Sebastian Koch, the star of Kai Wessel’s new film Fog in August, about the euthanasia program of the Third Reich, would rather not talk about Nazis – or at least not only about Nazis.
Koch, who was visiting Israel for the 32nd Haifa International Film Festival, which runs until October 24, said that the movie raises questions that go far beyond the historical context in which Fog in August takes place.
“The movie looks at the issue of what was called ‘race hygiene’ or eugenics, also called Social Darwinism,” said Koch, who plays Dr. Werner Veithausen, who ran a facility for those the Third Reich deemed too flawed to live, in spite of the fact that they were German: people with all kinds of disabilities, including mental retardation, epilepsy, cerebral palsy and every other kind of disability, as well as some children and young people who had behavior problems.
“This isn’t just a Nazi theory,” said Koch, who is probably best known for his role as the East German writer who is spied on by the secret police in the 2006 Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others
. After a distinguished career in the German theater, Koch turned to movies and television, working in everything from arthouse films such as Lives to big-budget Hollywood fare, including Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies
and A Good Day to Die Hard
, the latest installment of the Die Hard
series. He also appeared as Carrie Mathison’s tech billionaire/philanthropist boss on the latest season of Homeland
Koch said he that he only looked for good scripts when deciding what parts to take, not at the size of the budget.
“The script is so important... Even if you have a huge entourage or big lighting trucks, the most important thing is the space between the actor and the camera.”
The script for Fog in August
intrigued Koch, but he pushed for certain changes.
“I kept having the producers of Fog in August
take out some of the Nazi terms and phrases. I don’t want audiences to look at this doctor and say, ‘He is a Nazi monster’ and think that it has nothing to do with our lives today.”
The uncomfortable background to Fog in August
, Koch said, is that the eugenics theories that the Nazis used to justify their euthanasia program for the disabled predated the Third Reich and are still a part of contemporary life.
“The prenatal diagnosis [of conditions such as Down Syndrome] of today, where doctors tell parents not to continue the pregnancy, this is an important discussion to have,” he said, while emphasizing that he is not opposed to abortion at all. He said that he simply feels strongly that while parents should have the right to determine whether or not to have a baby, they should not be pressured by the medical establishment to end pregnancies when a fetus has a condition or disability.
“Doctors should not be making this decision, not telling the parents what to do – where does it lead? ...This is a scary, difficult and dangerous situation.”
Making Fog in August
, in which most of the disabled residents of the facility Koch’s character oversees in the film were played by actual people with special needs, changed the way he saw them.
“These people need time, patience and attention and our society does not know how to give it, people don’t know how to help.”
By spending two months working with this cast on the film, “I was able to overcome my fears and discomfort in dealing with them...I talked to their parents and they said, ‘The most important thing is that I love my child.’ Sometimes they have a difficult experience, but they love their children as all parents do.”
Speaking about one of the child actors with Down Syndrome with whom he formed a close blond, he said, “They are just wonderful, they are very special human beings, they are direct and emotional which is so important.”
The movie, which shows how the Nazis tried different tactics in their quest to murder all the disabled, from gassing them on buses to poisoning them in their beds, “gives these victims a voice.”
In Fog in August
, a young boy from the Yenish community, a people discriminated against by the Nazis, is placed in the home for the disabled although he is healthy; he has been involved in petty crime.
The boy sees clearly exactly what the doctor is doing as his fellow residents are murdered one by one, and he speaks his mind.
“The clear voice of the child accuses the doctor as he discovers the terror and evil in the sick system,” said Koch. “The system is about perfection, which doesn’t exist... The doctor knows this boy can destroy the whole system... The doctor is a strong believer, he is sure he’s doing the right thing... It was my challenge as an actor to get into this weird logical perfection, to put myself into the doctor’s point of view. He is a nice director, the children are not beaten. He’s trying to do his best. He looks you right in your eyes.” Until this boy accuses him, “He has no clue that there is something wrong. He just felt that these people had lives that were not worth living, he felt he was helping them.”
Koch understands that attitudes toward those with disabilities will not change overnight. But he compares the issues raised by the film with the way that Germany changed after fall of the Berlin Wall, an event he remembers vividly.
“You throw a rock in the water and ripples spread out slowly,” he said. “But they do go far.”