Mikael Nyqvist plays the German sect leader Paul Schäfer in "Colonia Dignidad"

Source: Die Presse - February 20, 2016

How did you know Colonia Dignidad?

I did a film in Chile years ago about Pinochet and the coup. One night while we had a dinner with the actors, a journalist came into the restaurant totally shocked. We had been working on the film for two or three months. The journalist had just been in the colony because Paul Schäfer had been arrested, and began to talk about it. We thought he was inventing it. That sounded like hell on earth. Ten years later Florian (director Florian Gallenberger, note) called me, and now I have played Schäfer. A monster.

What did you think when he called?

There were many thoughts that went through my head. Why should I do it? And how? The film is also a documentation in a way. So I had a responsibility to stay close to what he was. It was a great challenge for me to step into this dark side of life. I think I as an actor also have a responsibility to keep the world a mirror and tell of life. That such people also exist.

What was it like to be a shepherd?

Really hard. I felt sick every day. I felt like a dangerous animal. But he was probably a charismatic preacher. He was curious. But he could turn into a destructive one in a minute.  The most sinister thing was that all these people put their lives in his hands. I have therefore dealt with Charles Manson, all those sect leaders, even Pol Pot, to find out what makes them. They all have one thing in common: they say the truth in their own way. And do not care to be polite.

Was he a personification of God?

I think so. Many people consider themselves to be omnipotent, most of them as teenagers. If you still do this as a grown man, that is not good. And then he also abused children. I said that I cannot play such a scene, because then a child experiences something like that. And I cannot not do that either. I am a father.

Did Schäfer have a master plan or did he act out of his gut?

I do not think he had a plan. Every day was a new day. I believe that if you inflict so much suffering on people, you cannot analyze what you did yesterday. He only looked forward, which is a dangerous thing. One step forward, two back: This is the right path for me. One must also not forget that these people came from the destroyed Germany. He was in the Luftwaffe and they had taken all this Third Reich thinking, authority, rules, laws. He probably used it. It was like a camp, you were constantly punished. We have this scene in which a person must confess, and then everyone begins to hit her. This is something you always do because it is filmed from different angles. This is no longer funny after a while. You start to turn. I played with a lot of extras, and you can feel how fast it is that the situation derailed. I told Florian that we had to stop. Two people were about to go crazy.

What did you do to get out of the role again in the evening?

Alcohol, drugs, sex... No. In fact, I have not really figured it out. It was a depressive period. I've looked at many documentaries about preachers and the world war. In a break I went to Bhutan to trek with a Buddhist monk from monastery to monastery. That was nice. Then we went on, and I met some of Schäfer's victims. In costume I looked like Paul Schäfer. This was not pleasant.

Did it help to grow your hair like he did?

That was a wig.

What actually made your way to Hollywood? The "Millennium Trilogy"?

It slowly began, with "Together," "As in Heaven", and then the "Millennium Trilogy". Many had seen this, and they had read all these books.  I knew Stieg Larsson. I'm always find suspicious of bestsellers. I have not read "The Da Vinci Code". And then I read the three "Millennium" books in one day or so.

What do you read instead?

Classics. Currently I'm  reading a lot of Rilke. Whitman. I read many poems.

Also Swedish?

Yes, Tomas Tranström, who was my neighbor for a while. When he got the Nobel Prize, I had just written my second book and got into a writers block. I could not write - and he had the Nobel Prize and journalists were running all the way through the hall.

What were you writing about then?

It is a novel about something I hate: that other people tell us who we are, create us almost. I hate that, but you have to live with it. If someone says "You're fat," you can say yes or no, the rest you have no choice. This affects us, but it is a trap. It's also about film and theater, because they are places where you can really feel it. He's good, he's bad...

Do you think that people have a half-true picture of you?

No idea. I think I am pretty humble and extremely good. The bad thing is that I have to say that myself (laughs)... No, I really have no idea.


[Edited translation]