Diane Kruger broke into Hollywood with a duo of big-budget adventure dramas, Troy and National Treasure, both in 2004. And while she’s continued to pop up in large American films, like Inglourious Basterds (2009) or television shows like Fringe and The Bridge, much of her creative work still originates in Europe, with smaller, powerful projects like Benoît Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen (2012), in which Kruger stars opposite Léa Seydoux as the icy Marie Antoinette, or Fatih Akin’s In the Fade (2017) — only Kruger’s second German-language role after Inglourious Basterds.
The actor grew up in the German countryside before traveling abroad for education and eventually moving away to become a fashion model. She’d spent her childhood polishing her English and her early adult years in Paris, speaking French. For this reason, her accent has become unplaceable, a vaguely foreign sound that can be slotted into any nationality, which has made her a kind of chameleon in the industry. Potentially, this was a factor in Kruger’s casting in Robert Zemeckis’s Welcome to Marwen, an adaptation of the documentary Marwencol (2010), about an artist who built a miniature WWII town in his backyard to arrange and then photograph dolls in war scenes as a means to work through the trauma of having lost his memory from being brutally beaten by Nazis.
Sound complex? It is. But Zemeckis has taken on the adaptation and cast Kruger as a doll whose beauty is as big as her bite. In a conversation with Vulture, Kruger discusses her favorite villains, the only joke she tells at parties, and how her bunnies punished her Barbie dolls.
If you’re not familiar with the story of Mark Hogancamp’s assault and recovery through art, I imagine reading this script the first time would have to be a little bit of a jolt. Had you seen the documentary first? Did that shape how you read the script?
I actually watched the documentary afterward. So when I read the script, I didn’t have context, and I thought, Whoa, what is this movie? But knowing that this actually happened in real life grounds such a fantastical movie like ours. It was an interesting, different film for a studio to make. But I read it when I was at Cannes with In the Fade [about neo-Nazis who commit a terrorist attack]. That movie was really dark and I wanted to do something that was lighter, at least something that was imaginary. You know, I created a fake accent and most of my scenes are in front of a green screen performing to a tennis ball. Very different. I thought it came at the right moment for me, and I’ve never done anything like this. Plus, Bob Zemeckis was a huge draw. Back to the Future is what I grew up with. In this movie, I get to drive the DeLorean. It’s like re-creating my childhood.
Yes, there’s a cheeky homage to the time-traveling machine Zemeckis created decades ago.
They had me sitting in a giant papier-mâché DeLorean.
A giant papier-mâché DeLorean?
Yeah, a giant one. I sat in it, and they tilted it to make it look like it’s flying. Honestly, the first day I was like, “How do I pull this off?” You’re not really present because you’re talking to a tennis ball. There’s nothing to reference what situation you’re in. I was worried about that. On day two of not having to wait around for setups and light, I did 15 pages of dialogue in one day. It’s unheard of. I would have been there months and months in any other film I’ve done. It was liberating.
Another possibly liberating element of the film is that you get to play the villain, not the victim.
I’m so evil. When do you ever get to do that? The fun evil characters. Growing up, I really loved Freddy Krueger [no relation]. I love Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. That was the first time I saw a villain who was so charming and nuanced at being a villain. It’d be interesting to make a film like … Joker. I would like to find my own Joker, my own version of the supervillain.
You’re playing a plastic doll in this movie, so here’s a meta-question: Did you play with dolls as a kid? What stories did you construct around your dolls? I find children always have darker imaginations than we think.
I grew up in Germany, and I had Barbies. I had lots of animals, though, because I grew up in the countryside, so I would write little plays and have barbie dolls play characters, and my animals would run around the dollhouses, and the bunnies would have tea with the barbies. My grandfather was a hairdresser, so I would cut all my dolls’ hair, and my bunnies would punish them for … well, for not growing their hair back, and they would chew on the dolls’ hair to punish them.
That’s so wonderfully weird. It makes me understand a bit of how you would get along with Bob Zemeckis, who, judging from his films, likely had similarly dark child play.
He’s a bit of a kid in explaining what the world will be, what he’s creating. He’s got these little toy models, and he zooms them around like, “Okay, now you’ll be riding in here, and you’ll go up this way, and …” There’s this sense of a childlikeness about him, and he’s not afraid of going into it. He’s really happy when you do well, and you just trust him because this is what he does best. He demands that his actors also tap into their inner child. The actors he works with are big kids, like Steve [Carell].
You’ve done so many types of films, but I’ve never seen you do camp like you do in this film, not even when you were in the National Treasure movies.
I did this really for fun. I wanted to do a lighter film. I just had fun creating this strange accent and being a kid. I usually do darker films. You’re drawn to more complex characters like that, and there’s a satisfaction of getting to feel those feelings as well, all those dark things that pull at your heartstrings. But there’s something to say about taking a break and making something where you’re excited to go to set every day. You actually want to go to work. In a way, it doesn’t feel like work.
Would you do more comic roles?
I can imagine doing comedies for at least a few years straight right now. But people don’t see me in comedies.
But you can certainly get a laugh. You’ve got good deadpan. What’s your go-to joke to tell at parties?
I’m not a huge joke teller. I have one joke that’s really funny, but it involves demonstration and that’s gotten me through the years. It’s a really dirty one, so most people don’t expect me to tell it, which I think is funnier than the actual joke, if that makes sense.
If you told me the joke for this interview, would that mean you couldn’t use it anymore?
You wouldn’t be able to print it because it’s physical. You’d have to describe it. And I would have to lick your finger. Which is gross.
You’ve licked people’s fingers.
I have for shock value.
You’ll do anything to entertain at parties.
Sometimes there comes that moment at night … [trails off mysteriously]
You’ve had an interesting career, working with a variety of directors between Europe and America. One of my favorite roles of yours was in Disorder (2016), which is a curious mix of action and art-house French drama, but it’s also directed by a woman, Alice Winocour.
I’ve worked with many women directors. I made three films with Fabienne Berthaud and also a film with Agnieszka Holland. I love working with women, but they’re tough, which I like maybe because you don’t have to beat around the bush. They’re brutally honest. A few of my best performances are with female directors. The ones I’ve done were also written by them, so maybe they are more truthful characters to what women are like. There’s no cheating. There’s no pretty talk between actors and directors. Not that the women are better directors, but I find the work tough. You can’t cheat the emotions. And Germans in general can be very direct — which doesn’t go down so well in America. It’s the language by itself. I like strong women. They don’t give a shit if you’re pretty in that scene. They’re not scared of emotions, either. When a woman has an emotional moment like when they’re hysterical, men are scared, but women are not. Fatih Akin, I should say, he wrote and created one of the most honest female characters I’ve ever played [for In the Fade]. It easily could have been either melodramatic or too cold. But his wife is his casting director, and they work together so closely, and I can see how that informs his work.
If women directors give you the tough love, what did Bob Zemeckis give you?
He gave me a lot of confidence. I was working with nothing. But he made it okay.
How did you two settle on the weird accent you made up for the film?
He wanted it to have a hint of German, which is easy for me, but he didn’t want it to be just German. So he asked me to think of three different versions of “German” and record them for him. We picked it together and adjusted it a little on set. A lot of it is recorded after the shoot, in a booth. I spent the first few days on set giving off-camera dialogue to Steve. My character says, “I love you,” over and over, but with this funny accent, like, “I laaaaf yoooooo.” I kept dreaming about “I laaaaf yoooooo” for a long, long time; it’s so silly. That phrase like that, in all my dreams.
I imagine life has to be interesting for a contemporary German actor when there is never a shortage of American movies about Nazis.
[Long sigh] I’ve been offered so many Nazi roles. You couldn’t believe. And I’ve never really wanted to do it. I’ll only do it if it’s more obtuse. Like with Marwen. Same with Inglourious Basterds. I never had any desire to be in that kind of movie to be honest, for obvious reasons, and I feel like it’s been done to death. How many movies do we need to see about that? That’s just my opinion. But watch, next year I’ll be in more Nazi movies, I’m sure.
Yes, dredging up a painful national history for work. There will likely be more movies about WWII and Nazis in the future, considering what’s happening here in the States. I think we’re sometimes afraid to make movies about contemporary Nazis because we don’t have a clear lens for interpreting them yet. And we’d have to own them as our own. Welcome to Marwen does that, though.
There have already been so many great movies done about that time in the past, though. What more do we need to say about that time?
Important question: Did you get to wear the blue bob wig?
All computer generated. The only thing they put on me is the makeup, but I can tell in the movie they went over that. I never got to wear any of the costumes. They showed me sketches of little things. The only thing I had was one purple glove. But that was more for me to act with, because it’s obviously not the glove you see in the film.
Can I ask if you ever have any out-of-body moments while you’re working?
When I am declaring my love to a tennis ball, sitting in a papier-mâché DeLorean, and then Bob Zemeckis says, “Okay, now turn the switch to go backward in time,” [pantomimes turning a switch] … yes.