Valkyrie - Christian Berkel and Thomas Kretschmann interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
CHRISTIAN Berkel (pictured opposite) and Thomas Kretschmann talk about playing roles in Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie – about the WWII plot to assassinate Hitler – as well as their own experiences of war films in light of being German-born actors.
Q. How was it being German actors in a big Hollywood film about the Second World War given that it can be a touchy subject for Germans?
Christian Berkel: We get asked this a lot in Germany too. How come the Germans play Germans in an American movie. We say: “Well, what else do you want us to play?” If it’s about World War Two, of course we’ll play Germans and most of them were not really nice guys. But that’s part of the history of that time.
With regards to Valkyrie, though, it was a big change. For a very long time, even decades, America continued, in a way, the Cold War on the screen… showing a very black and white idea of the subject matter. So, it’s a big change. It’s the first time that a star like Tom Cruise is telling this kind of story about German Resistance. I realised when I was in the States that nobody knew, not only about this story in particular, but didn’t know anything about Resistance at all in Germany. There wasn’t a lot of it, of course, but there has been some.
Thomas Kretschmann: For me, it’s simple… it’s a great story, it’s a great script and it’s a big project. So, you like it or you don’t, and if you like it, you do it. I don’t take into account the political aspect of what it’s like for me, as a German, to be in a film like this.
Q. How well known is the Stauffenberg story in Germany?
Thomas Kretschmann: We all knew about it from school and that it happened. What we didn’t know was how big the whole thing was, or how many people were involved… the whole aftermath with regards to trying to overthrow the whole government and hand Germany over to the Allies.
Christian Berkel: I didn’t know about the size of it, either. I knew about the plot. In fact, yesterday I was talking to some members of the Stauffenberg family after the Berlin premiere and I said: “Of course, everyone knows the name Stauffenberg…” But they said: “No, no… that’s not true. Very few people do, actually, and they must learn.”
I also think Germany always had a big problem about Stauffenberg because they always had a big problem after World War Two speaking about heroes, for understandable reasons. He was an ambivalent hero for a lot of people because everybody said: “These people were not democrats…” So, nobody knows what would have happened if they’d succeeded and what kind of government they would have put in place. History just didn’t give them the chance to prove they would become democrats. But they definitely weren’t democrats to begin with.
Q. As you say, it’s not as black and white as it was for someone like Sophie Scholl…
Christian Berkel: Yes, yes… that’s different. They were national socialists. But that’s the point of this story – it’s not what you were at the beginning, it’s what you are at the end that really counts. So, I think it’s very difficult if you start being totally convinced of this idea at the beginning [of the Third Reich] and then realising at a certain point that, no, I don’t want to go on living like that and I don’t want my kids to grow up in this kind of regime. And I’m not only thinking differently now, but acting differently and putting my own life at risk. That’s something.
Q. They were very much about honour, weren’t they?
Christian Berkel: Yes, they were all aristocrats. The whole resistance group around him was huge.
Q. What kind of research did you do? Did you try and speak to anyone?
Christian Berkel: We did Downfall, for example, together, so we had some kind of experience of this whole period, and had read quite a lot of books about it. I tried to find material about [my character] Colonel Mertz von Quirnheim, but there wasn’t that much. But the script was so well written, and I’ve rarely had this experience, that I thought the best research was to read it and read it again. So, that’s basically what I did.
Q. There seems to have been more and more interest in this country in the Second World War in recent years. Is that the same in Germany?
Christian Berkel: Well, it’s funny… I was talking to some American producers recently and I asked them: “Why are you so interested in World War Two in Hollywood?” And he said: “Well, that’s because it’s one of the last romantic wars.” And when I asked what he felt was romantic about that war, he said: “Well, because it’s still black and white. You have the good and the bad in a very clear way, and wars aren’t happening like that anymore. It’s very difficult to say who’s the good and who’s the bad one now.”
Q. And it was the last one that the Americans won as welll…
Christian Berkel: [Laughs] Yes. Yes. Definitely.
Thomas Kretschmann (pictured right): We obviously have a different perspective on the romantic nature of that war [laughs]. For me, I’ve lived in Los Angeles now for 10 years or so, and I’ve been in a couple of movies on the subject and it’s always the same questions… like: “How does it feel to put the uniform on?” I always answer it truthfully, but I also feel there’s a tendency that they all put it in the same pot. It started more or less on The Pianist, with [Roman] Polanski. I found it was a great part to play and it was a hero part to play, actually. One reporter said to me: “You know, you did Germany a big favour… you rehabilitated a whole nation in 15 minutes.” In a way, that’s what this film does for Germany. I don’t mean to lift Germany up in the whole sense, but it does show that people are people. You cannot just say: “You are f**king German and you are part of that.” You’re a human being and you have to decide which side you stand, and what you’re prepared to do for your humanity.
Christian Berkel: In order to get to the truth of what happened during that time, you also have to tell many stories. The movie Roshomon, for instance, is a good example because in order to get the real picture you have to get as many stories as possible. This is one another part of the picture. And I don’t think it will be the last… there’s still a lot of stories to be told.
Q. When you were growing up was this something that was talked about a lot with your family members who had experienced it?
Thomas Kretschmann: I grew up in East Germany and for us… we called the Russians the big brother, so as kids we had to learn Russian in school. So, we were very focused on the bad past. The west Germans carried on but we learned our lesson and we changed. On a personal level, my grandfather died when I was a teenager, but before I remember as a child that I always heard stories about the First World War. He never talked about the Second World War. I know from my mother that he deserted and it makes me feel good that he wasn’t part of anything I’d be ashamed of for him. But I never heard a story about the Second World War from him – it was all to do with the cavalry in the First World War and all the sword fights. I wish I could ask him now, or when I developed a brain.
I think in general… I know Jewish people, for example, whose parents never talked about it. My wife is Jewish – a Russian Jew actually. So, it’s a very grey area.
Christian Berkel: Half of my family is Jewish because all my mother’s family is Jewish. I haven’t been brought up Jewish but I would have been considered a Jew because you were Jewish if you were born by a Jewish mother. But my mother left Germany in ’38, but then got imprisoned in France when Germany took over Paris. Through relatives, she got out of the camp after a year, but it was a very tough camp but she never talked about it. My father was a war prisoner until 1949.
Every German family has some kind of a story with this, whether it’s like Thomas’ story, or my story… everyone has some kind of burden to carry. It’s actually true what Thomas said about the Jewish families… most of them didn’t talk to their children. They talked to their grandchildren about it, but not to their children, because in a certain way I think they feel some shame as a victim. It was a very, very big problem for many Jews in Germany.
Whenever my mother told stories about this time, she was always laughing. And she was laughing and telling the story in a way like it didn’t happen to her – that it happened to someone else. It was very weird. I never had the feeling it happened to her.
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