Nobody knew quite how to respond to The Painted Bird when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Critics were overwhelmed by Vaclav Marhoul’s transfixing, 10-years-in-the-making second World War phantasmagoria, in which a boy wanders across a pitiless Europe in the dying days of the conflict.
At that first screening, half the horrified audience walked out, a response that was later replicated at the Toronto Film Festival. Even the five-star reviews – and they were almost all five-star reviews – had certain caveats. “This is a monumental piece of work and one I’m deeply glad to have seen,” wrote the Guardian’s Xan Brooks; “I can also say that I hope to never cross its path again.”
One man, however, knew exactly what to do. Udo Kier, who, in a film defined by monstrous acts, performs the most monstrous act of all, knew to sit down among the unsuspecting viewers.
“In Venice we were in competition,” says the actor. “But I went into the earlier press screening. Nobody knew I was in the cinema. And a woman came and said: ‘Can I sit here?’ So she was sitting down when my scene came. And: ‘Aargh!’ And she looked at me and then looked back at the screen and then looked at me again. And said: ‘It’s you!’ And then she moved away. It was too much for her, I think. But in Venice, at the beginning people were upset, but then at the end we got 40 minutes’ standing ovation.”
The striking-looking Kier has made a career of freaking people out. Once hailed by the media as “the most beautiful man in the world”, for more than five decades Kier’s immediately recognisable green eyes and German accent have, typically, been used more to startle than charm.
He’s there, lurking, on the pages of Madonna’s Sex book; seething as the chief executive of vampires in Blade; glowering as Emily Watson’s abuser in Breaking the Waves. When the titular Brazilian town in Bacurau, the new film from Aquarius’s Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, loses mobile phone reception and disappears off Google Maps, Kier’s appearance works as shorthand for “more sinister than you imagined”.
An admirer of Christophe Waltz – the pair played ageing Serbian party-boys in Alexander Payne’s Downsizing – Kier can give you a brilliant masterclass in evil acting. “You can have a gun and say I’ll kill you and then shoot somebody,” says Kier. “But you can also have a gun and you can clean your fingernails and then say: ‘When I’m finished I’m going to kill you’ and then continue cleaning your fingernails. And then you look at your hands and when you’re satisfied then you take the gun and shoot. And people say: ‘Oh, that was evil’.”
Kier is most certainly an authority on the matter. Over some 200 movies and counting, he has performed some seriously twisted deeds. Sometimes, the devil is in the details. It was his idea for his character to carry around an unexplained suitcase in My Own Private Idaho. And sometimes there are big swings. In S Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99, Kier’s character threatens Vince Vaughn’s prisoner by sending an abortionist to clip the limbs from the latter’s unborn baby.
In The Painted Bird, which is adapted from Jerzy Kosinski’s 1963 novel of the same name, Kier’s Miller uses a spoon to gouge out the eyes of a local farmer who he believes had sex with his wife before throwing the discarded orbs so the cat can lick them on the floor.
“It’s a very strong film,” says Kier. “When they last offered me the part I hadn’t read the book. So that was the first thing I did, of course. I found it very, very interesting. The boy was a very interesting character. He survives the Holocaust and he goes from one family to another. So they offered me the role of The Miller. It’s amazing how far somebody can go if he loves his wife so much. And then she starts flirting with the helper and he’s watching them. You know what happens in the story. It was very brutal. But we shot it in a way so you don’t really see. It is left to the imagination of everyone who sees the movie.”
He has a theory about evil acting. It is, he suggests, completely beyond anyone with an actual capacity for evil. “People often say to me, especially people from the press: ‘Oh, you are so evil’,” he says. “But I’m a gardener. I rescue animals in Palm Springs where I live. I rescue dogs from the pound because I don’t want them to get killed. I have many, many palm trees which I started planting 20 years ago myself. I love the smell of the Earth. I’m a good cook my friends say. I love cooking for my friends. So I’m totally the opposite of being evil. I think only if you’re a good person can you be very evil onscreen.”
A wildly engaging raconteur, Kier talks about his fascinating life, carefully introducing and contextualising characters as they come and go. He co-starred with River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho: “His brother Joaquin just won the Oscar,” he adds helpfully. When he’s in Los Angeles, he likes to drop in on his friend David Hockney. “I have known him since 1975 in Paris; Sotheby’s sold The Splash not long ago for $29.8 million. So he is the most expensive living painter in the world.”
Kier’s life began in a dramatic fashion in late 1944 when the Cologne hospital where he was born was bombed; he and his mother had to be dug out of the rubble. His father, unbeknownst to his mother, was already married with three children, and quickly abandoned them. Udo grew up in “unimaginable poverty”. He was 17 before he and his mother had hot water. In his late teens, he worked in a factory until he had the fare to travel to England, hoping for an education and a clerical job.
“When I was 19 I went to live in England,” he recalls. “And I was basically discovered. I never wanted to be an actor. I just wanted to learn languages and travel and see the world. There was a singer, Mike Sarne, that was very famous. He was directing his first film, The Road to San Tropez, and he offered me the part. And I said: I don’t know how to do that. But then I made my first film in England and I got all the publicity. I was right away signed with the William Morris agency. And I liked it. Being a poor boy and suddenly getting all this attention. So I decided okay let’s see what happens. And then I made my first big film, Mark of the Devil, with Herbert Lom from the Pink Panther films. And then I went to Italy and I was on the airplane and there was a man sitting next to me we started talking. I told him I was an actor. And he said: My name is Paul Morrissey; I’m the director for Andy Warhol in New York.” Morrissey called Kier within months of that meeting and offered him a starring role in Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1973).
The actor has subsequently flirted with monstrousness in Die Einsteiger (1985), Shadow of the Vampire (2000) and Suspiria (1977) and has found favour among such cult directors as Walerian Borowczyk, Gus Van Sant, Werner Herzog and Lars von Trier. Kier has featured in all but four of the Danish auteur’s films. They’re planning to shoot The Kingdom 3 later this year.
“I couldn’t believe it the first time I saw him,” recalls Kier. “I expected somebody like Fassbinder, all dressed in black, and in a bad mood all of the time. But in came a young man who looks like a student and that was Lars von Trier. So we met and a few weeks later, I got a call from Denmark and he offered me the role of Jason in Medea.”
Kier’s relationship with Rainer Werner Fassbinder predates his acting career. The pair were teenage hustlers together on the streets of Cologne before they became lovers and collaborators later in life.
“When I was 16 there was a kind of a working-class bar in Cologne,” recalls Kier. “I’ve made a film in Ireland and I’ve seen those kind of places there, full of working people and truck drivers and secretaries. I went there because I like to watch people. And I met a young man, 15 years old. And that was Fassbinder. We would drink Coca-Cola and just watch people argue until 10pm when we would get thrown out of the bar because we were minors. And then when I was 20 and I was in England working on my first film, I bought the German magazine Stern and I open it up and I look. And there is Fassbinder under the headline: The Alcoholic, The Genius. And I thought that’s Rainer. So I went to Germany and he had a group of people around him because he had a theatre group in Frankfurt. And he offered me a role in his film but I didn’t like the role. So then he offered me a second role in The Stationmaster’s Wife. So then we started making movies together and started living together.
"He was a very intelligent man. Of all the directors, he was the only one who showed the audience how Germany was. He was very loyal but we were his family. So we could not work with other directors. I made a film with Werner Herzog but I could not have made it when Fassbinder was alive. We had our penthouse and when I moved out, he asked me to do the sets for Querelle. I said no. And then one Sunday I got a call saying he was dead. And I thought: now what is this game? But I had a secret number for the producer. I called and that’s how I knew it was true. He died very young. It’s amazing when you think how much work he got done in such a short space of time. I remember him working day and night on Berlin Alexanderplatz, all 13 hours of it.”
Inspired by Kier’s work with Fassbinder, Gus van Sant approached the actor for My Own Private Idaho. After getting his US work permit, he decided to stick around, leading to a series of Hollywood roles in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Barb Wire, Armageddon, and Halloween. He has been a resident of Palm Springs since 1991.
European in US
“I like Palm Springs because of the sunshine,” he says. “It’s a little city surrounded by mountains. I live in a former library built by a famous architect in 1965. I can drive 20 minutes over the hills to where I have a little ranch so if it gets too hot in Palm Springs I can drive there because it’s higher up so it’s colder. I still have a house in Los Angeles. I go sometimes when I want to see some shows or a museum. But I still feel European. I still have contacts in Germany and I go back and guest star on TV series. I still have my German passport.”
He characterises a career as a series of fortunate accidents. He met the directors of Bacurau at the Palm Springs Film Festival and said yes to the script as he’s a fan of his Bacurau co-star Sônia Braga. (“I love Sônia Braga because I remember how beautiful and sexy she was in Kiss of the Spider Woman,” he says.)
“I always tell people that I’m a lucky man,” he says. “A lot of the directors I’ve worked with were not well-known at the time but the magic was already there. And most of them I have not met through agents. I was in Berlin and a young director came up to me and said: ‘Hello. my name is Gus van Sant; I have a little film’. I would never say to any director I would like to work with you. Not even David Lynch when I had dinner with him. Imagine saying that to David Lynch: I would like to work with you. He could say: who doesn’t?”
Bacurau is available on Mubi and Curzon Home Cinema. The Painted Bird will be released in autumn.