One of Germany's top actors is in fact Bulgarian
On the eve of the millennium a snowstorm forces a German flying to Istanbul to stop in Sofia. Wishing to reach the Bosporus as quickly as possible, he decides to take the train instead. It is only a matter of time before he falls into the surreal Bulgarian reality, and becomes a part of it himself.
Blueberry Hill (2002) is a film by Aleksandar Morfov, an emblematic Bulgarian theatre director who mostly lives and works abroad. So is Blueberry Hill's star. Samuel "Sancho" Finzi has been living in Berlin, where he went to study acting, since 1989.
Today he is one of the most popular actors in Germany, performing with equal ease in the theatres and on the screen. Finzi is the mainstay in ZDF's crime series Flemming, in which he plays a criminal psychologist, and he received the Theatre Award Berlin for 2011, the dream of every stage actor in the land. He accepts his success with modesty and even tries to play it down: "When you do what you're supposed to do, gradually things start to turn out right."
Sancho Finzi has never felt completely like the nameless protagonist of Blueberry Hill. "I never severed my connection with Bulgaria, despite the fact that I am in a different environment. It's a question of attitude how you feel as a foreigner in a certain place. For example, some Bulgarian immigrants love to get together, to meet and to feel sorry for themselves. I never did this. I rushed into the so-called integration and integrated myself." He laughs, then adds, "Now I cannot say I'm a Bulgarian, but I also cannot say I'm a German. But that's something that no one wants to be bothered about." Finzi returns to Bulgaria relatively often – for pleasure, to attend theatre festivals or to shoot films – and, naturally, makes mental notes of how the country has been changing. He thinks that people's behaviour has changed. "Manners in Bulgaria seemed to me to have become coarser. I thought there was no respect for the fellow man," he says. "But this summer I found the atmosphere here somehow mellower. I can't claim that's really the case. Perhaps I had this impression because Sofia was empty and the weather was fine, which tends to put the tourist in a mood to see everything as being OK."
Guarded in his assessments, he prefers to search for nuances. "Everyone in Bulgaria says that nothing happens, but it's obvious that something does happen nonetheless. Socially, things haven't changed. As before, I still see that elderly people have a hard time fending for themselves, living on their pensions," Finzi says. "On the other hand, the state is functioning. Tax revenue gets collected, our debt burden is low – it appears we have stability. And yet no investments are being made in infrastructure. One can see this even by looking at Sofia's downtown; there could have been a really magnificent central area, but nothing of the sort has been undertaken. Buildings are left adrift; there are no comprehensive reconstructions. People are looking after their own homes, insulating them with Styrofoam, and that's all. People have been insulating themselves with Styrofoam – physically and spiritually. I don't know how that'll change; it'll take some time."
Finzi will not compare the problems of his own generation, when he was fresh from university, to those of the young actors in Bulgaria today. "I am glad there's a new generation which is more up-to-date and whose voice is getting heard. I don't know if they find it easy. Yes, there was censorship when I was taking my first steps. But there's no censorship now and almost all theatres seek to attract new audiences. And there are audiences, from what I've been hearing. This means that not only boulevard, risk-free plays are staged."
Finzi's latest play can hardly be put down as "risk-free." Consider the Lobster is a one-man performance based on the essay by David Foster Wallace and scripted by Ivan Panteleev, a Bulgarian scriptwriter and director who also lives in Germany. Finzi's performance is so intense that at moments it allows the audience to sense it physically. Bulgarian theatre-goers saw the play for the first time this summer, at the international theatre festival in Varna.
"It is difficult for me to discuss the current state of Bulgarian culture," Finzi says, "because I live and work in a different tradition, in a different setting. Culture budgets are huge in Germany, and I get the impression that the people at the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture haven't a clue what they are doing. They open a museum of totalitarian art. That's all very well and is interesting, but I should have wanted them to tackle new projects, things that are taking place now and not hark back to the relics of someone who's been dead and buried for ages."
What Finzi is referring to is the summer of 2010, when archaeologists discovered a reliquary containing relics in the ruins of a medieval monastery on the island of Sveti Ivan near Sozopol. The then minister responsible for Bulgarians living abroad, Bozhidar Dimitrov, who is a historian by profession, announced that the bones were those of none other than St John the Baptist. Boyko Borisov, the prime minister, donated a gold receptacle for the bones, and Finance Minister Simeon Dyankov himself carried the relics from the island to one of Sozopol's functioning churches. "Everything the Ministry of Culture does is an indication that when the politicians have no idea about where culture should be heading, they play it safe: they turn to the past. They choose to show the entire world that we used to be great, the greatest. I have a deep respect for Bulgarian history, but I cannot accept that this is the way to talk about it," Finzi says.
He thinks the performance of the Bulgarian institutions is a result of their inability to process the contemporary art world, of "carelessness, lack of interest, and torpidity, rather than of ill will."
He cites the example of the Bulgarian cultural institute in Berlin, a truly tragicomic sight. The institute is in Leipziger Straße in the centre of Berlin, near the Bulgarian Embassy, a Socialist monstrosity that is looking increasingly incongruous in Berlin's swanky new centre. It has the atmosphere of a place in which you are more likely to happen upon a ghost than a cultural event worth attending. This is distressing, as Berlin is one of the hotspots of cultural life in Europe, if not in the world. "When I look at it I go back to the 1970s," Finzi says. "I recently received an invitation to an exhibition there. The invitation was designed in such a manner that, were I a Berliner, I would never bother to attend. When you work in the field of culture in Berlin, your obligation is to know the current situation, as well as where things are going on." Which Bulgarian films would he recommend to a foreigner? "Something broke in the Bulgarian cinema in recent years. A lot of films started to get made. They are different to the ones that used to be shot before. Even visually they are different. Young people have appeared who create new things, and that really delights me. Unfortunately I haven't been to see the latest titles, but from what I've seen so far, I can recommend Dzift (2008) by Yavor Gardev and Eastern Plays (2009) by Kamen Kalev.
This autumn Finzi appears in another Bulgarian film. He has a supporting role in Zincographer by Emil Hristov.
He would never perform the part of a Bulgarian mutra, or thug. "No, that is not my type of character. I prefer more complex, more contradictory parts. For instance, an unhinged, extreme-case cop. Or a deranged, wacko murderer."