News from the Locarno Festival

Interview with Mario Adorf

Pardo alla carriera

© Sabine Cattaneo


Mr Adorf, your immense gallery of characters has earned you a central role within the German collective imagination. How have your characters changed with the changing historical context in your country?

It is primarily the historic times that have undergone a change, one which has inevitably influenced the development of films, particularly through the pressure of television. Naturally as my age has advanced, the roles that I played have also changed.


You took your first professional steps in German film in the 1950s, which, as the title of our retrospective reflects, was as beloved as it was then rejected…

In regards to post-war German film, particularly in the 1950s, there is a distinction to be made. On the one side, apart from musicals, there were commercial films that talked about the country in a light and often superficial way. On the other, there was the serious effort of certain directors who confronted and reworked the terrible past experience of National Socialism. But these praiseworthy films were then lumped together with the commercial ones by the following generation and ended up sinking into oblivion as much as those of inferior quality. However, I was lucky to be cast in some of the more serious and committed films of that time: Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam (The Devil Strikes At Night) by Robert Siodmak, Das Totenschiff (Ship of the Dead) by Georg Tressler and Das Mädchen Rosemarie (Rosemary) by Rolf Thiele.


How do you judge those cinematic experiences back then?

I think they can be given a positive reappraisal, because from the perspective of the present we have the opportunity to rediscover those films, evaluating them objectively for what they were: noble attempts by directors committed to seeking out their own cinema. 


In your wide-ranging career, you have always managed to switch from comic to dramatic roles, but also from films with a more popular bent to those by great arthouse directors like Edgar Reitz, Volker Schlöndorff and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Does your way of acting change within these different worlds?

An actor who has trained in the theatre is lucky because they are encouraged to try all kinds of different roles, unlike what happens in film or even more in television today, where instead very often actors are called upon to embody fixed types. In this way one gets a reputation for being versatile, and that’s a real benefit, because you’re appreciated not just by those working in more popular cinema, but also by important directors like those you mentioned. Nonetheless I don’t think that you change your way of acting depending on the categories in which you’re used.


Within your great versatility, there still seems to be a common point, a kind of ironic style that you seem to maintain even in more dramatic situations…

I wouldn’t be able to say if it’s irony or not. But I think that this impression has a more general explanation. I don’t feel as though I belong to that category of actors who identify totally with their character. With my characters I have always maintained a controlled distance, in a Brechtian sense.


While you’ve become a reference point within German film, your long collaborations with Italian cinema have also been important, from Dario Argento to Luigi Comencini, via Antonio Pietrangeli and Florestano Vancini. Not to mention your encounters with international legends like Billy Wilder and Sam Peckinpah. What memories do you have of these experiences?

The fact that Luigi Comencini brought me from Germany to Italy during that unique season in the 1960s was one of the most important opportunities of my life. Even though it wasn’t possible for me to work with the great masters of Italian cinema of that time like Fellini, Visconti, Rosi and Monicelli, I remember those years as the best and happiest of my life. The meeting with Billy Wilder was also a real pleasure, even if the film Fedora was not one of his greatest masterpieces. But working with Sam Peckinpah on Major Dundee was a terrible experience that made me realize how America could never be one of my favourite places.


The 1959 film Am Tag, als der Regen kam (The Day It Rained) by Gerd Oswald will be screened in Piazza Grande. It plunges us into a dark, dramatic world. What did this film represent to you?

To tell you the truth, that was a film I didn’t want to make, because at that time it seemed absolutely improbable, if not actually impossible, that after the terrible experience of National Socialism in Germany that something similar to the neo-Nazis could exist again. And that was what I had to interpret. Unfortunately I was wrong. I don’t know if rewatching the film again now can refute my previous scepticism.  


Lorenzo Buccella

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