Tall, blonde and willowy, Nina Hoss, who took the title role in Christian Petzold’s Oscar-nominated 2012 drama, Barbara, is like the German equivalent of our own Cate Blanchett. An actress who is recognised equally for her stage work as her movies, the 38-year-old is fiercely intelligent and is unlikely to play the blonde bimbo any time soon.
Though she wouldn’t mind being in a James Bond movie. “But only if you could turn that around,” Hoss notes with a smile. “If it’s a stupid blonde in a bikini then I wouldn’t be interested, but if it’s an interesting character being mean or something like Javier Bardem played, that could be good.”
Hoss has made six films with Petzold because she “likes the topics he approaches and how precisely he observes them. It’s a rich experience as I’m part of the process—not of the writing, but of the construction of the story.”
Hoss won the Berlin Festival’s best actress prize for their 2007 film Yella, about a woman who moves from the east to west post-reunification, and the following year appeared in Petzold’s Jerichow as the downtrodden wife of an abusive Turkish immigrant. In their upcoming World War II drama, Phoenix, she reteams with Ronald Zehrfeld, her love interest from Barbara, to play his wife who disappears and returns with a new face. The film, which was shot in Brandenburg an der Havel, the same city where Barbara was filmed, looks set for Cannes.
Sandwiched between her Petzold projects and her high profile stage performances—Hoss recently played Hedda Gabler, a signature Blanchett role—the perennially busy actress was looking for a change of pace, and a change of scenery. She made her first English-language movie, A Most Wanted Man, which was based and filmed in Hamburg. Though most surprisingly, she has ventured into the wilds of Canada to make a German period western called Gold, which set during the height of the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush, follows seven German-American immigrants who head into the hostile northern interior of British Columbia in search for gold. Gold’s director Thomas Arslan is a member of the so-called Berliner school of filmmakers like Petzold.
“I was interested to see how Thomas works,” Hoss admits, “and, of course, it was a special project. As a German actress I never dreamt I could be part of a western in Canada.”
Did you approach the project more as a road movie than a western?
I guess so. It was more about the journey than the shootouts. Of course, there is revenge in the story as there’s always some kind of revenge in a western. But it’s more a road movie with horses.
Thomas Arslan explains how Germany had 6.5 million immigrants in America and Canada at the time of the Klondike Gold Rush and he wanted to show their lives.
I knew there were lots of Germans immigrating to the United States, but I didn’t know there were so many at that time trying to make a new life. Of course, now Germany’s considered a country where people come to make a good living. That’s an interesting aspect for Germans to see and to watch.
Had you ever shot a rifle? You seemed really comfortable.
I learnt how to shoot for a vampire movie (Dennis Gansel’s We Are the Night, 2010) so I wasn’t too shocked having a gun in my hand. It’s interesting because you have all these pictures in your mind from all these famous movies where you see people handling guns, which you don’t normally do in German movies unless it’s a detective story of some kind. That was really exciting for me and was a new experience for me as an actress. What helped in Gold is that my character Emily comes from the city and goes to experience something she doesn’t have a clue about. She doesn’t know how to ride and she’s learning how to do it throughout the entire journey, so I could learn with her.
So the role was physically challenging?
Actually, it was. It was tough because it’s a low budget movie and we as actors had to deal with the horses the whole day. We had two wranglers who weren’t able to take care of 10 horses. So when we had a break we had to hold the horses and they’d get very tired after 20 hours, like us, and it gets dangerous because they do things you don’t expect. So it was like therapy of some sort because I learnt from the wranglers how to always stay calm for the horse, because as soon as I got excited or angry or tired the horses would react immediately. So you always had to be in this ‘ommmmm’ zone (chuckles). It was really a great experience for me. The most I took home with me was this work with the animals I must say.
So you learnt to ride for the movie?
Yes, I’d never ridden before. I wasn’t afraid but very respectful. I learnt so much from the wranglers, Charlie who was 65 and Albert who was 70. They’d take away the fear by always saying, “Respect the animal. Even us, having lived with them all our lives, we still don’t do certain things that put us in danger.”
Your mother is an actress and your father a former politician (former trade unionist and Greens politician, Willi Hoss). Is that part of the reason you’re quite ambitious and so productive?
I don’t know, but it certainly has affected me. When I look back I had an incredibly interesting childhood where there was always something happening. We always had loads of discussion at home and interesting people coming around. I was in the theatre when I was a baby and I always loved it, so I grew into it somehow. I always knew acting was not just about getting famous. I want to tell something through my work and maybe that’s because my father kept saying that the story you’re telling needs to have some kind of content.
Are politicians so different from actors?
Politicians can try to act but it doesn’t always work. (Laughs)
Barbara is set in the times of the GDR like so many of Petzold’s films. The film has been a huge success and everyone now recognises your strong creative partnership, which is probably the strongest in German cinema today.
We’ve been working together now for 11 years and it’s incredible because we’re still enjoying it and it just gets better and better. I wasn’t sure Barbara would be interesting for foreign audiences but it was a huge international success and that’s a great reward for your work and also the different kind of questions that come up when you visit different countries and the interest in German history. I always have the feeling that it’s something new for them.
Did you start connecting with your history when making Barbara and Gold?
Gold is very far away and, in some ways, I was more interested to look at it in terms of the present. In some ways, we all have to go on that path because no one knows where the world’s economy is headed. People always have hope. Even if you don’t ever see gold in your life you keep on going and maybe along the way you change and that’s what happens to Emily. So that is already a success. She becomes more free and confident and self-fulfilled. Making Barbara was interesting because it was set in a part of Germany I didn’t know and it was the same time when I grew up. I had no clue about them and how they lived and what they dealt with. I had to dig deeper into their history and that was very, very interesting because I now have the feeling I understand them better.
Are you different from the kinds of characters Christian Petzold writes for you?
I don’t have to fight against things or build up this defensive wall as much as the characters have to in Christian’s movies. But that’s also there to create tension. If they didn’t have a problem you wouldn’t be interested in them. It doesn’t mean I never have problems but I deal with them differently. I’m much lighter than his characters. (Laughs)
You worked with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Willem Dafoe who both play Germans in A Most Wanted Man, directed by Anton Corbijn and based on John le Carré’s 2008 bestseller. (NOTE: This interview took place before Hoffman’s tragic death.) Hoffman’s Günther Bachmann is a spy of the old school.
I’m kind of Phil’s partner running the office and I help him with the case. I must say I admire him as an actor and he was very exciting to work with.
Was it the fulfilment of an ambition to make an American bigger budget movie like that?
Yes, because they work differently in how they approach things and how they interact and prepare. It was exactly as I thought. It’s different and very exciting.
I would say it always has a certain pressure without making the actors feel closed up. They’re very confident without being overpowering and that’s a nice mixture.
Was it your first English-language movie offer?
I did receive some before and that’s maybe coming back to ambition. It’s not like I was going to do it, no matter what, if it’s international. I need to be interested in the project. But also sometimes it just didn’t work out because I’m doing theatre, and it’s always tricky to fit in.
Gold screens at the 2014 German Film Festival. Visit the official site for more information.