more clearly when you’re one step away.
TT-Blog: „You’re going to do what they couldn’t do. You’re going to live.“ The last sentence of your production. What do you associate with that?
Philipp Stölzl: I’ll take a step back first. Henry is the last character on stage. He sees the house and says he could see everything: the past, the present, and the future. He feels like he’s totally suspended with his ties to the world, to people, to a place. That’s what you get sometimes in life. Henry’s story is told in flashbacks. He is someone who couldn’t handle the plague, the dying, the loss. That’s why he decided to stop loving. He couldn’t love anymore, a protective mechanism. All those years he didn’t love – and didn’t live. In the end, Eric leaves him because he needs real love. Then Henry says, „Don’t leave me, I’ve done everything wrong.“ But it’s too late. Still, he stands there then, and the dead Walter emerges as a soul. He tells him that he’s getting a chance, he’s not too old, and he hasn’t missed his life.
TT-Blog: What is the message?
Philipp Stölzl: At any moment you can start over and say, I’m going to do it right this time, open up to feelings and become capable of love. It’s a call to live now. The many deaths from the epidemic are all lives not lived. How many great people have been lost to the epidemic? Walter gives Henry this task: so many couldn’t live, you survived, finally live now, every day is a gift.
TT-Blog: In the production, HIV is first portrayed as a plague that kills. Later it is portrayed as a plague that kills if you are poor. I perceived a social critique in „The Inheritance“ because you can save yourself if you have the necessary and financial resources.
Those who live in industrialized countries have a higher life expectancy in every respect. This can be illustrated by the example of HIV. Anyone who is HIV-positive in Germany today can live relatively well because medication is available. This is not the case in all countries. In connection with the Ukraine war, I read an article about the Wagner Group. They took prisoners from Russian prisons and put them on the front lines – as cannon fodder. There were many HIV-positive prisoners who went because they assumed, they didn’t have long to live anyway. This way, they at least get the opportunity to spend the end of their lives in freedom – that’s crazy. But then I thought: if you’re an imprisoned drug addict in Russia and have HIV, you’re screwed. There is a lack of accountability and social justice. This lack is also discussed between Henry and Eric in the play. Henry doesn’t want Eric to take Leo to live with him. He says, „Give him money and send him out on the street.“ Eric responds by saying, „The Constitution applies to everyone, not just to those with good tax advisors.“
TT-Blog: The critique of how society deals with poverty was strong in „The Inheritance.“
Philipp Stölzl: The play cuts from the rich real estate owner (Henry) down to the hustler (Leo) who nearly dies on the street. It is a burning glass of social injustice and irresponsibility of the rich and middle class to the poor.
TT-Blog: Is society too fragmented?
Philipp Stölzl: Fragmentation is one thing. The problem is that individualism has too much to do with self-centeredness. What is lacking? A sense of responsibility for one another. However, everyone has to do their part to make it work. By that, I don’t just mean the richer being there for the poorer but also shared responsibility for our climate. When I see the „Last Generation“ experiencing hostility and people complaining about being stuck in traffic jams…. People better think about what is important for their children and great-grandchildren.
TT-Blog: And what is mainstream in your eyes?
Philipp Stölzl: That’s a broad term. I prefer to use „broad.“ I like art that wants to be widely read. My favorite musical theater venue is the Seebühne Bregenz, which is open-air, huge. I have staged there. A lot of people come there who have never seen opera before. That’s not a professional audience.
TT-Blog: What is special about it?
Philipp Stölzl: That art opens up and is accessible to many. I have an affinity for narratives, storytelling, and vocabulary that tend to work more simply. I want you to be able to put a teenager and an old grandma in it – and both feel captivated. I like it when art invites everyone in. That’s why I also like to go to mainstream cinema. Even though mainstream is actually a term with negative connotations, used by those who distance themselves from an apparent mainstream. It disregards the fact that they are not pigeonholes that really take hold.
TT-Blog: When did you know that you wanted to create art?
Philipp Stölzl: In eleventh grade in my German advanced course, I had a teacher who introduced us to the world of literature and took us to the theater. I was fascinated and went to the theater after my community service, as an intern. When I stood behind the scenes in the blue ambient light while the show was on, I felt that I belonged there. I wanted to work right away, I didn’t attend university. Now I give workshops at universities, in this world that is foreign to me.
TT-Blog: How did your approach to the world of theater develop?
Philipp Stölzl: My father was a museum director. I grew up among art books, pianos, and records. I had the privilege of being raised with input and inspiration. By sixteen, I had gone through the standard works of literature. Even at a young age, I was a hard worker. Also, in my life, I met people who noticed that and encouraged me. After my internship, I got an assistant position. There I met a director who hired me as a set designer.
TT-Blog: What happened next?
Philipp Stölzl: From there I traveled to the East German provinces. I met people who made music videos. They then took me on again. I was committed to it. That’s how you find people who want to work with you. That sounds a little bit like everything has been easy in my life…. It hasn’t. Sometimes I’ve been really lucky – like with the music videos. As for the cinema, it’s been very tedious.
TT-Blog: Behind what a person has achieved, you often don’t see the many rejections and rebuffs they have encountered.
Philipp Stölzl: Sometimes I felt like kicking the script back into the trash can after three versions because I wasn’t getting anywhere with it. I’ve spent a total of three or four years working for the trash can. My whole computer is full of films that were never shot. But that’s how you make art. The other day I was chatting with a cashier at the supermarket, born in the same year as me. She had been sitting behind the cash register all her life. And I thought: Holy shit! Actually, I should light three candles every day. How lucky I was and what a privileged life I lead! I’ve been making a living from art since I graduated from school. That is a gift.
TT-Blog: What was a moment in your career that had a major impact on you?
Philipp Stölzl: I was more of a second-row guy – set designer. I never wanted to be a director. As a director, you’re questioned, and judged. I couldn’t imagine that at first. Then, through Rammstein, I got into this directing thing. That totally changed me as a person.
TT-Blog: In what way?
Philipp Stölzl: You realize you can do it – and you want to do it. You start to grow with your own tasks. Especially as a director of a film, you realize the responsibility. That there are a hundred people on the set waiting to hear what you say. But you grow from that. In the process, I’ve developed self-confidence, serenity, and calmness. At the moment, there’s a lot of talk in film and theater about learning how to be mindful of each other. Especially when I’m the one at the top of the hierarchy, it’s my responsibility to create a warm and mindful climate. If the director is in a bad mood, the whole atmosphere is dull.
TT-Blog: Often, irritability is related to insecurity. At first, you have to accept yourself, that you deserve all this. And after positive experiences, you understand: Actually, I don’t have to doubt myself.
Philipp Stölzl: You have to learn that, especially in filmmaking. Shooting is the smallest part of the process. Nevertheless, on the set, it’s make or break for the director. Whether the work and time spent is in vain – or pays off. As an artist, you have a big want. That’s sometimes overwhelming for others. The task is to find the right balance so that it remains mindful.
Philipp Stölzl is a German director known for his visual productions. Born in Munich in 1967, he began his career as a stage designer and later turned to filmmaking. Stölzl has a penchant for large, epic stories and has worked in both film and musical theater. His works are characterized by powerful imagery, sophisticated aesthetics, and innovative staging.