Paul Crichton über "Herr Lier" (Max Zihlmann)


Drehbuch von MAX ZIHLMANN


In his posthumous/unpublished film script (Drehbuch) “Herr Lier”, Max Zihlmann transports Shakespeare’s great tragedy, “King Lear”, from medieval England to modern-day Munich, and in doing so breathes new life into this masterpiece and makes us, the filmgoers, draw new and unexpected parallels between Shakespeare’s imaginary ancient world and our contemporary society, and, in particular, with its attitudes towards older people. The film script starts with a performance of “King Lear” in which Alina, Lier’s third daughter, plays the part of Cordelia, King Lear’s third daughter. Lier himself, a wealthy publisher who wants to sell his company and villa, is sitting in one of the first rows.


In Shakespeare the conflict between Lear and his three daughters centres on political power and wealth, as well as on family relationships. The aged Lear decides to abdicate and hand over his kingdom to whoever of his three daughters loves him most. His two eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, swear unconditional love to him, while his youngest and favourite daughter, Cordelia, refuses to publicly proclaim her love in such extravagant terms as her sisters, and adds that she will reserve half her love for her future husband. Enraged, Lear immediately disinherits her and leaves his kingdom to her two sisters. He declares he will spend half his time with each of these two daughters, who begin by steadily reducing their father’s retinue of 100 knights. They admit to each other that they think their father is a foolish old man whose residual power needs to be reduced to a minimum. Incensed by this treatment, Lear, with his Fool, rushes out into the storm and, in a psychotic episode, rails against his daughters and human evil, and exclaims: “I am more sinned against than sinning”. Goneril and Regan fall out and vie with one another for the same man, Edmund. Goneril poisons her sister, but her plans are thwarted and she commits suicide. Lear and Cordelia, who have become reconciled, are arrested and taken to prison by Lear’s successors. Cordelia dies, and her father dies not long after.


In Zihlmann the conflict centres, not on political power, but on money in a capitalist world and on who gets the power money brings with it. What both versions of the Lear/Lier-story have in common is that they show how the two daughters, who have hypocritically declared that their father is welcome to stay with them whenever he wants to, in the hope of inheriting his wealth, almost immediately treat him with contempt when they receive their share of his fortune. They come to regard their father as a nuisance. Elizabeth, a doctor in Stuttgart, banishes him to her cramped basement flat and locks the nearby wine cellar. In the flat belonging to Veronika, his second daughter, a gallery owner in Berlin, Lier occupies her husband’s home office and refuses to vacate it when the husband, Till, protests and comes to the conclusion: “The old man is a bit crazy/der Alte tickt nicht richtig”. After the two daughters agree during a zoom conference that their father’s personality has changed markedly for the worse, Veronika organises a placement for him in an old people’s home, from which he then escapes.


In the meantime Lier has made friends with a homeless man, called Zwick, who has a surreal sense of humour, not unlike Lear’s Fool. Lier lets him stay with him in Elizabeth’s basement flat and in Till’s home office, and he accompanies Lier through most of the film with his scurrilous and unexpected comments.


His third daughter, Alina, tells her father that she has no room for him in her communal home (WG) and wants to have the freedom to go wherever her career as an actor leads her. She is then abruptly informed by her father that she will get none of his money. “Keep your stupid money/Behalte doch dein dummes Geld) is her response. Her boyfriend, Jan, proceeds to have affairs with both of Alina’s sisters. Alina dumps Jan and invites her father to stay with her after he has fled from the old people’s home. She had always been her father’s favourite daughter, and she drives him at his request to Switzerland where he thinks he has a bank account with a significant amount of money, with which he wants to start a new publishing house. On the way the road is blocked by a landslide. Lier gets out of the car and disappears into the storm.


The final scene brings us back to the theatre performance of “King Lear” at the beginning: Lear and Cordelia are prisoners. There follows one of the most moving passages in the whole of Shakespeare:



We are not the first

Who, with best meaning, have incurr’d the worst.

For thee, oppressed king, am I cast down;

Myself could else out-frown false Fortune’s frown.

Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?



No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison;

We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage;

When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,

And ask of thee forgiveness; so we’ll live,

And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh

At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues

Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,

Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;

and take upon’s the mystery of things,

as if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,

in a wall’d prison, packs and sets of great ones

that ebb and flow by the moon.



               Ich bin nicht die erste,/

               Die, Gutes wollend, dulden muss

               das Schwerste./

               Dein Unglu?ck, Vater, beugt mir

               ganz den Mut,/

               Sonst u?bertrotzt' ich wohl des

               Schicksals Wut./

               Sehn wir nicht diese To?chter?

               Diese Schwestern?


               Nein, nein, nein, nein! Komm

               fort! Zum Kerker fort! -/

               Da lass uns singen, wie Vo?gel

               in dem Ka?fig./

               Bitt'st du um meinen Segen,

               will ich knien/

               Und dein Verzeihn erflehn; so

               woll'n wir leben,/

               Beten und singen, Ma?rchen uns


               Und u?ber goldne Schmetterlinge



 Wir ho?ren armes Volk vom Hofe


               Und schwatzen mit; wer da

               gewinnt, verliert;/

               Wer in, wer aus der Gunst; und

               tun so tief/

               Geheimnisvoll, als wa?ren wir


               Der Gottheit: und so u?berdauern


               Im Kerker Ra?nk' und Spaltungen

               der Großen,/

               Die ebben mit dem Mond und



In one of the first rows of the stalls Lier’s seat is empty.


Zihlmann's gift for language is evident in his ear for contemporary speech, particularly in the scornful, acerbic and sarcastic registers. Thus he can endow the remarks of most of the main characters in the film with real bite. But, more importantly, he finds, in this creative and ingenious film script, strong similarities in contemporary German and, in fact, in other Western societies to those in Shakespeare’s imagined medieval world.

Zihlmann simplifies
Shakespeare’s more complex plot with its sub-plots, but he succeeds grandiosely in identifying the core of Shakespeare’s tragedy and in revealing modern parallels which make us think critically about our own attitudes and actions towards older people around us.


Paul Crichton, Summer 2022