Transnational/migrant actors: A certain case of invisibility I

November 6, 2008 at 12:51 am

There is a scene in István Szabó’s Mephisto (1981), a film which tackles the case of actor Hendrik Hoefgen (based on famous German actor Gustaf Gründgens), where his friend, the actress Nicoletta von Niebuhr is shown pondering on the advantages and disadvantages of emigrating. She is clearly aware that her career would face decline once abroad, and articulates her concerns over her chances to master a foreign accent or over other types of marginalization she would be likely to face. It is a fateful conversation, which proves decisive not only for her but for the protagonist as well, who decides to stay in Nazi Germany (and returns there even when he has got the chance to emigrate easily). By staying in his native country he enjoys a high profile career indeed, but also becomes a Nazi collaborator. In any case, by committing to a national culture, even if to a problematic one, he avoids the danger of becoming invisible.

This was back in the 1930s, or more than seventy years ago. Things have changed, and the migrations of actors over the years have increased. Yet, scrutinizing the creative paths of those actors who go into emigration today and build transnational careers is most instructive, especially as one traditionally believes that for actors, faced with the challenge of mastering new languages and accents, emigration often spells the end to a career. Having looked closely in the cases of many actors who emigrated out of various Eastern European contexts over the past decade or so, I can clearly establish that it is only singular actors who are able to sustain meaningfully visible careers abroad, and it is a mixture of resilience and luck that proves decisive in the process. Many vanish, or even worse, make appearances in films that are of a much lower quality than the ones in which they have launched their careers, and, having moved over to the nearly invisible periphery, keep working but are never noticed.

Migrant actresses remain invisible even when cast in key roles. For example, international critics nearly unanimously destroyed Bruno Dumont’s Twenty-nine Palms (France/ Germany/ USA 2003), featuring Russian-Lithuanian-French Actress Katia (Yekaterina) Golubeva (pictured here in Claire Denis’ L’Intrus, 2004). Their criticisms of the film were directed elsewhere, yet most of them spoke of the actress as a completely unknown face dug out by Dumont from who knows where. In fact, Golubeva has been a more or less permanent presence in films by Sharunas Bartas since the late 1980s, so these same critics are likely to have not only watched her but also to have praised her for performances in a range of films at the festivals they frequent. In addition, she played significant parts in well-known French art house films such as Claire Denis’s J’ai pas sommeil/I Cannot Sleep (France/Switzerland 1994) and L’Intrus/The Intruder (France 2004) and the lead in Leos Carax’s Pola X (France/Switzerland/Germany/Japan 1999), all extensively covered by these same international critics. Yet, in her new reincarnation in the Californian desert, Katia Golubeva remained unrecognized and was treated as a newcomer (or, rather, not particularly welcomed outsider). Similar examples can be discovered in the case of many other migrant actresses (e.g. Croatian star Mira Furlan, Russian Chulpan Khamatova, Polish veteran Grazyna Szapolowska, the Lithuanian-Russian Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Serbian Branka Katić and Mirjana Joković), all stars of award-winning films by directors such as Kieslowski or Kusturica, yet unrecognized in the Western productions they have appeared in lately. One discovers that these actresses have managed to keep themselves employed by appearing in perfectly respectable Western European or American films even after changing countries. In reality, however, they remain known only in the context of their original national cinema; their transnational work remains invisible.

The situation with migrant male actors is similar. The most successful among the East Europeans are those who, while abroad, are happy to embrace the limitations of typecasting and play the roles of Eastern European villains or migrant patriarchs. This fully applies, for example, to former DEFA star Armin Mueller-Stahl and to Yugoslav Rade Serbedzija, who enjoy high-profile international careers today. Both actors maintain a remarkable transatlantic schedule by regularly taking on roles in Hollywood, in American art-house and indie films, as well as in films made in a range of European or other countries (New Zealand, Canada, Australia), and in their countries of origin. They both are well-known for roles that link them to their Eastern European heritage and tradition: Armin Mueller-Stahl recently played a London-based Russian Godfather in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007) while Serbedzija (pictured), who, to his credit, has persisted in retaining his difficult name unchanged even under the temptation to Westernize it by making it somewhat easier to spell or pronounce, has readily embraced the roles of an Eastern European mafioso, Russian gangster or underground trader, in a range of international productions since the mid 1990s.

© Dina Iordanova
6 November 2008