It is our last meeting, and Anke Engelke is hanging on the wall, naked. It is a painting, a prop from a German comedy about love called Vom Suchen und Finden der Liebe . In the movie, Engelke plays the role of a married woman who decides to have an affair.
During our interview, she sits with her back to the wall, so she doesn’t have to see this painting or any of the many awards she has won during her career, all of them proudly displayed here in her manager’s office in Cologne. The room is a kind of Anke Engelke museum – full of things that, it later turns out, Engelke actually wants nothing to do with.
Three months earlier, in February, Engelke was sitting on the sofa in a hotel room in Hanover, wondering whether it was all her fault. A few hours before, something had gone terribly wrong at the end of a live television show. There had to be a reason for it; there had to be someone to blame. And Engelke has to get to the bottom of it.
She starts punching in phone numbers. She has to speak with someone, preferably one of the people in charge of the show, someone who can plausibly explain to her why a band called Cascada has just been chosen to represent Germany in the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest. It is one of the most-viewed television events in Europe, where musicians from each country compete for the grand prize, determined by a pan-European telephone poll.
But the exhausted entertainer can’t get through to anyone, perhaps because all the participants are still partying in the building across the street at Hanover’s sprawling trade-fair grounds. Engelke had just spent hours hosting Unser Song für Malmö , a live broadcast to determine the German contestant for the 2013 Eurovision contest to be held in Malmö, Sweden. Still frustrated, Engelke asks herself, "Did I do anything wrong?"
She didn’t. She had done a fantastic job as the moderator of that event. That’s what everyone kept saying over the next few days. As a host, she couldn’t influence the outcome of the vote. But what Engelke could do was make sure this would be her last job for Eurovision. She can be very determined sometimes. Determined, strict, uncompromising. Especially when something is important to her. And to her, what kind of music gets to represent Germany on a major European TV show is very important.
"TV is actually quite stupid," she says. That may be so. The trouble is, her own brand of television is crazy, comical and very clever
Again, two months earlier, in mid-December, 2012: Engelke is looking through a giant window and chatting with a child. She asks questions, goofs around a bit. Sometimes she says "Uh-huh." She is in the studios of the WDR television station in Cologne recording a children’s show. They are taping short introductory segments for the program. In between takes, she sings Rihanna songs and tries to keep everyone’s spirits up.
It is cold in the studio. It is the last day of taping for the next series, and everyone is a bit beat. Engelke’s manager, Ute Shaw, had told me to come to the studio for my first meeting with the entertainer. Engelke will decide, on the basis of this session, whether she will agree to have me around for the next six months. My plan is to find out who Anke Engelke really is.
On the one hand, the comedienne does give interviews and is a regular on talk shows. Her fans know that she is married to the musician Claus Fischer and that she has three children. She does not avoid the media spotlight. But what does the public really know about her? Her age? She turns 48 this year.
So our first, crucial, meeting is in a small room next to the studio. She is eating a sandwich she brought along and chooses a seat a bit removed from where I am sitting. She doesn’t seem ready to allow proximity. Her answers to my initial questions are short, reserved, matter-of-fact. Your biggest talent? "I have absolutely no fear." Were you not interested in hosting Germany’s top game show, Wetten, dass..? "No. But nobody asked me, either." Why were you not asked? "Because I am poison for the ratings. Also, I am not a host. I am an actress who sometimes plays the role of a host." Huh? "That’s right. When I am praised for hosting something it always makes me laugh. There is no art to that. You have to memorize the text, and then rehearse. I can’t take that seriously."
Not taking things seriously – this will be a recurring theme during our meetings. She takes a bite of her sandwich, looks out the window, and chews. Then she goes on, a bit more quietly. "Television is actually quite stupid. I really don’t want people to take it seriously. I don’t want them to take me seriously."
But there is a problem here. Anke Engelke has delivered so many TV moments that are not at all stupid. Her brand of television is clever, comical, entertaining, crazy and wonderful, all at the same time.
Her comedy series Ladykracher is the best of the genre in Germany. She is the voice of Marge in the German-dubbed version of The Simpsons . She is in the middle of filming a documentary on happiness for national broadcaster ARD. She hosted the prestigious gala at the Berlin Film Festival. And this summer, she started a new talk show called Anke hat Zeit . Anke Engelke has been known as the funniest woman on German television for 15 years now. How does she do that?