Fifty years ago, in May ’68, a coalition of students and workers stunned the world when they occupied the streets of Paris, demanding better working conditions for all. Today, working-class communities are turning out for far-right, anti-immigrant figures like Marine Le Pen, and such alliances feel like a utopian fantasy. What happened to the European left? (In the U.S., we might ask: What happened to the left, period?)
There’s insight — and enjoyment, too — to be found in German director Thomas Ostermeier’s Returning to Reims, based on the memoir of the same title by French writer Didier Eribon. Now running at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Ostermeier’s piece is an elegant study in the subtleties of labor and power, relating the tale of Eribon’s reckoning with his working-class roots while embodying theatrical adaptation at its best. It’s true to its source, yet revelatory in its translation to the stage.
In the book, Eribon, following the death of his father, revisits Reims, the city of his youth. His family lived heavily circumscribed lives, laboring on assembly lines, with alcohol and crime offering the only escapes. And yet, Eribon recalls, Reims was resolutely Communist, seeing bosses — not immigrants — as the enemy. Over time, the leaders of the radical left ascended into government, increasingly ignoring the working-class voters they’d once inspired.
Eribon, meanwhile, escaped through education — eager, as a gay man, to leave behind Reims’s homophobic culture; and, as an intellectual, to erase the traces of his working-class identity. Ostermeier’s retelling unfolds in a recording studio — wood-paneled walls, shiny soundproof booth — where a filmmaker, Paul (Bush Moukarzel), is turning Returning to Reims into a documentary. He’s hired an actress, Katy (Nina Hoss), to do voice-over, and as she reads Eribon’s text, footage of the writer’s journey plays on a large screen. A sound engineer, Toni (Ali Gadema), sits at the controls, adjusting volume and video in accordance with Paul’s requests.
Sounds like a simple setup, right? And, maybe, one better suited to film than live theater? That’s what Ostermeier might like you to suspect. Nearly halfway through, however, Katy abruptly interrupts herself, objecting to a cut Paul’s made in Eribon’s text. They argue — she thinks he’s missing Eribon’s point; he thinks she’s overstepping — and, gradually, our attention shifts from the story onscreen to the story in the studio. Is Katy an employee or a creative collaborator? Is Toni a buddy, or a worker whose labor and goodwill Paul is exploiting? (Toni’s a cash-strapped single dad, yet he offered his services to Paul at a friendly discount.) Though the trio is far from directly embodying the class politics of Eribon’s tale, their tensions insightfully expand on his broader analysis, revealing how we (intentionally and not) reinforce power structures in our own lives. Stunningly detailed performances by Hoss, Moukarzel, and Gadema make this exploration more riveting than you might think political theory could be in a theatrical setting.
Ostermeier doesn’t have answers. In fact, when Paul tries to conclude his film with a grand call-to-arms for a renewed radical left, Katy shoots him down. But the director’s ending hints at the generative possibilities that simply listening to others might offer. Katy’s father, she reveals, was a working-class Communist too, but unlike Eribon’s altered his circumstances and perspective through activism, education, and, most importantly, intersectionality — understanding inequality as a function of multiple forces, not a single enemy. He led a remarkable life, eventually founding the German Green Party and traveling to Brazil to help bring clean water to remote rainforest villages. She tells his story, and it starts to feel like the first real communication we’ve seen all night. Toni and Paul are listening. We are, too.