Facing a century: 100 German portraits

A new book of portraits features the storied faces and fascinating tales of 100 German centenarians who participated in a genetics study. Kristen Allen spoke with photographer Andreas Labes about putting a human face on science.

Facing a century: 100 German portraits
Erich Walde. Photo: Andreas Labes

Erich Walde kissed only one woman in his lifetime. The two were married for 70 years, separated only once for three years while he was a prisoner of war in Siberia.

When Thea Breckerbaum was a young girl, her teacher announced that World War I had broken out, causing the other pupils to tease her because her father, a military officer, would be first to the front. The little girl came home the same day to watch her father, “my whole love,” ride away on a horse. She never saw him again.

Edith Wolffberg and her Jewish family fled Nazi Germany in 1939 to live in Texas. She did not return until she was 102-years-old to show her two daughters her birthplace in Berlin.

Those three and 97 others posed for portraits in a new book by photographer Andreas Labes. His subjects all have two things in common: They lived to be more than 100-years-old and they recently participated in a genetics study on longevity.

“One naturally sees the signs of time, the lived-life that has carved itself into their faces,” the Berlin-based photographer told The Local. “You can see very clearly in such old people what kind of life they’ve lead, the attitude they had towards the world. And they are wonderful landscapes.”

For five years Labes – who has also snapped prominent German politicians and businessmen for national newspapers – travelled across the country to photograph 100 men and women who had lived to see their 100th birthdays. His book, “100 Jahre Leben,” or “100 Years of Life,” was published last month by DVA and features arresting, reverent black-and-white portraits accompanied by short texts of the subjects’ memories.


The project is the artistic extension of a study by the University of Kiel’s Institute of Clinical Molecular Biology, which collected DNA samples from hundreds of German centenarians to prove the existence of a “longevity gene.” In February 2009, scientists there published the results of the study, saying they believed that a variation on the FOXO3A gene had a direct connection to reaching a ripe old age in subjects worldwide.

“Along the way, the scientists at the university decided they wanted to give a face to those who were giving their blood to research,” Labes told The Local.

While it turns out the study participants all had genetics on their side in the battle against time, the 45-year-old photographer, who developed a special relationship with several of his subjects, said many also shared another secret for long life.

“They would pass on grandmotherly nuggets of wisdom like, ‘eat barley soup each day,’ or ‘do lots of sport,’ but during the journey it became clear that they all exhibited a highly-developed ability to adapt. They were realistic,” he said, explaining that all of them lived through the 20th century’s two world wars, the first as children, and the second as young adults.

One photograph shows a healthy-looking man called Hugo Schwarz, born in 1905, taking a deep drag off a cigarette. The photo not only throws the modern view of tobacco’s health effects into question, it also highlights another lesson Labes took from the project.

“He had lived enjoying what he wanted, when he wanted it, and he was still old as stone,” Labes said with a laugh. “It was a reminder that one should also make sure they are just simply happy.”

When Labes asked his subjects what had mattered most in their lives, most often they cited love – among family, between friends, and, of course, romantic love. Stories included secret elopements, love found late in life, loves lost too soon in battle, and love that lasted a lifetime like that of Erich Walde.

“He was so very sad about the loss of his wife after 70 years together,” Labes said. “I found it stunning that one could travel through life together for so long, but is shows how important it was to him.”

But many of those Labes photographed were living alone or in retirement homes in their old age. Some were lonely, others seemed bored. Occasionally, and mainly in rural areas, he would visit one who lived in a multi-generational family.

“For these people who all lived under one roof together things seemed to be going much better. But things have developed so it doesn’t happen much anymore. Old people are pushed aside,” he said.

The book, already in its second printing following its mid-March debut, also includes snapshots of the 100-year-olds in their youth. Accompanied by their stories, it offers a unique chance for a glimpse into the physical journey of their lives.

Labes said none of them seemed to fear their inevitable death.

“It was so near for them, some even longed for it. One woman asked how the others I’d visited were doing – if they still wanted to live,” he said. “For her, it had been enough. But others said, ‘I want to make it to 105.’”

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What’s behind Germany’s obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

Forget the Bundestag. If you want to understand German politics - and see how lively it can really be - turn on your (almost nightly) talk show.

What's behind Germany's obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

It may well be one of the most German things imaginable – a roundtable discussion designed to give a fair amount of time to a wide range of viewpoints before (maybe) achieving some sort of consensus.

Failing that, viewers – theoretically anyway – walk away better informed and open to changing some of their opinions after a, again theoretically, respectful discussion.

Welcome to the German political talk show circuit – a collection of moderated roundtable discussions.

Whether its Anne Will on Sunday nights, “Hart aber fair” or “tough but fair” on Mondays, or Maybrit Illner on Thursdays and Markus Lanz on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays – you can tune into several political panels a week if you fancy.

If you have politically-minded German friends or co-workers, you might ask: “Did you watch Lanz last night?” Anecdotally, at least as many people who watch will have strong opinions about why they don’t.

Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk makes a video appearance (left video) on the Markus Lanz show on 10 March 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Cornelia Lehmann

“Lanz is a disgrace!” and “I don’t watch Anne Will out of principle!” are both phrases I’ve heard myself more than a few times over the years.

But if you are a fan and you miss an episode, don’t worry – many news outlets will run summaries of what happened during said roundtable the next morning.

“Newspapers regularly publish these recaps almost as if they were relevant parliamentary meetings,” says Peter Littger, a columnist on language and culture in Germany. “It’s super relevant politically. It can increase your voting base and certainly your book sales if you appear there.”

READ ALSO: Tatort to Temptation Island: What do Germans like to watch on TV?

‘Consensus-oriented political culture’

If the nationally-focused ones aren’t enough for you, there’s a good chance you can find a show on a regional broadcaster focusing on issues in your federal state, again in – you guessed it – roundtable format.

As you might have gathered, the show’s name is often the same as its host, who functions first and foremost as a moderator there to facilitate and mediate a discussion between guests who are chosen specifically to balance a panel.

For a discussion on Ukraine, for example, you’ll regularly have people from every political party, from ministers and high-ranking parliamentarians who chair important Bundestag committees to pro-Russian voices from the German Left Party and far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

And no one is too high-ranking not to make at least the occasional appearance. Chancellor Olaf Scholz himself joined a Maybrit Illner roundtable on July 7th this year.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appears on the Maybrit Illner show on 7 July 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Svea Pietschmann

Both European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba have also made appearances on Anne Will this year.

In characteristically German fashion, state broadcasters have extensive written regulations to ensure a panel also has a balance of people from relevant expert disciplines. For instance, a coronavirus panel may well feature a notable doctor alongside a civil liberties lawyer.

“Germany has a more consensus-oriented political culture than you might see in a country like the UK, for example, which is more confrontational and even adversarial,” says Sebastian Ludwicki-Ziegler a PhD researcher at the University of Stirling’s Department of Communications, Media, and Culture.

“You’ll still get some invited guests who are very contrarian and even aggressive – like Thilo Sarrazin (a former politician who wrote a controversial book in 2010 about Muslim immigration to Germany) for example. But even then, the moderator often tries to maintain a softer, more civil tone.”

Ludwicki-Ziegler says that while the roundtable format reflects German political culture, it also reflects its institutional setup. A show producer can simply get more obvious ranges of political opinion in a country with Germany’s proportional representation, which has seven parties in parliament.

Historic roundtables

Unlike the often subdued German Bundestag though, German talk shows can certainly get lively, or even historic.

Perhaps the most notable TV roundtable happened right after the 2005 federal election. With then incumbent Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder having finished only one percent behind Christian Democrat Angela Merkel when all the votes were counted, party leaders gathered in the traditional “Elefantenrunde,” or yes, the “Elephant’s round,” to discuss the results.

READ ALSO: Talking elephants and grumpy politicians: Four things that will happen after the German elections

With the final election result having been so close, observers still discuss whether Schröder lost his chancellorship at the ballot box or during the 2005 Elefantenrunde. In contrast to a calm Merkel, Schröder insisted he would stay on as Chancellor.

Brash and arrogant, some observers have asked whether he was drunk at the time. German media outlets ran anniversary pieces looking back at his disastrous roundtable performance 5, 10, and 15 years later. One such anniversary piece from 2020 called the roundtable “Schröder’s embarrassing end.”

The 2005 post-election roundtable, or “Elefantenrunde,” is considered by many German political observers to be the disastrous end to former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder;s political career. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | ZDF/Jürgen_Detmers

Mastering the roundtable appearance is a big plus for a German politician, or anyone else looking to move the needle of German public opinion.

Satisfying a particularly German impulse, you can certainly also walk away feeling like you’ve considered all sides. But are there drawbacks?

On 8 May 2022’s edition of Anne Will, social psychologist Harald Welzer appeared to lecture Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk that 45 percent of Germans were against delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine because of German war history. Many observers criticised Welzer for patronising the Ambassador of a country at war about the need to have weapons for its own self-defense.

The exchange, and a fair few others, lead some experts to wonder whether the roundtable format so many German political talk shows seem to love gives too big a platform to pro-Russian voices or to controversial writers like the aforementioned Thilo Sarrazin.

“If we take Germany and Ukraine as one example, you can get some great guests who come on and really set things straight with facts, data, and plain talk,” says Benjamin Tallis, a Fellow in German Security Policy at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“But you can get false balance. You’ll get people on with rather fringe opinions given a platform against people who have a lot more experience and evidence. That’s true in a lot of places now, sure, but this talk show format really lends itself to that because of the amount of guests you need on a nightly basis,” says Tallis.

“Unfortunately in Germany, many guests are invited on based on their opinions about an issue rather than the level of their expertise, in order to try and achieve balance,” says Minna Alander, a specialist in German foreign policy who recently joined the Finnish Institute of International Affairs after more than a decade working in Berlin.

“When you start equating opinion with knowledge, it makes it way more difficult to have a fact-based debate. On matters of life and death, like in Ukraine, that can have a polarising effect.”