‘I’d be almost crying with terror and fear’
Earlier this month Philipp Humm reunited with Steven Berkoff at his riverside apartment to discuss childhood anxieties, terror and why Faustian characters like Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein continue to dominate the headlines. Berkoff has been a powerhouse of British theatre and cinema for more than half a century. Here the artist and actor discuss frankly the shared experiences of shooting Humm’s explosive The Last Faust.
Philipp Humm: So you were born in the East End here in London, why is your affinity with this area still so strong?
Steven Berkoff: Well, it was my first home. I’m the descendant of immigrants, father’s side from Romania and my mother’s side from Russia. They were fleeing oppression, and wanted to come either to New York or to London, but they favoured London because from reputation, it seemed to be the fairest and the most open society. When they docked at Tilbury, they were smiling. They couldn’t believe it. People thought they were insane or unbalanced. But they couldn’t stop smiling. This was London. They could not believe it. It must have been wonderful.
SB: During the Second World War I was an evacuee. I was evacuated to Luton, back then a very polite little town. I was an ordinary little East End kid, I was evacuated before I had really learned cockney.
I liked school and I liked games, and I loved all sorts of going into the woods on the weekend looking at bluebirds. It was all quite ordinary. But underneath that, I sensed a dreadful fear. I didn’t know where that came from. I don’t believe it was genetic or whatever.
PH: Was it an atavistic fear, did you inherit it from your grandparents?
SB: Possibly. I was always fearful. If somebody was to tell me off at school, or if the teacher said. The head mistress wants to speak to you, ‘I’d be in terror wondering what she’d want. I was only seven or eight, but I wondered why I was so terrified. I had no idea, but I had this terror, terror, terror. And then the war was over. I came back. Without any effort, I passed my scholarship. I didn’t even study for it, and then I went to a very good grammar school called the Raine’s Foundation, and I liked the school. I adored languages.
However, he school had one terrible flaw. They liked punishment, corporal punishment. They liked to whip you with a cane just because you talked a little too much. That’s all I did. I didn’t steal.
SB: And then eventually, I left the East End. I was only 12, 13 because my family had found through the London council a proper council flat in north London, in Stamford Hill. We had a proper flat with a bathroom, an interior toilet. So I’ve had quite a fascinating and exotic, and frustrating yet stimulating early life.
PH: So how did this precocious East End kid end up in drama school?
SB: Well, I think I sensed in me at a very early age an instinct to be creative in some way. I loved drawing and painting in school. I loved that, and I wanted to do something that was a creative act. So when I was about 12, I said, ‘I’d like to be a movie actor,’ and I thought maybe I could be a movie actor. I thought about that for many years, and then I changed schools and I went to what they call Grocer’s, Hackney Downs grammar school. It was a bad, bad school. The headmaster was a Neanderthal. I was in the top class at Raine’s. And he put me in the bottom class when I changed school. There was no reason to do that. So when I came out of school at 15, I was ignorant.
Thirty years later, I was awarded an honorary Doctor of Literature at Brunel University. And I was so proud because after I left the school and left the menial jobs, I had the worst possible youth and did thousands of little jobs. You cannot imagine. It is beyond imagination what I went through. Then one day somebody said to me, the first person in my life, what would you really like to do? I said, ‘I want to be a movie actor.’ The man seemed to have a bit of, I don’t know, maybe pity for me. I was only 18 or 19. And he said, ‘You know what? Why don’t you study it?’ I said, ‘How do you do that?’ He said, There are schools for people like you who maybe have left school, had no training, who were left behind,
SB: So I went to the City Literary Institute, and I remember going to the one in Holborn, and they do about 200 different classes. I said, “This is wonderful.” You could go French, or yoga, or dancing, or medieval history. I thought, “Fantastic.” And they do drama! I remember I went in the class, and we sat down, and the teacher came in and spoke like a human being. It was quite wonderful. Nobody had ever spoken to me like a human being, not for years. He just said, “Right. We’re going to teach you what acting is, and that’s to be self-aware. So I want you just to walk across the room, but be aware of every part of your body. Just walk and walk back.” That’s easy and rather pleasant just to walk. I loved this. This was exciting. It was thrilling. I thought. This is my goal, to become an actor.
PH: Okay. So all these decades later you find yourself face-to-face with Faust. Before you took on the role what was your understanding of the character?
SB: Well, as we know, Faust was written centuries before Goethe’s Faust. And even that came from probably old stories. The wonderful Christopher Marlowe wrote this amazing play, and it was one of those plays that touches on some primitive cord in all of us. It’s like the core of your soul. And I think this is what Marlowe did.
PH: Marlow was good to address the Gretchen story and the pact with the devil. Goethe added many new dimensions to it, like unchained strive for technological progress, the analogy to Greek Mythology and the creation of money-based economy and many more.
SB: I love the Marlowe story. That’s the one I first read, and that’s so clear. Goethe makes it far more complex. So with Goethe, man is far more complex, and so he plays bits of games. What’s fascinating to me also about this, the Faust story, is that the role of Mephistopheles is the tempter. And what is the most amazing thing you can get out of a human body? And it’s beyond all price, and that is the soul.
SB: And all these fantasies are the general bread of butter, if you like, in modern life, of every ordinary, normal human being. They want all the normal things, and once they’re used to that, want them to excess. Everything that is wanted actually starts scraping away their soul, and the more they want, the greedier they are, like the Epsteins and the Harvey Weinsteins, the Woody Allens and all these people. The more they crave, the more they’re already, in a way, staining their soul. Now the paradox is that when Mephisto comes to claim the soul, their souls are already soiled. They’re worthless. Now that’s funny that he just wants a soul, but the soul is already stained.
PH: Mephisto wants the soul because the soul is a part of God. Mephisto owns a bit of God this way.
SB: Yes. Exactly.
PH: Yeah. And the other paradox, if you want, is that exceptional people, like Faust, also have this exceptional destructive energy. Good only exists because of Bad, Good without Bad would not be possible. If you take Weinstein, he’s an amazing filmmaker, and a degenerate.
SB: You know who the original seducer or paedophile was?
PH: No, who?
SB: Humbert Humbert.
PH: Humbert Humbert. The protagonist from Nabokov’s Lolita?
SB: Yeah, in the book he describes the sexuality of a nymph. A girl has to be between 13 just before she flowers. It’s that moment before she’s still half child, but just her sexuality is coming in. And if you’ve ever read Lolita, that is astonishing. So, anything that Weinstein does or any of the other accused … Epstein or Woody Allen. They have no comparison to Humbert Humbert. His description of sexuality of a child is utterly overwhelming. These people are nothing. They’re just dirty fairground merchants.
PH: Okay, but they’re real and Humbert is fiction.
SB: Yes, but it’s the perception that Nabokov has, that it isn’t dirty or sexy, it’s just the flowering between childhood and adulthood. That moment in which you would see in a flower, is something so magnificent. Compared to which, as I say, Harvey Weinstein is just a dirty old man. He did nothing. He didn’t beat them. He didn’t slap them. He’s nothing, he’s just a little backstreet masturbator. Look at Epstein? He had to kill himself. Terrible things.
PH: Faust was deceived by the devil into pursuing his carnal desires instead of his intellectual ambitions. The purest form of lust at the time was also the lust for youth, the seduction of the innocent.
SB: Indeed. Shakespeare’s Juliet is only fourteen. Well, I think initially, the victim begins to understand the nature of the predator, and after many generations, knows how to manipulate because the victim realizes what extraordinary power that their flesh possesses, and how peculiar that the other person should be so enamoured to the extent they become exposed. And so, the predator teaches the victim, then eventually the victim decides to take the law into her or his own hands and destroys the predator. And this is illustrated quite well in the Bible when Samson has his beautiful Philistine woman who adores him. He’s wonderful. He’s a great status symbol to have this magnificent beast. And he adores her. And he adores her so much that she can be denied nothing, but she still has a stronger, latent feeling for her own race, the Palestinians, much as she loves Samson. So when they said, “He is so strong that it must be magic. Where does he get his strength?”
She says, “I’ll ask him. I’ll find out for you.” And she says to Samson, “Oh, Samson. You’re so strong. How did you get your strength?” And he then merely throws her off. He says, “I have no idea, darling. God gives it to me, and for Him I express my strength, not for me, but for the benefit of our Jewish God. And she says, You don’t tell me. It means you don’t trust me. That’s what you’re saying. You don’t trust me as if I would do something terrible.’
Then Samson’s vanity reveals his utter weakness that instead of keeping strong to this God who gave him this strength, he weakens and he reveals. So here you see the woman taking over, and that’s very, very interesting. But I think in the modern age, they’re taking over more and more. They’re working on man’s weakness, his helplessness, his lust, and bringing him down. I mean, Epstein didn’t bring himself down, nor did Weinstein. The women brought him down. They crucified him. They had to be sacrificed, of course.
PH: In the film, you played the role of Dr. Goodfellow, Faust’s successor. And the underlying is that human curiosity will unchain technologies like AI that have the potential to destroy humanity – for the better of the planet. Do you think that’s a right thesis?
SB: Well, it’s a little difficult, and that’s where the soul comes back in. A soul is something uniquely human and animalistic. But the AI will have a huge intelligence, and the purpose of intelligence is to improve and learn and analyse and go forward into the future. Human feelings have nothing to do with it.
PH: So what you’re saying is AI is not going to be able to emulate feelings, but is that relevant?
SB: Yeah. I think AI eventually will find humans a handicap, but there’s something about the human intelligence which continues to grow and evolve and discover.
PH: So you just don’t add numbers up and logically link them. You feel certain situations into another dimension. Or others would say you’re connected to the Gods.
SB: Yes. Well, the difference is, the most profound difference comes from the expression of the soul which is manifest mostly through art. So when someone composes something on a piano or the organ, like Mozart’s Requiem, that is something that comes from a human being who is so enamoured by the very act of existence and the tragic vulnerability of human life.
But then, AI, basically, is also human. It is a projection of a human being. It is the ultimate manifestation of human ingenuity. So the AI, like a false limb, is a false appendix to human limitation. So the AI, really, in a sense, is a very highly advanced human being.
PH: Yeah. Okay. Now if you look back at the time on set for TLF, How did you find the experience?
SB: I found it very, very good, very, very helpful incredibly satisfying. I found the people were extremely motivated by the story, and the skill of the actors involved, the few I met, I thought, were quite considerable.
I had a great pleasure in thinking that although I was doing something quite simple, Dr Goodfellow being the narrator, I found myself thinking that this was worthwhile. That this had something behind it that gave the entire process dignity and you should be extremely proud.