Austrian actor and director Karl Markovics speaks about intuitive play, honest films and life after an Oscar
Karl Markovics first came to Kyiv as an honorary guest of the Week of Austrian Cinema festival. His debut work as a director, Atem (Breathing), won the grand prix at the Molodist festival last year. He is best known for The Counterfeiters in which he played a Jewish fraudster from Odesa who found himself in a Nazi concentration camp and was forced to forge the currencies of the enemies of the Third Reich. In 2008, this film won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and brought world renown to director Stefan Ruzowitzky as well as to Markovics who played the main part.
U.W.: Is European cinema still alive, or does cinematography now belong to individual countries?
Of course there is a European community, just like there is an American or Asian community. But you can't say anything more detailed than that, because they are all in intermediary stages: Asian directors work in the European style just like American directors in the European camp. Gus Van Sant and the Cohen brothers are implementing a rather European line of cinematography. The young Scorsese and Spielberg looked to European cinema. At the same time, we see Europeans that are more into Asian or Eastern European cinema. There are no strict boundaries, and the borders can always be crossed.
U.W.: Who defines the character of European cinema today?
I don't feel like there are any personalities that have an extremely great influence on it. Maybe that was the case earlier when Pasolini or Truffaut were in vogue, but even then, you couldn't really say at that time that any particular people defined European cinema. Things like that are said after the fact, when the figures are classics. It may very well be that in 10-15 years we will single out certain people who have had an impact on our films. In my case, I cannot name any names like that, because I'm not a typical filmmaker who constantly draws inspiration from his colleagues’ works. Ordinary life interests me much more than art.
U.W.: What trends do you see in Austrian cinema?
Austria’s contemporary art house is very rooted in social realism in the form of the most authentic, true-to-reality portrayals of life, whatever that may mean. And that approach can be carried out in very different ways. Even if films are committed to realism, like works by Haneke, Zaidl and Glawogger, they still have their own signature. In contemporary cinematography we can talk about individual personalities rather than trends. We are still in the individualism phase in art. At least this can be clearly seen in fine arts where there have not been any large trends in either conceptual or concrete realistic art for a long time. Curiously, an increasing number of women have become director’s. Austrian cinema has a pronounced tendency to experiment and search for its own language in all directions, including commercial ones. We have a great luxury in that films that are financed by the state do not have to be profitable. Of course, this situation has advantages, but I must say that it also has drawbacks. Sometimes there are too many experiments. Sometimes people make too conscious an effort to target art, even though I would say it has nothing to do with art. If I were thinking about making a film that no-one will want to watch, it would automatically be disqualified as art. But some people understand it that way. Perhaps education in cinema colleges is partly moving in the wrong direction. When a young filmmaker thinks: “I only have a chance in this country if I make socially realistic art house films, otherwise I won't get any funding,” it is dangerous, because not everyone fits in this niche. If someone wanted to shoot a romantic comedy or a zombie-action-horror film and if it were done in an interesting way, I would be the first to support him. It is wrong when someone says: “I’d better shoot social drama,” if he or she would rather make something about zombies, because then his film would not be honest.
U.W.: You said you have been using an intuitive rather than intellectual approach to playing. What is your opinion about actors who shed 20 kg of weight to play a particular character or live among representatives of a certain social class?
If I sense a lack of information and it is about a fictitious story, I have to talk to the director provided that the project is interesting to me. But if there is too much missing, I say no. What I can read in books is rarely important information. I lost weight to play in The Counterfeiters, but because I am fairly skinny anyway, shedding 7 kg was not too hard.
I often have a clear idea that a certain character has to have a beard. I discuss this with the director and share my vision, because I have a gut feeling for it. And then I transform.
I constantly study people, no matter where I am. I have watched very different types of people in the two days I’ve spent in Kyiv — absolutely ordinary people: street sweepers, parking attendants, policemen and taxi and bus drivers. I noted what they look like on the outside and how they stand. I pay attention to things like that. At the end of the day, I often ask myself about how much I have stored in memory and why I am so much into it. I study people this way or another all the time. So I rarely need to learn something new to play a particular part.
Let me tell you a somewhat old-fashioned thing: an actor is only an actor when he can imagine things well. I don't want to be an imitator. As I played Sigmund Freud, I didn't want to imitate him. What I was interested in was how I would have conducted myself if I had been him and what I would have done in a particular situation having the notions of this person and his time.
U.W.: How did your life change after an Oscar?
Very little. I still don't have an agent – just like before. I've got more invitations to castings and have played more frequently. The most important thing that the Oscar changed for me personally was increasing my internal confidence that I've attained something in life. It has grown so much that I finally dared to do something I have always wanted – create my own film. After the Oscar (which was won by the film, not myself personally, but it was still a production and part of the success), I felt I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore, including myself. Now as I make films, I feel like I haven’t done anything else before. I feel like I'd been preparing for this my entire life, and that's actually true. As an actor, I took an interest in everything around in the studio, but not myself, because I knew how to play. So I knew what I was doing before I shot my own film.
U.W.: What would you advise fledgling directors?
Nothing. I would make a poor teacher, and I’ve never studied myself: I did not go to acting or cinema school; I didn't need it. The only thing I would recommend is that you have to think twice before you do it. Don’t overestimate yourself. You shouldn’t think that if you have an idea, it is exactly what is needed, and you are already a director. If you’ve had serious doubts but are unable to think about anything else and this is all you can do, and there is nothing else in the world left for you to do, then you need to do it.
Karl Markovics, theatre and film actor, scriptwriter and director, was born in 1963 in Vienna. His career as a film actor began in 1991. He gained recognition for playing inspector Stockinger in the Kommissar Rex series. He played in Come Sweet Death in 2000. The Counterfeiters, a Stefan Ruzowitzky film in which Markovics played the protagonist, won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2008. He debuted as a director and scriptwriter with Atmen (Breathing) in 2011. In 2012, he played in Yedynyi shliakh (The Only Way) directed by Ukrainian Daria Onyshchenko (Ukrainian-Serbian-German production).