The Berlin-based actor Sebastian Koch has embodied some of history's most notorious — and conflicted — figures on screen. Now, Hollywood is recasting him as the ultimate good German. By John Leake.
Sebastian Koch knows how to play innocent, even when he's not on-screen—like the time he was stopped for doing 160 kph in a 100 kph zone. Facing a heavy penalty, Koch convinced the cops that their radar must have been improperly calibrated, because surely his old Citroën could only hit 110, tops. The officers let him off the hook and asked what he did for a living.
"I'm an actor," he said. Both cops burst out laughing.
Koch's recent performances in The Lives of Others (this year's Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film) and in Paul Verhoeven's Black Book have won him international admiration. Sitting at a table in Balthazar (a French-German fusion restaurant on Berlin's tony Kurfürstendamm) debating about what to order, he has a warm, infectious air about him. The dour waitress turns friendly and the interview assumes the character of an easy conversation over lunch. Is Koch's grace genuine, or is he taking us in just as he did the cops?
Maybe it's the latter. In Germany Koch is known for his uncannily realistic portrayals of major—and mostly notorious—historical figures, studying his subjects' flaws and strengths, trying to figure out their inner lives. Becoming Albert Speer, for example, was no easy task: The Third Reich munitions minister was himself a master of illusion.
"Speer built mental rooms in which he was the good Nazi, not as criminal as the others," Koch explains. "In reality he was intimately involved in the workings of the regime, but later he persuaded many that he wasn't. He was very seductive, with his big melancholy eyes."
Koch's own wide-set, almond-shaped brown eyes are similarly instrumental, eliciting sympathy and trust, especially from his female fans. In the soft light of the restaurant, he looks younger than in The Lives of Others, where the lens keeps sharp focus on the harried dissident writer who becomes a political prisoner in his own home. Sympathy is a surprising quality for Koch's recent role in Black Book. Captain Ludwig Müntze runs the Nazi Security Service in the occupied Netherlands during the war's final year. Realizing that the Nazis are doomed, he falls for a beautiful Dutch Resistance agent, the seductive Jewish singer Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten). Just by accepting the role of a lovable Nazi, Koch risked being charged with moral relativism; realism, however, is how he prefers to think of it. A man gone wrong but not entirely lost seemed likelier than the Nazi demons of cinematic convention. "Real people aren't purely evil," he says. "It's the conflicts and abysses into which people fall that interest me." He strongly disagrees with Klaus Kinski, the enfant terrible of German cinema, who famously remarked, "You will know a man by his vices, because virtues can be faked."
"It's actually the opposite," Koch insists. "Vices are easy to fake."
"I can't complain," he says. "My mother did everything she could for me, and I had fun playing with the other kids in the orphanage. A kid needs other kids." A gifted athlete in his teens, Koch was a champion high jumper. His track coach urged him to train for the 1980 Summer Olympics (ultimately boycotted), but he developed other interests instead. At first he aspired to be a musician, and learned to play guitar, trumpet, and violin, along with taking three years of singing lessons. Though piano-playing is not his forte, he did in fact perform the haunting and dissonant "Sonata of a Good Man" in The Lives of Others.
"It's a tightly woven story," Koch says of Lives. "Everyone suppressed his ego to act his role with just the right proportion. The drama and feelings play out like a sonata." He then talks about the emotional subtlety of the scene in which his character discovers that his girlfriend is being blackmailed into sleeping with a vile East German minister of culture. "He's ready to take his position and make a little speech. But when she says, 'Please hold me tight,' he realizes how vulnerable she is, and so he sets his plans aside. There's a lot of love in that scene."
In Black Book, on the other hand, the love between Koch's character and Carice van Houten's is erotically spectacular, electrified by something that goes beyond acting. "Carice fell in love with me relatively quickly," Koch explains matter-of-factly. "At first she concealed it, and then I fell in love with her." By the time it came to filming the sex scene, everyone on the set knew what was going on. "Falling in love is such a wonderful thing that you can't control," he says.
The conversation is interrupted by his vibrating phone. It's his 11-year-old daughter, Paulina, who spends some days at her father's Berlin apartment, and some at the home of her mother, the journalist Birgit Keller, with whom Koch is still on friendly terms. He invites Paulina to ride her bike to the restaurant and join us for dessert. "She is too young to see my recent movies—maybe in a couple of years," he says. Paulina arrives, and her fine, slender features hint at great beauty to come. She and her father have a chummy, affectionate way with each other, though his tone turns slightly disapproving when he remarks on the size of her earrings. She listens intently to our conversation and then quietly digs into a pear tart.
Through every turn of the conversation Koch has spoken too spontaneously and openly to be scripted. He can talk cops out of believing a precision electronic instrument, but there's no doubt he is a mature, disarmingly frank man.
"I am very happy with what I have," he concludes without boasting. On German television, he has already played (and been highly praised for) the role of Claus von Stauffenberg, the dashing officer who almost succeeded in assassinating Hitler, ideal stuff for a Hollywood thriller. "It's being made right now," Koch says. "Tom Cruise is playing Stauffenberg, and my girlfriend, Carice, is playing