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Martina Gedeck on animals, isolation and her LOLA nomination

Martina Gedeck is one of Germany’s most prolific actresses. Acclaimed both at home and abroad, she shone in box office hit The Lives of Others (2006); won a LOLA for her performance in Mostly Martha (2001); and gave a vivid and riveting portrayal of RAF terrorist Ulrike Meinhof in The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008).

The Sunday Times described her as ‘Germany’s Meryl Streep’ and this year she is again nominated for the German Film Prize (LOLA) in the category ‘Best Actress’ for her performance in Julian Pölsler’s ambitious film adaptation of Die Wand (‘The Wall’) – where a woman finds herself trapped in a forest by an invisible barrier. This week we caught up with Gedeck to talk about her nomination.

What a lovely red dress, Frau Gedeck. Is that ‘red carpet’ red?
Thank you. No, it’s actually China red.

Die Wand ('The Wall')

Die Wand ('The Wall')

Frau Gedeck, what was your initial reaction when you were offered the role in this adaptation of Marlen Haushofer’s Die Wand? Did you question whether the film was even possible?
I didn’t think twice about it; I knew immediately that I wanted to do it. The wall didn’t concern me too much – I mean, it wasn’t my job to ‘build’ it – and at that point I wasn’t even worrying about all the things I would have to learn in terms of mime etc. I just thought it was fantastically daring, and I was excited to enter such unknown territory. I knew the book already, and thought: this is going to be really great, something out of the ordinary.

What’s it like acting more or less completely alone?
It’s not so uncommon – there are lots of films where an actor is perhaps taking a walk on their own or sitting in a room on their own. As long as you don’t have to actually talk to yourself it’s okay. Actually, it’s quite nice. Obviously there was always something which drove my thoughts and emotions, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to do it – I can’t just go stomping around the place, I have to have something to occupy me. Then there were the animals of course – I had to interact with the animals. What I learned is that as an actress you always have a counterpart; sometimes it’s a table, sometimes it’s the pen you’re holding. As an actress you are always expressing yourself, that’s the point of acting. Your body is always saying something – to the audience – and that is why as an actress I am constantly in conversation, even when I’m not saying a word.

Die Wand ('The Wall')

Die Wand ('The Wall')

This time it was with a cow?
A cow, a cat, some birds… all kinds of animals. The dog too, of course.

Has the experience changed your relationship towards animals?
Yes – it has changed it again, in fact. I once had this kind of natural, open relationship to animals – most children do. They feel connected to animals, they speak their language,and have a lot of compassion for them. I had to adjust myself to the that level again. It’s fair to say that in the beginning I had, like many adults, an arrogant attitude towards animals; the attitude that we humans are somehow special, and that the animals are not so important, certainly not on a film set. But in actual fact, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. The director Julian Pölsler made it clear to me that we had to involve the animals, that they had to feel accepted, welcome, and at ease with the situation. Only then can they relax and only then is the magic which comes across in the film possible. It was particularly my responsibility to give the animals their own space and to enter into a loving relationship with the animals – that’s the only thing that works. This enriched me personally because it made me realise that I miss animals and that it’s good to pay attention to them.

The film, with its intense plot, was shot in the isolation of the mountains – has it changed your attitude generally towards life?
I have always cherished life – it’s the most valuable thing we have. The film is all about life and the ways in which it preserves itself. The message is: life is the most important thing. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about these last two years and the experience has deepened something which was already inside me. I’m really happy that so many people were able to relate to the film and that it left them feeling enriched in some way. The film is about a terrible catastrophe, so it’s funny that upon leaving the cinema, you feel a little bit better than when you went in. The audience haven’t necessarily spent the last two hours laughing, but they are satisfied. All too often nowadays, people leave the cinema with an empty feeling. Often it’s films where a lot of technology is involved, or very violent films. Die Wand is the opposite of this; it’s very real. The film left me feeling validated – emotionally I went to a dark and depressing place, and I was happy to be back outside again afterwards. You can’t stay there forever, but it’s good to explore that place nonetheless.

Die Wand ('The Wall')

Die Wand ('The Wall')

Looking back, how important is the nomination for the German Film Prize?
It is particularly special because we didn’t really know whether the film would appeal to a wider audience or get much attention – even within the industry. Of course it’s also great that around 400 000 people went to watch it in Germany and it was at number 1 in the art house charts for some time. The nomination is important for me and the whole team – without it, a film like this could be easily brushed aside and discounted as a niche film. The fact that it is has been singled out and is getting more attention again is just fantastic.

We studied the book at school, had you read it beforehand?
I was given the book by my mother and I enjoyed it tremendously.

What was it like shooting a film which is arranged according to the seasons – was it difficult to get back into the swing of things each time?
No, not really, because the place where the film was shot is so unique; I would arrive back and immediately feel immersed in the story and the project. What was interesting about shooting this film is that the team kept getting smaller and smaller – by the end we were working with a really minimalistic team. There was no real dialogue or text, so the sound team was quite small, for example. It was important to have as few people on set as possible to avoid upsetting the animals and to make the intimacy – which is key to the plot – possible. And of course, it was necessary from a practical perspective as we couldn’t build accommodation etc. in the forest. This had the huge advantage that we were able to repeat and reshoot things. There’s one scene, for example, where I’m running through the forest at dusk looking for the cat which has gone missing. I think we must have shot that one about 20 times on different days. Every day when dusk came round we would have another go to make sure it was really perfect – it was quite difficult, technically speaking, to shoot. As an actress it was a really interesting experience, it was almost like a meditation. By repeating things over and over they gained more power and significance.

Die Wand ('The Wall')

Die Wand ('The Wall')

Even if the team was small, it must still have been difficult to portray isolation on set?
Yes, it required huge amounts of concentration. I can do it now, but 10 or 15 years ago it would have been a different story. I’m more experienced as an actress now. The most important thing is to somehow preserve a space for your loneliness or fear. My character is in pain, and I have to feel her pain. I can’t just sit there and write. She’s writing out of desperation and tremendous fear – the audience has to be able to see and feel this, otherwise it doesn’t make sense. I had to carry around these emotions and call upon them over again – it was very draining.

You already have two LOLAs on your mantelpiece, does that make you feel more relaxed, or will it still be nerve-wracking since this film is so important to you?
I’m really relaxed about it since I don’t expect to win the prize. I think my colleagues Birgit Minichmayr and Barbara Sukowa are terrific, so I’ll be really pleased if one of them wins. I think the only tense moment will be if I win and have to go up on stage and make a speech.

Die Wand ('The Wall')

Die Wand ('The Wall')

Do you prepare just in case?
I always prepare.

At the Oscars they say it’s bad luck to prepare a speech…
I always prepare.

And what about your dress?
I’m still deciding

Will it be red perhaps?
I don’t think so, it will probably be something dark

Three great actresses nominated for three unique female roles – the kind of roles you don’t see so often nowadays. When you look at the films being made abroad, there seem to be a lot of stereotypical female roles. Is German cinema particularly strong in this respect at the moment?
Luckily German cinema has not yet been affected by this current trend. We are still writing and discovering truly impressive female roles. We’re very lucky, you won’t find this anywhere else in Europe, not even in France. In Italy there is no cinema and Spain and Lisbon have no money for cinema. If we were a little more clever, these films would sell really well. Germany could become a film nation, but we’re not making the most of what we have at the moment.

So what has to happen?

Sadly Frau Gedeck was whisked away to her next interview at this point, but she certainly left us with plenty to reflect on. See for yourself what German cinema has to offer this Friday 26th. The LOLA awards will be handed out at Berlin’s Friedrichstadt-Palast, so make sure you tune in to the live coverage on ZDF from 22:15.

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