Though not exactly an interview gained at the Palm Springs International, I'm using this phone interview with Peter Ketnath—the German actor in Cinema, Aspirin & Vultures—to launch my coverage of PSIFF. Along with Café Transit, Cinema, Aspirin & Vultures is one of two Global Lens entries that were picked up as official submissions into the Academy Awards Foreign Language category, which credits not only Susan Weeks Coulter's eye for solid foreign films but confirms the Initiative's distribution strategies for providing exposure to less-well-known directors. After following through on Alice Braga's recommendation and catching Cinema, Aspirin & Vultures at its Global Lens screening earlier this year, I contacted Peter Ketnath in Berlin to talk about the film and his future projects. Subsequently, Peter also provided some additional comments via email which I've incorporated into our conversation.
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Michael Guillén: Congratulations on your strong performance as Johann Hohenfels in Marcelo Gomes's Cinema, Aspirin & Vultures, for the film's successful festival run to date, and most recently for its being chosen as Brazil's entry into the foreign language category at the Oscars.
Peter Ketnath: Yeah, that's right. Thank you very much.
Guillén: Will you be attending Palm Springs? Or if it makes the Oscars, will you go?
Ketnath: I haven't thought about it yet too much. I think we will go there, yes, if it's selected.
Guillén: It appears you have primarily done German television. How then did you become involved in this Brazilian feature?
Ketnath: Marcelo Gomes, the director of the film, wanted to have a German actor to bring a German point of view—a different kind of reality—to the film. They have a lot of blonde actors in Brazil, but, he definitely wanted to have a German actor in the film. So he made some research here in Berlin, in Köln, and let it be known that he was searching for a German actor who [spoke] a little Spanish or Portuguese. I was indicated by an actress who is Brazilian who lives here as well in Berlin. [Gomes and I] met at the Berlinale [and maintained] email contact. He told me about the script, about the story, and I loved it very much. I thought it was really interesting so, finally, I made a test here in Berlin [in] my old car driving around the outskirts of Berlin, saying some lines of Johann, and I sent it to him. He [wanted] me to make the movie. Then I had some problems to get the free time because I was involved in some projects here but I managed to cut everything off that I wasn't so interested in and went to Brazil and made the film.
Guillén: How is it that you can speak Portuguese?
Ketnath: My wife is Brazilian. We met here in Berlin five years ago. I traveled the first time to Brazil with her in 2001. She's from Salvador so we stayed there three months. I really loved the simple Brazilian people that I knew in Salvador. That was my introduction to the Portuguese language. I didn't speak as fluently as now but it was okay. It definitely [helped] to get into the movie.
Guillén: I was actually turned on to Cinema, Aspirin & Vultures through Alice Braga; I assume you know her?
Ketnath: Yeah, I know her, sure.
Guillén: How did you and Marcelo develop your characterization of Johann Hohenfels?
Ketnath: I started preparation here in Germany on my own. I read some books about adventure—you know the guys that climbed Eiger Nordwand? [Have] you [heard] of that famous mountain? Very difficult passage to get through. They were contemporary figures [of Johann]. They were even honored by Hitler—but that was not very important for my inspiration—but, I liked the spirit that drove these people.
I had conversations with my father [about] his father's generation. My family was completely destroyed during the Second World War. I have some Jewish ancestors as well. Everybody grew up either without [a] father or with a father who wasn't there, who didn't come back. It was interesting to have a story told about a German guy who fled shortly before the war broke out [who] could achieve a different destiny. That was somehow the key to enter the world of Johann.
I bought some items of that time from second-hand markets and brought them to Brazil—some old books and even some army medals, stuff like that, [cigarette] lighters—I actually brought some real clothes of the epoch, of the time. Marcelo was a very generous and open director so he wanted me to also create part of the dialogue and ideas for the scene, how to construct Johann, you know? I worked pretty much here [in Berlin] and we shared email and when I came [to Brazil] he was in the final round to cast Ranulpho. He selected João Miguel. I was really happy to have him for the film because I felt it was important to have him in the film. Then we [had final rehearsals] in a four-week preparation workshop, like a theater piece. After the four weeks we had a complete performance of the film on stage and then we moved to the Sertão and we started shooting. Even then we changed some things. It was really like an auteur film.
Guillén: One of my favorite scenes in the film is when you pick up the female hitchhiker and you and Ranulpho (João Miguel) begin to compete for her attentions. This scene reminded me of the relationship between the two men in Sergio Machado's Lower City (Cidade Baixa) where Alice Braga's character comes between the two men. How do you understand Johann's relationship with Ranulpho?
Ketnath: The friendship between Johann and Ranulpho is one of delicate, but universal qualities. It's two "losers" thrown together and in the end it's not important anymore who is who. It could take place in any place of the world where people project their wishes and give them names. They're just human and share this in every aspect of their lives, of their short time together. Just trying to survive the day. I thought of Johann as being a cosmopolitan person, always foreign in any place, and always at home at the same time. I know from traveling—I've traveled a lot myself—you have really close contacts but at the same time when it's over, it's over. You have a friendship which is evolving by the given circumstances but after 11 days, it's already gone in a way. Each follows a different destiny.
Guillén: Was their personal interaction representative of the interaction between Germany and Brazil as nations?
Ketnath: Somehow it is because I think German people like Brazilian people in a very general way. I don't know so much why that is. Maybe it's because of this paradise aspect that Brazil has? We've always had immigration from Germany to Brazil. At the same time, the Brazilians think of Germany as a sort of perfect country where everything is working and everybody has money. Of course it's not that simple but I think it still works this way. Both countries are interested in a friendly relationship to each other and [there are] various cultural projects supporting this.
Guillén: Was this your first time to work with João Miguel? What was it like working with him?
Ketnath: I thought it was wonderful. I think it was [his] first feature. He did just theater work before. So he was sometimes a bit insecure about the effect, the way the scenes would come out on film. We had some difficulty in the beginning caused by our different acting techniques but, during that preparation period, we built up a strong confidence for each other because we knew we needed each other and whatever would be good in the part would be good in the film.
Guillén: What was it like for the two of you to work in the caatinga forest of the Sertão?
Ketnath: João already knew the Sertão. I think he actually lived there in a more coastal region. For me it was actually like desert. I know desert from even the U.S.A., from Arizona, I was in Mexico, I was in North Africa. [The caatinga forest] is just a different aspect of desert. I wasn't too surprised personally.
Guillén: I noticed on your website that the co-writer of Cinema, Aspirin & Vultures, Paulo Caldas, will be directing you next in his directorial feature Deserto Feliz? What's that film about?
Ketnath: That's about a girl of minor age [who] comes from the Sertão. [She has been] sexually abused by her stepfather and she seeks her way out through prostitution. She lands in Recife, which is like a decadent capital of Pernambuco, which had this sex tourist boom in the '90s. Nowadays it's more in decline, it's more decadent. Culturally, artistically, powerfully, [Recife is] very ambitious but it's full of poverty and misery and [is] rough. She survives as a child prostitute, a boyzinha, which runs a high risk of disease and abuse. She lives in a small flat together with some other girl prostitutes. I play Mark, a traveler, obviously a sex tourist, [though] not a cliché. They meet each other and they somehow fall strangely in love with each other. She falls more for him [at first] and then they have a time that they spend in Berlin—we don't know if it's real or if it's just her fantasy—and [the story is] sort of sour. It doesn't come out too happy but it lives from the way the film is done. It's in post-production in its fifth rough cut. It's really good. It's really strong and it's really working out. It doesn't show sex. It doesn't show what you would probably think of if you heard about a minor prostitution subject and sex tourism. It's a bit driven off the cliché. We actually made a deal here [in Berlin] with a production company to co-produce the film and we will try to [enter] it in the next Berlin Film Festival. That would be great for the film.
Guillén: It certainly sounds like it would be. Who is the young actress who is playing the child prostitute?
Ketnath: Nash Laila. She's 18 but has the features of a 14-year-old girl. She's a young, fresh actress who has done some theater. This is her first feature. [We] had a special chemistry that improved through the characters. I'm really happy about both those directors [Marcelo Gomes and Paulo Caldas]. They're both from Pernambuco, both from Recife, and you know Karim Ainouz maybe? He's also part of the crew. He did Madame Satã and now his second feature is called O Céu de Suely [The Heaven of Suely or Suely in the Sky]. Have you seen Amarelo Manga [Mango Yellow]?
Guillén: No, I'm not familiar with that film though I do know Ainouz's films. It's wonderful that you've been pulled into this wave of young Brazilian talent that's hitting the international film scene. Are you planning on becoming the German actor in Brazil?
Ketnath: I'm just open, you know? The German television market, for example, isn't too interesting actually for me from the artistic point of view. It's just a way to survive in terms of money.
Guillén: Have you acted in German features?
Ketnath: Yes, I've done some features for the German film schools and academies that never made it to the screen. I've done one feature—I don't think it was released in the States—And Nobody Weeps For Me / Und keiner weint mir nach (1996) by Joseph Vilsmaier. He did Stalingrad (1993), which was respected in the U.S.
Guillén: I'll have to hunt that down. I certainly did admire Cinema, Aspirin & Vultures. I thought your performance was charismatic. What's up next for you after Deserto Feliz?
Ketnath: Right now I'm doing a German television production, a television crime movie, and I have accepted a small "special participation" in a Brazilian TVGlobo telenovela [Pé na Jaca], shot in Paris. My character Jean Luc is a decadent French lord, married to the main character of the novela, who kills himself out of disgust (a good and definite exit of the novela; I think TV gets you killed, in a way). Through that I have been offered to do a film which I don't know too much about yet, but it's going to be another feature film. It's going to be from Rio de Janeiro so I wanted to know how those people from Brazil work. They have the studio system there and they have a lot of money. I'm also writing a script to be one day realized in Brazil and also Germany and may follow up on an idea of the Teatro Castro Alves in Salvador de Bahia to work on a piece together next year—a definite thrill to realize a theater work in Portuguese. It's interesting to do eclectic, diverse work. Do you understand?
Guillén: Oh absolutely. It keeps you alive as an artist. Well, Peter, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. I look forward to seeing Deserto Feliz and possibly Cinema again in Palm Springs and—if it makes it to the Oscars—perhaps we'll meet in Los Angeles?
Ketnath. Okay. Thank you as well, Michael.
Cross-published at Twitch.