Laudation for Tilda Swinton
as part of the 21st Hamburg Film Festival 2013
Wednesday, 2 October 2013, Cinemaxx 1, 9.00 p.m.
To give a truthful account of London society at that, or indeed at any other time, is beyond the powers of the biographer or the historian. Only those who have little need for the truth, and no respect for it – the poets and novelists – can be trusted to do it, for this is one of the cases where the truth does not exist. Nothing exists. The whole thing is a miasma – a mirage.
- Virginia Woolf, Orlando
Good evening ladies and gentlemen, good evening, good evening, it’s wonderful that we are all here this evening and have the pleasure of celebrating a true star – the exceptional Tilda Swinton. It is, of course, an absolute pleasure to sing her praises, but it is also going to be a huge challenge to do justice to such a unique, great actress who has become an unmistakeable artist in her own right. That is something which cannot be said of many actors.
And acting is hardly a profession she was born into. Her father, Major-General Sir John Swinton of Kimmerghame, often played polo with Prince Philip in the Forties and, at the age of 58, performed a parachute jump over the Suez Canal. He was from a long line of nobility – valiant warriors whose lineage could be traced back to the Middle Ages, and many of whom – as Virginia Woolf reports of the ancestors of her Orlando (we’ll come back to that) – had struck many heads off many shoulders.
Her mother’s lineage cannot be traced quite as far back into the past, but her ancestors are said to include the botanist John Hutton Balfour and perhaps also Lord Darnley, who was for many years the lover of Maria Stuart, and who became her second husband before being killed by her third.
In keeping with her noble background, Tilda attended the very best boarding schools, including the legendary West Heath School where she became friends with Diana Spencer, who shared her love of sport. Diana was a brilliant swimmer, while Tilda loved playing hockey – and she was so good that she even played in the Scottish national team. After leaving school, the two girls were then let loose in London, and an exciting time began for Tilda.
She was young, she was rich, she looked magnificent. No one could have been received with more acclamation than she was, yet she rejected many marriage proposals – including one from someone who went on to become Prime Minister – because she stubbornly refused to be trapped by a marriage contract. So when Diana whispered to her that she was going to be engaged to a prince, she was deeply shocked and joined the Communist Party. At the same time – and all of this is according to Wikipedia and other media I have consulted, by the way – she left her hockey team and went on to study English Literature at Cambridge, with a few semesters of theoretical biochemistry thrown in. But all that got a little too theoretical for her liking, so she tried joining the Royal Shakespeare Company. However, the theatre there bored her after a while as well, so she decided to take the plunge and leave this type of theatre behind her. Thankfully she did not leave theatre altogether – instead, she met Derek Jarman (and now I will increasingly speak of events I know of from personal experience).
Admittedly, until then, Derek had only filmed interesting super 8 millimetre films featuring half-naked young men that were destined for a select audience, but now he wanted to try his hand at a narrative film. And because he liked Tilda straight away, she was given a much respected role, and the film – “Caravaggio” – became a sensation that led to great things for Tilda. The film was invited to the Berlinale in 1986, where – as can be accounted for by Dietrich Kuhlbrodt, who is here with us tonight – she met the young Christoph Schlingensief, who also wanted to make a film with her straight away.
And now we come to a link with Hamburg. The film was to be shot on the North Sea coast, so Christoph brought together his team in the Petersen artists’ residence in the Langen Reihe. The rest of the story is perhaps interesting for those of you who are young enough not to remember how quickly it used to be possible to make films, even in difficult circumstances. So I looked for both of them in their artists’ residence and took Tilda to the Nagel pub to present to her a project of my own which would be set in the Pacific. She said yes to me straightaway as well – not least because Derek, who knew me, had encouraged her to do so. We discussed where I should send the flight tickets, then, after just four beers, we said goodbye.
Back then, the effects of global warming could not be felt as keenly as they are today – on the contrary: that winter was the coldest and hardest in living memory. When I watched the news on TV, I saw that in Husum, just to the north of Hamburg, some migrating birds had frozen in mid-air and fallen to the ground like stones from the sky, while elsewhere entire forests had died due to the harsh conditions. Christoph’s filming was taking place on the island of Hallig Langeneß, where the team was soon cut off by pack ice. Despite this, Christoph managed to complete his best film yet – “Egomania - Insel ohne Hoffnung” (Egomania – Island without Hope”).
One week after Christoph’s filming, I picked Tilda up at Nadi airport in Fiji, where she had landed as agreed. But what a contrast – it was 45 degrees in the shade. On the same day, there was a power cut all over Fiji, and the electricity supply was not restored during the following weeks. The heat remained unbearable, which is why we – and our co-producer Marion Kollbach, who is also here tonight and can vouch for this – soon decided to continue filming at sea. So I hired two boats – one of them a magnificent ketch – which then, as only those of you from Hamburg will understand, became the real star of the film. Because, after all, why have a beautiful woman when you can have a ship?
I could talk about this for hours, but seeing as everything is now available on DVD, the point of the story is that Tilda had to go to San Francisco for an audition in Hollywood straight afterwards and only just managed to catch her plane from Suva. She was meant to be playing the main role in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” – but this didn’t quite work out, and the role was given to Juliette Binoche. And so, after all the twists and turns provided by her adventure in the world of the rather extreme German film d’auteur, she returned to the rather more temperate London.
In the years which followed, she and Derek Jarman – who was very active in the gay liberation movement in the Thatcher years – cooperated very closely to create works whose psychological diversity I cannot even begin to describe, especially as Derek was soon diagnosed with AIDS, which meant that these would be some of his last works. No less important was the group of incredibly creative people who had become associated with him – especially the amazing costume designer Sandy Powell, who was recently awarded an Oscar for the costumes she designed for “Young Victoria”. Time and again, Tilda emphasises in interviews how important it was for her to have become part of such a group without class having to play a role, as is so often the case in the UK. The group, on the other hand, increasingly saw her as a classically inspiring muse. She was always on call when Derek’s films needed a touch of other-worldliness. In most cases, just a few short minutes of her presence were sufficient to achieve this. This was also the case in the best and most complex of his films at that time, “The Last of England”, where Tilda appeared as a despairing bride who rips open her wedding dress with a huge pair of scissors to give the film a sense of spirituality which goes much further than what one individual can experience.
Of course, she also found time to appear in films by other filmmakers. One of these was Sally Potter’s “Orlando” – a spectacular adaptation of the famous novel by Virginia Woolf, which catapulted her career into the limelight in such a way that she could not have stopped it then even if she had wanted to. It led her to act in films where her co-stars were no longer all eccentric, gay guys, but included Nicolas Cage, Bill Murray, Michael Caine, Leonardo DiCaprio, John Malkovich, Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Brad Pitt and even Bruce Willis – in other words, all the best-looking men that international cinema has to offer! This all led to her becoming so famous that it comes as no surprise to hear that she recently filmed a spectacular music video with David Bowie. Rather than being surprised, we just say: “We would expect no less!”
In Orlando, she played a so-called “breeches role” as a naive young man from a very good family who wants to become a poet, but ends up as the favourite of Queen Elizabeth in 1600, and during the hardest winter of all time in 1610 – much harder even than what Schlingensief’s team had to endure on the island of Langeneß – falls in love with a Russian princess who rejects him, leading him to fall into a deep, lovesick slumber. He awakens from this sleep in 1650 as British ambassador in Constantinople, where he faints after getting caught up in a local revolt. In 1750 he wakes up once again, but this time he is no longer a man – instead, he is a perfectly formed woman and Tilda becomes a “she”. This “she” returns to England as a lady to take part in discussions in literary salons and, after another period of sleep, to dive into the Victorian era. There, she marries and gets pregnant by a mysterious man who then disappears straight away, before her journey ends in noisy, modern London. The film is a festival of exquisite, often exotic locations featuring many extras, which covers four centuries of British life and is accompanied by a huge selection of unusual costumes, hairstyles and wigs which Sandy Powell adapted perfectly to suit Tilda’s appearance. It was co-produced by the Russian company Len-Film in locations such as Uzbekistan and a wintry St Petersburg.
This was Tilda’s most expensive film to date: it cost 5 million dollars, looked as though it cost 60 million, and it generated that much in revenue within just one year, meaning that finally, Tilda was no longer seen by film producers as a wallflower.
But Orlando is more than just a demonstration of Tilda’s incredibly adaptable acting presence – a demonstration which suddenly increased her value on the market. It was equally important that Virginia Woolf had dedicated the original novel to her friend Vita Sackville West – a writer of travel guides who often travelled to exotic parts of the world dressed as a man. This meant that Orlando was meant to be a woman right from the beginning – a woman who temporarily took on the roles of men. This means that Orlando’s love affairs – for example, when he climbs discreetly into the bed of the 70-year-old Elizabeth – have an unusual lesbian foundation with which Tilda and Sally Potter broke away from the atmosphere surrounding Derek Jarman. In the rest of Tilda’s career, this translated into consciously chosen, sometimes rather bizarre gender bending roles which set precedents in the art scene, as well as in fashion and advertising. This became even more obvious when she no longer merely posed aggressively in her masculine roles, but suddenly – for example in Susan Streitfeld's "Female Perversions" – started to portray women in their forties who really live in a man’s world and act in a way that is no less neurotic or success-oriented than ambitious men. With her realistic, dynamic and absolutely exceptional acting, a remote Elizabethan fairytale disappeared once and for all in the brutal twists and turns of the zeitgeist. Throughout all this she remained, as had been the case in Derek Jarman’s group, an unusual object of intense curiosity. At the same time, this presented a huge danger for the world of men, meaning that while she filmed with all the good-looking actors around, her characters were only very rarely the objects of their desires. Instead, she was always cast as a dangerous siren on cliffs which had to be avoided at any cost by the hero. This gave her a certain British aloofness.
And the active courage she showed at all times during these roles can be summed up by a sentence from the very beginning of Orlando, which she may hardly have been aware of but which was likely part of her motivation: Though heir to a name which meant power, land and property, it wasn't privilege he sought, but company. This sentence sums up Tilda’s life. She too inherited a name from nobility, but she chose neither to yearn for high society nor to disappear into the anonymity of feminine gentleness. This is why, throughout her whole life, she remained addicted to finding creative situations such as that which she discovered with Derek and the others. Virginia Woolf’s book then served as a priceless archive of everything that a young woman with everything going for her can achieve – especially when she has the strength to defy convention. And we can assume that this archive of advice influenced some of Tilda’s more risky decisions, seeing as it contains the experiences of a 45-year-old who shaped the Bloomsbury Group over two decades – a group which brought together all the creative and emotional intelligence which Britain had to offer at the time. There would be no better advice than this for young British women until the turn of the millennium.
Perhaps this lets us understand a little better to what extent Tilda experienced her times in Hollywood with such cool composure, and why, as she pointed out many times, she often came across as a kind of researcher rather than as an actress.
It was with this same curiosity that she continued to take part in small-scale projects. For example, in 1988 she cycled the length of the Berlin Wall for Cynthia Beatt, who was Production Director for our film set in the Pacific. They created a priceless historical document, and recently they retraced their steps in modern-day Berlin. This also shows that Tilda has never planned her career with a clear goal in mind – for example winning an Oscar – in order to gain fame and live the high life. Instead, she seems to see her work as a lifelong project which needs to be approached in a pro-active way, and in which everything she has encountered during her life is combined in as varied a way as possible. Perhaps the most touching and sincere example of this was at the Berlin International Film Festival, when she and Christoph Schlingensief were on the jury in 2009, and they performed a wonderfully witty pas de deux of words together as Dieter Kosslick looked on in astonishment. The whole performance exuded a wonderfully cheerful naturalness, as though the world of film were nothing other than the school stage on which she first appeared in front of an excited audience all those years ago.
Thank you ladies and gentleman, and now please join me in welcoming the incomparable Tilda Swinton!