One of the best offerings at this year's Berlin Film Festival was the Hungarian-German co-production The Wall (Die Wand), based on Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer's allegorical 1962 novel and directed by Austrian Julian Roman Pölsler, who is best known for his television work. The film stars German actress Martina Gedeck and tells of a woman who is strangely cut off from the rest of the world by a force field in a remote mountain valley. Perhaps the last person alive, she is left alone with only an assortment of animals for company and if this sounds tedious, it isn't. Gedeck, whose quiet strength mesmerised in Oscar-winning The Lives of Others and was uncompromising as Ulrike Meinhof in the Oscar-nominated The Baader-Meinhof Complex, holds the screen like few actors can.
You don’t have to go abroad all the time to be a star or a good actor
Having won almost every award on offer in Germany while working across all genres, the tall, statuesque 50-year-old admits that her penchant for playing subtle, complex characters has kept her largely out of the public eye. And she likes it that way.
“I have to say I have a real interest in acting itself. It's a process that is so absurd. It's not visible but you can feel it: love, hatred and joy. All these things are real; they are the human reality. When you are in love things look different, when you are angry things look different, but that reality is not visible. It's your imagination about the person. Maybe that's why I was not interested in being more famous. If I get the parts it's because people like the acting. It's not because 'she's got great big tits', or 'she's very blonde' or 'she's such a wow party girl'. I prefer that actually.”
Another actor possessing a similar fearlessness—even if she's prepared to be seen in a hot red bikini—is Helen Mirren, Gedeck's co-star in István Szabó's The Door. It's quite a treat to see the two powerhouse performers sparring with each other. Only here it's Mirren's older housekeeper Emerenc, who has let herself go, while Gedeck's famous novelist Magda is living a life of privilege in Hungary during the 1960s.
“Emerenc is a very simple woman, she knows everything about nature, she knows everything about animals,” Gedeck explains, “so she is coming from another place and Magda's an intellectual. They kind of become friends, though Magda doesn't really understand her world or treat her very well. It's about her gaining respect for this older woman who really hasn't much to give.”
Gedeck had naturally been keen to work with Mirren. “Helen's just great. She really knows what she is doing. It's not all about being self-preoccupied with her. It's about having something to tell. She knows how to transport stories and how to transport the richness of a soul. That's a craft that has always fascinated me. I am now working with Jeremy Irons and this kind of inner beauty is not only important for women but also for men.”
Gedeck is referring to her latest English-language movie, Night Train to Lisbon, based on Pascal Mercier's novel and directed by Denmark's Bille August. (Irons plays a stuffy Swiss Professor who embarks on a journey of self-discovery.) She's also appearing in La religieuse, written and directed by Guillaume Nicloux and co-starring another acting powerhouse, Isabelle Huppert, as a nun. It marks Gedeck's second French-language film after Francis Girod's Un Ami Parfait (2006).
“Here I play the mother of the lead character, a 15-year-old girl who has to become a nun. She doesn't want to and I push her to because she's illegitimate.
“I enjoy working in other countries,” notes Gedeck, who had famously caught Robert De Niro's attention for a small role in 2006's The Good Shepherd. Her far greater international success had come in 2001 with the German romantic comedy Mostly Martha, which was remade in Hollywood (as No Reservations) by Australian director Scott Hicks and starred Catherine Zeta-Jones. “You don't have to go abroad all the time to be a star or a good actor,” she says. “If you stay in Germany you don't have to change your identity.”
The eldest of three daughters to a salesman father and an artist mother, Gedeck was born and raised in rural Bavaria, which is where she developed her earthy attitudes. When she was 10 her family moved to Berlin, and at 11 made her acting debut on children's television.
“I had my freedom in the countryside at my grandmother's house where I could do what I wanted but in the little town where I was brought up it was really a bit rigid in the '60s. In the '70s in Berlin it was open and very free. I always loved literature and initially studied at the Free University of Berlin. When I decided to try to become an actress I was accepted into the state acting school. At that time, Berlin was a very hip, very cool place to be.”
Gedeck still lives in Berlin with her partner, Swiss television director, Markus Imboden. (She'd previously lived for 9 years with the 25 years older German actor Ulrich Wildgruber, until his suicide in 1999.) The reluctant star has had to deal with a new form of recognition after the global success of The Lives of Others, where she played an actress victimised under Stasi surveillance.
“After the film's success, people's eyes would open and they'd get these big smiles when they recognised me. This film really opened doors in many ways. It has also been opening doors for German film and for Germany because people take what happened here more seriously. They have taken a great interest in the development of Germany and this marks a special turning point in our history.”
The tragedy of the film, of course, was that Ulrich Mühe, the East German actor who played the Stasi officer—he won Best Actor prize at the 2006 European Film Awards—died of stomach cancer in 2007 before the 54-year-old could reap the rewards of the film's success.
“We were all very touched and upset about that,” admits Gedeck. “But Ulrich is watching from up above and he is giving us all his good thoughts, I think.”
The Door is released in cinemas July 19.