Silvia Bombardini: Let’s start from the very beginning: you were born in Karlsruhe, West Germany, a few months at best after the Berlin Wall was built. If you were to describe, say, to someone like me — born only a few months after the fall of the Wall - what life was like back there and then, where would you start? How did the GDR, so close and yet so far away, influence your childhood or teenage years, perhaps your career path, and eventually your decision to move to Berlin?
Sebastian Koch: I grew up near Stuttgart in the
south of Germany. As I had no relatives in the
Eastern part of Germany I had no contact at all
— the GDR was behind the Iron Curtain. Right
about the time when the Wall fell, I signed a
contract with the Schiller Theater in Berlin. I was
suddenly thrown into the center of this changing
city. In the beginning it was a nightmare — sleepy
Berlin suddenly pretending to be a world capital.
The whole place was a huge construction site,
immense investments were made to rebuild
and reunite the city. At that time I completely
retreated into my work. I was living on my own
little island — the theater — and that was it. At
the theater more than half of the actors came from
the GDR and I heard their stories, the betrayals
and disappointments they had encountered and
suddenly I felt very close to understanding some
aspects of life in former East Germany. In my
opinion, the first time when Berlin really became
international was the wrapping of the Reichstag
by Christo and his wife. I will never forget the
wonderful atmosphere of those two weeks. That
was in 1995 — I was thinking then that if Berlin
could be like that for the next twenty years it
would be wonderful. Now, twenty years later
Berlin has changed into this international, easy,
tolerant, and creative city. Artists from all over
the world started arriving in Berlin because it was
cheap and cheerful and created a very special
atmosphere. That’s why I decided to make Berlin
my permanent home.
Silvia Bombardini: Like you said, you were playing in
theaters back then: distinguished Weimar
classics, Goethe as well as Schiller of course.
What kind of audience sat in the parterres of
this newly reunified Berlin, what made you
switch to the screen, and what do you miss
the most about the stage?
Sebastian Koch: Unified Berlin all of a sudden had ten very well
known and famous theaters, so the competition
was enormous. The reason why I went into theater and kept at it for almost ten years was because
of this family-like atmosphere, the fact that you
could discover and invent under these protected
and close circumstances. During the ’80s there
were great directors like Zadek, Peymann, Stein,
Nolte, and they were all constantly surrounded
by these groups of wonderful actors. So the
results were absolutely fantastic. During the ’90s
the shows became loud and colorful. Making a
big noise was suddenly more important than the
content, the emotions, and the message.
Moreover, the directors from the East were
all at once free to say what they wanted to
say. In the former East they had to hide their
messages, because they were controlled by the
state apparatus, which set free a tremendous
potential of creativity, really like Molière in front
of the French court. The moment this threat
disappeared they seemed a bit lost. In 1993 I left
the Schiller Theater for these reasons and started
filming. Nowadays it’s quite rare that I return to
the stage. As a substitute I do book readings with
classical or jazz music so that I don’t lose contact
with the audience. So I perform programs like
Schnitzler’s DREAM STORY with a jazz quartet,
Ibsen’s PEER GYNT with a classical orchestra, or
Dostoyevsky’s THE GAMBLER with a bandoneon.
Silvia Bombardini: A great many of your most acclaimed
small-screen roles, those which I guess were
originally thought to mostly target a German
audience, show a singular, quasi-cathartic
preoccupation with historical figures of
more recent and sensitive times — from
Albert Speer to Claus von Stauffenberg.
Personalities we read about in our textbooks,
but often abstain from trying to grasp: what is
the appeal of these characters for you as an
actor, and why do you believe it’s important
for us all to see more of them?
Sebastian Koch: I was always very interested in talking
about Nazi Germany and its consequences. As
an adolescent I felt strongly that this horrible
period was still in the country’s system because
so many Nazis where part of the reconstruction
of postwar West Germany. Naturally they didn’t
want to speak about what they had done and
what they had believed in. Their dream had
became a nightmare and they were part of it, so
it was hard for them to admit that they dreamt
the wrong dream, and even harder to admit that
they didn’t have the courage to fight against it.
That’s why the ’68 movement was so popular
with the younger generation. They threw Molotov cocktails to break the paralyzing silence. I felt
that playing historical figures, often Nazi figures,
could help Germans to come to terms with their
Silvia Bombardini:If ever there were a Sisyphean image of
hopelessly heaving weight upward, it is the
German with his burden of history. Damned
if you do; damned if you don’t, writes author
Tom L. Freudenheim in his paper CONFRONTING MEMORIES AND MUSEUMS. In movies, National
Socialism is still a wary and delicate subject,
that nonetheless German cinema could never
in good conscience elude — film is, after all,
the very substance of memory. But besides
remembering, what service exactly can
cinema provide history, in your opinion?
Sebastian Koch: I think cinema can help a lot to overcome
prejudices. Bringing issues like racism, women’s
rights, injustice, and suppression of human
rights onto the screen can educate viewers and
thus create a more tolerant and critical society.
Besides that, cinema incorporates all forms of
art and the screen is like a magnifying glass.
Silvia Bombardini: As playwright Georg Dreyman in Henkel
von Donnermarck’s Oscar-winning Stasidrama
THE LIVES OF OTHERS, it was the sheet
music for SONATE VOM GUTEN MENSCHEN that
meant a pivotal change for your character and
the story. Have you ever experienced such an
instance in real life, when a work of art, be it
music, film, or a play perhaps, has inspired
you so radically as to shift your perspective?
Sebastian Koch: There is no doubt that art in any form has
influenced many people since the very beginning
of humankind. I became an actor because of a
theater ensemble in Stuttgart. The director was
Claus Peymann and he gathered a wonderful
group of actors around him and thrilled the whole
city with his political, poetic, and humorous
theater. As a youngster I was so intrigued by
this artistic group that I wanted to be a part of it.
I wanted to live in an artificial world with artificial
light and tell important stories, political or
emotional. The theater is a self-sufficient place, a
protected playground with given limits.
And there is a recording of Chopin’s nocturnes
played by Rubinstein in the ’70s that I heard for
the first time when I was twenty-one. It’s one of
the most beautiful piano recordings I ever heard.
A defining moment for me, and it accompanies
me wherever I go. I feel totally at home when
I listen to it.
Silvia Bombardini: A modernized Berlin, one that licked
its wounds and opened up to Hollywood
productions and more current issues such as,
say, illegal immigration, is instead the setting
of Unknown. And yet Collet-Serra opted for
it since the city, in his words, still “suits the
film’s themes of amnesia and lost identity.”
The search for one’s own identity has indeed
been a recurrent trait of many of your roles; is
it perhaps a feature of all Berliners? Or, has
the capital come to influence the roles that
you accept, in relation to those personalities
you’ve grown to identify with the most?
Sebastian Koch: When I arrived in Berlin in 1990, I was still
searching for my own identity and was confronted
with a city trying to rediscover its soul. Berlin
is still in that process and I think it will be very
interesting to see how the city will continue to
develop in the next few years. Historically, Berlin
always modeled itself on other cities — Paris,
London, Vienna — and always struggled to find
its own identity. Berlin only became the capital
of a united Germany in 1871 and has gone
through unbelievable changes ever since. It was
the capital of the German Empire, and after the
defeat in the First World War it became the capital
of the new and fragile Weimar Republic and the
crazy and creative Roaring Twenties. Then came
the Nazis and the madness of fascistic ideas,
politically, culturally, and architecturally, followed
by total destruction and division. Then came
forty-five years of Soviet-style city planning in the
East and capitalistic reconstruction in the West.
Berlin has seen it all and the search for a new and
permanent identity is the big challenge for my own
and the future generations. It’s truly fascinating.
Silvia Bombardini: Yet you mentioned that it was a relief
somehow to be a German actor in Unknown
and not be playing the Nazi or the bad guy —
but then not much later you were a perfect
villain in the fifth movie of the DIE HARD
franchise. Although, admittedly, you were
much more typically Russian there. Komarov
— what can you tell me about him, and what
was the most memorable scene in the film
Sebastian Koch: It was quite intriguing for me to be cast as
the villain in one of the Die Hards... I accepted
immediately because originally it was actually
quite a good script. Komarov’s character was
based on Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former
Yukos CEO. While shooting in Budapest the
FOX producers learned that they would lose the
“Russian market” if they stuck with the script, so
every day they came up with new suggestions
to play down the character, which drove me
almost crazy, considering that I had to learn my
Russian lines phonetically because I don’t speak Russian at all. It seems to be very difficult for the
people involved in these Hollywood franchise
movies to take a permanent stance, and it seems
that everyone fears the consequences of their
decisions — no one seems to have the courage
to take responsibility. So the sentence I heard
most often in those five months of shooting
was: “Sebastian, within the next 24 hours we’re
gonna make a decision.” So, ultimately I found
the making of the movie more defining than the
Silvia Bombardini: A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD was indeed
shot in Budapest, and you’ve said that the
city reminds you a bit of Berlin in the ’90s.
From an outsider’s point of view, what Berlin
experienced at the time was unprecedented
growth: while other metropolises dilate
patiently above their suburbs, Berlin was
split open and in its center, framed by a
constellation of ruins, a newly emptied space
unfolded on hypersensitive soil. But what
was this like, for those who lived the change?
How was the mood, what were the hopes and
doubts, the responses of its people?
Sebastian Koch: The reunification of Germany in 1990 was
an historical chance for Berlin to redefine itself.
Everything happened at immense speed and this
speed prevented a slow and harmonious coming
together. The former GDR lost its sovereignty
practically overnight and its Western sibling
took over but it overstretched the imagination
and patience of its people. Years of division
had created two very different systems and
people with opposing attitudes and prejudices.
The average West German probably had more
in common with an Italian than with a citizen
from the former GDR. Subsequently, the moods
swung from euphoria to total desperation. Do
we belong together or not? It took us years to
overcome these problems and in many ways they
are still there today. It all went far too quickly.
Silvia Bombardini: I’ve also heard that you’ve written a
script where Budapest plays the part of
1930s Berlin, is that right? Can you give us
a little clue as to what we will see, and do
you have any plan for production yet? Is this
something you’d be interested in pursuing,
a sideline behind the camera, or will this be
more of a one-off story?
Sebastian Koch: I’ve optioned the rights for the novel The
Einstein Girl by Philip Sington. It’s a wonderful
story about lost identity, the first steps of
psychoanalysis, Einstein’s theory of relativity,
and a highly sensitive, poetic love story set in
’30s Berlin. The script is in development... too
early yet to talk about it. In general I can definitely
imagine a future as a writer or producer. So much mass-market trash is produced nowadays.
It’s quite tough to get "real cinema" financed,
however, because it’s only about profit.
Silvia Bombardini: What else are you currently working
on, or what does your schedule look like for
the months ahead? Is there anything you’re
especially looking forward to, dreaming of,
or hoping for?
Sebastian Koch: I just came back from Paros in Greece, where
I spent my holiday — finally a month without
doing anything — just relaxing, reading, enjoying
the sun, the sea, and the wonderful Greek people.
Now that I’m back I’m starting to prepare for a
French movie with Daniel Auteuil — a justice
thriller based on a true story. It’s been ten years
since I filmed in France and I’m very much looking
forward to it. After this I’ll be part of a Steven
Spielberg agent thriller set in Berlin and Poland.