From a haunting first image of Christa Päffgen portrayed as a child watching Berlin burn in the distance with her mother at the end of the Second World War, to the core of her film ‘Nico 1988’ which concentrates on the last three years of the rockstar’s life, filmmaker Susanna Nicchiarelli keeps us, her audience, spellbound. ‘Nico 1988’ opened the Orizzonti section of this year’s Venice Film Festival and for me, the event started then and there, with this touching, moving, electrifying yet perfectly human masterpiece.
The life of Nico went from teenage model to Velvet Underground singer and Andy Warhol muse, to, as the artist himself famously stated, becoming “a fat junkie” and disappearing — all in the blink of an eye. Yet when the world wanted her to go away, as they do with pretty women once they turn, eh hum... older, say thirty, Nico found her second wind. She dyed her hair, started wearing head to toe black and became the original mistress of darkness, crooning songs about her existence that still send shivers down every woman’s spine, they are so true to life!
At the center of Nicchiarelli’s film is Trine Dyrholm, a magnificent Danish actress and singer familiar to all for her performances in such films as ‘The Commune’ and ‘A Royal Affair’, whose turn here paints a portrait of Nico, without ever imitating her. Dyrholm pays tribute with her character’s soulful, dark singing and her passionate, expressive eyes and never for a moment do we ever doubt being in the presence of Nico, listening to her singing and watching her attempts to pull her life back together.
I caught up with these two exceptional women, women who make me proud to be in their same gender. With the Excelsior beach just steps away and seagulls overhead making themselves heard, I discovered the concrete reasons why I loved the film so much and what Nico’s legacy continues to be. Lessons for modern women everywhere.
How did you decide that ‘Nico 1988’ was to be your next film and to make it about the last three years of Nico’s life?
Susanna Nicchiarelli: First of all I think we all grew up listening to the Velvet Underground, the Nico album. Right after the album came out, they started touring on their own and I always thought there was something that didn’t work there. How they kicked her out... She was so fascinating, her voice is so fascinating and I thought I would look at what happened later, what kind of music she made. I saw that she had a solo career after that and had become a songwriter and her music is wonderful. The album ‘Desertshore’ and the soundtracks for the Garrel movies, it was music that influenced a lot of music that came after. She found herself after 30, she had been a model and then began making her own music, her solo career started when normally the life of a model finishes.
What was also interesting to me was the invisibility of what Nico had become after that. I found quotes from Andy Warhol saying “she became a fat junkie and disappeared”, or I found once in an interview about Iggy Pop a person saying “Nico was 34 and she was a finished woman.” You know? Thirty-four?
Haunting things because it seems when you’ve had a career based on your beauty like Nico had, when you turn 30 you die! While now that I’m 40 I know that the opposite is true, the most interesting things we do them after our 30s, in our 40s even more. That’s when you find your core, your identity.
Her story was the opposite of the cliche of the 50 year-old woman crying over the fact that she wasn’t 25 anymore. Not only she didn’t regret that beauty but she deliberately destroyed it. She destroyed the icon, she dyed her hair black, dressed in black. Her courage as an artist and also the brave way she dealt with past mistakes — she had a child very early and wasn’t able to take care of him by herself. I found it so not the cliche of the fallen star, I found it much more close to reality.
What was it like to play such an intense character, as an actress of course but also as a singer?
Trine Dyrholm: It has been a huge challenge for me, not easy. But the way we worked with it, I saw a lot of concerts that Nico did and I was very inspired by these concerts in which she was quite high and stoned, I also watched some interviews which were very inspiring — just to adapt to the way she moved and the way she talked. But then I was very much aware of not imitating her but finding my own way. We worked a lot with the songs, and tried to find my version of them.
The key was through the songs, and we worked on that for some time.
Did you feel scared sometimes playing her, I mean, did you feel her fear?
Dyrholm: No, I imagined her fear, that is what I do when I act. Try to imagine and do my best within that. I always try to find small cracks where I can get into the inner world of the character and understand a little bit what is going on. What I like is finding all the nuances, so maybe she is afraid but also curious.
If you do your research and if you have good people around you, like a good director and a good script then you are so conscious of the camera, and everything and at the same time when they say action you have to be non-conscious and I like that in-between. That level of being unconscious in a conscious way, it’s a gap where you won’t know what will happen. I like that moment and I think it’s the most important thing about acting. It’s only then that something you didn’t know could happen will happen. I don’t want to be controlling in what I want to tell.
What lessons can we take away from Nico the woman?
Nicchiarelli: She wasn’t a pleaser and didn’t really care about what other people thought. I’d love to be like that! Or rather the problem is when what other people think shatters you, then you have to rebuild your identity all over again. All the time, I am like this. She was very centered and she’d had a very dramatic life but had such a strong energy. That’s why Trine was the right person for this role. She is indestructible, she is strong, and I knew I needed a great artist, and a great actress who could technically do this. And she is brilliant, one of the best European actresses of her generation. I needed that but also someone who could help me deal with the darkness this character has.
Dyrholm: I think it’s about identity, about finding yourself in your life, and she did that, but late. She struggled with a lot of things, like being a German after the war, felt a lot of guilt. It came out in a very provocative way, she was punk! Then about being an icon and about being a mom. She had a lot of conflicting ideas about it all. It’s inspiring the way she is not a pleaser. She is like “I don’t care about my audience, I do my art and if they like it they like it”, that’s kind of cool. She’s not interested in the commercial side.
It’s not often that you see characters like this. She’s not likable and yet hopefully you kind of understand her and connect with her.
If an audience member can only take away one message from the film, what would you want that to be?
Nicchiarelli: There is a line in ‘These Days’ the song by Jackson Brown, which Trine sings in the beginning of the film which says “Don’t confront me with my failures — I have not forgotten them.” And even though that song was not written by Nico, it’s so her and the meaning of the movie. Dealing with failures and not forgetting them, knowing how to deal with them without forgetting them, that’s our lesson.
How are you like Nico, and how do you differ from her?
Dyrholm: I feel very different from her but I can connect with things from her life. I started early also as a singer, when I was 14, it was not a problem but in the beginning of my career it was always “Trine from the Eurovision contest”. I was also labeled and didn’t have a problem with it, but we do like to put people in boxes — all the time. I know that kind of feeling. I also toured with a band, I am a mother, so I can relate to a lot of things about being a mom and not always being the best mom in the world. I can relate to a loneliness that is existential. I think that all of us have that in us, which is why we make art. To connect and bear it together so we are not alone. Every time we watch a film or see a painting, then we are connected to each other and I find that very beautiful. For me life is relation and communication.
Is cinema a way then for us to come together?
Dyrholm: I hope so, I think that right now art is more important than ever. It’s difficult times and we need communication in a good way, and also without words. A place where we can deal with all our longings and existential loneliness and frustration.
Nicchiarelli: I think the main thing that cinema has to do, it has to create occasions to make us talk and discuss and think. What I want is people to come out of a movie I made talking and discussing because that’s what cinema is about, not just for consuming the product but as an occasion for something else — a meeting between people.