Actor & director Vincent Perez is every bit as European as his name would suggest. Born in Switzerland to a German mother and a Spanish father, Perez first cut his teeth playing classical roles in some of the most popular French movies of the 1990s, and went on to star in Cyrano de Bergerac (Jean-Paul Rappeneau, 1990), La Reine Margot (Patrice Chéreau, 1994) and Indochine (Régis Wargnier, 1992) to name but a few.
Earlier this week, we had the pleasure of meeting Vincent for an interview and asked him about his new movie Alone In Berlin, which he co-wrote as well as directed. Adapted from Hans Fallada’s popular 1947 novel by the same name, the film tells the story of a law abiding German couple and their quiet resistance during Nazi rule in Berlin. Staring Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson, Alone In Berlin has so far been met with mixed reviews, but this doesn’t seem to faze Perez for whom this has been a very personal project.
Can you tell us a little bit about how long it took you to get this project off the ground?
It took me like nearly 8 years to say “action”. I went through a lot of ups and downs. It was ten years ago that I first read the book and straightaway something happened in me and I felt like I was linked to that story. It was stronger than me, suddenly I didn’t have the choice, it was a story I had to tell.
Had you been aware of the real story behind Hans Fallada’s novel prior to reading the book?
No then, but since, I’ve done quite a lot of research and there were quite a few documentaries on them. I needed to find out why I was so attracted to this story and what was the trigger, so I did some research about my own family….
Yes, I was about to ask you about that. Can you tell us a bit about your family’s history during those times?
My mum is German and my father is Spanish, and on both sides, my grandparents went through WWII in a harsh way (sic). There were a lot of blanks in the history of my family, and I needed to fill in those blanks, so I did a lot of research and I discovered some really interesting things. I did the French version of Who Do You Think You Are, because I couldn’t do all of it alone, and when you have a team, it’s easier. I discovered that the story of Alone In Berlin, the story of those ordinary people resisting against the extremes of Nazi ideology, was the story of my family too. My Spanish grandfather was shot dead against the wall by Franco’s army, when he was 25. I discovered during the show that he wrote a letter an hour before he was shot, which they found and I then gave to my father who was very moved by it, because he was only one year old when his father was shot and killed. On the German side I found out that one of my uncles died when he was 17 years old, in the same way as Hans Quangel in the film, he was fighting on the german side. I discovered that a great uncle of mine was gassed in those prototype chambers. You know between 1941 and 42, they also killed people in those psychiatric hospitals because they believed they were not very useful to society.
Can you tell us why you as a German speaker have chosen to make this film in English?
I’m not really a German a speaker per-se, my mum spoke German to me. I understand most of it, but I kinda built a huge blockage with the German language. In fact I tried to make the movie in German, but we couldn’t. We didn’t manage to finance the film. We went as far as having a casting, then one day my producer told me, “I’m really sorry I thought that with two Palme D’Ors I’d be able to raise the money, but it didn’t happen”. So the movie stopped, and then a year and a half later the book came out in the UK and the US in English, and it became a phenomenal success, so we started to think about making the movie in English, and we knew that it wasn’t going to be easy, but we decided to go with it anyway.
How did the casting process go? Where you responsible for getting Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson on board?
Well Emma was my first choice for Anna Quangel, I thought it would be a great challenge for her, and the way she portrays her is marvellous, so it was a thrill to work with her. On the other hand, it took me a very long time to find Otto, a year and a half nearly. Which was so great that Emma didn’t leave the project, because she stayed and she was always there and I never felt that she had any doubts about the film. But Brendan, when I met him it was obvious straightaway, He had that big heart, he didn’t have to show anything but you felt it, he was so precise in his work and so implicated, both of them really… the way they created that couple was magical.
You co-rote the script with Achim von Borries, can you talk a bit about this process. Was the initial work in English or French?
The first versions were in French, and then they were in German and then we decided to stop everything and then we translated it to English, and for the last year of the work, we pursued it in English.
How was the feedback of showing the film around the world and in Germany?
The movie came out in thirty countries around the world, the UK is the last one, here and then Japan. I did the press in Japan and it was very well received, so I’m excited to see what happens there. Australia was a great success, and so was New Zealand and Israel. Germany was very difficult to tell you the truth, I think the movie touched something that the German people feel belong to them. I think we touched a very sensitive chord, we went to the Berlin Film Festival and it was very tough. Festivals are very tough in general, people are fed up of films and you have to talk about it to journalists etc… I mean the Berlin festival is very political, so bringing a movie like that and talking about German history in English it wasn’t what they were expecting. It was tough, but it was quite an experience for me because I worked so hard for ten years…the good thing is that it went so well in so many other countries. I totally understand the german reaction though….the thing is that they don’t watch movies in the original version in Germany. I think about 1% of theatres show movies in the original language there.
As an actor and director, which part of the profession do you see yourself more at ease in at the moment?
I see myself as someone who needs to create things. if I don’t do it, I fade away. I need to be in movement, I need to do things. I just worked with Roman Polanski on D’après Une Histoire Vraie (Based on a True Story), I did some stage work which I really enjoyed, in Paris. I am also a photographer, I did a very important exhibition in Paris at the beginning of the year, the European house of Photography, which is pretty major, and I’m doing my first photography book which is coming out in October.
How was it working with Polanski?
it was like working with a genius. It’s happened to me several times before, I’m lucky enough to have worked with Antonioni, Ettore Scola and Patrice Chéreau….so it’s amazing because suddenly you realise…ok this is where it’s happening, suddenly you’re entering in the world of those great creators, and it makes you feel that you’re doing something important that you have to be extremely precise. He’s very precise, extremely precise, but at the same time you’re free. The rhythm is super precise but in acting you feel very free.
Like you, Polanski is very much a European director. He’s at ease in several languages. Do you feel the same way about yourself? Do you feel European
Yes yes, of course! I feel European. I don’t feel Swiss, French, German or Spanish, I feel 100% European. and the movie is absolutely European for sure.
Finally, can you tell us about your future projects?
Yes, I have two scripts which I can’t really talk about and I have a film that I’m doing this summer, a French tiny budget film. I also have this photography book that I’m working on, so we’ll see.
Alone in Berlin is released on June 30th.