By Travis Merchant.
A biopic usually comes with a load of questions for a viewer: How much of the subject’s life will we see? Will everything be true? Where will the film take us? Often times, it’s difficult to capture every second of someone’s life. Because of that, films like Steve Jobs (2015) will condense an entire life of problems and issues into three important days, or a film like Amadeus (1984) takes the point of view of someone at odds with the main character. However, there are times when the subject of the film was secretive to the point that any depiction of that person will come with emphasizing the contradictory, reserved person behind the voice. In Nico, 1988 (2017), a viewer sees scenes of Christa Päffgen (Trine Dyrholm) both as a child and within her last moments. The film opens with these contradictions of life and death in both scenes: the young child hearing the bombs dropping on civilians in Berlin, and a woman who has finally conquered addiction about to pass away. The bombs in the distance could also be the moment where the innocent, naïve child died and became the cynical singer many know as Nico. The film thrives in these contradictory moments, in which Nico lives and soars in performances and moments where her world is crumbling away as a result of her addiction. Nico, 1988 is a story about triumph and failure, happiness and melancholy, life and death, and the tensions between all of these competing ideas.
Susanna Nicchiarelli, the director and writer of Nico, 1988, obtained help from the son of the singer to shave this story, but many elements were left untouched. For instance, there is little attention paid to other sources, and the story unfolds from the perspective of Nico, who would give contradictory pieces of information about her life. However, this is not a detraction from the film since its focus avoids getting all the details right. Instead, the performance of Trine Dyrholm, breathtaking and raw, and the writing seek to display the contradictory elements of Nico. One can feel the anguish and struggles of the singer behind the vocalization and face of the actress, mostly shot in close-ups with little room for the character to breathe. Between different interviews in the film, Nico gives different answers and emotions responses to different people. In one interview, she’s bitter and desperately desires to eschew a conversation about her time with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. In the very next, she seems to be more open about answering those same questions. With hEric band, she is either very respectful towards the young musicians, or she’s biting in her vehement attacks towards them. Dyrholm’s capricious performance of Nico gives Nico power, and it gives ground to the problems that Nico faced when she was alive.
To emphasize some of the singer’s issues, the framing and sounds of Nico, 1988 give even more ground to the anxiety. Throughout the film, Nico records different sounds to reflect the bombing of Berlin. However, not soon after we see Nico recording a sound of a washer near the beginning of the film, she uses heroin and the soundscape of the film begins to evolve; evidently, it sounds like a war, with muffled explosions and airplanes flying overhead. In dealing with the heroin addiction that Nico suffered, the film seeks to find an answer as to why she might have continued her drug use. Perhaps it is a way for her to finally discover the sound that she had been searching for throughout her life. Additionally, the constrictive framing of the film in a smaller ratio heightens the drama and anxiety that Nico harbors. At any moment, she could explode. This becomes extremely evident during a scene at a concert in the Soviet Union. As the performance of the band escalates, the tight framing places numerous Russian agents close together in frame, showing the looming danger that the characters must overcome. Trine Dyrholm belts the lyrics with raw energy, wide eyes, and a fervor that swallows the screen at times. Most of Nico, 1988 is shot in medium close-up, giving the actors and characters little room to escape. This scene brings the audience the closest to Nico and feels like it has all the weight balancing on a small string that may snap at any second.
Around the time of the film’s premiere in the United States, I was able to talk to Trine Dyrholm about her experience as Christa Päffgen. When discussing the film and Nico’s life, we explore the contradictory life of the singer and how that helped Dyrholm to tap into larger truths about the world around us.
Why is this film being made and released now? What place do you think it has 30 years after her passing?
Well, I think it’s a very modern film because of its portrayal of a woman, an artist, a mother. It’s a very contradictive portrayal of a human being, something about identity and finding one’s way in life. I don’t know why it didn’t happen before, but I think we’ve seen a lot of portrayal of men. Nico has always been reduced to being “a blond girl doing her job” before the film’s events. I think Susanna Nicchiarelli – the director of the film – she wanted her to have her own biopic because she realized that Nico had a full career after The Velvet Underground.
I think it’s interesting that you bring up the information about the contradictions because Christa lived a life of contradictions. She would tell people one thing, and then turn around and say another. How difficult was it to portray that? What was the struggle to accurately do that with this character?
I’m mean, she obviously not very likable, which I find very fascinating. I always like contradictions when I work with characters. I’m always looking for that. But here, I didn’t have to look that long because it was there the whole time. Nico’s so beautiful, and she also destroys her own beauty in a destructive way. She’s so strong and so vulnerable. I think – what I wanted to do was make some cracks in the character. When you invite the audience into her inner chaos, what is she struggling with? What’s going on in there? I can’t directly say what it was, but I think there is a lot of existential loneliness in this character, and that’s why we make cinema: to share these existential themes that we can’t talk about because we don’t have words for it. We can connect with it and we can share the burden of life. She had an extreme life, but we can connect the pieces from there.
Because of her insistence to hide certain details of her life, how did you go into the research of Nico? How did you and the director approach trying to figure out what is the true sense of her or not?
Yeah, I don’t think there is a truth about a person. I mean, what is the truth about you? Who knows! The thing is, I live on imagination, that is my work, but I’m obviously not Nico. Susanna said to me the first time we met, “You don’t look like Nico, you don’t sing like Nico, but I think you are the right one to play the character, so let’s do our own version.” We went to the studio and tried to do a version of the songs that could work with my voice, and we tried to capture the spirit of Nico. We treated the state of mind of the character as important, and that was the keyword: through the music. All of this is with the context of her life. She talks about how her father helped the Jews. That tells me that Nico struggled with being a German. She struggled with guilt, with “who am I, what kind of identity is it that I grow up with in the destruction of Berlin and my father’s ideas.” It tells me that she is struggling because if someone makes up stories, they are struggling with some things. We didn’t try to find out what was the truth. We just tried to find the truth in the film, in moments. I always do that when I work: it has to be true now. When you watch the film, you have to believe it and feel the emotions. I don’t think that anyone would know what the truth really is in real life. I’m very interested that we always try to define people. Nico was defined by men in her earlier days – by Andy Warhol, by The Velvet Underground. This film really is about Nico finding herself.
In talking about contradictions, this film seems to both celebrate and tear apart Nico. There’s the celebration of her music and career, and then the film displays her faults in her heroin addiction and her relationship with her band. Do you think that the film seeks to celebrate her, critique her, or a balance of both?
I don’t think it’s only one side. I don’t believe in black and white. I believe in contradictions. Human life is full of contradictions. Nico is so beautiful and people wouldn’t pay attention to her art. I think she really wanted respect for her art and not her beauty. I think that she struggled with being a mom. She wasn’t a good mom and she lost custody. Between she and her son, they had such a big love that was so complicated. I think that this film celebrates life, and this film is a celebration of a tragic figure. Life is rough and hard and sometimes we get wings, and other times we are on the floor. She has a really good line in the film – Nico that is: “I’ve been on the top, and I’ve been on the bottom. Both places are empty.” That’s all that life is: passing by while we struggle. That is the film, that is Nico, that is a human being. Hopefully, it is a universal film about a woman, a mother, an artist, and ultimately a human being.
I want to go back a little bit in your career for two questions. They surround your work with Thomas Vinterburg. As someone who coined the Dogme 95 movement for The Celebration, which you were a part of, he contradicts himself with filmmaking and now has moved away from that movement. How was your experience with him in The Celebration and The Commune, which you won the Silver Bear for? Also, how does it compare with working with Susanna?
Every director is different. I’ve had the privilege to work with directors as a part of the creative process. With Vinterburg, he invited me in to help with the script for The Commune. It is such a privilege in that same sense – that you can work together so closely. As you are making the film, you already have a lot of work together. You change lines, add lines, add a new dimension. I’ve tried to work with directors that are very concrete in the ideas they have. I think it’s more inspiring to be working in a creative environment. Both Vinterburg and Susanna are directors like that.
Another question I have about your past is about your music and singing career. You mentioned Susanna’s impression of you not being exactly her, but in the film you are perfect as her. How was getting to the point with the songs where you come close to what she did while making your own performance?
When I was 14, I was in a song contest and I had a band. I toured in a van like the van in the film, and the band I was with was much older than I. So I’ve done a lot of singing, concerts, and been to the studio many times. To make a film that you can combine singing with acting was a great experience. It was a big thing for me in this film. Susanna wanted me as an actress first, so the singing came along with it to find an invitation into the songs and Nico. It was important work that we did. We went to the studio and tried out many versions of the songs, and then we found a song that was very much what we were aiming for with the character! Just recently, there was a tribute for Nico in New York and I participated with that. It was a great experience. I was nervous, but extremely happy because it was a wonderful experience.
Travis Merchant is the Image Editor for Film International, an adjunct instructor at Wake Technical Community College, and a teaching assistant at NC State. Some of his writings have been published in Film Matters, and he presented at the sixth and seventh annual Visions Film Festival and Conference. He graduated from UNCW in 2016 with degrees in film studies and English, and he achieved honours with his film degree. Some of his interests in film and media studies are on science-fiction, sound design and music, and intertextuality between works.