Ulrich Tukur and Ulrich Brandhoff: An Integral Pair from Exceptional German Effort In The Fade
Ulrich. it’s one of those strong German names, dipped in old world intrigue, that English speakers just love to mispronounce. And when talking about the Golden Globe-winning In the Fade, the clumsy-tongued face double jeopardy: two talented Ulrichs in one picture teaming up to portray two characters in the same family, one of whom is the perpetrator of a terrible crime.
Sharing both first names and a subtly Scandinavian appearance, as well as (more importantly) years of intense theatre training and performance as their foundation, it comes as no surprise that actors Ulrich Tukur and Ulrich Friedrich Brandhoff have been cast together as father and son in Fatih Akin’s celebrated new film. Undoubtedly due in part to their excellent performances, In the Fade has been nominated for a Golden Globe and is one of the front-runners in the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film.
Having known both Ulrichs for many years, I could go on and on detailing the specifics of these men’s personal lives: going to work, walking their dogs, buying groceries, paying for the costly appetites of life just like you and me. Instead, want to acquaint you with the brilliant working actors they are.
Tukur (who just turned sixty) is a recognized and celebrated German actor, fluent in German, English, French, and Italian. He has starred in German and international films alike, ranging from no-budget indie productions to big budget, Oscar winning blockbusters. He is best known for his striking performances in The Lives of Others by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon.
While also fluent in German, English, French and Italian, Brandhoff (who’s in his early thirties) is still at the very beginning of his career. Within the last twelve months alone, he has achieved international recognition for his appearance in Le Jeune Karl Marxby Raoul Peck and Django by Etienne Comar. You can also see him in Terrence Malick’s new film, Radegund, which is set to be released next year.
When I congratulate Brandhoff on his recent success, he remains humble, not wanting to take the compliment. At the mention of Cannes, however, his energy suddenly shifts: “I was hopelessly overwhelmed, yet strangely happy in this surreal world.” Brandhoff admits that he did his research prior to the premiere and read “about all the scandals and specialties of the festival, well knowing that the audience was going to be hypercritical of the film.” He continues, “They don’t shy away from making their opinion known—good or bad.” When the credits finally rolled, “the excruciating silence in the room dissipated and the audience broke out in roaring applause.” In this moment, Brandhoff confesses, “I felt an inexplicable sense of relief.”
In the Fade follows Katja, played by Diane Kruger, a woman who loses her Turkish husband and their seven-year-old son in a bombing perpetrated by Neo-Nazis. Akin, a writer and director expressly concerned with mortality, allows us to stay with Katja before, during, and after the trial, creating within us a wholly subjective impression of the unjust world she perceives. Brandhoff reminisces about his first meeting with Akin: “He is a director who loves his players and is able to move and guide them in the right direction with the utmost feeling and sensitivity.”
We first meet Brandhoff’s character, André Möller—one of the defendants in the trial—during a series of torturous courtroom scenes in which a stoic jury strips Katja of her humanity. Katja repeatedly searches for eye contact with the defendants, hoping to provoke some sort of response or answer. “It’s not easy maintaining such a passive state because you constantly want to be alert, you want to react to what’s happening around you,” Brandhoff tells me. “I quickly noticed that this apparent passivity was a crucial part of the story, which then made it easy for me to play and react without actively acting.”
Although Brandhoff has a large supporting role in the film, it is almost entirely non-verbal. It makes no difference—when watching him on the big screen I was surprised to see that, even while saying nothing at all, Brandhoff’s looks and gestures speak louder than bombs. “In theatre, you learn that the thought is often much bigger than the word itself. I know now that whatever I play, it is playable without me having to speak.”
When Tukur, who plays Jürgen Möller (Brandhoff’s father) is asked to take the stand, we are surprised to see him apologize for his son’s unforgivable actions. Immediately, a glimmer of hope is ignited in Katja. She was right all along. She knows it, we know it, the defendants know it. But how do you convince a heartless jury that follows protocol and facts instead of feelings?
Akin cuts to a very brief, intense moment with Tukur and Kruger. They are alone, outside the courtroom, and he invites her to come to his house for cake and tea. That utterly complex scene, possibly the only moment in the film without tension, terror, or hate—a moment with nothing but pure honesty—has stayed with me to this moment. When I ask Tukur how he went about that scene, he explains to me: “Fatih constantly challenges you, both on and off set. Even though I only had a guest appearance, he involved me every step along the way, during development, pre-production and filming.”
As the trial comes to an end, we understand that in spite of all the evidence against the (so obviously guilty) young couple, by raising reasonable doubt through Kruger’s ailing health, their lawyer has convinced the jury to rule Andre Möller and his girlfriend innocent. Putting the broad terms of “hero” or “villain” aside, bringing these tragedies, these real stories that often remain buried deep under the surface of our societies, into public awareness is one of the many reasons both Ulrichs were so eager to be a part of this project. “It is important to shed light on the survivors of such acts of brutality,” Tukur adds.
When I remind Tukur of his breakthrough role in Stammheim, a heavily debated yet celebrated film about the Baader-Meinhoff trials, I point out that his on-screen son is now in much the same position as Tukur was then: playing the defendant in what feels like the trial of the century. “That’s true!” Tukur smiles. “I had just paid my dues as a young theatre actor and it was one of my first big roles in cinema. I’m well aware that circumstances have changed and it’s no longer as easy to jump ship from being a theatre actor to suddenly being cast in films.”
Tukur is right. Although he and Brandhoff play in the same league, they come from distinctly different generations. Tukur conquered the film world when iPhones and self-tapes didn’t exist. “My agent had a beautifully printed catalog with black and white headshots from which producers and directors could pick and choose,” Tukur explains. “It was as simple as that.” In fact, the only time he ever agreed to do a self-tape was for Steven Soderbergh. “I read my lines into the microphone but kept the camera on my dog, Toto, the entire time.” Although I wouldn’t recommend you try this approach as most casting agents wouldn’t respond to a dog-tape, Soderbergh was impressed enough to cast Tukur as Gibarian in his remake of the classic Solaris.
“As an actor, I can’t complain about being judged. That’s just a part of it. Talent is interest,” Brandhoff explains. “You will inevitably and unknowingly expand your horizon if you are sincere and interested in the work that you do.” I understand now that the only option for creative individuals is constant motion—a lifetime of mind-bending, uplifting motion in a generally forward direction. I fully believe that everyone has something inside of them that they cannot yet see. You just have to keep moving and learning until you find it.
Written by Francesca Pollak
Photographed by Elena Zaucke