Partly financed through fan crowd-funding, which offered supporters a chance to help not only producing the film but developing the plot, Timo Vuorensola’s eagerly awaited Iron Sky is an overwrought and unashamedly daft symbiosis of tongue-in-cheek sci-fi lunacy and old-school guerrilla filmmaking. It’s a film about a bunch of Nazi punks in outer space who, just before the end of the Second World War, managed to build a space station on the dark side of the moon. The action starts in 2018 when an African-American astronaut discovers the swastika bastion led by a FÃ¼hrer called Kortzfleisch (Udo Kier – who else?). Kortzfleisch leads an attack on Earth with an army of steel-armoured zeppelins, which ultimately causes a new war between world leaders. The film requires a reasonable amount of good will to get past the daft jokes, but the few sparks of true brilliance make Iron Sky a joyful B-movie space odyssey.
Pamela Jahn met with Udo Kier at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival to talk about his career, the art of dying on screen and playing the game of truth.
Pamela Jahn: Your career started off in 1968 in London. How did that come about?
Udo Kier: I lived in London because I went to school there. I was a young, photogenic actor and after a small part in a short film called Road to St Tropez I was hired by William Morris, one of the biggest American talent agencies, who also had a branch in Germany. Soon after that, in 1968, I was cast in a black and white film called Shameless, directed by Eddy Saller, in which I played the lead role, the boss of the Vienna underground. The next film right after that, Mark of the Devil, became a cult film classic. And that was it. I knew I wanted to be an actor, and here I am.
Almost 45 years later your filmography counts about 200 titles. You’ve shot seven films in the last 12 months. What drives you to work so much after so many years?
Each of these seven projects was interesting to me for different reasons, so I wanted to do them all. For example, if a director like Oliver Hirschbiegel, whose work I greatly admire, asks me to play the pope, or if Lars von Trier asks me to play the wedding planner in Melancholia, or if I am asked to play a Nazi leader on the moon, or to be part of a Fatih Akin production in China, of course I won’t say no. I admit it would have been nice to have a bit more time in between the shootings, but it actually worked out quite well in the end. I started off in China, then went to Canada to shoot Keyhole with Guy Maddin, moving on to Copenhagen, then worked on a Turkish film playing Bela Bartok, from Turkey went on to Prague to star as the pope with Hirschbiegel, then went to Frankfurt to do the Nazi leader, spent Christmas back home, and from there went to Australia to finish Iron Sky.
How do you choose your projects?
The director is very important. If it is a director who I know and whose work I value, then in most cases I do it. I am much more careful though when it comes to young unknown directors. But, for example, I’m now going to Paris with Guy Maddin to shoot 100 short films, and I’m really looking forward to this. We already started while we were working on Keyhole. In the morning I would play a Russian tsar, at lunch time the German emperor and in the evening a drunk sailor trying to teach a gorilla how to do maths. For an actor, this is the best practice you can get.
What attracted you to the part of Kortzfleisch in Iron Sky?
The idea of playing a Nazi leader on the moon, especially because it’s a comedy. I have played Adolf Hitler twice in my career, in films by Rob Zombie and Quentin Tarantino. Both were comedies as well. When I saw the finished film yesterday for the first time, I laughed at the same jokes as the people in the audience. But the most interesting bit really was the idea of setting the story on the moon, not playing another Nazi.
You are famous for playing villains, and the most dangerous ones at that. Iron Sky is another example, but it is yet another film in which your character has to die. Do you find that difficult?
I always insist on having my eyes open. I never die with my eyes closed, because I find it very boring – you are just lying there like a piece of junk. It’s much easier to die with your eyes open, so you can stare at a particular focus point. And the trick is that it leaves the option of a sequel open. We have even thought about this with Iron Sky: we go back to the scene on the roof and then Kortzfleisch wakes up, gives himself a shot and the story goes on. If they can make people change their skin colour, they can rise from the dead too.
In your early career you have worked closely with Rainer Werner Fassbinder. You said elsewhere that one of the things you learned from him was to always tell the truth in interviews.
Not only in interviews. I always tell the truth, but especially when you are giving many interviews, chances are high that you become caught up in your own trap if you start lying about things. During the shoots, the truth was also very important. There was a game we used to play in the evenings while sitting in the kitchen with his crew after shooting. We called it ‘the game of truth’. For example, if another actor or member of the crew had said something bad about me, I mentioned it to Fassbinder. He would listen to me, but not say anything at that time. Then, in the evening, when everyone was sitting around the table and we played the game of truth, he would say: ‘Udo, what did you tell me earlier today? What did she or he say about you?’ And then I would tell the story again in front of everybody, including, of course, the person who had said this about me, and then we talked about it. It was great, because there were no intrigues.
It was also an unwritten law that if you worked with Fassbinder you couldn’t work with Werner Herzog or Wim Wenders at the same time as that would have been seen as committing espionage, right?
Yes, that’s true. I have made two films with Herzog but only much later, one in America about two years ago, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? , and before that Invincible. And with Wenders I made The End of Violence. But back then, it was Fassbinder only. But Fassbinder wouldn’t have cast someone like Bruno Ganz either. Wenders had Bruno Ganz, Herzog had Klaus Kinski and Fassbinder had his gang. That’s how it worked with the auteurs. Even today it’s very similar, for example with Lars von Trier. I quite like belonging to a circle of people around one director, where sometimes you play the lead and sometime you only play a small part. Twenty-odd years ago I started off playing the lead in Medea, and in his latest film I play a very small part, because the film is set in America again and my German accent is still very strong, so I talk less.
How did you start working with Lars von Trier?
I saw Element of Crime and was blown away by it, so I wanted to meet the person who directed it. To be honest, I imagined he would be someone like Kubrick or Fassbinder, a real character, a tough guy, moody, with a leather jacket, etc. But when I met him he looked like a well-behaved little school boy. We had a beer together and after that I found him a distributor for his film. After a while I got a phone call from his, saying: ‘Udo, I’m making a film about Medea and I’d like you to play Jason. Stop shaving, stop showering, because you’re going to be a Viking king and you just don’t look like that at all.’ When I arrived on the set, smelly and dirty as I was, he said to me: ‘Don’t act. I got you a horse as a symbol of virility, two huge dogs and a chain armour – just be a tired king.’ That’s the only direction he’s ever given me in our work together.
Interview by Pamela Jahn