Max Hubacher on portraying a Nazi: "My grandmother went through this hell and I am playing it"

Salon talks to the Swiss actor about "The Captain," in which he's a German army deserter impersonating an officer

Published August 3, 2018 5:00PM (EDT)

Max Hubacher as Herold in "The Captain" (Opus Film)
Max Hubacher as Herold in "The Captain" (Opus Film)

Max Hubacher, a Swiss actor, is currently on screen in “The Captain,” where he plays Willi Herold, a German army deserter who finds a captain’s uniform and impersonates an officer in April 1945, two weeks before the war ends. His performance is remarkable, displaying the actor’s enormous talent. He uses the whites of his eyes (his face is dirty) like a silent screen actor to convey his desperation and fear in the film’s tense early scenes where Herold is being chased and shot at by Germans. Another terrific moment has him, as the Captain, slowly chewing a meal he is served so as not to reveal the fact that he is, in fact, starving.

Throughout the film, Herold uses the captain’s uniform to assume and assert power — most notably when he arrives at a detention camp and claims he has orders from the Fuhrer. Things, of course, get increasingly more complicated for “Captain” Herold, who is always at risk of having his ruse discovered.

Hubacher excels in the role of a man who lives a lie. He also played a similar part in “Mario,” which screened earlier this summer at the Frameline Film Festival (and is supposed to be released later this year). In that film, Hubacher plays an athlete on a Swiss soccer team who falls in love with his teammate Leon (Aaron Altaras) and tries to keep his sexuality a secret so he can advance to the big leagues. His performance is quite moving, especially in scenes where Mario was finally able to express his pent-up desires. But Mario also wears a mask so as not to have his truth discovered.

Salon caught up with this chameleon to talk about his craft and to play two truths and a lie.

You started working in theater as a youth and have now started making a career for yourself on screen. What is the appeal of acting for you?

When I was 14, I wasn’t interested in school. Sports, languages and music were interesting, but I hated the rest. The worst was that I knew this was the plan for the next decade — what I would study, when I would have breaks, etc. I did my first theater piece and I had a break for a few weeks and I was so happy, doing something different, so acting saved me. I loved it. When I act, I can do something new, and I don’t know what’s next. I love that spontaneity. 

I was very eager to see “The Captain” after seeing you in “Mario.” You disappear into these roles; I would not have recognized you in both films if I didn’t see your name. Is that deliberate?

I am lucky that casting directors ask me to play different roles. I think that is uncommon for actors, especially new actors. Many good actors get typecast. Daniel Radcliffe had trouble getting away from “Harry Potter.” Heath Ledger was doing something new in every role and that is what I admire most in acting — that you can be flexible. I try hard to do that; I don’t like it if someone tells me that when I smile as the Captain, it’s the same as Mario smiling.

What I admire most about your performances in these two films is how expressive you are — your eyes, your body language, your smile. The scene of Herold putting on the captain’s uniform for the first time and behaving like an officer is amazing. What is your process for portraying how your characters behave and express themselves?

I prepare a lot of the body language — it’s their feeling and how the character moves. I have to fill in those moments when I don’t talk. Those are the most important ones. You can see what the character is really like in those moments. With every role, I prepare differently. I work with the director, and having a good director who knows how to take me to a new level helps.

I just finished my education, getting a Master of Arts in Leipzig. It was the first school I was interested in! I learned a lot about communicating what you think in a moment — it’s seen on your face. You don’t have to act too much — just think it — and then it’s enough. When I watch my earlier films, I see I act much more. I’m looking at the audience or camera — this is what I’m feeling. But it’s more interesting when the viewer doesn’t know what you are feeling and gets an idea from your performance and decides for themselves.

Your characters of Mario and Herold need to put on a brave face to the public but are anxious in private. How do you tap into that quality?

I have a lot of gay friends, and I know they went through hard times, and they taught me how to play Mario. I played soccer when I was young. I had to be very cool. I was lucky in my childhood years that I could be part of the cool kids. But it was harder as a teen — you have to put on a mask. In the theater, I had to be different too. I had to be “uncommon,” and I didn’t like that; I also had to pretend to be cool. Through theater, I got to learn other ways to think and see. So I’ve seen it from both sides. I understand how it works. If you look at someone and you see what they are doing — really observe them — you learn a lot. For me to be a cliché is the worst thing you can do. I always try to do the opposite.

I once did a role that was very hard for me, and I asked myself if it was worth it to go that far, to pay this price and to go to this extreme, or do I just want to have a good time? I do understand actors who play so many different roles that they say, “Fuck it, I just want to have a good time!” Maybe one day I’ll say, “Enough of this extreme bullshit!” It’s like extreme sports — after a lot of your friends have died, you decide to go work as a coach instead.

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For Herold, the uniform gives him a new lease on life. There is also an interesting end credit sequence that has Herold and others playing Gestapo officers and harassing present-day Germans. Although you are Swiss, what thoughts do you have about playing a Nazi?

My grandmother and her family were refugees who fled from Germany to Switzerland because Hitler came to power. And that’s why I exist today — because her grandmother was Jewish, and they went away from Germany. It is crazy that it’s been 80 years now, and my grandmother went through this hell and I am playing it. It’s absurd! This history is in our family, but we don’t talk about it much.

But it’s very topical now in Germany, with the ATF, the Alternative For Germany party. This party became popular when I started my education in Germany. They protested in front of our schools every Monday. We protested against them! ATF had the boots and the cross, they had tattoos and were skinheads — to see it today it was unbelievable! Even in America, it’s crazy what is going on with Trump. It’s a new era. A lot of people who haven’t been taken seriously are now being taken seriously by Trump, ATF and Marine Le Pen. We were laughing about them and saying, “What the fuck are you talking about?” and now we’re taking them seriously.

When I did interviews for “Mario,” reporters were scared to ask what it was like for me to play gay — they stumbled over that word. They were scared to say “gay.” We have to do these movies, so we can talk about taboos and people hopefully can learn about it and it can change the world.

The Nazi uniform in “The Captain” acts as a symbol, a talisman, a suit of armor that protects him. The same can be said about Mario’s soccer attire. What can you say about how the costumes inform your characters?

When I came to the set of “The Captain,” I came in my usual trousers and sneakers and my North Face jacket, and I’m me. And people were all, “Good morning, Max.” Then I went in the wardrobe, and when I came out [dressed as Herold], the sound of their voices changed. The clothes do make the man. If you wear a uniform, it changes your body language because it’s tight and it makes you feel strong, actually. It changes your consciousness.

When I went to the supermarket to buy something and I showered, shaved and dressed nice, people paid attention to me. But when I go after a rough night and don’t give a shit about how I look, people didn’t recognize me to talk to me. Even in my private life, it makes a big difference.

Herold assumes real power in “The Captain,” even ordering a punishment for German army deserters at one point, the irony being that he is a deserter himself. What observations do you have about Herold acting against his own self-interests and the state of mind of a man who will do anything to survive in a world he only wants to escape?

I shot “The Captain” directly before “Mario.” There are a lot of similarities to the characters, as you’ve noticed, but it was a completely different process. When I was Herold, Robert [Schwentke, the writer/director] and I thought — you are now in this moment. You are confronted with this situation, so you have to decide what to do in each confrontation. Do you have an option? What options do you have? It was systematic and pragmatic. Sometimes you have pressure, and sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes Herold doesn’t make any decisions at all because it works out on its own. You have to put away your morality to play it. This was very difficult.

I put a lot of myself in Mario. You can see a lot of Max in those moments when he is relaxed and relieved that no one will catch him. For me, that was the most important thing because in European films, young lead characters have such big problems. They are depressed, and studio or art house movies have this arc — young people have a lot of depression. So the director and I talked about Mario wanting to be happy even when he is going through a bad situation. He wants to achieve his goal [of playing professionally], but he also wants to be happy. It’s a lot about him fighting for the light, not the darkness.

How did Germany react to the film, which is hyper-critical of its soldiers and officers during the last gasp of the War?

It was very interesting because it’s a different film than other movies about World War II; it has a different perspective. The brilliant part of this film is that you barely have a moment where the audience can breathe — this poor captain! You are confronted with this hardness all the time. The film makes people angry. This is what we wanted. I’m [my character is] the reason why they feel so bad. You make a film about a topic like this in Germany, and people get mad. This is what we wanted. It was our plan to disturb people with this movie, but I didn’t expect how much it would do that.

What are your thoughts about lying to get ahead? On what occasions do you lie?

Most of the time I tell little lies, lies about emotions. I think we all lie about our emotions. We have to plan our emotions. When people ask, “How are you?,” I’d like to tell them how I really am, like, if I feel really shitty. You also lie to yourself. It can be fun — it does not always have to be sad.

When we get angry, we have to be pragmatic, so I will be angry later, and this is really unhealthy to “schedule” emotions. Maybe we don’t lie, but we do cover up our emotions. This is the similarity to acting today — why we went from emotional expressive theatrical acting and now we have new actors who play against something. So of course you’re happy, but at the same time you have to put another feeling on it, like being sad, and mix those feelings. We call it resistance. You have to play resistance. The emotions of the characters are on the surface, exploding, but most of the time we just cover them up. Of course, I lie. I lie every day to survive.

Can we play two truths and a lie? You state three things — two are true, one is a lie, and I have to guess which one is the lie.

OK. . . . I moved five times in my life. I have my own garden in Leipzig, where I study. Every time when I watch “Children of Men,” I cry.

I think you are lying about the moving. I’m thinking you’ve moved more than five times in your life!

The moving is true. I don’t have a garden.

I believe that! You said, “In Leipzig, where I study.” That detail made it real for me!

That’s the point — you put this detail on it.

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By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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