Long-established as a screen and stage star in Germany, Sebastian Koch was catapulted to wider attention in 2006 with the global success of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Oscar-winning The Lives of Others. He’s become an increasingly familiar sight to international audiences in recent years, with roles in Hollywood hits like Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, and TV smash Homeland, the most recent series of which was shot and set in Berlin. His latest film, out this week, is Kai Wessel’s Nebel im August. Based on the 2008 historical novel by Robert Domes, it’s the first major feature to directly address the Nazis’ Aktion T4 programme of involuntary euthanasia. Koch stars as physician Werner Veithausen, whose monstrous actions are challenged by brave 13-year-old Ernst Lossa (Ivo Pietzcker).
Y: What was the most important element which attracted you into this project Nebel im August?
S: It was important for me that we actually searched to create a bridge between what happened in the Nazi period to today. For my role I wanted to show a man who believes in this matter not only for nationalistic reasons, but also for scientific reasons. The theme of “racial hygiene” was a socially relevant in the later 19th century. What people were discussing about was to increase positive hereditary traits and reduce negative ones. That was a social issue that people discussed about, and the Nazis have taken up the concept. And then in the 30s, Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases (Gesetz zur Verhütung Erbkranke Nachwuchs) started – the wording itself is already so absurd. And then the abortion was legalised, and then “racial selection” started, with which only the Aryans are preferred. This is a topic that people has always been preoccupied with and which still has resonances today, in terms of prenatal diagnosis which would more or less accurately diagnoses Down syndrome or other disabilities. These are very positive things. It is rather the way in which it has been implemented that worries me because it is very often the doctors who is there to advise on termination of pregnancy. We were filming with disabled children on set and spoke with their parents, who told me that when they were informed about the diagnosis, they were advised to terminate pregnancy, but they still kept the child anyway. They all said that they would have made the same decision again because the magic of these children is very inspiring and life is intensified with their presence. That brought me think that it is so important for the family to be able to decide on their own according to their respective considerations without pressure from outside, instead of letting the doctor take decisions for them. This was the main point for me to make this film, as well as to present this very friendly person who believes in the cause and the role of a monsters who is not visible as a monster. This makes it spooky, weird, and complicated, because evil is not immediately recognisable.
Y: You mentioned the disabled children on set. How was your experience working with them?
S: That was incredibly fun and they are great people. The Down syndrome children are so natural and express emotions so directly. They truly have the magic. They have the talent of feeling something and expressing what they think immediately, which we have lost while growing up. In the beginning there was a great level of caution and hesitation in the way people worked with them on set, but it was gone after a short period of time when mutual understanding was established. It was a very pleasant experience indeed and was great fun.
Y: The film deals with a very difficult subject matter. What was the atmosphere on the set?
S: The subject matter of racial hygiene turned into a murder weapon is a very cruel topic. On set it was very hard but also very loving because these disabled people were ‘part of the game’. We were there together to work on an important film in the best way we could, and we created a very warm, friendly, loving and also humorous atmosphere on set.
Y: How did you prepare for the role? Did you have a special reading material?
S: I read around the whole historical period in order to know the background well. The crucial factor is how far I would portray such a character, who in German we would say is “verrückt” although in English it is just “mad/crazy”. From the root of the word “verrückt” is someone who diverted and transgressed, but at the same time he has his own logic of reasoning and hence does not feel guilty at all. As an actor it is so exciting to work on this logic and to portray him as accurately as possible. When Veit Hausen invented this e-diet which deprived people of nutrients and hence starved them through the diet, this terrible invention from his logic was a great success because he felt that it made people suffer less and have a painless death. This perverseness was the work which I have to do there.
Y: Was it challenging to portray the complexity and subtlety of the audience’s gradual realisation of what Veit Hausen was really doing?
S: I tried to bring in some disturbing feelings in subtly, so it sometimes feels alarming and worrying, but only subconsciously. I find it fascinating that it is the child Ernst Lossa’s soul and clear eyes which upsets him so much that prompted him to commit his first murder which could not be justified in his own logic. It is all because Lossa is the one who endangers the entire system by bringing people food and trying to rescue them.
Y: The readers are also interested in your participation in Homeland and Bridge of Spies. Can you perhaps tell us a bit about it?
S: Working with Spielberg was an incredible experience. He has managed to establish an atmosphere and space that is so private, intimate and creative on set, where everyone is completely free to try things out. He likes working with the same people, and the team took me in with open arms. At the same time the work is placed within this great Hollywood scale. Everything that happens in front of the camera within the frame was done with artistic freedom and a lot of intimacy, which I really loved. And then there was the book. The Coen Brothers of course have a wonderful sense of humor which wanders in between lines. And then Tom Hanks has the magic of absorbing everything and transporting everything. The combination was fascinating.
Y: Do you have some insider tips for expats in Berlin? Favorite movie theatre?
S: I am a private person. If I tell you my insider tips, they would no longer be private. So I’m always careful. I like the Zoopalast which was recently renovated, Moviemento recently, Astor Lounge, which was formerly the Palast, which shows beautiful films. I also like the cinema on Kantstrasse cinema very much. The Saal 1 with the balcony is beautiful. It is as time had not passed, and everything stayed the same way it was. The Delphi is also great, and International on the Karl-Marx-Straße is an especially beautiful cinema.
Y: Is there any role in particular you would like?
S: I never had a dream role. I am someone who checks out what is offered to me, in what situation I am, what suits me, and what I feel like at a particular moment. For example, I never imagined that I would play such a role as in Seewolf. And then this offer came and I needed to build up muscles. It was great fun. So I usually go for what is right for me at the moment, what is fun, and what story that needs to be told. In Bridge of Spies I did not have a great role, but I knew that the film has something special and had to be a part of that.
Y: Do you have more plans to play in English?
S: That happens all the time. Like I said, I do not plan so much. I’ve done a film in France, but haven’t done a film in France and in French for 12 years. I think it would be great fun to do it again. It’s fun to shoot in English because it is a great film language. Playing in German is a totally different thing. So, for example, my voice is much deeper when I speak in English and higher when I speak in French, interestingly. The feelings are totally different.
(The shorter version of the interview was originally published on Exberliner.)