We have seen her in comedies, in dramas, in crime stories, maybe some of us were even lucky to catch her on stage. Valerie Niehaus has been acting for a while. In fact, she has been acting all her life, since she first started as a teenager. February 8 marks the return of her current television crime series The specialists on national television. Around Germany she is also known for co-founding the social project ON A WORD, which strives to create more community. Discover Germany spoke to Niehaus about all of the above and her life in acting.

“Without a doubt, the most beautiful aspect about it [acting] is the playing itself – I’ve been doing it since I’ve come into this world.” When Valerie Niehaus describes her fascination with the art of acting one can immediately sense that she is deeply ingrained in her profession. Obviously, one might say, because Niehaus has literally been acting all her life and never had to take on a different profession.

Born in 1974 in Emsdetten, Niehaus’ first acting experience happened when she was still in school and got a small part in the television drama Rote Erde. “It was a historical piece and within the stages at the Bavaria Studios. I dove into another time, a different world and finally also into the reality of another person, which was my character,” explains Niehaus. The experience during the shoot did it for her, as she caught the acting bug once and for all.

The value of trust

Although she was “not especially disciplined with setting my sights on training as an actor”, Niehaus always was a woman with a plan. At 20, she went to New York and ended up studying at the renowned Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. “New York was an unbelievably great place, which offered me, as a 20-year-old, so much, which I couldn’t have dreamed of. Every day had so many discoveries, that brought me closer to the world and acting.” The city itself was an educator, showing Niehaus the beauty and the horriors of human interaction and life in all its facets.

Her teachers at the institute complemented her real-life experiences and provided her with a feeling of appreciation for the opportunities of life, for her work and the work of others. “My teachers were inviting, inspiring and demanding, which shaped me both professionally and privately. Even today there is one sentence from one of my teachers, which has an influence on my doing: ‘Trust, that it is there for you’.”

In acting, this phrase helps her navigate her nerves and in life it nurtures a sense of relaxation. It is the ‘it’ of the sentence that makes it universally applicant, underlining the value of trust in all of life’s circumstances.

The specialists

While Niehaus is clear about the value of trust, Dr. Katrin Stoll, her character in the crime series The specialists, might have a different assessment. “[She] is a loner, who is closer to her work, than her colleagues,” says Niehaus. “She is a distinguished expert in forensics not least because of the traumatic experience of losing her brother at very young age. She is driven by her demons, but keeps it to herself, as she focuses her life and abilities on the corpses and their stories.”

The specialists, which airs on German television channel ZDF, follows Stoll and a team of investigators, as they reopen cases based on new evidence. Every episode examines a new case in great detail and, through their work, the team of specialists is often able to finally bring peace to the relatives of the victims.

ON A WORD

There is another project close to Niehaus’ heart. Like everybody else, in late 2014 she observed a push for right-wing populism in Germany. Immediately a need to counter this push grew inside of Niehaus. “I wanted to show my face, represent my stance openly.” Together with photographer Stefanie Henn and actress Christina Hecke, she developed ON A WORD, a campaign fostering inspiration, communication, openness and togetherness by creating portraits of people highlighting a word of their choosing. The idea is “to bring to mind the virtue, which represents what we hold important. This representation in turn bears the opportunity to interchange among each other and get to know each other”.

For her own portrait, Niehaus chose the word empathy. “Empathy creates connection. The silent cry of a human being moves me, because the gesture releases an emotional echo within me. This, I call empathy.” Niehaus also views the virtue of empathy as a necessary means to understanding one another. “With the help of empathy, the fate of others is as close to me as my own and, in this connection, I recognise my responsibilities and possibilities as a human being. Empathy is an attitude, inviting us to look inward to pursue a different path. [But] empathy is not easy, it takes an effort. At first, it’s not a means of simplifying, but without it finding common ground is impossible. I believe in empathy.”

Across all genres

As an actress, Niehaus has worked in every possible genre. She adores this mix, creates the changes between comedies and dramas deliberately and tries to learn as much from her work as possible. Especially in pieces, that are based on historic stories or take place in historic settings, Niehaus finds understanding for her present. “Historical projects are able to give a lot already in their preparation. As a woman, for example, it is astonishing to understand the unfreedom of earlier times. Generally, one also gains a better understanding of one’s own time, when getting to know history and its developments.”

For Niehaus, acting has a great deal to give and in her performances, she in turn gives a lot through acting. At the core of her work both on and off screens is the desire to put something of worth out into the world and to start a relationship with her audiences. She has been doing just that for a while now and there is a clear feeling that her engagement and effort will never get old.

TEXT: THOMAS SCHROERS I PHOTO: BERND BRUNDERT