Mario Adorf never let himself be enticed by Hollywood. This year’s Film Festival Locarno honors the German actor with the ‘Pardo alla Carriera’ for his lifetime achievement. An interview with DW.
DW: The retrospective of this year’s international Film Festival Locarno examines postwar film production in the Federal Republic of Germany from 1949 to 1963, i.e. the former West Germany. Is this a voyage through time for you, that takes you back to your early years as an actor?
Mario Adorf: Yes, one could put it that way, as the retrospective goes back to the 1950s. Two of my very early films will be shown in Locarno – “Nachts wenn der Teufel kam” (‘The Devil Strikes at Night’) from 1957, and “‘Am Tag als der Regen kam” (‘The Day it Rained’) from 1959, starring German actress Elke Sommer. So this is really a trip down memory lane.
What are your personal memories of these early years of West Germany?
Well, there were sharply differing phases during this era. The first phase, from 1949 onwards, was the postwar period to me. These years were very tough for me. For me personally, the time of starvation continued until 1955, when the so called economic miracle unfolded.
Also, my years of study were very tough – I did four semesters in Mainz, and then I continued my studies in Zurich. In Zurich, I was starving even more than in Mainz. In postwar Germany there was a solidarity that could not be expected in Switzerland. People there didn’t know what hunger meant. In Germany, there was always somebody who would ask “Hey, aren’t you hungry? Did you already have something to eat?” In Switzerland, people didn’t ask such questions.
You were born in Zurich. Did memories of these years come back to you when you returned there?
I was born in Zurich, but I didn’t grow up there. The idea of spending one semester at my birthplace attracted me, although that hadn’t actually been my plan. In Mainz, I had started to work in a theater as a student. At a theater meeting in Erlangen, I met a group of students from Zurich – and their star was Maximilian Schell. But he went on to Basle, so he left the university in Zurich. That’s why the leader of this theater group asked me if I wanted to substitute Schell by performing in “Ödipus” (‘Oedipus’). I accepted the offer.
However, I ended up not working with that group as they were divided by internal quarrelling. But through their leader I got some odd jobs in this field. That was my first encounter with real theater. And there were all these wonderful great actors I had watched on stage before, among them Therese Giese. Later on, I went on to work with some of them in Munich. And that inspired me to become an actor.
Did you attend drama school there as well?
One of those Zurich actors became the director of the Residenztheater Munich. And that’s when I thought, what am I doing in Zurich, it would be much better to go to Munich. Back then, I was also thinking of continuing my German language and literature studies, but that never materialized. While searching for an apartment, I came across a drama school, the Otto-Falckenberg-Schule, I sent them an application, and they accepted me. At this point, I had to make a decision between the theater and university, and I decided in favor of the theater.
How long did it take you to start a career?
It all worked out very well. My teacher was Peter Lühr, a great actor at the Münchner Kammerspiele (‘intimate theater’). When I tried to interpret all that as a sheer coincidence, he told me: “Adorf, that’s not a coincidence, that’s your destiny.” That was in 1953. It must all come together like a well-made piece of furniture. It needs to fit.
How do you now, at age 85, consider your beginnings as an actor, and your early films?
My very first films will not be shown at Locarno. These were three very average films in which I played when I was still attending drama school. After one year at the school, I already got work in the first one. Two years after I had finished the drama school, I starred in “Nachts Wenn der Teufel kam” (‘The Devil Strikes at Night’) in 1957 (nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, eds.) And that marked a big step forward. Back then, I met film director Robert Siodmak who had returned from exile in the US (Siodmak ws a German-Jewish Hollywood director who had emigrated to France in 1933, and from there to the US, eds.). Back then, Siodmak was looking for an actor to play Bruno Lüdke, the mass murderer in the film.
How did Siodmak get interested in you, as, back then, you still hadn’t been wellknown?
Siodmak did know me, as I had been performing in a minor role in a film directed by him in Yugoslavia. The film “Mädchen und Männer” (Original: “La Ragazza della Salina”) wasn’t a particularly outstanding film – but at least, a star like Mastroianni was starring in it, and to me, as a young actor, that meant a lot.
Back then, as a drama school student, I did have the opportunity to play minor roles on stage and in film. And I had a reputation among the directors of always coming up with some ideas. Back then, I was still very ambitious, whereas later on, I wasn’t anymore.
What made you lose that special ambition?
Nobody really wiped it out of me. But there was notably one great director, Paul Verhoeven, who once said to me: “Mario, I must tell you something important. I have been observing you for years. Over and over again, you have made an effort to be something very special, to leave your mark, and that was a very good idea. But let me tell you that you don’t need to make such efforts. Just your very appearance on the stage, is striking. That’s already something. You don’t need to add anything to that.” So I stopped behaving this way – for the rest of my life.