David Reviews Meets Edward Berger
German director Edward Berger – who recently joined Sweetshop for global representation – has displayed extraordinary versatility in three recent TV series that he’s directed. When David Reviews caught up with him at a Berlin café a little while ago, they discovered an exceptionally charming man whose calm manner belies a schedule which could break an entire roster, never mind a single director, as Editor Jason Stone writes…
As is currently customary when meeting dwellers in the enlightened parts of Europe that didn’t vote for a return to feudalism in 2016, we spend the first part of our conversation lamenting the UK’s decision to leave the EU. For an Anglophile like Berger, Brexit is particularly painful and together we lament its short-sighted stupidity. A café like Father Carpenter – where we’re sat – emphatically gives the lie to the idea that the UK has been marginalised by European allies like Germany. English is its lingua franca and, as is often the way in Berlin, some of its staff don’t speak German at all. Can you imagine the outrage if a London café was staffed entirely by German speakers? Sigh.
To his credit, Edward Berger is much calmer about the whole business than his aerated interlocutor, and is still optimistic that wiser heads will prevail. It’s an approach which permeates our entire conversation… even when he’s describing his need to challenge himself with projects which seem impossible, he has the air of a man who will serenely meet every challenge with the insouciance of perfect competence.
Berger’s roots are in independent cinema – he spent time in New York City during the early 1990s working with acclaimed directors Todd Haynes and Ang Lee before moving back to Berlin in 1997 to direct his first movie.
A number of German films and TV series followed but it was not until he made the film ‘Jack’ in 2014 that he really felt as though he’d found his voice as a writer and as a director. It won him acclaim and ultimately opened a lot of doors.
The inspiration for ‘Jack’ came about when he was playing football with his son on a Sunday in their back garden and they saw a child with a school bag walking along the street. When his son and the boy waved at each other, Berger asked who it was and was told: “Oh, that’s Jack. Friday nights he goes to see his mom and Sunday nights he returns to the children’s home at the end of the street.”
Struck by both the poignancy of this situation and the boy’s apparent positivity, Berger set aside a script he was struggling with and concentrated instead on a story based on the idea that there’s a “power in children that we sometimes lose”.
The success of ‘Jack’ led directly to Berger being attached to the spy drama ‘Deutschland ’83’ – a German TV series which takes a wry look at material which is usually treated with great earnestness in a country which has an understandably difficult relationship with its past.
Berger grew up in Wolfsburg, the city in Lower Saxony where Volkswagen is based. It is only twenty miles or so from the border that sat between West Germany and East Germany… the Iron Curtain, and even though the DDR had only existed for twenty-one years by the time Berger was born, the enmity between those living in the two parts of the fractured country was deep-seated – a reminder from recent history of how quickly new orthodoxies can be established when we focus on what divides us rather than on what unites us.
The rivalry often played out in the sporting arena and Berger remembers what it was like during the Olympics: “We had to beat them. We had to have more medals than the East Germans. Not more than English, not more than anyone else… we had to win more medals than the East Germans.”
For someone who grew up in the thick of it, reunification was confusing. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it took time for Berger and his contemporaries to grasp the idea that Germany was one country. It’s an adjustment that continues to this day with many resentments of the past sitting just below the surface: “The confrontation is still there. Just twenty-five years of separation creates so much damage… it shows how much more long-lasting hate is. Much longer lasting than love.”
This sense hugely informed his approach to ‘Deutschland ’83’ which he was determined to deliver with a light touch. He wanted to strip away the intellectualism which is mainstay of German filmmaking and adopt a more plot-driven approach: “I thought let’s make ‘To Catch A Thief’, not a gritty crime drama… let’s make it stylized fun… we’re at the Riviera and people are good looking and they wear good clothes… it’s still a thriller but with a sense of fun and not quite realistic.”
It was a formula which resonated both inside and outside Germany, and made the series hugely successful. Although Berger opted out of the sequel – ‘Deutschland ’86’ – he’s really proud that it was commissioned.
It also led to another great opportunity when Berger was invited by Scott Free, one of Ridley Scott’s companies, to make ‘The Terror’ – an ice-bound 19th Century tale with a supernatural element set aboard a trapped ship in the Arctic, which stars Jared Harris and Ciaran Hinds.
It wasn’t an obvious departure for the director of ‘Deutschland ’83’ and it speaks volumes for Berger’s quiet ambition that he managed to land the gig. He was fascinated by many of the story’s themes but he was also drawn to the challenge of making something completely outside his experience: “I read it and I thought I’ve no clue how to make this. I said to the writer, ‘I’ve never done something like this’ and he said, ‘Neither have I. Let’s do it together.’”
It was made in Budapest, following the template Ridley Scott used when he made ‘The Martian’: “Obviously we had a much smaller soundstage than Ridley, who only had Matt Damon and one massive soundstage… while we had one hundred-and-twenty-seven people on a massive boat.”
As the project came to life, he was confronted by the enormity of what he’d taken on: “I was scared every day. I was scared before every shot. I was scared after every rehearsal.”
But it’s a fear which inspires him: “I love doing projects where I think I can massively screw them up. I want to have that fear. If I feel too comfortable I think: ‘Oh, I can do this. I’ve done this before. It works.’ That’s boring. I really want to feel on the wrong foot, on the edge always thinking this can be terrible and I really got to make sure that it’s not.”
It’s worth noting that there’s no bravado as Berger says this, and it’s actually hard to reconcile his need to push himself with the understated way in which he describes it.
It certainly came together. He’s able to confess a massive crisis of confidence he shared with his cinematographer when the two of them stood on the set together for the first time and thought: “this looks so fake” because it all turned out beautifully in the end. If you’ve seen ‘The Terror’, you’ll be struck by how successfully Berger evokes the requisite frozenness. So much so that you may need to pop on an extra jumper while you’re watching it.
Obviously, much of the work on The Terror was completed in post-production and – unlike a lot of directors working in the TV realm – Berger stayed the course. He describes complete involvement as something he insists on: “If you only want me to direct the shoot… I’m not that interested. I want authorship of it. I very much want to be involved until the end… finishing it is just as important as shooting it. You can massively change anything in post-production.”
His most recent TV project came about via a trait shared by all writers… procrastination. Berger was having his customary struggle with a script he was writing when he turned to the internet for some light relief, and discovered on Variety’s website that Benedict Cumberbatch had been attached to an adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose books.
Such a massive devotee of the books that he can recall the exact location of the book store in New York City where he bought the first one in 1993, he immediately called his agent: “I want to make this. You have to get me in a room with these producers.”
Berger obviously has a good agent. He was soon involved in a promising back and forth with the producers, and at the end of one of their conversations, he begged a favour, would they watch ‘Jack’? They did. And it led to the reply he was hoping for: “We watched it last night. We’re so much in love with this film and really want you to make it. Now please fly to meet Benedict in London and I hope you guys get along.” No pressure.
He met Cumberbatch for lunch the following Thursday and by the evening the gig was his.
A conversation with author Edward St Aubyn unlocked a key idea. When asked what he wanted the audience to take away from watching the adaptation, St Aubyn said: “A sense of liberation from the chains of our past.” Deciding this was a theme everyone could relate to, Berger set about charting the theme of liberation through five quite different films… one that takes Melrose on a journey from “a very subjective, splintered, schizophrenic beginning to a way of looking at Patrick walking out the door in the very end of the series trying to get back to a normal life.”
Working with Benedict Cumberbatch was a revelation for Berger who was more accustomed to the restraint of German actors. Already feeling under pressure to do justice to the books: “There’s a big fear of screwing up, if you love something that much,” he felt additional heat because of his nationality, “as a German you feel that if you screw it up, it’s even worse than if an Englishman does it. I’d never be allowed back into the country again!” He doesn’t sound entirely as though he’s joking.
So when Cumberbatch unleashed a raw performance with everything on the surface, Berger worried: “In the beginning… I’m thinking: ‘Oh my God! This is so bold. This is so big and this is so…’ and I was scared for a day or two that we were overdoing it. But then I realised that Benedict has a great sensibility for finding the right tone.”
Berger and Cumberbatch clearly built a great working relationship, one that allowed the actor to push right to the edge of overdoing it, producing a performance of incredible energy. For Berger, as always, it was mostly terrifying, as he amiably puts it: “It was a frightening fun ride. It was cold and hot.”
This article was first published by David Reviews on 12 March 2019.