Nina Hoss is calling from Los Angeles to discuss Barbara, her new film about a doctor trying to keep herself intact in East Germany at the height of the paranoid 80s. It's also the official German submission for the best foreign-language Oscar; the number of films in competition for the five nomination slots requires aggressive courting of Academy voters, which explains why Hoss is in L.A.
(Regrettably, when the short list of nine eligible titles was announced last week, Barbara didn't make the cut.)
How's the campaigning going?
I've just had a lovely lunch with loads of people who had seen the movie. We had a little talk about it.
I understand they've got you on a whirlwind promotional schedule.
I'm here for just five days, which is not a long time really. But I enjoy it.
And the weather's nice.
That's true, that's true. I'm dreading Berlin. [laughter] It's snowing. Heavy snow right now.
We meet your character, Barbara, after she's served an unknown amount of time in prison for an unspecified offence. And now that she's out, she doesn't allow herself to display any emotion; she won't even let the people around her know what she's thinking. How do you approach a character who's so shut down?
I had to really be clear on her background story, so that I knew what her real personality was - which she can't follow. She can't give in to any of her impulses. That's what happens when you're being supervised or threatened; you just put up a defensive wall.
I asked, "What is she hiding?" I always thought it was her vividness and her liveliness and her positive [spirit], which has been taken away from her by the state. But it's still there, and it comes out most when she's practicing her profession. That's when she is empathetic, and she can't help it. She gets attached to her patients, and then it becomes possible for someone like [her co-worker] Andrei to find a little romantic door to her heart.
But as an actor, you can't let the camera see any of that. It's like a straitjacket.
She doesn't talk much, so I had to know exactly what the inner resistance is that I'm dealing with, so that I could fill up these moments when the camera might be on my face and have to tell a story [without speaking]. I needed to always know what's going on inside of her, to keep it interesting, and to show what this oppressive state does to her and how she tries to fight for her dignity, for her pride.
She's also very formal and severe in her dress, while everyone else is a little shabbier.
I talked with Christian [Petzold, the director] about how she looks, because some of [the crew] said, "Maybe it's too elegant." And I said, "No, I want her to make clear to everyone around her: ‘I'm not like you. I won't give in. I put makeup on every morning, even if you think it's ridiculous.'" It's like a little rebellion, but that's all she allows herself.
My mother, when she was in school in the 50s, she put a lot of makeup on. It was the fashion, this thick black eyeliner. And the teacher put an eraser in her hands in front of the class and said "Wipe it off." So she had to do that, which was very humiliating, but then she went to the toilet and put [her makeup] on again and sat back in the classroom. I thought: that's defiance, but it's also like a mask that protects you from the outside. These little finds helped me a lot.
You've said you had very little knowledge of the Soviet era, growing up in West Germany. Did the East German setting require any additional research?
I never really experienced any of this, no. But I decided to go to the East Berlin acting school [the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts] because it's known to be a very good one, but also because I wanted to learn about this other Germany, because really we were strangers to each other.
I was interested in how life had been in the GDR, and what they went through. Really, when you grew up in the West, you didn't get to learn anything about it unless you had family over there. So that helped me a lot, my time in acting school. We had loads of discussions. Just being told how life was over there, that helped me a lot for portraying Barbara. I had never experienced this awful fear, this mistrust.... You couldn't say anything that might bother the state; you're threatened that the next morning you'll be put in prison or something like that.
People told me they sometimes didn't even trust their partners because they might be spies. You could never tell. You weren't necessarily a bad person, but maybe you did something where they could, you know, pressure you or threaten you by saying "We're gonna tell this and this to so-and-so, so you'd better work for the Stasi." You never knew who was working for them. That is such an odd feeling, and they all described this tense atmosphere that was everywhere.
It strikes me that all of the movies you've made with Christian Petzold - this, Yella, Jerichow - are about trust.
Hmm. I have the feeling that all of the characters I've portrayed in his movies so far have something to do with human beings falling out of society, for whatever reason - being somewhat of an outsider or lonely or by themselves. And you watch them trying to get back into society, but also into life. With Yella it was more like a ghost story. You're also feeling he's talking about people who can't let go. They have a dream, they pursue that dream and don't let go of it. It has to do with trust, but also with hope and with the difficulties in your way. [It's] the getting there, you know? By watching them, at least, you always think, "God, life is complicated, but it's wonderful." [laughter] Yeah? It's never easy, it doesn't make it easy for us to watch, and it's not easy to play, but you can think about life.
For example, Barbara, when I first watched it, I started thinking, what fulfills you? What is freedom, even for us nowadays? Which choices do you make, which are the important ones, and what really fulfills you? And you can think of society. Do we also have to take care of each other, or is it just whoever makes it, makes it? That's what I love about Christian's movies: there's always something political in them, but he doesn't ever lecture you. He just asks questions and he doesn't give answers.
How does he approach you about each new film? Does he pitch ideas or bring you completed scripts? Do you just expect that you'll be part of his next picture?
He starts telling me the stories he's thinking about pretty early. Barbara stayed with him for nine years. I don't necessarily know if they'll turn into a movie, but some of them do.