The German actor discusses how he found his way to the British seaside for Albatross.
Sebastian Koch became a familiar face in strong European dramas such as The Lives of Others and Black Book, but turns his hand to lighter material in the comedy Albatross as a married writer attracted to a much younger girl. He spoke to LWLies at the Edinburgh International Film Festival back in June about the appeal of the British sense of humour and why he wanted to show his funny side.
LWLies: Albatross has a very dry, confident sense of humour, and seems well aware of the comedy value inherent in the sight of you playing for laughs. How did you come to be in the film?
Koch: The script by Tamzin Rafn originally made the character of Jonathan Fischer an Englishman, but I was offered the part anyway and have to say that I was delighted to be asked. At first I told the producers that perhaps it was a bit risky, as my English might not be quite good enough to tackle it. But I do think that I get this kind of humour, and I'd love to do more of it.
The character is suffering in a strained marriage, has painful writer's block, and stumbles into a relationship with Emelia, the 17-year-old who happens to be his daughter's best friend. So some of the humour is a bit dark.
All three family members in the film – husband, wife and daughter – are stuck in a very strange pattern with no way out, but then Emelia arrives and there's an explosion of disorder. And some of that does involve Fischer and Emelia having a relationship. But the film is actually very warm towards all the characters, and that warmth comes straight from director Niall MacCormick who has a very big heart. By the end of the film everyone has broken out of the pattern, in one way or another, which is why the film feels positive. Ultimately there is a lot of love in this film.
Audience sympathy for Fischer might be limited, even so.
Of course I was a little nervous of showing him as some kind of a paedophile. But the important thing is that he first starts to like Emelia because of her writing talent. She reminds him that he also once had a similar kind of spirit, but then lost it. That's how it begins, with him trying to support her without any sexual thoughts, and Jessica Brown Findlay is wonderfully talented and plays her side of that situation beautifully. Naturally the audience can see what's coming, but I like the kind of comedy where they know more about what's going on than the characters do. It's a characteristic of the kind of British comedies that I like. Other people's pain can be funny, unfortunately.
You have played some equally conflicted characters in much more serious situations in European films. Are they the kind of parts that you are drawn to?
I don't believe in black and white characters. If you don't accept the dark side of human nature then you don't understand anything about life. Perhaps German actors in particular might know something about that. My personal opinion has always been that the German people have to talk profoundly about the Nazi era, and as an actor I was asked to play Albert Speer and Claus von Stauffenberg in the same year, which was a great honour although it made for a horrible year. But I want to play the most interesting parts I can. You should always try to understand why such people are the way they are, and why they did what they did. They were still human beings.
If they're lucky, European actors can have the freedom to work in their domestic film industry while also making films for an international English-speaking audience. Is that something you like to do?
Yes, very much. Sometimes international co-productions are put together simply as a means to save money, but I hope that producers also appreciate the good things about telling international stories. Black Book included actors of several different nationalities playing characters speaking many languages, but that was a reflection of the reality at the time. After playing Speer and von Stauffenberg I originally thought that I had played enough 'uniform' parts, but it felt right for me to finish them off with Paul Verhoeven's film. Now I just try to follow the good scripts and don't care too much where they are. The choice of parts in English is much bigger, and I'm grateful that I'm in a position to be picky. But I am very picky.