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“Write what you know” goes the old creative cliché. And, at first glance, it would seem German-Spanish actor Daniel Brühl (The Alienist, Captain America: Civil War) took that advice for Next Door, his directorial debut.
In the dark comedy, which premieres in competition at the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival, and which Beta Film is selling at this year’s European Film Market, Brühl plays a German-Spanish actor named Daniel. Daniel, like Brühl, lives in a luxury rooftop apartment in a hip quarter of East Berlin. Daniel, like Brühl, is famous for roles in big international productions. (When we first meet Daniel, he’s rehearsing lines for a role in an American superhero franchise.) Daniel even has much of the same personal backstory as the real-life Brühl: he’s married with two young children, he moved to Berlin from Cologne after making a big Berlin-based hit movie [in Brühl’s case that was Goodbye, Lenin! in 2003], and many of his neighbors are old-school East Berliners who resent the gentrifying presence of newcomers like him.
In Next Door, one of those neighbors gets his revenge. In a Berlin dive bar, over the course of a single afternoon, Bruno, played by Babylon Berlin actor Peter Kurth, systematically destroys Daniel’s life, marriage, and everything he felt sure of.
Brühl spoke to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the film’s premiere about fame, identity and how much fun he had playing a “vain, unpleasant and mean” version of Daniel Brühl.
I normally wouldn’t start with a personal question but after having seen the film: is everything OK with you at home?
Everything’s ok, don’t worry. But it was really fun to be able to put situations from my life into the film. It was a chance to take revenge on those people who’ve said certain things to me. What Bruno [Peter Kurth] says to my character in the movie, that I’m always the same in my movies, that I don’t actually “act”: a wife of a friend actually said that to me at a party! Some of the lines [in the film] are one-to-one from real life. But of course, a lot of it is fiction. We play with it. The character [of Daniel] is very close to me but it’s a character. It’s exaggerated. It’s not me. Luckily, things are good in my relationship and in my life. But a lot is true. My life is very similar. My apartment isn’t quite the poser flat that we show in the movie. But I live in a rooftop apartment in East Berlin with a private elevator. A lot of the details are true but I wanted to avoid giving it an embarrassing autobiographical “coming to terms with my past” touch. It’s always clear that this is a comedy and that I’m looking at myself with a wink and not taking myself too seriously.
Were there any other scenes taken directly from your real life?
Sure. What’s really gotten out of control is how aggressive people have become —particularly since we have smartphones and selfies. The scene with the guy who just stands in front of me and won’t go away while I’m on the phone, that’s happened to me many times. I find that behavior unbelievable. That people lose any sense of personal space.
Another uncomfortable, but funny, real-life situation I put in the film happened to me in Barcelona. A Swedish couple came straight towards me, with their phone out. They looked very German — both blond — and I thought: “OK, I know what’s coming.” So the first thing I do is take the phone and put my arm around the woman. But they didn’t know who I was! They were from Stockholm! The man thought: “who is this guy?” They wanted me to take a picture of them. I thought it would be great to put that scene in the film at the moment when Daniel’s relationship is in ruins. We put a lot of real-life situations in there, but I don’t want to reveal all of them. I’d like the viewer to wonder what’s real and what’s not. But I have to say, my wife was very uncomfortable watching the movie.
When did you first have the idea for the film?
Originally it came to me in a tapas restaurant in Spain. I initially wanted to do it in Barcelona. This is about seven years ago. I was spending a lot of time in Barcelona and I wanted to show the people there that I belonged there. I’d make these desperate attempts — always speaking extra loud in Spanish, to make it clear to people: ‘I’m one of you.’ Then I was sitting in a restaurant and a construction worker was glaring at me. I felt immediately: he hates me because he’s seen through me. Me sitting there with my travel suitcase, talking too loud to the waitress about FC Barcelona, but I’m not really from here. I thought the construction worker could have been working on a scaffolding outside my home and for months was watching me in my apartment. That was the first idea. From the start, the film was going to be about gentrification, about someone who feels like an invader. And then a confrontation between two men who couldn’t be more different. Who come from completely different social backgrounds. I imagined it as a duel, like in a Western, taking place in a bar. It was clear from the beginning that I would play the victim, so to speak. I couldn’t get the film made in Spain and I couldn’t write it. I can’t write. Years later I joined a production company [Amusement Park Films] and we got a deal with Warner Bros. in Germany and they offered to make my directorial debut. I was asked if I had any ideas. And I thought about the story and about shifting it to Berlin, to the neighborhood where I actually live. That would make it a lot more personal and better because the East-West conflict here is what I actually experience. I still had the problem that I couldn’t write it myself: So I got up the courage to ask Daniel Kehlmann. I thought he’s half Austrian and maybe he would enjoy the darker journey of the film. A dark sense of humor is a very Austrian thing and that’s exactly what I wanted. Thankfully he said yes after five minutes and we started right away. In a few weeks, we had the first draft of the script.
Did you know each other from your work on Me and Kaminiski [Wolfgang Becker’s 2015 adaptation of Kehlmann’s novel, starring Brühl]?
Actually from before. When I did Goodbye, Lenin! (2003), the director, Wolfgang Becker, and I were on a TV show in Austria with Kehlmann. I was 20 and Kehlmann was also really young. He was presenting his book, Me and Kaminski, we were presenting Goodbye, Lenin! And 10, actually 12 years later, we finally shot Me and Kaminski. But we became friends. Just yesterday we went for a three-hour walk together. Because we want to repeat this incredible experience we had and maybe work together again. So again I gathered up my courage and told him about another idea I’ve had whirling around in my head. Now we’ll have to see if something comes of it.
The story of the film seems to fit Daniel Kehlmann. It reminds me a bit of his book Fame, which is also about celebrity and the insecurity of the famous artist.
That was exactly what turned him on to the idea. He said he could completely relate, could totally empathize, with my character. And he works in the theater. He’s written a lot of plays so the format of the film suited him. We talked about how we wanted it to be like a Western, but without guns. Where we’re shooting with loaded words. And that’s Daniel’s world: Writing these long dialogs and monologs. It just pours out of him. It was great right from the start. But we still had a lot of work from the first draft. It was a real enriching experience for me. To sit with him in his office, surrounded by hundreds and thousands of books, quite intimidating, and see how quick and brilliant his mind is. I’d toss out ideas, unfiltered and he’d say: “no, not good, not, good, not good … that’s good.” Then he’d immediately know how to fit it into the story. One of the big problems initially was to give my antagonist more depth and motivation, not to make him some kind of evil Stasi stalker figure. And I didn’t want my character to be some poor victim, destroyed by this Mephisto.
You’re character, Daniel, isn’t not really a nice guy.
Exactly. At first the character was much closer to me, but it was problematic because I wanted to have a comedic tone and play very vain. An unpleasant version of me, so not really me but the type of guy who goes through life like a peacock. Because I wanted to look at that aspect of my world — the superficiality of it. The Instagram world, the filtered purity thing, all that shit that we have to deal with. And to have someone, who you don’t know, strip all those filters away and tell you the truth straight to your face, the truth that nobody in your world dares to tell you. That your supposedly perfect world can be taken apart on a single afternoon. I thought that was sort of beautiful. Painful and beautiful.
What I really love is how mean and nasty your character gets. It’s a side of you we rarely see in your German movies, only in U.S. films like Inglourious Basterds or Captain America.
That’s absolutely right. It’s strange how people see me. In Germany I think people don’t want to believe that this is a big part of my character, and also my taste — I’ve always been fascinated by these dark stories. But in Germany, I think I got the “nice guy” stamp early on, because of Goodbye, Lenin! That’s how people saw me and I wasn’t given many chances to play different roles. That’s changed a bit recently. But it took people from outside to look without prejudice — like Ron Howard [with Rush] or Tarantino [with Inglourious Basterds] or Kevin Feige [producer of Captain America: Civil War]. I was always really grateful to be able to play those roles. And I thought when I make my own movie, I want to show what I can do.
It also seems like Daniel isn’t quite as good an actor as you are. At least in the role we see him rehearsing for — as Laser Angel in an unnamed, U.S. comic book movie.
Something I really admire in the English is their self-deprecating humor. That’s not something Germans really have. I really wanted to go where it hurts. But not to make it absurd. Because these questions of conscience that I have because of the privileged life I lead is something I’ve always struggled with. Since I left Cologne, my hometown, I’ve always felt a bit like a gentrifier. Like an invader. Not that I think I’m at fault, but it’s something I think about. And this is a huge topic, not just in Berlin but everywhere. I was just talking to a friend from L.A., Fran Healy, the singer from Travis — who gave a little song for the film — and he was saying in Lincoln Heights, a traditional Latino quarter, it’s a major issue. It’s happening everywhere. I’ve lived nearly 20 years in Berlin and I still can’t really say I’m a Berliner. I’m often in situations — especially with East Berliners — where I realize I can try everything, use all my acting tricks, try speaking in their accent, discuss the topics they are interested in. But they notice right away, they smell it, they see it, they hear it: I don’t belong. I’m not from here. I find the idea of identity, roots — where do you come from — incredibly interesting. And the theme of neighbors. You can live 10-20 years next to people. Right outside my window is just like in the film, a typical Berlin backyard — Hinterhof — situation. The differences, cultural and social, in the neighborhood, can be huge. In a way, the film is taking stock of what I’ve experienced, and experience in Berlin. Because in a few years it could be there won’t be any more of these “neighbors from the East” in my neighborhood.
What was the most fun to perform as an actor? Because your character is almost always acting. As a viewer, you can never be certain: ‘is he being authentic here or is he performing?’
That was something we developed during the writing. Initially, my character was very passive, he just sat there and took it. We couldn’t figure out how he could defend himself. Then I came up with the idea of a supposed reconciliation, that he would simply break into tears, to use the weapons of an actor to get close to Bruno. It’s my favorite moment in the movie, because it’s the moment when Bruno actually develops empathy for Daniel, through this crying trick. That’s when he talks about his daughter and about human decency. I love that moment. Otherwise, I have to say that Kehlmann’s lines are so well written that it was easy for me. I was scared because I’d never directed before. But Peter Kurth is such a fantastic actor and with him and Kehlmann’s wonderful words, it was never a problem. We’d do three takes back-to-back without stopping to check them. So I got the feeling of being really in the scene, in character. Then we’d take a break and I could check the takes and become the director. I was completely honest with everyone. I came clean and said: ‘folks, there’s a lot I don’t know. I’ve never done this before.’ But we had a great atmosphere on set. Peter Kurth accepted me — as an actor and as a director. So did the cinematographer and the director’s assistant. I talked to directors I had worked with to get tips. They said the most important aspect of directing is casting. Not just the actors but also picking the right crew. Matthew Vaughn told me it’s important to make decisions quickly. Even if it’s the wrong decision. You’re the captain and you have to say go right or go left. It’s better to make a decision.
When did you make the decision to cast Peter Kurth?
Right from the start. We actually had him in mind when we were writing. For Kehlmann and me he was our ideal candidate. So we were pretty nervous when we sent him the script. I’ve been impressed by Peter my entire life. I first met him on the set of Goodbye, Lenin!, where he had a small role. And he’s a theater guy. Everything he’s in — whether it’s Babylon Berlin, or the incredible Herbert (2015), where he plays an aging, sickly boxer — just knocks me over. Peter has everything I wanted for this character. And within 24 hours, he said yes. This whole project was blessed. That Kehlmann wrote it, that Peter agreed to play Bruno, that we could get it financed relatively quickly. It was great and it shows what you can do if you believe in something.
Speaking of blessed — how did you manage to shoot this film during the coronavirus pandemic?
We went through a couple of weeks of hell because the pandemic hit literally just as we started shooting. We had to push our start back. We’d been developing for a long time, everything was ready to go, and then it looked like it would all fall apart. Luckily we had a pandemic-friendly script, with just a few actors and a small crew. I have to thank my production partner, Malte Grunert, who was incredibly tough and level-headed. He made sure we could make the movie under the new safety guidelines. “We’re making this film. We’re not canceling,” he said. He kept us going. The distributor, Warner, was incredibly good to us. The financiers too. I have to give a big thank you to all of them because no one let us down. We were one of the first to make a movie under these crazy conditions: with masks, with tests. Thank goodness it all went well. But there’s a scene in the movie that still shocks me when I see it. When Bruno tells me he’s sent a boy away with the package for my wife and I scream at him. You can see the spittle shoot out of my mouth. That’s not a special effect. That’s real. I think that could be an iconic image in the corona crisis. That’s my real attack on him. Not when I smash his face into his food. That’s not nearly as deadly as that aerosol attack.
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