Phantom Pain premiered in Berlin, and then had its international premiere at the Toronto International where it was given the full gala treatment. Though the critical response was decidedly mixed, weighing in on this side or that of whether one appreciates sentiment swirled into their stories of human triumph, there was no question that the film was experiencing its specific moment in the spotlight, boasting "a potent star vehicle for a European actor now gaining recognition in North America." Phantom Pain shows Til Schweiger at the top of his game—virile, passionate and nuanced in his portrayal of a man fighting back from disaster—and fresh off his notoriety from Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Hands-down, Schweiger is acknowledged as Germany's biggest movie star and I appreciated the chance to sample more of his work, much of which has never been made available in the U.S.
Inspired by the true story of passionate Canadian cyclist Steven Sumner whose life was drastically changed one night on a dark road, Phantom Pain monitors one man's struggle to turn his life around. With fine supporting turns by Schweiger's own daughter Luna and Jana Pallaske as Schweiger's inspirational muse Nika, first-time director Matthias Emcke has forcefully delivered a comrade's tribute to his personal friend Steven Sumner. Matthias Emcke was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, and received a bachelor in architecture from the Parsons School of Design in New York. He has produced the films Mädchen Mädchen (2001), Slap Her… She's French (2002) and Till Human Voices Wake Us (2002), and directed the short film Ich Sehe Was, Was Du Nicht Siehst (2005). Phantom Pain is his feature directorial debut.
I'm grateful to Stephen Lan for arranging an introduction to both Emcke and Schweiger, and for inviting me to the film's release party later that night where I had the welcome fortune to meet and share drinks with actress Pallaske, as well as the inspiring source of the narrative: Steven Sumner himself. While Emcke wrapped up a video interview, Schweiger and I started off our conversation, which is not for the spoiler-wary.
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Michael Guillén: Well, Til, this has been a good year for you. You delivered an iconic performance as Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz, the Nazi-killing German in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds; and have followed through with the challenge of portraying Marc Sumner in Phantom Pain.
Til Schweiger: Thank you.
Guillén: What was it like working with Luna, your daughter? Is this the first time you've worked with her?
Schweiger: It's the first time I've had scenes with her. The year before I directed her in a film [Keinohrhasen (2007)] but didn't have scenes with her. Playing with her for the first time, I think I was more nervous than she was. She was completely cool and naïve. She played with her PSP station the whole time. At one point they called her in and she played. All she did was learn her lines. She's a natural and I've told her that; but, I've also told her that being a natural doesn't make her special. "Just be happy that you have it and maybe one day—if you don't know what else to do—you can still try to become an actress."
Guillén: Did you work with Steven Sumner—on whom Phantom Pain is based—to develop your characterization?
Schweiger: We talked and he showed me videos. Matthias filmed him enacting his attacks of pain. Steven showed me how to walk and what the process is when you first get an artificial limb, how long it takes to get used to it, and how to take it off. So, yes, we worked together.
Guillén: Are you a cyclist yourself?
Schweiger: Yes, but never a sport cyclist. I'm more a mountain biker. Sport cycling is a completely different thing and, for the film, I trained with a former world champion. It was exhausting but fun.
Guillén: In that final shot of you cycling up the hill, I thought, "He would have to have trained for that shot."
Schweiger: For those wide helicopter shots, I have doubles. So that wasn't actually me cycling in that scene; but, I can tell you that one of my doubles also only had one leg and he cycled up that hill like a rocket, pushing and pulling the pedal with one leg. It was unbelievable.
Guillén: How did the role come to you?
Schweiger: Matthias is a longtime friend. He used to be a producer and at one point he said that he'd had enough with producing and that he was writing a script. He eventually gave it to me and asked me to read it. I read it and it made me cry. Not many scripts achieve that. He asked me to play the character and I told him that I would rather play the friend; but, then he got so pushy that I ended up playing the main character. I thought there was another actor in Germany who would have fit the part much better than me and that I would have been perfect for the friend; but, Matthias wouldn't let go so I had to play it.
Guillén: The CGI was seamless in this film. Those scenes where you are moving around with an amputated leg and prosthetic, how were those accomplished?
Schweiger: It's a mix. Some effects were done the old-fashioned way where it looks like you're sitting in a wheelchair but you're standing on one leg, or having a leg go through a hole in the bed when I'm lying down. Sometimes we used a prosthetic and sometimes we used CGI. I wore this blue sock with the tracking points and I have to say the CGI came off looking really good.
Guillén: What were the particular challenges of this role for you?
Schweiger: Every movie is challenging, unless it's a movie you're just doing for the paycheck. What was challenging about this film is that we didn't shoot it chronologically. That was due to the lack of money. We shot the beginning and the end and then part of the end of day two and then the middle piece on day three and the beginning on day four. Matthias really had to help me keep track of what state the character was in to maintain the arc. It's not like a theater play where you go in and you play it and then it's finished. We shot this movie completely upside down. The challenge is to bring it together so that the character has an arc.
Guillén: Is Quentin's film the most exposure you've received in the US?
Schweiger: Absolutely. Box office wise, it just broke through the $100,000,000 mark. It's going to be his most successful movie ever and it's certainly the film I've participated in with the biggest box office.
Guillén: And among the Basterds, Quentin singled you out quite nicely, didn't he?
Schweiger: Yeah! That was beautiful. We all saw the film for the first time at Cannes and he had a get-together just before the screening. I asked him, "How did it turn out?" and he said, "You're gonna like it! I'm not telling you why but you're going to like it. Sit back and enjoy," he said.
Guillén: Though having increased visibility in America isn't the be-all and end-all of an actor's existence, do you want to do more studio films in America?
Schweiger: I want to do more films that I like. In Germany I can do my own films. I can direct. I can write. I can do my own stuff. It's way more fulfilling to me than to be in an American studio picture. I had some bad experiences with American films so I told myself, "The next time I do it, it will have to be a brilliant film. It has to be the Coen Brothers or Ridley Scott or somebody like this." And then I met Quentin.
Guillén: What projects are coming up for you?
Schweiger: One is a German ensemble comedy, which I think will be fairly successful—it tested good—and the other one opens in December; it's Zweiohrkuken, the sequel to Keinohrhasen, which I wrote and directed. All my four children were in it and it became one of the biggest films in Germany that year.
Guillén: Talk to me about the difference between acting and directing for you?
Schweiger: It's very simple. I feel way more comfortable as a director. I love being a director and creating my own team, picking the people I work with.
[At this juncture Matthias Emcke joined us.]
Guillén: Til, do you mind if I shift my questions over to Matthias now?
Schweiger: Not at all! [Laughs.]
Guillén: Matthias, could you tell me how you developed this script? Was it based on an autobiography?
Matthias Emcke: No, Steven Sumner is one of my oldest friends. I've known him over 25 years. He's Canadian; born and raised in Toronto. Basically, I took episodes of our friendship that had occurred over those 25 years, in Canada, in the States, in Munich where I used to live and where I met him for the first time, and in Italy where the accident actually happened. I comprised them into a one-year time frame and set the story in Germany; but, in reality, the accident happened in Siena, Italy. A lot of the episodes that you see in the film happened at one point but not necessarily in Germany.
Guillén: Steven's accident was a hit and run?
Guillén: Have you ever fantasized that the guy who did it is going to see Phantom Pain?
Emcke: You know what? At one point Steven decided basically himself that he wasn't going to think much about what would have happened if the guy had actually called an ambulance? Or the police? What if they had found him earlier? There was no investigation after the accident. There was no effort made to find this person. So, basically, because Steven felt that way—because he said, "Listen, life goes on. Nothing's going to change"—I adopted his attitude and haven't thought about it much either. However, having said that, it would be kind of amazing if that guy would see the film and identify what he'd done.
Guillén: The film's title refers to the phenomenon of the pain felt from a phantom limb; but, I also read it as the pain felt from the failed relationship with the character's father. Am I reading too much into this?
Emcke: No, I think you can. When we first came up with a title, it was different. Then we changed it to Phantom Pain. Of course, once you think about it, it is very much related to the emotional pain he experiences, not only the actual physical pain.
Guillén: The epistolary approach to the narrative, the usage of the letters as they're being written, was this something your friend Steven proposed to you? How did you come up with that structure?
Emcke: No, what happened was that, for me the key to this character was his relationship to his father. If you want to understand this guy, you have to understand what his relationship was to his father. Just as you hear in the voiceover, the father did fall into the water in a drunken stupor and drowned. I asked Steven to write something about his father and tell me what their relationship was and he wrote me a three-page letter, which I edited, and which became the voiceover. The voiceover that you hear is actually Steven writing about his father. I did change things here and there to adapt it to Germany; but, essentially, it's intact.
Guillén: Now, I hope this doesn't come off as a stupid question but I'm not the smartest person in the world….
Schweiger: Neither am I!!
Guillén: [Laughs.] But I was curious about why most of the soundtrack for this German film is in English? Is that a European thing?
Emcke: I don't know if it's a European thing and I'm not even so sure that the music is American, even though it's in English. There were just no German songs that came to mind.
Guillén: I was wondering if it was a strategy to market it in English-speaking countries?
Emcke: No. I wasn't thinking that way at all. I was literally just buying the music of the composer. He made suggestions and I did some stuff and, honestly, it was just about trying to find music that fit the emotions for me. The music could have been French for all I know, or Italian.
Schweiger: The problem with German songs with German lyrics is that—if you're German and you're listening to the song—your thoughts drift away from the movie.
Guillén: Well, here's an add-on stupid question: if all of the music is in English, when you're screening the film in Germany does everyone understand the English?
Schweiger: They're not listening to the lyrics. Maybe they do later when they buy the soundtrack. The music is mainly there to color the feeling.
Emcke: I grew up exactly like that. I grew up basically listening to American music but I never never understood a goddamn word anybody was saying. It never really mattered. Even now that I do understand English, I still don't listen to the lyrics because that's how I'm trained. I basically just listen to the music. Somebody would ask me, "What is this song about that you've been listening to 200 times?" and I wouldn't be able to tell you because I don't listen to lyrics.
Guillén: Is the music temporal in any way, intending to convey the time period when Steven had his accident?
Emcke: No. It's a mixture of new and older songs; but, they have a tonality that meshes. In the beginning I thought about doing music that Steven likes; but, I don't really like the music that he likes. He likes rockabilly and Johnny Cash.
Guillén: The final coda of the film—that documentary moment of Steven—why did you decide to actually break the fiction and show footage of Steven?
Emcke: I decided that really only when the movie was finished. I didn't have that in mind before when I started the film. I wanted to have a dedication—"For Steven Sumner"—as the first credit and then once I had that, I thought, "Why not put one picture of him?" But then all these other pictures I had of him were great. And I also had this video. So it kind of emerged as I was playing around with it and all of a sudden I thought, "This is actually powerful." It turned out very powerful. I don't like movies that start "based on a true story"—that's never really done anything for me—I never see a film differently when I see "based on a true story" placed at the front of a film. I forget that within two seconds after reading it. That's why I didn't put anything in the front.
Cross-published on Twitch.