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Daniel Bruhl on Using Words as Weapons in Directorial Debut Black Comedy ‘Next Door’

Leo Barraclough
·10-min read

In the black comedy thriller “Next Door,” the directorial debut of actor Daniel Brühl, the main character, Daniel, is a successful actor living in an old quarter of Berlin. His day is about to be ruined, and his life too. Variety spoke to Brühl – whose upcoming acting credits include “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and Matthew Vaughn’s “The King’s Man” – about the film, which plays in competition this week at the Berlin Film Festival.

Daniel, played by Brühl, seems to be remarkably similar to Brühl in real life – he is of German-Spanish heritage, the hit that launched his career was a “Stasi comedy,” and since then he has acted in Hollywood movies and series. But this is not Brühl, but a “heightened” version of him, the actor-director says.

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The film starts with Daniel sitting in his beautiful Berlin apartment, preparing to fly to London to audition for a Hollywood super-hero movie. Before setting off for the airport he drops into his local bar. This is a different world – one in which the coffee is undrinkable and the clientele are down-at-heel – but Daniel is determined to let them know he is one of them, a man of the people.

As Daniel practises his lines, he notices a lugubrious-looking man glowering at him, who – when challenged – launches into a damning critique of the actor’s performances in his best-known roles. This man, Bruno, is a long-term resident of the neighborhood, which used to be part of East Berlin, and his father used to live in Daniel’s apartment, before being kicked out by the landlord. What follows is a verbal duel in which Bruno – played by Peter Kurth from “Babylon Berlin” – reveals he has access to damaging information about Daniel’s life.

The idea for the film, Brühl says, came when he bought an apartment in Gràcia, an up-and-coming neighborhood in Barcelona. As he sat eating his paella, he noticed a construction worker starring at him, and he began to wonder what this man was thinking. From that came the idea for a chamber piece about a verbal high noon between an actor and a long-time resident.

“I wanted to do a film about gentrification, because ultimately that was the starting point,” he says. “That was the major theme, because since I moved away from my hometown, Cologne, I always felt like I’m an invader [in Berlin], and I’m not really from there. So that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to make it very personal. I knew that I had to play the victim, so to say. I wanted it to be honest and self-deprecating. I didn’t want to make an embarrassing, coping with my past, auto biographical bullsh-t, but to achieve a dark comedy tone.”

Years later when the head of Warner Bros. in Germany asked him whether he would like to direct, and if he had an idea for a film, the scene in the Barcelona bar came back to him. He decided to move the action from Barcelona to the area in Berlin where he lives, Prenzlauer Berg, and – doubting his own abilities as a writer – he asked his friend Daniel Kehlmann, who’s a playwright and novelist, to write the screenplay. He chose Kehlmann, not just because he thinks he is “phenomenal,” but also because, he says, “I knew that he’s half Austrian and the Austrians have that sense of humor that we Germans don’t have, much closer to the English than to us, and I knew that I needed that tone.”

In a sense, the film is a Western, with Daniel and Bruno facing off across the saloon. “I always had this in mind, the Western, or an Eastern in this case, with words used as deadly weapons. So a Western without guns, but that was exactly what I wanted to do – a duel,” Brühl says.

“Next Door” is inspired by the chamber-piece films of such directors as Alfred Hitchcock and Sidney Lumet, with verbal sparring as a major component, which he sees as “actors’ movies.” The films of the Coen Brothers were also a reference point “to achieve a sense of comedy, and a slightly heightened tone,” he says. One film he cites as a particular influence is Claude Miller’s “Garde à Vue,” with Michel Serrault, Lino Ventura and Romy Schneider, which was remade as “Under Suspicion,” with Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman.

Another reason he chose the chamber play form – “Kammerspiele” in German – for the film was because it was his first feature as a director. “I thought, instinctively, I cannot possibly direct something that is logistically too overwhelming for me. So I need a contained small scale. But the next thought was sh-t, I have to fill these 90 minutes in a room, which makes it so incredibly difficult.”

In the film, Daniel frequently breaks off from the conversation with Bruno, and he has opportunities to walk away entirely. He occasionally leaves the bar to make or take phone calls; at one point a taxi arrives to take him to the airport, but he sends it away; and at another point he hails a taxi in the street, and is driven some way down the road, before returning to the bar to restart the argument.

“These Western elements… that was a hard thing to achieve in the writing process, because for a long time, I had the feeling that I didn’t quite believe why I’m not leaving [the bar] earlier. It’s thanks to Daniel Kehlmann that he constructed it so elegantly that there’s always such a strong hook that pulls me back.”

One danger Brühl saw in telling the story was to be biased towards Daniel. “In the first versions, it read like I was destroyed by that dark Stasi stalker. And if that’s my first film, and it’s told out of my perspective, I thought this is a horrible way of telling the story. I wasn’t interested in making one guy or the other sympathetic. I wanted it to be neutral, and to make it clear that both of these guys had their reasons why they do what they do, and had very different biographies. To portray myself as the helpless victim and the Eastern German as the monster, the baddie in the movie … that I wanted to avoid.”

At a time when right-wing, nationalistic groups like Alternative for Germany are on the rise in the country, and elsewhere in the world, the film touches on the tensions that are threatening to destroy social cohesion.

Brühl observes that “things have changed dramatically” since he first started work on the film. “The anger has risen due to populist politics all over the place. Also the moment that we’re living right now … a crisis emphasizes that there’s huge anger and frustration, especially in the Eastern part of Germany, and the conflicts are getting bigger and bigger. And we people living a privileged life are accused much more often than used to be the case. I can really feel that. This is a boiling process that happens all over the place. I hope that people also from abroad see that it is a universal film at the end of the day. But it is also a very specific situation in East Berlin at the moment.”

He notes that in the 20 years he’s been in Berlin, he’s seen how the older residents have been pushed out, and this makes him uneasy.

“This is the way I was educated, politically, by my father – it does something to my conscience. And I don’t find any clear answers. I didn’t want to embarrassingly accuse my character, but I wanted to be as honest as possible and in ‘dropping my pants,’ as we say in German, and of letting myself face these horrible questions: Why do you always give these interviews about migrants, and what do you actually do [to help]?,’ etcetera. And I guess, that many of us have that constant inner conflict in certain given situations.”

On one level, the film can be seen as a satire about the film business, and the compromises that actors have to make in their careers. The action is interspersed with conversations on the phone between Daniel and his British agent, a Hollywood producer, and a German director, with whom he wants to make a Beethoven biopic. The film makes fun of many of Brühl’s past titles, including “Goodbye Lenin!,” “Rush,” “Captain America: Civil War” and “The Alienist.”

“This was another layer… a lot of it is fictional, but a lot of it are experiences that I’ve had throughout the years. And a lot of these things that this guy says to me at the beginning, I really experienced. At a party of a friend, his wife said, ‘Well, you’re not the guy who really acts properly.’ Sh-t like that. Like you think, ‘It’s incredible, outrageous.’ Also I wanted to criticize or deal with that superficiality and this facade in my business, that Instagram world where everything is filtered and pretty.

“I wanted to make sure that this character is not 100% me, but it’s a heightened version. It’s a very vain kind of man who lives that supposedly perfect life. And I found it interesting that somebody who doesn’t know you, sees right through you, and tells you truths that nobody else would tell you in a very blunt way. And on top of it tells you secrets that you don’t even know about.

“And again, in a playful way I wanted to deal with the experiences that I had on some American projects. I mean, if you think of the audition scene for that superhero film. Now, to be fair, I really enjoyed my participation in the Marvel Universe. And, as I know, they have a lot of sense of humor. So I hope that if they see the film, they know how I mean it. I hope that nobody takes it personally.”

With his directorial debut under his belt, Brühl is now mulling his next film as a filmmaker.

“I have one or two ideas circling around in my head. And I just met Daniel Kehlmann, the writer who wrote this one, because we really enjoyed this experience together,” he says. “And he’s an incredibly smart man, much smarter than me. And it is so good to have someone like him to be able to work with because I think I can come up with good ideas, but I just cannot write. So I’m desperately trying to hold on to him.

“I have an idea for a genre film that could become something, but it is far too early to talk about it. But I hope that one day I might talk to you again about it, because it wasn’t that traumatic for me [directing the film]. That was something I really wanted to do … to try it for once. Because I dreamed about directing for such a long time … to be able finally to tell your own story. And I said to myself, in a very pragmatic way, ‘If that is a nightmare, and it is a disaster, then I will never do it again.’ But it actually was a very fulfilling experience from A to Z. I learned so much by doing it, and the power that you are given, the fact that you’re not excluded as an actor from so many steps on the way, was so rewarding that I thought: ‘Let’s at least do one more. And if this is a disaster then I’ll stop.’ ”

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