Stateside, German actor Til Schweiger has become a “that guy” of action thrillers, a supporting player who turns up —in Atomic Blond, King Arthur or Inglourious Basterds — for a memorable line (“Say auf Wiedersehen to your Nazi balls!”) or some high-energy action scene.
The parts Schweiger gets offered — Medieval, Highland Film Group’s new period actioner screening at AFM, in which he co-stars alongside Ben Foster and Sophie Lowe is a case in point — tends to be hunky heavies and tough guys. In the parts he writes for himself — in the string of German box office hits which he also directed, including Barefoot (2005), Rabbit Without Ears (2007) and Kokowääh (2011) — Schweiger favors the cocky, cynical outsider whose heart eventually gets melted by the charms.
of a smart-alecky kid or the love of a wary woman.
Occasionally, Schweiger also dips into darker territory. His 2014 dramedy success Head Full of Honey was about a family dealing with a grandfather’s descent into Alzheimer’s. His latest, the literary adaptation Dear Kurtwhich A Company is introducing to international buyers at AFM, is the story of a family whose child dies in a tragic accident.
Schweiger spoke to The News84Media about his “primal fear” of losing a child, his talent for casting strong female leads and about the future of moviegoing in the post-COVID world.
Dear Kurt is a different kind of film for you, the story of a couple who lost a child. How did you come to adapt the book by Sarah Kuttner?
A friend of mine gave me the book. It was the first novel I’d read in years, and it really cast a spell over me, it pulled me in. I knew I had to turn it into a movie.
What was it about the story that grabbed you?
It’s my primal fear as a father of four, the fear I felt for the first time when my oldest, my son, was born. That infinite love comes into your life and at the same time, infinite fear that something could happen to them. It comes with every child. And it never goes away. And I’ve seen it happen with friends who have lost a child. What it does to them and what they go through. It made me want to make this movie.
The tragedy, the child’s death, happens very early in the film. That’s a risky move as a director.
Sure, but I knew it wasn’t an easy subject. But Head Full of Honey also had a tough subject at its core. This is even tougher, but I had a need to make the movie and I think I got the balance right. Compared to the book, the film is a lot funnier. There’s not the same kind of humor in the book.
The flashbacks, where we get to see the boy continue to live throughout the movie, that’s not in the book. But I thought it was incredibly important to have them, or the subject would just hammer you.
How did you find your cast — lead Franziska Machens is known for theater more than film, as is the phenomenal Peter Simonischek.
I first saw Simonischek in Toni Erdmann and thought he was fantastic. I offered him the role directly. Franziska Machens was the suggestion of a colleague of mine. When she came in to audition, I knew immediately. She’s fantastic.
You seem to have a talent for casting strong female leads — Johanna Wokalek in BarefootNora Tschirner in Rabbit Without Ears — who often steal the show from the characters you’ve written for yourself.
Well, I don’t know if they steal the show…
I meant it as a compliment.
What I know is that Franziska is amazing. And whenever I cast roles, not just female roles but all the roles in film, I only cast people I think are great. When I invite someone in to audition, I tell them: “You’re not here because I want to see if you can do this, I know you’re a great actor, or I wouldn’t have invited you.” I just want to see who fits best into my vision for the film. And to test the chemistry between the actors, how does the ensemble fit together. Franziska is incredible. I’ve already cast her for my next movie, The Best is Yet to Come [an adaptation of the 2019 French film]. Peter Simonischek too.
Do you think German audiences see you differently as an actor than do international, particularly American audiences? Internationally, you’re best known for action films, but in Germany, you’re the king of romantic comedies.
Definitely. I’ve done a few comedies in America, but none of them really worked. Most didn’t get into theaters or just barely. I don’t know if you’ve seen the film SLC Punk! ? I have a great, really funny role in that. And I was in the next film from the director, James Merendino, Magicians . But as a European, you have to accept it. The Americans wouldn’t cast me in a role written for Tom Hanks. Just like I wouldn’t take a role written for me in a German film and cast the biggest star in Poland that no one here knows.
In Germany, I’ve only really done one proper action film: Schutzengel , which sold 780,000 tickets in Germany. Most American action films don’t manage that. The second and third entries in the The Bourne Identity The franchise did not go over 1 million admissions. In general, German audiences watch their action and crime on television, not in the cinema. I’ve seen studies that show Germany is the most difficult country in the world for action movies. I’m not talking about Marvel films, but your classic actioners. They just aren’t appreciated in Germany. And when a German viewer does pick an action film, they usually pick an American one, because they have 20 or 50 times the budget.
Is that why you’ve mainly done comedies in Germany? The German comedy is not an easy sell internationally.
Yeah, for the rest of the world, “German comedy” is an oxymoron. A German comedy will almost never get a US release, also because US audiences don’t read subtitles, at least not for comedies. But comedies are tough anyway. There are very few exceptions, like [French comedy hit] The Intouchables that trip. People want to watch local content or the big Hollywood films. When I was younger, French actors like Alain Delon and Jean Paul Belmondo were big stars, big action stars, in Germany. You don’t have that anymore.
Were you happy with Dear Kurt‘s performance in Germany?
To be honest, no. It didn’t perform up to our expectations. We knew we had a tough subject matter but when we screened the film in Berlin, we got standing ovations! I’ve never had that. The premieres in Hamburg, in Vienna, were great. We did pre-screenings and the response was always “Wow!” — that this is a very emotional but also really beautiful film.
But it’s a difficult time for cinemas right now. People are really scared of the future. The energy crisis, the war in Ukraine. If people go to the theater, they just want to be entertained. But the box office figures in general are weak.
Most films released in Germany since the end of the COVID lockdown haven’t really performed at the box office. Do you think this is the new normal?
The numbers in general are low, pretty low. And I think it could get worse as people get scared about what’s coming, with inflation and the cost of living, and start saving more.
Does that mean you’ll be making movies directly to streamers? You’ve always been a cinema guy.
True, but I think there are certain kinds of formats that are just better for streamers. I also like the concept of making series. We’re working on some ideas in that direction. I’d like to do both—theatrical movies and series.
We developed a series in 2019 called Collapse that had the premise that the power goes out all across Europe. It was a great series, we did the scripts in English with English writers. And when we shopped it around, people said it was too dystopian. That was 2019 and it was fiction. Now, 2022, it looks like it’s about to come true, that the lights could go out across Europe this winter. And I don’t think you can make a series like that now.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in The News84Media’s Nov. 4 daily issues at the American Film Market.
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