In Shadowplay, German actress Nina Hoss plays a woman fighting to build a new life amid the mess of post-war 1946 Berlin. “She sometimes makes the wrong choices, but that makes her human ... but Elsie, she thinks out of this whole mess, this lawlessness, the horror … you can bring something positive out of this,” Hoss says of playing Elsie Garten.
Like the city, Garten has been wounded, though her wounds are inside. Raped by soldiers during the war, and sure that her missing husband is alive when everyone tells her he’s dead, she’s determined to make a difference. She begins working as one of the trümmerfrau – doing the heavy labour of clearing the rubble of Berlin, cleaning up streets and railroad tracks – to put food on the table, and then becomes a policewoman.
Playing a strong woman isn’t new for Hoss, who’s also been in A Most Wanted Man and Barbara where she plays a German doctor banished to a small country hospital.
So what was it like for Hoss playing the streetwise, blunt Garten? Here she sits down to talk guilt and choices, the strong female cast, working with two directors and seeing hope in a makeshift police station.
Who is Elsie?
I’m playing Elsie Garten. Before the war I [she] was a professor for semiotics, linguistics. So I know languages. I know how to speak Russian and English, French, possibly. I don’t quite know what else she did during the war. I have the feeling she kept out of the whole … she was not a member of the party and that she pretty much disliked the system, I would say, but endured it. And now after the war, so this is ’46, she is one of these Berliner women that said, ‘well, we have to build something up again. We need to do something.’ They went through a horrific part of history with rape and all that. So, they went through a lot as women and Elsie is one where she says, let’s build up a police station. Let’s take it into our own hands. The men are not here anymore. And they will come back later. Hopefully. We have to do something.
She’s very pragmatic and she wants to take on responsibility for the city, for the women that she takes care of, for the young kids, Gad who’s like her assistant or adopted son, somewhat. She has, I find, she feels responsible for the people she takes care of. And at least, wants to make a little difference and wants to make up for what Germany did to Europe and all that. I have the feeling, she feels the guilt, but she wants to put it into something positive.
She says this line, ‘everyone has a choice’ and she sometimes makes the wrong choices also, but that makes her human. So, it’s this kind of, you watch people struggling through life with all the ups and downs with the right decisions, the wrong decisions, but Elsie, for me, is like, she thinks out of this whole mess, this lawlessness, the horror, Germany brought up on Europe, on the Jews and all that, that you can bring something positive out of this. And that is a very beautiful of her.
Guilt, revenge, love and death
I was thinking about it a lot, how to put this whole universe into one sentence … I think what Måns [writer and co-director Måns Mårlind] wrote is, he asks the eternal questions, you know, the story, it’s a story about guilt, about revenge, about love, about death. So that’s all in there, the big questions, but the way he does it is without judgement. So, I have the feeling, the people who will watch it can make up their own minds. And that is for me, for example, I had this one moment where Elsie says to Claire, an English woman, ‘Yeah, but not every one of us was a Nazi. There were also good people’. And as a German, I said to Måns, ‘but I can’t say this, this is ’46, and this is the last thing you should be saying right now.’ It’s so within us [Germans]! We firstly have to cope with what we did and look at it ... that’s a German feeling. Or I don’t know if it’s a German feeling anymore, but that’s my feeling. But then I figured [something] out later in the story.
So, I said it because he said, ‘no, please, do it, I am sweet. I wrote, and you can say it, just say it.’ And I did. And then later in the story, there’s this moment where Izosimov, the Russian general, who wants me to spy for him and all that, I tell him, ‘Well, let our men go. That would save your government a lot of money’. And then he says, ‘Oh, I see the shame. You lost the shame very quickly. I will make sure the guilt will never leave you’. And I, in that moment I said, ah, it’s all fine. Everything is balanced out in this story. You know, even if I said something like that in the beginning, you hear a sentence like that, and these little fine sentences that are just, they pop up in this whole universe and where, yeah, I can only describe it as it balances everything out. And you’re always, you think you find one sympathetic [person] or you think you understand one character and the next moment, it’s completely surprising evolvement.
No one gives up
Each single character is wounded, but all of them just want to go forward and they grab for every help they can get. And sometimes that goes down the wrong way. And, like with Karin, that’s all you think. She starts off as a victim, then takes her own life in her hand, but goes down a direction where you think, ‘Whoa, you’re going into the abyss’ in a way, but you understand how that can happen. And, with Elsie, I think she takes on too much. She can’t save the whole of Berlin and all the women in it and children in it. But she tries to, you know, and that has a strength. And I can find something like that. The strength comes from being wounded and each character finds their own way of dealing with it. But none of them give up.
Shadowplay’s strong women
Each and every single female character is so strong in [her] own way. And strong, but multi-faceted, you know, not strong in this warrior kind of sense, but just trying to survive, trying to overcome pain and all that, and trying to make a new life out of this situation. And it’s just beautiful to see that all the actresses are very happy on set. I think none of us have the feeling like, ‘Oh my God, she has the better part’. It’s really, it melds together.
And it is a great feeling also for me, my gang of scarecrows, you know, and I hold a speech to them. And so you really sometimes have the feeling, ‘yes, let’s do this’, which is amazing because you think, ‘Oh, they did have the chance in this little bubble in this time, right after the war, to reinvent themselves’. And then, you know, what happened, the fifties happened and not just in Germany, I think all over Europe, in the States. And it was this ‘back in the kitchen’, you know, men came home from war and we– everyone went back into the old way of thinking. And I guess when you watch the show, you can think, how sad, why, why did that happen? Why didn’t we stick to that and move on in a different way?
A great cast
I have fabulous co-stars. I can’t rave any more about it. First of all, there’s Taylor [actor Taylor Kitsch, who plays the central character Max McLaughlin, the New York cop who arrives in Berlin on a mission to take down a local criminal while also searching to find his missing brother], who’s kind of my strongest partner in this whole story. He has his secrets, but he is in his core, honest, and I think that’s where Elsie and Max meet, they’re very honest people. They don’t bullshit around, but they’re very different at the same time. So that’s why it’s very interesting to watch those two, I guess. It’s also a lot of humour in it. And it’s so beautiful to find that with Taylor, because it’s very easy to work with him. That’s just fantastic. We go into a scene and we just see what happens. And that is my favourite way of working. And the same, you know, with Mala [Mala Emde, the actress who play Karin], the scenes with the fabulous young cast, like Gad … there are so many!
On working with two directors, Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein
I have a blast with them. Because I mean, they’re on set every day and there was not one day I come in the morning and I don’t get greeted with a big grin and smile and happy to see you. And so that’s the start each and every single day. And that I find fabulous. That’s one thing other than that, that they’re clever, that they’re smart. That they’re intuitive. It’s just amazing to work with them because, ah, it’s like sailing. It’s like what I said with Taylor, we just, we all dance, you know, and that’s so beautiful. That is not one moment in this whole long shooting period where I go ‘ah, that was not good’. Really not.
That’s unusual. I know I’ve never met that before. I have worked with two directors at the same time. That was great as well, but this, I think it’s quite smart, especially if you have to shoot for over months, that you can give yourself a little rest, although you’re there every other day. I mean, you give yourself a rest every other day, but you’re there every day and you can take yourself back, have an overview. Whereas the other one is right in the middle of the action. And then the next day you change that around. And each of them have their own style of directing, but it doesn’t conflict at all. So you don’t feel like, ‘Oh, now I don’t know. What do you want? What do they?’, not at all, you feel they sail into the same direction, but they have other means. And because they are different characters and have a different energy, it’s actually fantastic.
Hope from the ruins
I must say I loved my police station, my working space. That was fabulous. Because it’s supposed to be an old bank, it’s quite grand and big. And they just transformed it into their police station and made it their own, improvised, put things together. I love that we have table legs instead of weapons, you know, it’s like, you take what you can get and you make something out of it. And this spirit somehow was palpable in this station.
Shadowplay premiered with a double episode Thursday 4 March on SBS. Episodes will continue weekly at 9:30pm from Thursday 11 March. New episodes will be available at SBS On Demand each week on the same day as broadcast. Shadowplay will also be subtitled in Simplified Chinese and Arabic, available to stream for free at SBS On Demand. Each subtitled episode will become available at the same time as broadcast.
Start with episode 1: