Playing a 'Good German'

Warner Bros. Pictures/MovieWeb

Maui Time | December 11, 2006
Cate Blanchett Talks About Playing a “Good German”

By Cole Smithey (1880 words)

Over the past ten years Catherine Elise Blanchett has made increasingly daring acting choices that have elevated her to a status of this generation’s Meryl Streep. Her virtuosic performances in films like “Elizabeth,” “Veronica Guerin” and “The Aviator,” where she played Katherine Hepburn with drop-dead precision, have beguiled audiences with her elastic ability to inhabit characters with color and verve.

In Steven Soderbergh’s latest film “The Good German,” Cate Blanchett plays Lena Brandt, a German prostitute surviving the dog days of post WWII Berlin in 1945. There’s much more to Lena’s character than meets the eye. Before the war corrupted her, Lena was in love with Jake Geismer (George Clooney) an American journalist who ran a news bureau in Berlin, and whom Lena now encounters while Allied leaders meet to decide how to loot Europe in the wake of Germany’s defeat. Lena is a woman of many secrets, and Blanchett carries the film with her guarded sense of dignity, purpose and deception.

Steven Soderbergh adapts Joseph Kanon’s novel in black-and-white with generous amounts of stock footage and period-accurate filmmaking techniques that support his homage to the film noir tradition of movies like “Casablanca.” It’s against this iconic cinematic backdrop that Blanchett seduces, surprises and reveals subtle shades of her amalgamated character with a near-perfect German accent. Blanchett’s Lena is at once the smartest and most brutal person in the movie, and so becomes the story’s most complex and tragic casualty.

CS: What did you find as the key to Lena's character in “The Good German”?

CB: Well, there were a few keys really. There was a performance key that was, more than any other film I've made, paramount because it wasn't just connecting to a character in the way that one usually connects. I had to connect to the style. I had to understand the mise en scene of the picture in order to understand my role within it. The way it was lit gave an emotional atmospheric texture to every frame. Normally in a modern film you have to hit your mark, but the camera finds your performance. Whereas in this, you had to find the camera, and so that was an added dimension. I read a book which was given to me called "A Woman In Berlin," written anonymously by a journalist who diarized (sic) her experience of living as a German woman in Berlin when the Russians came in--the experience of being victorious one day and vilified the next. There were daily rapes that went on, often hourly, and suicides. She wrote about the lack of hygiene, the lack of morality, the lack of dignity, and the relationship between men and women--the way she felt that the German men just sat back and let it happen. That's when rape is a really powerful war crime. It felt incredibly modern all of a sudden because in my previous studies of World War II-in high school and university-I think, in retrospect, it had always been from the victors' perspective. History is rarely told by the vanquished. So that was a key. The other key was that I watched a lot of films. Steven gave us this sort of library of films that he was drawing from visually. I watched a lot of Hildegard Knef's work and Luise Rainer, and of course, Ingrid Bergman.

CS: Did you watch any of Marlene Dietrich's films?

CB: I did watch Dietrich, but I've always watched a lot of Dietrich. The film I watched most was "The Man Between" with Hildegard Knef and James Mason doing a terrible German accent, which gave me hope. She [Knef] was amazing in it. And I watched "Notorious."

CS: Does knowing the style of the film you are working on influence how you prepare your approach?

CB: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I was aware of that in this film more than in any other film that I've done. I think it becomes a much more outward process. Normally modern actors are trained to sort of make the connection first and then work it out. But it really does depend project to project. I think the material lends itself to how you prepare. I have no particular process.

CS: How do you interpret the title "A Good German"?

CB: I think the title is deliberately mysterious and evocative and ironic. I mean, who is a good German? I mean, that's what the film ultimately deals with. In a situation like that - which, let's face it we are in globally at the moment. I think that the truth has been so violated. Words like evil-I don't think I can use that word anymore with the full weight of its meaning, because I feel that the meaning of that word has been hijacked.

CS: Are you methodical in the way you choose roles?

CB: No, I'm erratic and random. I'd like to say I had a five-year plan, but I don't. I didn't know "Babel" was around until I met Alejandro. I think he was very persuasive and flattered me. I really wanted to work with Judi Dench [on "Notes on a Scandal"] and Patrick Marber (the author) is a friend. I thought the book was titillating and shocking and fantastic. Patrick doesn't shy away from the unpalatable sides of humanity. Also he can be very blackly humorous. So the screenplay had all of that.

CS: How do you prepare to make an audience understand why your character would have an affair with a 15-year-old boy as happens in "Notes on a Scandal"?

CB: That wasn't really the function of the film. When you do something as destructive as that, I think you don't even know why you're doing it. She didn't even know why she was doing it. I think often in films that you somehow have to make people understand the inexplicable. I think it was more just to explain or allow the audience to see the state she was in, and that the two women were bonded by very different, but in a strange way, similar states of loneliness and isolation.

CS: Can you talk about working with Judi Dench on "Notes on a Scandal”?

CB: She's an absolute dream. She is engaged and dynamic and generous and continually surprising. You couldn't hope for better.

CS: Heath Ledger said that you will blow people's minds as Bob Dylan in your upcoming movie "I'm Not There."

CB: He obviously didn't see the young black actor that was there before me. He sang the most astonishing version of "When The Ship Comes" and I thought it was just the young Dylan singing. I mean, it made me want to weep.

CS: A lot of people have tried and failed to describe what the movie really is.

CB: It's inexplicable! All I can say is it's invented by Todd (Haynes). He's such a shape-shifting, genre-defying director. None of the incarnations of Dylan are called Dylan. It's not a regular biography. I think the hardest thing will be to open people's minds. "A rock star wreaks havoc on his electric tour, shot in the style of Fellini." I was playing a character called Jude who basically has an interface with the media where they feel like they're being eroded.

CS: What do you make of your generation of Australian actors that are taking Hollywood and world cinema by storm?

CB: Well, I'd like to be positive and say that it's because of a wealth of talent in Australia, which of course there is. I think the Australian industry is very small, and if one wants to have access to material of all different types, films of all different sizes and genres, then one does have to travel. I've spoken to Clive James [Australian author] about this and he said, “Did people say to Arthur Rambaud, you should not travel.” All creative people do, and I think maybe there's an understanding in American film that that's the way people speak, so there's not a sense that American actors have to travel anywhere. But one has to sort of shape-shift a little bit if one's going to work in the English film industry or the Danish film industry or the American film industry.

CS: Why do you want to play Queen Elizabeth I again, in your upcoming film "The Golden Age"?

CB: Shekhar Kapur [the director] is a good friend of mine, and we'd been talking and developing it as a project together. Which hasn't come to fruition yet. But we were talking about trying to find something to do and he and Geoffrey [Rush] have been talking about "Elizabeth" and he started talking about making a film about immortality, about holy war, and about the aging process. And I thought, this is really interesting. And then when he said Geoffrey's doing it, Clive Owen's doing it, I just thought - I'm insane if I say no to this.

CS: How about the fact that Helen Mirren just did Elizabeth?

CB: I know! It's so weird. "In Notes on a Scandal," the woman on the bench at the end of the film (Anne-Marie Duff) had just played Elizabeth, and Judi (Dench) had played Elizabeth. So Judi's character was replacing one Elizabeth with another Elizabeth. It was really kind of surreal to have them both in one film.

CS: Why do you think Elizabeth is such a classic character?

CB: She's an astonishing, character. She crystallized England into what is taken for as being English culture. It’s infinitely fascinating what happens under her rank politically and culturally--the fact that she was a single woman, the many rumors about her sexuality, about her gender, her entanglements and the way she used those entanglements for political ends.

CS: What movie has impressed you most this year?

CB: It's an Australian film called "Ten Canoes," which is just magnificent. The way it dealt with the storytelling and Aboriginal culture. The way they can cross time zones within a story. A story can be told simultaneously and exist in dreamtime and in the present. The fact that the Australian government hasn't actually said "sorry" to the indigenous people, I think is a travesty. But I understood another layer that they [the indigenous people] have with this whole payback ceremony, so that when one tribe offends another tribe they have to have a payback ceremony. The Aboriginal people have had no payback over the genocide when whites came to Australia. Suddenly, even though I knew it intellectually, it hit me.

CS: What does your husband say when you come home after being with Brad Pitt, and then with George Clooney?

CB: My husband's a very secure man.

CS: Are you able to use your acting ability in life to manipulate situations?

CB: Well, that's the part of acting that we all have. I mean, we all inhabit different personas to get what we need or what we want. I don't think that's particular to actors alone. I think that there's kind of a myth that actors are kind of exhibitionists who can turn things on when they want to. I think that while some actors may have that in spades, I don't.


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