Ulrich Matthes – Former Chancellor honors actor and friend

Ulrich Matthes – Former Chancellor honors actor and friend

The Adenauer Foundation is inviting people to pay homage to Ulrich Matthes, a great actor. The laudatory speech will be given by the former Chancellor – a theater fan and long-time friend. The connection between the two shows how art influences politics. And vice versa.

Actor Ulrich Matthes always keeps what he discusses with Angela Merkel outside of the theater a big secret. Confidentiality is a prerequisite for the relationship. He only broke this rule once. That was when it was about love.

“I was unhappily in love,” Matthes told filmmaker Torsten Körner on camera in 2021. “And she noticed that immediately.” One evening shortly before the outbreak of the corona pandemic, presumably after a theater performance, Merkel said to him: “You look so gray today. Tell me about it.” And then they spent almost an hour “talking about my shaky state of mind,” Matthes remembers, on the street, surrounded by security guards. At the end, she hugged him, “she really hugged me so much.” And he thought: “Oops, well, yes, that’s how she is.”

Angela Merkel and Ulrich Matthes met at a garden party

It is a remarkable friendship that connects Angela Merkel and Ulrich Matthes. It began before Merkel’s time in government and survived its end after 16 years. Merkel was invited when Matthes received the Federal Cross of Merit 1st Class from Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in May 2022. Matthes was invited when Merkel received the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit almost a year later. This Tuesday they will honor each other for the first time, or more precisely, Merkel will deliver the laudatory speech for Matthes, to whom the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin is dedicating a tribute. Matthes, the foundation writes, is one of the “great mimes of our time, who not least wins over young audiences to the debate on socio-political problems.”

This appointment is not without its piquancy for both Merkel and Matthes. The former chancellor is returning to the foundation whose board she left just a few months ago, which was seen as another indication of a turning away from the CDU. The actor, in turn, is being honored by the foundation of the party that Matthes voted for exactly once: in 2017 – but only out of sympathy and respect for Merkel’s life’s work, as he later reported. And coupled with the announcement: “I won’t vote for the CDU again!”

Matthes chose Merkel as the speaker for this homage, and she agreed. One could assume that it was a kind of personal final exam: After receiving the Order of Merit at Bellevue Palace, Merkel thanked her companions and friends – including Ulrich Matthes, because he had “always taught her a little bit about the art of speaking.” For her political speeches, at least, that can’t have been too many lessons.

Get-to-know-you party in the garden

Merkel and Matthes met at a garden party hosted by filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff (“The Tin Drum”), probably around 2004. Schlöndorff and Matthes had just filmed the film “The Ninth Day” together. In it, Matthes plays a Catholic priest imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp who is allowed to leave the camp for a short time for a diplomatic mission.

Schlöndorff, who has long been on the left in artistic and political terms, supported Merkel in her 2005 election campaign. Like film producer Regina Ziegler, the director is considered to have opened doors for Merkel in the cultural scene. In 2009, Schlöndorff also received a tribute from the Adenauer Foundation – accompanied by a reading by Ulrich Matthes.

The actor, whose father Günther Matthes worked as a journalist for the Berlin “Tagesspiegel”, is interested in politics. And in politicians. “Maybe that’s because my father was a journalist and politicians came to our house from time to time – that gave me an unbiased relationship with big animals,” he told the star. “I just chat to them at receptions.”

In doing so, it seems, he has a good nose for developing power relations. At a party in Berlin hosted by a major daily newspaper in 2019, Matthes sat at the celebrity table. He could have talked to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who had recently become CDU chairwoman and was considered a fairly certain successor to Angela Merkel. But Matthes preferred to put his heads together with a Social Democrat: Olaf Scholz.

Simply chatted up

He also simply chatted up Merkel. In various interviews, Matthes has talked about his first meeting with her at Schlöndorff’s garden party. He asked her about her mother’s apple pie, said Matthes. He had actually eaten it when he was supposed to and wanted to read at a benefit event for a Huguenot church in Templin years before. Horst Kasner, Merkel’s father, had campaigned for the preservation of the small church in the middle of the forest. This anecdote got Matthes and Merkel talking.

“We sat at the same table in a small group all evening and had a good chat,” said Matthes. As he left, he gave her his phone number. “If you go to the German Theater again, maybe we can have a bite to eat afterwards!” That’s how it started. Matthes sometimes adds to this episode with Merkel’s answer that she would pay for her theater tickets herself. That was basically the chancellor-friendly version: no suspicion of taking advantage.

In fact, she kept coming back. And not just to the Deutsches Theater. Many visits are documented by witnesses or mentioned in theater reviews. In 2011, Merkel saw Matthes at the Salzburg Festival in Roland Schimmelpfennig’s “The Four Directions.” In 2012, she saw him in Berlin in John von Düffel’s “Oedipus City.”

“And loyalty is not an empty illusion”

A special event with Matthes at the Deutsches Theater in the same year was dedicated to Wolfgang Schäuble. The Union faction honored the then finance minister on his 70th birthday. The actor read, naturally in Merkel’s presence, Friedrich Schiller’s “The Guarantee,” the famous ballad about friendship and loyalty: “And loyalty is no empty illusion.” Matthes had chosen the ballad himself, also as an allusion to the broken relationship between Schäuble and Helmut Kohl. The former chancellor was invited to the celebration but did not show up.

In April 2019, Merkel attended the premiere of Molière’s Misanthrope. Matthes likes to quote the main character Alceste’s warning to use the term friendship with care: “I fear that this beautiful word is too easily tarnished if it is used all the time and everywhere.”

Merkel also sees plays without Matthes, but talks to him about them afterwards. Over meatballs and mustard, apparently the standard dish in the canteen of the Deutsches Theater, they discussed in 2019 after a performance of Sophocles’ highly political Antigone, in which it says, among other things: “He who only governs according to his own will soon rule alone in an empty country.” Twelve days after the end of her term in office, Merkel attended the premiere of Kleist’s “The Broken Jug” in December 2021. Matthes played the village judge Adam.

They giggle a lot with each other

The conversations with Angela Merkel are “always particularly detailed,” Matthes once said. “Sometimes she takes a long time after the performance and talks to me alone for an hour just about the play.” She then asks about details of the production or the acting and thinks out loud about what she has just seen: How do compromises come about in politics? How does the pressure of public opinion work. She likes to introduce such associations with the flirtatious statement that she doesn’t know much about theater, but…

When Matthes wanted to reach Merkel when she was still Chancellor, he sent her a handwritten fax. Not to the Chancellery, but to her home. He did not have her cell phone number. It is possible that he wrote to her during the Corona period. In a double interview with Wolfgang Schäuble in 2021, Matthes complained in starthat, in the wake of the closure of public facilities, culture had been relegated to the ranks of “fairgrounds, brothels, nail salons and so on.” This had led to alienation in the cultural scene. Failures and mistakes with masks, testing and vaccinations had also occurred. “You can see that my willingness to defend politics has been damaged,” Matthes said at the time.

The personal relationship with Merkel has survived this too. “For love as well as for friendship there is one decisive criterion: a shared sense of humor,” Matthes once said. “So sometimes we really do giggle a lot with each other.”

Source: Stern

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