Always the bad guy: German-American Jürgen Prochnow is one of Germany’s most-recognized actors in the United States. Born in the ruins of post-war Berlin, Mr. Prochnow gained attention as the tight-lipped captain of the ill-fated German submarine in the 1981 World War II classic “Das Boot” by director Wolfgang Peterson.
Mr. Prochnow, who took on U.S. dual citizenship in 2004, spoke with German weekly Die Zeit about the highs and lows of his career, his strong work ethic and sense of duty – and how he got his start in a church acting group.
Die Zeit: Mr. Prochnow, your U.S. filmography of the last few decades is impressive. It includes “The Seventh Sign,” “The English Patient” and “Air Force One.” Now you’re filming in Germany. Were you homesick?
Mr. Prochnow: Maybe a little. My wife and I plan to get an apartment in Berlin. However, I do want to keep my residency in the U.S. I’ve had an American passport since 2003, without having given up my German citizenship.
In your new film, “The Dark Side of the Moon,” you play Pius Ott, the unscrupulous head of a pharmaceutical company, a man with a great deal of self-control. Moritz Bleibtreu gets to unleash his aggression in the role of your rival. Which character do you feel a stronger affinity with?
I think I’m more of the controlled type. Up to a certain point, but then I lose it, too.
What makes that happen?
I can’t stand sloppiness. When someone isn’t properly prepared in his job and isn’t sufficiently interested in his work. A film is a cooperative product, and if it isn’t guaranteed that others will do what they agreed to do, I know that the goal won’t be reached.
So you fold your pants and hang them over a chair at night?
A certain order is very important to me. For example, I always put down things like glasses in the same spot, so that I’ll find them again. I wouldn’t call myself a stickler, although I do have a strong sense of duty. It’s part of my Prussian blood.
A difficult legacy? In 1986, you told Playboy that when you were 18, you became so bottled up inside that you got an ulcer.
It was frustrating for me to grow up in that gray Adenauer period in West Germany. And I hated school.
How did you escape from it?
I found my escape valve at 13 or 14, in acting. There was a group leader in our church who had studied drama and was putting together an amateur theater group. I immediately realized that this was a place where I could act out my desires and emotions.
Your facial scars, which were later your trademark as the captain in “Das Boot,” are they from that period?
I had very bad acne when I was 14. During school vacation, I hitchhiked to the south of France, where I made enough money to sunbathe and swim in salt water. The acne went away in France, but it came back when I returned home.
Were you afraid that it would destroy your dream of becoming an actor?
No, especially as I began a bank apprenticeship to please my parents. There had never been an actor in our family, and everyone was very anxious when my older brother was accepted at the Folkwang University of the Arts. I thought it would be too much for my parents to bear if we both became actors.
Were you good at the bank, given your penchant for order?
I was actually very good.
On your 60th birthday, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote that you are the only German actor who can hope to be asked for an autograph in Hollywood. That was 14 years ago…
…and today people want selfies and that sort of thing.
Hollywood films, like “Beverly Hills Cop 2,” are seen all over the world.
Although I did hesitate before accepting the role, because it was actually too small. Finally the director, Tony Scott, promised me that they would write a few more scenes for me. I was still a little naïve at the time. Of course they didn’t do it.
What did you learn from that experience?
I learned what it means to be part of a film like that. I often had different standards. I thought a film had to make a statement, had to produce an insight.
What sort of insight do you get from “Beverly Hills Cop 2?”
I told you, I had misgivings about taking the role, and I’m not particularly proud of it. Still, I realized how powerful a film like that could be. Suddenly I was being recognized everywhere.
You were the lead in the 1977 film “The Consequence.”
It was directed by Wolfgang Petersen, and Bavarian Broadcasting removed itself from the ARD lineup when it was shown on television.
You played a gay man.
Section 175 (of the German Criminal Code) still existed at the time, and homosexual relationships were banned. I know about some fellow actors who were blackmailed as a result. In making that film, we contributed to improving the situation for homosexuals.
Were you hesitant to accept the role?
I was very concerned that I would only be cast as a gay man from then on. The disappointment came a few years later, when Petersen wanted me for the role of “Kaleus,” the lieutenant in “Das Boot.” I was thrilled. And then he called me a few weeks later and said I could forget about it.
New backers had been brought in, including Bernd Eichinger, who had also produced “The Consequence.” They actually said: He played the gay guy, so he can’t possibly be a U-boat captain. I was out. I was all the more surprised when I received another call from Petersen, almost a year later. He said: We haven’t found anyone else, so you can have the role.
Do people still address you as “Herr Kaleu,” like your character in the film?
Not necessarily, but people often ask me about “Das Boot,” especially in Germany. Fortunately, in America there are other films that have drawn some attention away from “Das Boot” since then. “The Seventh Sign,” for example, has a loyal fan community.
You were a stage actor in the 1970s under Peter Zadek, and you were part of the cast in the German film, “The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum.” You were considered one of the most promising actors of the new German cinema. And then “Das Boot” took you directly to Hollywood.
Yes, I became less of a presence here as a result.
In America you worked with directors like Michael Mann and Anthony Minghella, and actors like Harrison Ford and Tom Hanks. But you never played a leading role again. Do you ever regret going to the U.S?
I did try to get leading roles a few times. For instance, I thought I was perfect for Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” Petersen, who knew Spielberg, had told me how much he loved “Das Boot.” But it never worked out. I was often told: You’re not an American. And if there was a good German character from that period, you couldn’t have a German playing the role. As a rule, language is the biggest pitfall over there. You have to quickly learn how to speak American well. I even had a dialogue coach, who was also with me during shoots. I was determined not to be playing the Nazi parts all the time and wearing a uniform on screen.
But that was exactly the way Hollywood wanted you.
I played an officer in the German Wehrmacht in the first film, “The Keep.” I was scared stiff that it would continue that way.
In “The English Patient,” you play a German major who has Willem Dafoe’s fingers cut off.
That scene was added. I played it, and it really took a lot out of me.
Your character in “The Dark Side of the Moon” is an avid hunter. Are you familiar with this from living in the U.S?
I hate it. I’ve never held a weapon, except in movie, where I sometimes have to spray bullets all over the place. I refuse to have a weapon in my house. That’s another American phenomenon that I’ll never understand: the fact that everyone has at least one gun in a drawer.
If you get so worked up about your new home, why do you even live there?
The friendliness and generosity there are unparalleled. I know so many Americans who have done a lot for me.
And if Donald Trump wins the election?
The younger Bush was already a nightmare. He was actually worse, if you consider the consequences for the Middle East, and the Iraq war veterans in the U.S., who have been mutilated in body and soul. Not to mention the enormous debt burden Bush accumulated. I don’t know if I’d give back my passport if that happened. Aside from that, I love my house in Brentwood, Los Angeles. The view of the ocean, the climate, my garden…
Does your move to Berlin feel like a homecoming?
Yes, in a certain sense. I grew up in the ruins of Berlin. Now it’s exciting to see all the new things that have been built. And then there’s the cultural scene. If you want to go to the theater in the U.S., you have to go to New York. I do live near the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It’s beautiful, but still, believe me, compared to London, Madrid or Paris the art scene is paltry.
This interview originally appeared in Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the authors: email@example.com