Director takes it to the Max for August

CENTRAL CHARACTER: August Zirner as Max in What Doesn’t Kill Us

AUGUST Zirner portrayed a therapist in the 2001 film Bella Martha.

At the time, director Sandra Nettleback told him that she would, one day, make the character central to a film.

And, 17 years later, that promise has come to fruition as psychotherapist Max is the protagonist in Sandra’s new film What Doesn’t Kill Us.

August told me from Locarno Festival, Switzerland, where the film had its world premiere: “I waited a long time for her to make on her promise and, behold, she did it!

“It is gratifying to experience a director and writer who is true to her word, which is not always the case, especially in our world.”

August, who has starred in more than 60 films and is a household name in Germany and Austria, immersed himself into the role of a psychotherapist.

“It was good to learn how wonderful and gratifying it can be just to sit and listen to someone,” he said.

“The problem is that Max suffers deeply with the people he is listening to and he is probably too compassionate.

“When I first read the script, I felt like it was a piece of literature; that it was more than a script and that I would be able to learn something.”

August was born and raised in Illinois, the son of Austrian immigrants, Laura and Ludwig, who had fled the Nazis.

Ludwig became University of Illinois’ music director.

However, unlike many Jews who escaped from Germany and Austria, August’s parents did not discourage their son from speaking German.

August recalled: “We spoke German a lot at home — my mother insisted on my father and I speaking it.

“My father, though, never wanted to go back to Austria. He wanted to become an assimilated American, which he didn’t quite manage to do as he spoke eight languages!

“My uncle, on the other hand, refused to speak German once he had moved to Canada, as he was treated very poorly in Austria.

“I guess, in a way, my artistic and storytelling ethos is a product of characters like Arthur Schnitzler and Sigmund Freud, who were Austrian and Jewish.”

Max, who is married to actress Katalin Zsigmondy, was 20 when he left America and headed to his parents’ homeland, where he studied drama at the Max Reinhardt Seminar, Vienna.

He made his debut as an actor at the famous Volkstheater, in the Austrian capital, and went on to star on the stage.

His breakthrough film was 1994’s The Promise and he has appeared in dozens of television series and films since.

One of the most poignant was the 2007 hit The Counterfeiters.

It tells of Operation Bernhard, a secret plan by the Nazis to destabilise the United Kingdom by flooding its economy with forged Bank of England pound notes.

The film centres on Jewish counterfeiter Salomon Sorowitsch, who is coerced into assisting the operation at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Germany-based August, who played the German Dr Klinger, explained: “Filming The Counterfeiters was difficult and unpleasant at times.

“Part of me is deeply affected by Jewish culture and history.

“Woody Allen put it best when he said, ‘you don’t have to be Jewish to be traumatised, but it helps’, and I am definitely traumatised by what happened in the war.

“During filming, there was an extra who started improvising and he talked about ‘stupid Jews’.

“All of a sudden, he apologised for what he was saying.

“I realised that, because he was apologising, it meant that he had some form of consciousness about what he had said, which was, somehow, even worse.”

The father-of-four, who is an adviser to the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service, is also deeply concerned by the rise of the far right in Austria.

Both an American and Austrian citizen, he will be spending the next few weeks in Vienna, as he is performing in a play there.

“The rise of the far right in Austria is not just a populous thing,” August said.

“On the other side of the ocean, we have another idiot running the government, but Trump is not the problem — the people who voted for him are.

“Right wing people in Austria are selling the whole immigration issue on a low level of communication and they are not knowledgeable people.

“There are some knowledgeable people in the right wing who are good at demagogic argumentation, but these people are dangerous.

“Look at Steve Bannon — he is more dangerous than Trump.”

Coincidentally, August is also currently dealing with issues pertaining to his paternal grandmother, Elise Zwieback, as both her department store and coffee house were Ayranised by the Nazis in 1938.

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