theartsdesk Q&A: Actor-Director Karl Markovics | reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: Actor-Director Karl Markovics
theartsdesk Q&A: Actor-Director Karl Markovics
The star of The Counterfeiters on going behind the camera to write and direct Breathing
It’s not so very rare for actors to be given a shot at directing their own film. It happens slightly less often that they find financial backing to work on their own script. What makes Breathing, which opened this week in the UK, such a collector’s item is that it is so very accomplished.
Karl Markovics (b. 1963) has long experience as an actor in Austria. He is best – in fact, solely – known internationally for his extraordinary performance in The Counterfeiters (2007). Stefan Ruzowitzky’s film tells the true story of Salomon 'Sally' Sorowitsch, a Jewish black marketeer who is rounded up by the Nazis and thrown into a concentration camp, where the Reich makes use of his skills as a forger to set up an operation to produce fake foreign currency. Markovics deployed his remarkable physiognomy – glacial blue eyes, thin slit of a mouth and a proboscis with a pronounced italic lean to it – to keep his cards close to his chest as his character discovers a conscience which he must keep concealed. It was partly down to his performance that The Counterfeiters won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2008.
Breathing – released last year as Atmen in Austria – tells of a teenager in a detention centre can escape from adult prison only by finding a job. The career he chooses wouldn't be on the top every 18-year-old's list: working for the city morgue. In conversation with theartsdesk, Markovics explains how he was always planning to move behind the camera, and why it took him so long.
Watch the trailer for Breathing
JASPER REES: Did Breathing turn out the way you wanted it to?
KARL MARKOVICS: The script writing was terrible. It was a struggle, it was depressing very often. It was the main reason why my first movie happened so late. I made many different attempts before. I also wrote stories but I never thought they were good enough to show to somebody else. Finally my wife encouraged me to complete one story and I showed it to her and she said, “You should do this movie, you should show it to a producer.” And so it happened.
Surely part of the depression emanated from the fact that you chose to split your time between a juvenile detention centre – basically a prison – and a mortuary. You’re with very disadvantaged young men or you’re with corpses. No wonder you were depressed.
Yes, one could say that. But I knew from the beginning that I didn't want it to end depressingly, I wanted to have a development towards brightness. Let’s not say hope, but something like perspective.
Where did this idea of parking yourself in a morgue for your debut feature come from?
All of my stories I developed or tried to write down started with just a single image. In the case of Breathing it was an old lady lying on the floor of her living room, dead. This was the image. I never knew where this image came from. I only knew it was very strong and I had to try to figure out the story behind it.
You have a number of corpses in the film. This is an amazingly stupid question but it was so realistic and I kept on thinking, those extras are giving amazingly convincing performances. How did you get them not to breathe? What’s your trade secret?
I will tell you my secret. And it’s not a stupid question because this is what I hear most often in all the Q&As. Every time there is someone who wants to know. It’s partly about make-up but also nowadays we have the possibility of CGI corrections so it’s very easy to make a person not breathe or to still the pulse in the neck. And of course you need good extras. We told them not to breathe as long as possible and then to take a deep breath and to be still again.
What a part for an extra.
The most difficult casting was of the old lady. These were three shooting days and it’s not very easy to find an old woman who knows that she has to be completely naked and has to lie on the floor and be grabbed and carried through a room and laid down on the bed. Finally we found one and in the case of all these corpses they are almost as important as acting roles. They dominate the sense of these special scenes, especially of course the old woman, and but also the other woman who he thinks is his mother. They’re very important for the situation of my lead character.
So you started with that image. How did you track back to the idea of starting with a boy who has been deprived of his liberty and indeed his childhood?
The boy appeared very late (pictured left, Thomas Schubert as Roman Kogler). The first idea was to do a movie about the workers in the morgue, about people who deal with the dead in an everyday manner. But this was only a situation, not yet a story. And then some two or three weeks later a young guy appeared in my head. But he was very quiet. He didn’t tell me a lot. I had to figure out again what to do with him in this setting. I had no idea what it could with an 18-year-old boy in a morgue, because at that age you wouldn’t choose that job voluntarily. This was a sort of cue word for me: if not voluntarily, so maybe involuntarily. So it developed.
It’s bleak cinematographically and yet you supply the strange visual haven of the swimming pool in the detention centre into which your lead character escapes.
I saw it as a big possibility to get a new element into the movie. I learnt that in the real youth detention centre [where part of the film was shot] there is a swimming pool and I took it for my story. I wouldn’t have dared to make it up. But when I saw they had it there I wanted to use it, not only for the colour and the light but also for the movement. And for the metaphoric stuff that I’m very fond, as you can see I the movie. It was just playing with it. There was not so much philosophical or intellectual stuff around it. I’m like a child: if I like something I grab for it and I take it.
You were born in the early 1960s. It’s taken you a long time to grab the chance to direct. In your head were you always a director?
A little bit. My first experience as a director was when I was eight. I saw The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the Walt Disney animated cartoon. As you know, it’s a famous poem by Goethe and after I saw this animated cartoon and learnt at school that there was a very famous long poem I read it and had the idea to dramatise it. I took some friends of mine from my class and we had rehearsals in the school yard but after three days they didn’t show up any more because it was too boring for them and they were afraid about learning so many lines. So this was a little bit of a trauma for me. (Pictured below, Karl Markovics directing a scene with Thomas Schubert.)
I thought after this experience maybe it’s better to become an actor. As an actor you only need yourself. I first went to a regular theatre at the age of 14 so I don’t know where these fantasies came from. Everybody in kindergarten and primary school always told me, “You’ll become an actor.” I always was the clown of the class and always invented stories. I think the rest of my life I always was seeking for something like being a child. A child is an inventor of a parallel universe, like a small god. What always fascinated me most was not to invent it in my own head but to be able to drag others into your imagination.
You have to trust other actors to deliver a performance for you when you step behind the camera. How much did you say to Thomas Schubert?
I didn’t say very much to him. I said, “Do you have any questions?” I just trusted him and he trusted me. This was the main relationship from the beginning – that we trusted each other. He always knew that I wouldn’t leave him without a safety net. He knew that he always could say “Cut” or “Please help me”. But he never did. It wasn’t necessary.
Karin Lischka (pictured right with Schubert) plays the young woman who gave Roman away as a baby. It’s another very convincing performance.
And she looks as if she’s not really had a good life so we understand at least that she is right when tells him, “It was the best thing I ever did, giving you away.” Karin had never acted in a movie before. She is a theatre actress. When I had the casting videos in both cases my wife said, “Watch him and her another time.”
The film that is most familiar to English-language cinema-goers is The Counterfeiters, an astonishing film. Why in your perception was it so potent?
Everything was in it when I first read the script. I knew after two pages that I had never had a script like that before and I probably wouldn’t get one of the same quality again soon. And this ridiculously was the only problem in accepting the offer. I was afraid that this attraction, this role, this big advantage, would motivate me to do some brilliant movie-acting. It’s the lead role and a character role, it’s everything I always wanted. But with a film about the Holocaust it was completely disgusting to me to think about my career and how people would like my performance.
You play the role with a poker face. How early on did you establish that you would barely be acting at all.
When we spoke about the character it was clear for us that it would go that way. He is a gambler, so he never lets others into his mind. He always wants to get to know about the others but never lets the others see inside him.
Is that a difficult trick to pull off as an actor?
Not for me. I always like characters like this. As you can see in Breathing, I am fascinated by how little you need to do to be visible. For me it’s always a challenge to cut out dialogue. I find even these few words are too many.
You do have a magnificent face.
Are you aware of it as a tool when acting?
Not really. I always tried not to look too often at what I am doing. There are films on television I have never seen. There’s a difference between what I feel when I’m acting and what I see as a viewer. I never wanted to become an actor who is able to control both the inside and the outside view. I wasn’t interested. I always wanted to trust what I feel at the moment while eating and of course I wanted to trust my director.
Did you break your nose at some point?
Maybe as a child but my parents didn't tell me. No my whole face is like that. The nose is the most obvious part.
Did you ever think about having it corrected?
No. They asked me once. I had to have the inside of my nose done to get more air through. The doctor asked me, “Should we correct your nose at the same time?” I said, “No, I lived with my nose for 30 years. I had a bad time when I was 17 and 18 and realised it for the first time and for two or three times a day the mirror was my enemy. And now I’ve got used to it you want to change it? No.”
What’s next as a director?
I’m working on my next script so I’m in the depressed phase again. But I definitely want to keep on making movies and making movies means writing the script and directing. They always belonged together. This idea or decision to change profession or to change sides was always connected with the idea of creating in my own imagination.
Watch the trailer to The Counterfeiters
- Breathing is on selected release
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