'Merkel' Star on How to Play the Powerful German Chancellor: "Responsible and Humane"

Merkel- Publicity still - H 2019
Volker Roloff/Carte Blanche/RBB

The TV movie, about the pressures Merkel faced during Europe's refugee crisis, offers theater actress Imogen Kogge the role of a lifetime — but not without some risks: "I'm skeptical of portraying real people."

In any other place, at any other time in history, it would have been a throwaway line, the kind of stump-speech platitude politicians use every day. But on Aug. 31, 2015, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, "Wir schaffen das!" ("We can do it!"), her words sounded like a thunderclap. Merkel had just made the decision to open Germany's border to nearly a million Syrian refugees. "Wir schaffen das!" became a rallying cry for those calling for humane treatment of people fleeing war and deprivation. But on the far right, those same words became a sarcastic slogan, a symbol of everything that's wrong with the new world order that Merkel, now the de facto leader of Europe and most powerful woman in the world, represented.

The "Wir schaffen das!" speech is at the center of Merkel, a new $3.3 million TV movie about the power politics and behind-the-scenes struggles of those fateful months four years ago. Adapted from Die Getriebenen (The Driven), a best-seller from German journalist Robin Alexander, Merkel was produced by Carte Blanche International for German public broadcasters RBB and NDR and is being sold worldwide at MIPCOM by Bavaria Media.

It fell to German theater actress Imogen Kogge, 62, to speak Merkel's fateful words. Kogge, who bears a passing resemblance to the German leader, was at first reluctant to take on the role of the chancellor. "I'm very skeptical of portraying real people, especially ones who are still alive," she says. "When someone is so well known, the danger is you fall into the trap of just imitating them." She turned down offers to meet Merkel in person, opting instead to study hours of news reports from the time, looking for a few key elements — "the way she moves her arms when she talks, a certain look" — to evoke Merkel without trying to match her beat for beat. "It's more like I'm quoting her, not trying to embody her."

While not a Merkel supporter — the chancellor's economic policies are a bit too conservative for her liking — Kogge says she came away from the role with a newfound respect for the woman.

"I found her to be an incredibly competent, effective politician who has calmly steered our country through crisis. I think we are going to miss her when she's gone," Kogge says. "When you look at the sort of leaders we have these days — all these horrendous, terrible men — Merkel stands out as responsible and humane. What I've always admired is she never makes things about her. She just does her job. She is a politician in the best, most democratic sense of the word."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.