After years working in film, German actor Maria Schrader is becoming a familiar face on television through starring roles in Deutschland 83 and The City & The City. She tells DQ about the hunt for challenging roles and upcoming turns in Deutschland 86 and the third season of Fortitude.
Having built her career in film as an actor, writer and director, Maria Schrader now finds herself becoming a familiar face on the small screen. A starring role in breakout German Cold War drama Deutschland 83 led to the opportunity to appear alongside David Morrissey in The City & The City, while Deutschland 86 will debut this autumn. She has also filmed a role in the third and final season of crime drama Fortitude.
When DQ sits down with Schrader in May this year, we are in a large, oak-panelled room inside the Lille Centre of Commerce, with windows that look out over the centre of the French city. It’s here that the actor is among the international jury members choosing the winners of Series Mania’s International Competition, with entries from the US, the UK, Italy, Australia, Denmark and beyond.
“It’s always a joy to experience something that tries to invent, that tries to do something new,” Schrader says of her role as a judge. “It’s also wonderful to see a programme shot in a world, a region or circumstances totally unfamiliar to us, to widen your horizon; to not see one investigative story after another. I always wonder if you could go even more experimental.”
It’s an attitude that also seems to apply to the way the German actor picks her roles, noting that she always looks for themes or topics that draw her into a story.
“I look for things that interest me. On The City & The City, it was the very promising scripts,” she says of the mind-bending and visually stunning four-part miniseries. “It was wonderful. It was my first job in the UK and I learned that Deutschland was so successful with Channel 4, so people are interested to work with me.”
Written by Tony Grisoni for BBC2, which aired it in April, The City & The City is an adaptation of China Miéville’s novel that follows Inspector Borlú (Morrissey) as he investigates the murder of a young girl, whose body is found in poverty-stricken Beszél. His enquiries lead him to the affluent neighbouring city of Ul Qomo, where he meets Schrader’s Senior Detective Quissima Dhatt (pictured top).
“When I read it, it reminded me a lot of my background, my home,” Schrader says, noting the conflicted relationship between the neighbouring cities. “When I read the first episode, I thought a lot of Berlin, of course. I lived there before the wall came down and it took me until the end of the first episode to understand it’s not a pure geographic division [between the cities], it’s two cities in one place and every person has been educated to ‘unsee’ the other place, which is interesting. It was a visual task and a challenge creatively and artistically for the director and the DoP. I was very interested to experience it.
“And I found that while some things are different between English and German sets, it’s great and comforting that it mostly works the same everywhere. Generally, I would say that on the set of The City & The City as well as on Fortitude, there is a generally very friendly atmosphere and I liked that a lot. If you feel welcomed and people really like what you do and encourage you to go for it, it’s wonderful.”
Schrader also spent three weeks in Svalbard – one of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas – to film her role in the upcoming final season of Sky Atlantic’s Fortitude, revealing that she plays “badass investigator” DCI Ingemar Myklebust, who she says is similar to Deutschland’s Leonora Rauch.
“She’s a high-ranking detective coming from Oslo to sort out the mess in Fortitude. It’s a crazy show,” she says. The series is set among a remote community confronted by a series of gruesome murders. “I really liked it when I saw it. It’s somehow unique – this weird combination of very modern issues like the polar ice caps melting and diseases but, at the same time, I thought it was almost Shakespearean in terms of what Richard Dormer’s character [Inspector Dan Anderssen] goes through. It reminds you of Richard III, a character pushed to the edge, and everything is just exaggerated to a monstrous extreme.”
Most eagerly anticipated, however, is the sequel to international hit drama Deutschland 83, which finished shooting last Christmas. Set three years after the events of the first season, Deutschland 86 picks up with Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay), his aunt Lenora (Schrader) and their colleagues at the East German foreign intelligence agency (HVA).
Long banished to Africa for his sins in 1983, Martin is sent on a dangerous mission that takes him through South Africa, Angola, Libya, Paris, West Berlin and finally back to East Berlin, against a backdrop of Perestroika, proxy Cold Wars, the struggle to end Apartheid, a year of terror in Western Europe and the creeping feeling back home in East Germany that the end just might be near. The series is due to debut this autumn on Amazon Prime Video in Germany and SundanceTV in the US.
“Since the first season concentrated so much on the inner conflict – between East and West Germany – now, in the second season, we are going abroad,” explains Schrader, who reveals she “instantly fell in love” with Lenora after reading creator Anna Winger’s scripts. “Lenora really has a great arc to live through. By the end of the first season, we’ve seen her leaving and going to Mozambique with her diplomat friend from Africa. So she’s been working in exile until we start the second season.
“She’s a strong believer [in East Germany], and that will be very much shaken. She will find herself doubting her personal choices and the direction of the headquarters and their decisions. That’s very interesting because she always really believed [she was on the right side] and that’s what has made her very dangerous and decisive. In the second season, she’ll be confronted with fundamental doubts, which is always wonderful for a character.”
Despite her increasing TV workload, Schrader also remains focused on her film career. As well as starring in dozens of features, she wrote and co-directed 1997’s The Giraffe and co-wrote and directed 2007 German/Israeli film Love Life. Most recently, she wrote and directed 2016’s Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe, which was selected to represent Austria in the foreign-language category the Academy Awards.
“I’m a complete beginner in the television and series business,” Schrader admits. “My background is movies and my original background is theatre. I come from a classical theatre education and I started with writing. I wrote parts for myself, so my whole entry into making movies was writing them and making them. Love Life was so exhausting to do – it was an arthouse movie shot it entirely in Israel and it took me six years to make.
“Then it took me 10 years to come up with my next movie, and I hope it will not take me another 10 years to come up with another. The greatest thing is I don’t have to choose or decide between acting and directing. I love to combine them. I take things from my experience as a director into my acting and vice versa.”
Similarly, Schrader has taken her experiences in film with her to television, and it’s for that reason she doesn’t prefer one medium to the other. “I would never generalise that doing movies is better than doing TV,” she adds. “That’s bullshit, it’s just something completely different.”