Til Schweiger sat down for the interview in a studio trailer outside Berlin’s now-closed Tempelhof Airport with a bloody gash running under one eye.
It was only makeup, of course, for a scene in the long-running German TV crime drama “Tatort,” or “Crime Scene.”
Classic Til. Whether it’s his latest role as criminal investigator Nick Tschiller, or other films over the past quarter century, he’s more likely than any other German personality to get shot, stabbed, blown up or just an old fashioned beating.
By the numbers alone, he’s Germany’s most popular actor and filmmaker, having drawn a record 51 million people in the country to watch his films on the big screen.
He’s also had some success on the other side of the Atlantic. American audiences know Mr. Schweiger for his appearance as Nazi killer Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz in the Quentin Tarantino film “Inglorious Basterds” and he also appeared in Hollywood productions “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and “King Arthur.” The 1997 German film “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” grossed $3.4 million in the United States.
But he’s also one of Germany’s most controversial personalities – an action hero in a country that treats Hollywood-style action with suspicion. His most successful film in Germany was actually not an action flick, but the 2007 romantic comedy “Keinohrhasen,” or “Rabbit Without Ears.” It won a best film award and grossed nearly €70 million, or about $75 million in Germany.
Billy Wilder once said that he simply brought in the best team and made sure he didn’t get in the way. That’s how I see it. It’s also a matter of humility.
Many of his own forays into action films, by contrast, have flopped, as did his last attempt four years ago, called “Schutzengel” or “Guardian Angel,” though he bristles at the suggestion.
“Wait a minute! We had 700,000 viewers. That was better than the “Mission: Impossible” sequel, which was running at the time,” he said of “Schutzengel.” “I’ll admit, however, that the German market for action films is probably the most difficult in the world.”
Financially, there’s “no doubt” that comedies are safer for the German audience, he admitted, even if the stereotype of Germans abroad is something different entirely. Part of the reason is that German action films simply can’t generate the same kind of financing as their Hollywood peers.
Comedy “always works and, considering the low budgets here in Germany, is the only chance of holding our own against American financial domination,” he said. “So cinemas are full of comedies where it’s not the money that matters, but the humor. Unfortunately, from time to time there are utterly unfunny German comedies.”
He’s also tried his hand at more serious acting. The film “Honig im Kopf,” or “Brain of Honey,” which deals with Alzheimer’s, was the most successful German film in 2014 with 7.2 million viewers. It was a film that Mr. Schweiger said he had long believed in, even if his partners had “cold feet at first” because of the subject matter.
Still, the German star keeps on returning to action films. “I don’t always want to play it safe,” Mr. Schweiger said.
His new film, “Tschiller: Off Duty,” is being released this week, and it’s another risky move for the veteran actor. The film is based on the crime series “Tatort,” which has been a staple of German television since 1970. The show is unique in that it is produced by all of Germany’s regional broadcasters. Each produces their own series, complete with their own actors, based in their home city, much like the “Law & Order” franchise in the United States.
It’s a veritable institution on a Sunday night here in Germany, though it has had little success abroad. The show even formed part of the healing process during reunification, as an East German version known as “Polizeiruf” 110 was folded into the “Tatort” family during the 1990s. There are Austrian and Swiss offshoots.
Ask most Germans, and they will tell you they have a favorite local detective. For some of them, it might be Til Schweiger, who has been playing the role in Hamburg’s Tatort since 2013. Others, however, feel Mr. Schweiger’s last two-part episode, which aired over the new year, was far too gory for the average “Tatort” viewer’s tastes.
Mr. Schweiger, for his part, clearly doesn’t take criticism lightly. In a Facebook post last month, he lashed out at the “idiots” that criticized the new “Tatort” and hailed series director Christian Alvart for “creating a piece of German television history.”
“Others waste their budget on two pudgy police commissioners that eat curry sausage or drink beers at a Bavarian food joint…you brought non-stop action for 90 minutes,” Mr. Schweiger continued.
Television ratings, however, tell a slightly different story. According to NTV, the Schweiger episodes drew 8.24 million viewers, below the usual weekly “Tatort” average.
Now he’s going all-in, attempting to bring “Tatort” to the big screen and introducing the Tschiller character to viewers who might not have seen him in the “Tatort” TV series. It’s a daring play on an old favorite, especially given that even Mr. Schweiger admits Germans don’t really like action films.
“Tschiller: Off Duty” opened in cinemas Thursday. It offers just what it promises: raw action by the bucketloads. It’s more like a Hollywood production than most German films, even if the budget is still pretty minimal compared to your average Hollywood blockbuster.
“The budget for the “Tatort” TV episodes is actually quite low at €1.5 million. The movie cost about €9 million. That’s a joke compared to American productions. They would run through our entire budget just for catering,” Mr. Schweiger said, adding that much of the budget went into filming on location in Istanbul and Moscow, among other places.
Mr. Schweiger says the film will need “a little less than a million” viewers to turn a profit. “But of course, I’m hoping for more,” he said.
If it fails, it wouldn’t be the first time Mr. Schweiger’s been part of an economic disaster. “One Way,” a 2006 crime drama he produced and starred in, lost almost €2 million.
“We thought that if we could attract 600,000 viewers in Germany, we could earn the rest abroad. After all, we had three Oscar-nominated actors in the cast. But then we only reached half that figure in Germany, which made the film seem too risky for foreign audiences. In England, France, Italy … everywhere I had to hear: ‘Sure, you’re a big star at home, but here you’re nothing.’ And if no one likes the film in Germany … that’s the way things are sometimes,” he said.
Mr. Schweiger has tried his best to make it abroad: He spent seven years living in Los Angeles, until 2004. Working as a lesser-known actor, playing smaller roles in Hollywood films like “Lara Croft” and “King Arthur” wasn’t always glamorous.
“They brought their own difficulties, because each time I had to be on stand-by for half a year and wait for the next day of shooting. They weren’t even main roles, but I wasn’t allowed to leave the country, which of course was frustrating. When you’re waiting, you can’t pursue your own projects,” he said.
It’s a sign of the different cultures, too. Hollywood could afford to keep an actor on a retainer for long stretches. “German productions plan much more exactly, but the Americans have enough money to indulge in their chaos,” he said.
It was a time, before the financial crisis, when money was flooding into films. But the money that financed his own career in the United States didn’t just come from the economic boom. It came partly from the German government. “Stupid German money,” he calls it, which was designed to boost the German film industry but in many cases ended up filling the pockets of Hollywood instead.
Part of the attraction of hiring him was to generate business in Germany. It worked in “Inglorious Basterds,” for example, which earned Austrian actor Christoph Waltz an Oscar, and was popular in Germany. But Mr. Schweiger said “there have also been films where, in the end, I felt like I’d been utterly bamboozled…Sometimes the money came exclusively from Germany, and my name was just the enticement. Even though I myself earned only a modest sum.”
Still, he stayed in the United States for about seven years, in part because he enjoyed the anonymity: “It did me good not to be constantly recognized in the supermarket. And I did a few independent films that were really enjoyable. And I was looking for American books that I could adapt for Germany.”
Back in Germany, Mr. Schweiger began aggressively branching out of acting. The 2005 film “Barfuss,” was the first time he wrote the screenplay, directed, produced and played the leading role. Sometimes it’s easier to do it all, he said, because he knows exactly what everything is going to cost.
“The good thing is that I can and must resolve these issues myself. Even though I want to achieve the maximum effect onscreen, at the same time I know what I can afford. It’s much worse when no one tells you the truth, and only after the end of shooting the producer confesses the film is €1 million over budget. I’ve also experienced that,” he said.
Which of the many jobs does he find the hardest? “Writing the screenplay,” he said. “It’s torture when your soul lets you down and you have no inspiration, no ideas. Then you’re sometimes utterly alone.”
The easiest? “Acting,” he said, “because you don’t carry any financial risk. On the other hand, the biggest returns end up with the producer – unless the actor is such a huge star that he also gets a share of the profits. That can lead to the almost unfair situation that someone like Tom Cruise earns more from a film than the studio does.”
The most rewarding on a personal level? Probably producing, he said. “I don’t saddle myself with production because of the money. It’s a matter of the film. You can be the biggest star ever – but I wouldn’t have any influence on the contents if I didn’t produce the film. The down side is a certain financial pressure. If you don’t film for a year, you have to figure out how to pay your team.”
Since starting his production company, Mr. Schweiger said he’s responsible for a team of 25 people. Under the label Barefoot, Mr. Schweiger has also come to manage a small business empire: film production, an online furniture dealer, a catering company, design consulting. The same financial challenges of producing come with managing the rest of his empire.
“There are a few startups where I’ll be really happy if I don’t end up losing any money. The sweaters are the best business up to now. Someone from Hamburg manages things. They’re made in Nepal — 100 percent environmentally sustainable.”
He also has a website where he sells tables, chairs and lamps — “feel-good products from my life and films,” as he puts it. It begs the question whether a future Schweiger film will simply become a display window for his online store.
“That would be too idiotic, especially since the shop hasn’t been around for very long. I promise, on my honor, that I’ll never go overboard with product promotions in my films,” he said.
“I'll admit, however, that the German market for action films is probably the most difficult in the world.”
In his defense, he argues, there are business opportunities that he’s turned down. In particular, he’s rejected most contracts to do advertising for other businesses.
“I’ve refused more than I’ve accepted. Often you would have to turn into an imbecile. Once I got an offer from a sausage stand. I was supposed to cheerfully bite into a sausage while my buddies came riding up. Even today, I’m not sure whether the agency was serious or just wanted to see how much nonsense Schweiger was ready to engage in for money. Another star took up the offer.”
Perhaps that’s because many other less well-known German actors live right near the subsistence level. Mr. Schweiger admitted making money in German film has become increasingly difficult. The era of private television broadcasters paying good money for actors has been replaced by today’s age of reality TV.
“There was [once] an enormous need for fiction — until TV managers realized garbage like the ‘Big Brother’ reality series could earn much more money, using amateurs and with less effort. Today only a handful of actors are paid really good money. Unfortunately, I know many excellent actors who scrape through from one day of filming to another, and in between have to file for unemployment. It’s a real disgrace,” he said.
Even off movie and TV sets, the 52-year-old feels battered these days. He’s been outspoken on another issue: the influx of refugees into Germany, garnering criticism for blasting anti-immigrant sentiment in Germany as “racist” and seeking to convert old barracks into housing for refugees.
In his interview with Handelsblatt, Mr. Schweiger seemed glad to change the subject back to his work. After the interview, he said, “it was nice to be able to talk about films for once.”
Thomas Tuma is Handelsblatt’s deputy editor in chief and lead editor of its weekly magazine insert. Christopher Cermak is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. To contact the authors: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org