Udo Kier was sad he didn’t get the call from Lars von Trier to play Satan in the gloomy Dane’s 2018 “The House That Jack Built.” “I’ve been to hell many times, you know,” the cult character actor told IndieWire in a recent interview. But he managed to triumph over that disappointment to play yet another deranged freak in “The Painted Bird,” the Czech Republic’s black-and-white, punishing but unforgettable, trudge through Holocaust hell, a drama now vying for the 2020 Best International Feature Academy Award.
In “The Painted Bird,” the German actor with the steely blue eyes plays a jealous husband, who’s taken in a young orphan adrift in the WWII-ravaged Eastern Europe countryside. Kier’s Miller is convinced his wife is sleeping with their sexy young farmhand, so as vengeance, he plucks out the peasant’s eyeballs and feeds them to the family housecats.
Business as usual for Kier, who’s played everyone from Count Dracula in Paul Morrissey’s 1974 “Blood of Dracula,” to Jack the Ripper and Dr. Jekyll for director Walerian Borowczyk, to Adolf Hitler (at least three times). And yes, he starred in a 2018 reboot of the horror franchise “Puppet Master” as a zoot-suited Nazi war criminal.
Why the attraction to lowlifes and degenerates for such a gentle soul (offscreen, anyway) who lives a quiet life in Palm Springs tending to his garden and collecting art? “What is for you ‘low-life’? Jack the Ripper? I don’t cast myself. They come to me,” he said of the many directors he’s worked with, such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, and Lars von Trier, all of whom share his penchant for staring into the abyss.
This year, he plays another cold-blooded killer, taking out a rural village in the Brazilian western “Bacurau,” directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles. There are other hot auteurs he’d love to work with too, but Kier said he doesn’t chase them.
“Imagine if I said to David Lynch, ‘I would like to work with you.’ He’d answer, ‘Who doesn’t?'” Indeed, after Kier was lured to Hollywood after being discovered in Berlin by Gus van Sant, who cast him in 1991’s “My Own Private Idaho,” the actor had a small part in Lynch’s original “Twin Peaks.” But scheduling conflicts forced the suddenly-in-demand German to drop out.
“When it’s interesting for me, it’s something where we’re doing a new experiment, where I know I can work with people who will be interested in what I’m doing as an actor. It’s a challenge when I am able to not play, but be [these characters], in my own way,” he said.
Kier’s style of acting isn’t so much method as sponge-like, observing all the details of a production to create his specific character. When “Painted Bird” director Václav Marhoul approached Kier to star in his coming-of-age tale of a young Jewish boy’s evolution into a psychopath, Kier read the source novel by Jerzy Kosiński, and thought, “Oh my god, how strong.” After signing on, he traveled to Eastern Europe for filming, where “I spent day and night on the set. I wanted to see the room. I wanted to touch the linen. I wanted to see what was in the drawer. I wanted to sit at the table,” he said.
As for the film’s grisly acts of violence, bestiality, and torture — which range from point-blank killings of concentration-camp victims to a country woman making an unholy bond with a goat that is later decapitated — Kier said it’s all reflective of the reality of the WWII period. “I grew up like that boy,” Kier said of the film’s adolescent protagonist.
“I was brought up in Germany, born in 1944, and there was nothing to eat. Until I was 16 or 17, we had no water. My mother had to cook water in a kettle, and once a week I was bathed, and that was it,” he said. The hospital where Kier was born in Cologne was bombed minutes after his birth, and he and his mother had to dig themselves out of the rubble — an event that defines him as a person and actor.
“I identify myself so much with that boy, and when I make films like this, I don’t act,” he said. “It’s me, but in a costume or clothes.”
Kier holds close to his heart a directive from Lars von Trier, whose freewheeling sets, such as the chalk-outlined stage of “Dogville,” give actors the space to play. “Don’t act,” von Trier told Kier when they first began collaborating on 1988’s “Medea.” Kier and von Trier went on to work together on “Europa,” “Breaking the Waves,” “Dancer in the Dark,” “Dogville,” “Melancholia,” and many more, but Kier’s favorite experience with von Trier was on the mid-90s miniseries “The Kingdom.”
“When I [played] a baby. I was the only actor in the world who was born in a Lars von Trier movie,” Kier said of a scene in the hospital-set horror comedy, where he portrays a giant, deformed, talking baby. Kier also hinted that von Trier is working on writing a third season of “The Kingdom,” which ended in 1997, but Kier said it’s not final.
Despite controversies marring von Trier with every release — from the director calling himself a Nazi at the Cannes press conference circa “Melancholia” to scaring Icelandic singer Björk off acting ever again with “Dancer in the Dark” — Kier is keen to work with the Danish filmmaker again. “There are directors who direct women better than men, and Lars is like that,” Kier said.
As for von Trier’s “The House that Jack Built,” Kier wanted the role of the devil who appears in the film’s last scene, as Matt Dillon’s serial killer finally faces the fiery gates. That part ultimately went to fellow German actor Bruno Ganz. “I think Lars wanted me but the producers said, ‘Not again, Udo Kier!'” Even if not as Satan himself, Kier will surely raise hell again in many a destined-to-be cult classic to come.
“The Painted Bird” will be released in the U.S. by IFC Films in 2020.