Nacht vor Augen

Nacht vor Augen

Deutschland 2007/2008, Spielfilm

A Study in Energy

A portrait of actor Hanno Koffler, German Films Quarterly 2/2013

Wrapped in a large pullover Hanno Koffler makes an imposing impression, appearing bigger than he already is. It’s not his height (1.75 meters), or that he’s in any way overweight, it’s the fact that, as the English and other sporting nationalities would recognize, he is the natural rugby-playing type; broad-shouldered, clearly good in a ruck and scrum: he has presence, physical presence. He is also on a roll, his latest film "Freier Fall" (Free Fall"), in which he plays the lead, opened the Perspectives German Cinema sidebar at the Berlinale 2013.

"It was a real honor and it got a great reception," says Koffler of the film in which he plays a young police officer whose wife is expecting. They are in love, happy, moving to a new house, life is great. Then he meets a colleague, played by Max Riemelt, and "he falls in love. His whole life is thrown out of kilter. It’s hard enough to acknowledge, let alone deal with. It’s emotion, an intense journey."

Whilst Koffler talks he moves. His upper body comes forwards then back, he makes demonstrative movements with his hands, he shifts posture: the guy is a physical actor! The more he warms to his theme, the more his body picks it up and emphasizes. "I got the script," he explains, "and was enthused by it. I had to play Marc. It was a great challenge but it isn’t so often you feel the role fits. Not so much from the personal perspective, but you notice it’s what you can feel and do."

Analyzing where he’s come from so far, Koffler "was often cast where the character incorporates a masculine core but has something soft and vulnerable. This contradiction is something for me. I search for credibility. I look for as many different characters to play as possible and then try to make them credible. I want to get lost in the role and the audience should lose themselves in the character." Whether playing "the fat, stuttering Juro" in "Krabat" (2008) or "a soldier in Afghanistan with a big mouth who is looking for adventure" ("Auslandseinsatz"), Koffler brings an unexpected depth and thus greater realism to the characters.

With regard to his methods, Koffler happily confesses to "extreme preparation. I’m very acribic and have my own tools. I write the character’s biography and will go into it very physically if necessary. I get to know him in and out." Is he a method actor? "I’m not even sure what the method is!" he laughs. "It changes with every character. I have a certain method, for sure, to work out the character first, to get to the emotionality. Where is it? What are the problems?"

Working a lot also with pictures and music, Koffler looks and goes "for the gut feeling. The energy is there. I need to get to know the character, meet the director and hear their vision. It’s like comparative studies. Then the many readings, getting the facts into the biography. What do I have to invent to make him can I bring in personally? What needs researching?"

As part of his preparation Koffler has interviewed and spoken with, for example, soldiers and people with speech defects. He collects photos from newspapers, background reads, starts "to create a world, match pictures and create collages, to which I bring in music, other films, artists. It all flows into this world. Then I have it with me when filming." This is all about "a living process, always in service of the script and director. The main question is always 'What?' I am there, fully loaded, so the director can choose what he or she needs."

Amongst Koffler’s accolades are the 2008 First Steps Award for "Nacht vor Augen" ("Night Before Eyes / A Hero′s Welcome") in which he played the lead, David, a soldier returning from Afghanistan who is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is a role that also won him that year’s German Film Critics’ Prize for Best Feature Film Debut as well as the top male acting honor at the Durban International Film Festival. Proof positive the man’s methods work! But methods or not, no actor is an island unto him or herself. It is not just about being part of a cast and crew but about becoming more than the sum of the parts, and for this Koffler looks towards his director. “The closer and more trusting the process, the better for all concerned,” he explains. "If the director and I are on the same wavelength then it is fantastic. Sometimes it’s possible for a director to be a bit uneasy if they are not so sure of the character, but then we simply work it through."

Not that Koffler has a list of hates, and he took a good pause to consider the question, but when asked what his personal professional bugbears are, he replied: "I sometimes wish the casting process was not so close to the starting date, because that can constrict my preparation time, and I find lack of preparation, wherever it is, to be the worst thing. People should go into the filmmaking process with a coherence of thought. That is what makes the film credible."

As a physical actor Koffler is averse to "explanatory dialogue. Things should be shown rather than explained. Making the film as art is one thing, for sure, but telling touching stories is when it’s at its best." He is also not in favor of that Hollywood staple, the backstory. The character, his or her motivation has to come from somewhere, sure, "but it is also very annoying when a character talks about not having a pony as a kid so now he’s a serial killer, or whatever. I work on the character’s backstory very, very hard so anything explanatory can be deleted if needed. I try to reduce to the max. Things need to be shown, not explained."

Throughout this interview Koffler has kept his body moving along to the words. This is not nervous energy, this is emphatic, channelled, demonstrative energy. So it comes as no surprise when he admits, "I look for the extreme in the character." When things come right, "which is not easy, bringing everything to that point," when "you have directors who want to think things through, people with a vision and passion, who are not afraid of conflict, it’s rare and yet so great when it happens."

A professional who makes demands of himself, Koffler finds the worst thing on a shoot "is when the director sees the actor’s job as getting it in the can in just one take!" The eternal squaring of the director-producer-actor triangle, perhaps? Where art, money and time have to sort themselves out and come to a working arrangement? "I can understand where that comes from," he agrees, "but it should not be about who is the first to call 'That’s a take!' It leaves you feeling like, well, a bit of a prostitute! I understand, money is the factor and it’s a fact of the business nobody can ignore, but the priority should be – has to be – to get the best film out. I admit though, I’m not a producer and we all have to bridge this chasm."

Popular, in demand and busy, Koffler has not had that much time to visit the cinema or slip in a shiny silver disc lately, but he gets very enthusiastic when talking about the documentary "Heart of Darkness – The Making of Apocalypse Now", the story of how this classic film got made having gripped him. With the hand gestures now coming to the fore, he talks of "no artistic compromises. When you work with passion and conviction because the film needs it, then it will pay off. If you start off making compromises from the very outset then you often get compromises being made all the way through."

Although far from ready to branch out in other directions, Koffler admits, after some prodding, "Yes, I write scripts. I have ideas, I love writing. Sometimes I’ve sat down with directors to work on the script. It’s a great process. But… I’m an actor at the moment and nothing else."

Of his current projects, Koffler is prepping for his role as Caliban in Shakespeare’s "The Tempest," "a primordial force with great vulnerability and pride, as well as a longing for the fine side if life", and another "Tatort" episode, again with Till Endemann directing: "I play a circus artist who is suspected of killing his brother and who dreams of getting out of the business and starting a new life."

With his life split between film and the theater, Koffler admits "I don’t have so much free time unfortunately. I have a six-yearold daughter so I look after her with her mother. I’m a drummer and play guitar. But mostly I’m changing my life at the moment. I’m still thinking about the whole journey and am building up my life in Berlin now. Yes, I think about developing my own material and have various projects at various stages. As much as I love the world of film I also want something solid I can return to when I have time in between, so I’m working with a friend who owns a farm outside Berlin on how best we can develop that."

Author: Simon Kingsley

Source: German Films Service & Marketing GmbH