BLACK BOOK Interview with Sebastian Koch
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BLACK BOOK An Interview with Sebastian Koch
April 2, 2007
Sebastian Koch has the pleasure of being one the hottest foreign actors ready to make his move to Hollywood if producers have their way. Very recently, the film he stars in, “The Lives of Others” was awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. In Paul Verhoeven’s latest film, “Black Book”, Sebastian Koch plays Ludwig Muntze, head of the SD, one of the Nazi’s military unit. When he decides to side with the opposition to stop any further bloodshed, his life and the life of his lover, played by Clarice van Houten, are put in jeopardy. While shooting the film, Koch and van Houten became a real life couple. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Koch talks about his character, working with Verhoeven, and love for van Houten.
How much research did you have to do for your part in this film as a Nazi Officer?
Sebastian Koch: I've played a lot of [roles like this one in previous films]. I started with STAUFFENBERG, which was the attempt to go against Hitler but it failed. After that I played Albert Speer [in SPEER UND ER] who was the architect to Hitler and one of the most evil people in his crew. Playing these roles, which were completely different, was such a big responsibility for me because everyone knows [of their existence] in Germany and in the world. So I read everything about the Gestapo and know all the names [related] to Hitler. I have to know it to play these parts so I was very well prepared this time.
How would you describe Muntze?
Sebastian Koch: He's a very nice man. He believed in the Nazi at the beginning of it and discovered probably very soon that there was something wrong. I think that there were people like [him], like Schindler. They weren't a lot but there were a couple of people who tried to be human beings in that system. He tried to avoid bloodshed, to avoid these horrible orders and in a way he saved a lot of people. Then he fell in love with this Jewish girl and changed the times. I think as an actor it's a great challenge to play such a man because in the beginning you have to be afraid of him because he's a Nazi and then slowly you see he's a good hearted man.
In this film and in THE LIVES OF OTHERS, you play characters that are almost 2 sides of the same coin. It's interesting how you bring out the interrelated elements within your characters in both films.
Sebastian Koch: I think every character has to be that way. I think the most interesting characters are those in which you can see both sides. I'm very picky when saying yes to a script. I take a very long time to decide myself because I spend a lot of time with this and so Io take parts where I think I can take something from my life as well. It must be interesting for me. Most of these characters are not black and white. They have more depth.
Were you a Verhoeven fan before doing this film?
Sebastian Koch: I knew the Hollywood Paul [with films like] BASIC INSTINCT. I thinkhe really changed the cinema landscape. After BASIC INSTINCT for example, this type of film had a new name like erotic thriller, which didn't exist before. STARSHIP TROOPERS had so many special effects. I think he's a man who sets new tracks and is always [paving] the way. I'm very similar in that way. I don't do things that I've already done. It's annoying. I think as an artist you need to [accept] the possibility to fail and you need the risk. If it's not there, then you're senses aren't there. Paul is definitely like that. He's always in search of something else.
You were also in the movie AMEN that is another interesting look at the war period. Having portrayed diverse characters in the different war films, what did you learn about the Nazi period?
Sebastian Koch: As a German, I feel that my country is still suffering because of this period. The Germans are still having the problem of being self conscious when singing or waving German flags. When I was younger it wasn't at all possible to do that. A German felt too guilty [to wave a flag] because it meant Heil Hitler. I was always interested in going back to this period to talk in a different way because after the war nobody talked about it. Then in 1968 with the RAF bombings, the [younger generation] was begging [for information]. They were crying for help and begging their parents to tell them what they did during this war period. The parents would reply "nothing". My generation I think was able to talk about this period in a serious way because there was enough distance.
Carice van Houten has such a shocking presence in every scene. What was like working with her?
Sebastian Koch: First of all I have to agree with you. She was wonderful and I love it so much that she doesn't suffer so much in this part. You can play this part completely different because the whole suffering [and burden] is on her shoulders. She played it in a different way and I'm grateful for that otherwise you couldn't stand this movie. When I met her, we immediately [shared] a sense of humor between us. With the sex scenes and the died pubic hair, we were happy to build an immediate relationship where we kept talking and talking like an old couple. You need humor to play in these scenes otherwise it's ridiculous to take off all your clothes and pretend to make love.
How did you prepare mentally for the execution scene?
Sebastian Koch: I tried to imagine how it would be and I didn't have to act it out so much.
Were you shocked when THE LIVES OF OTHERS won the Oscar award?
Sebastian Koch: I was completely in another world because I thought Guillermo del Toro [would win.] I was very moved by the trailer they showed for the foreign language category and then when they announced the Oscar for THE LIVES OF OTHERS, it was one of the better moments in my life.
Are there any American actors or directors you are interested in working with?
Sebastian Koch: Definitely but I don't believe in knocking on doors. I never did that. I don't believe in searching. My life has been so rich that people have come to me after seeing me in a movie. Until now it has worked perfectly and I believe in that. I have tried to keep that belief and to do [projects] I believe in. This [movie] was like a dream. It was such a pleasure to meet [Verhoeven]. He made so many incredible movies and he's so wonderful as a director and [person]. You can learn a lot from people like that.
Were you sad to see Muntze get executed or did you consider the alternative reality if he had survived?
Sebastian Koch: He never would have made it after the war.
Is there anything that surprised you about Verhoeven while working with him?
Sebastian Koch: I liked him when I met him because he is so full of good energy…he's very pure [in his filmmaking]. He's so authentic in his movies and they're [moving]. You will react to [his films]. After BLACK BOOK, it's like coming out of a washing machine. He tricks you and I like that. Not only the actors but also the audience. The adaptation of this pure energy into cinema is very rare.
Did you have any fears in regards to the film's reception by the Jewish community?
Sebastian Koch: I'm very happy that the Jewish people love this movie because this is not clear. We were in Los Angeles at the director's guild and John Magnus was moderating the Q and A and he suddenly goes on a rampage yelling "F**king Nazis!" It was completely outrageous. I was on stage and he was looking in my eyes. I can feel there is so much emotion of course and anger- and they are all right. But I'm sitting there and all I can feel is sorry for the situation because I had nothing to do with it. On the contrary I try to talk about it and approach all point of views. I understand it was horrible.
Are you interested in staying in Berlin or would you consider moving?
Sebastian Koch: Now I'm in Berlin and Amsterdam…I mean [Carise and I] definitely want to do something together. I have a daughter in Berlin and she's eleven. Probably she needs about one or two more years, and then I can go wherever I want.
What about going to Hollywood?
Sebastian Koch: I'm ready for it to do a good script, why not. I've had it with the bad German right now. I don't want to play the bad Nazis here because I've done it. I won't do that because I have a lot of good offers in Europe and then in Germany I would be stupid.
Did you find it different working in the French film industry as opposed to the German or American?
Sebastian Koch: The French are definitely different. They start [filming] at 1:00 after lunch. Germans start at 6:00 in the morning when it's dark. You have to be ready at 7:00 am. [The French] are very relaxed which I like very much and they make wonderful movies. I was always an admirer of French movies when I was young.
Talk about working with Carice van Houten.
Sebastian Koch: We are both great blushers...We were shooting one scene when we were in love already and she blushed every take. Even in [scene] at the railway station when were walking out and I left with the suitcases, she [turned red] like a tomato.
Which French directors have you worked with?
Sebastian Koch: [I worked with] Jean-Louis Bertucelli. I did it for the money to support my theatre and then there was Rene Allio. He was very intellectual and he's been dead for 10 years. He did an adaptation of the novel TRANSIT. It's a very wonderfully written novel and he made the film and [cast] me as the main actor. That was the first [realization] for me because I [thought] it was something for me. Allio took me to every rushes every night – 75 plays probably – so I got a tremendous feeling for the frame for example because of that and few directors did that. That was very important for me for the first experience. He was so fine and sensitive with things and I loved it. And thought this was definitely something for me. Then the theatre in Germany went really downhill so I left and started to do films.
BLACK BOOK opens on April 6, 2007
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