“Young people are boring,” Nico (Trine Dyrholm) says dryly, after handing a fan an autograph in Susanna Nicchiarelli’s “Nico, 1988,” which finds the former Velvet Underground singer and muse of Andy Warhol touring Europe with stops in England, Italy and Prague in the 1980s. The raspy voice and enigmatic presence that made her such a sensation remaining intact while the weight of being a celebrity has fallen away, insisting to her manager that she be called by her given name of Christa Päffgen. For Christa, the performance no longer happens onstage, but in every interaction off of it, asked for memories of a person who ceased to exist sometime after the 1960s and perhaps never did, as the iconic photos and songs that constructed a public persona that didn’t line up with reality in the first place.
There are reminders that this time did, in fact, happen, as she quietly continues injections of heroin to stay balanced and dotes on her son Ari (Sandor Funtek), who she all but abandoned as a casualty of fame and now is suffering from addiction problems of his own, but she’s largely given up on concerning herself with anything but the moment at hand, making her more alive than ever in her concerts and curious about others after so many years where the focus was so squarely on herself, and In bringing a camera into the part of Päffgen’s life in which no others stuck around, “Nico, 1988” proves revelatory as the audience’s reconsideration of Nico comes as she’s finally allowed the space to connect to herself for what feels like the first time.
Dyrholm is beguiling in slipping into Päffgen’s skin, commanding as only someone who’s seen the view from the top of the world as she has yet always searching, and if she weren’t intriguing enough in the role, Nicchiarelli fills the film with tiny details gleaned from copious amount of interviews the writer/director conducted with friends and acquaintances of the artist that disentangle her from the image so many had cultivated in their minds to offer something undeniably honest, if not verifiable in fact, then in human truth, and contribute to a feeling that no one person got to know her fully, yet she left an impression on everyone she met. After winning Best Film at the Venice Film Festival where it premiered last fall and took the Italian David di Donatello Awards by storm, “Nico, 1988” arrives in America this week and Nicchiarelli spoke of how such a singular artist required a portrayal of her life that defied convention, using such classic songs as “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “These Days” to guide the storytelling and aesthetically conveying this period of time both in Päffgen’s life and in the larger course of history.
How did this come about?
Like everybody, I first met Nico through the Velvet Underground album. I started listening into it when I was in my twenties, which was in the mid-‘90s, and I would listen to the voice of this woman and it was bewitching because she sounds like a man, so I remember having this confusion at the beginning and then I decided to look into her story and learned she had done the most interesting stuff after the Velvet Underground, which was the most inspiring for me. We normally think after turning 30, very beautiful women just disappear and they don’t do anything interesting anymore, but Nico’s life actually starts after her thirties because she starts her solo career, which was extremely interesting artistically and very important for musicians of the time and for the New Wave movement. She actually invented things. She was very brave, so I started studying her life and then decided I’ll write a movie about her.
Why did the ’80s stand out so much?
I was interested in what happened to her in the ‘80s because in general, I think the ‘80s are a very interesting age and Nico’s life had covered the time span of the Second World War and the Cold War, [so] she belongs to the generation who saw the war and who grew up after, living through poverty and humiliation. She was German, so of course her country had lost the war, and [she felt] shame because she was talking all the time about the fact that her father was in the resistance and that he had saved a lot of Jews [when] it wasn’t true. Every time she dealt with a Jew, she had to say that, and it’s incredible to think that that generation that was born during the Second World War is the same generation that produced everything that was produced in the ‘60s, which of course was a wonderful era. Then she died exactly one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall — I was 14 when [that happened] — and it was so incredible and mindblowing to see everything change so rapidly and Nico never witnessed that. She died just before that.
So I found interesting that she was a person who lived with her present instead of being attached to her past, but of course her life had been influenced by all that, so what did I do? I just decided that if I was going to make a movie about her, from the first moment, it much more interesting to tell a story from a moment in which she was not as famous as she had been, but she was [still] doing very interesting stuff, as a way to turn around the cliche of the biopic where you have the moment of success and the decline. It was as if this movie could turn it around and instead of having the decline at the end, it was this moment in which this woman would find herself and make sense of her life. I also liked the ‘80s setting because those years in 1986, ’87, ’88 are very close because it’s only 30 years ago, but then in a very brief moment, everything changed so rapidly, so they’re extremely distant at the same time.
For example, we have a scene where there was a border and they control the passports and [now] there is nothing left of the Iron Curtain, so it was very hard to find a location where we could shoot [that scene] because everything has been torn down. Everything has been forgotten and it was just 30 years ago, so I found that interesting and [when I went] to interview the people who had met her, everybody agreed [that this was] without a doubt the best period in Nico’s life. Much better than the ‘60s, much better than the ‘70s. She was quitting drugs. She was in control of herself and her art and she was seeing her son [Ari] again. It was the happiest period in her life.
And you thank Ari in the credits and I understand you had a long conversation that helped shape the film. When he’s more of a mental presence in Nico’s mind than a physical one, what was it like to understand her through him?
Well, he is in the film. He has a few scenes, but he’s not a main character and what I found interesting when I talked to Ari was the way he talked about his mom like somebody who loved her unconditionally, even if maybe he could’ve been angry with her for abandoning him or being irresponsible with him. Of course, she was very young when she had him, but for Ari, she was a star. That’s why in the film there’s a scene in which Ari says, “Do you like working with my mom? She’s a star,” because that’s something that Ari says all the time. Even in the worst moments of her life, Nico was a star and it’s as if their love was so unconditional and strong, even if everything else had gone wrong in their relationship because they hadn’t lived together and she hadn’t raised him and she had seen very little of each other when he was little. That’s why I put [the song] “Nature Boy” [in the film even though] Nico never sang that song, but I made her sing the song in the film [because] there’s that verse where she sings, “The greatest thing you will ever learn is to love and be loved in return.” In my experience, maternal love is that. It’s the only love that’s 100 percent returned. Talking with Ari, the main feeling is a feeling of incredible, unconditional love for this woman and he said, “My mom was indestructible and I was sure I was going to die before her.” He saw her as a star. He saw her as a superhero, that was the image he had of her, which was very touching.
Since you mentioned “Nature Boy,” did you build the film around certain songs?
When I wrote it, I wrote it a little bit like a record. Every situation is built around the song and then of course Nico’s life goes on and it’s not episodic because she changes throughout the film and the people around her change, but I did structure it thinking about what song I would put in every section of the film [considering] what the character goes through and evolves in some way. That’s why I needed Trine [Dyrholm] to be able to sing the songs because it was the only way for me to have her act out those live scenes where actually every time something is revealed or something changes in the character every time she sings. Because the lyrics are written by Nico, every song was chosen for a section of the movie because of the lyrics and the atmosphere I needed for that moment in the film.
Because [Trine] re-sings all of Nico’s songs, we needed to record the songs before shooting, so what we actually did was we started working on the actual character through the singing and that’s how she found her voice. Nico was famous for her very low voice and Trine’s a great singer, but she has a high voice, so it was interesting with her to work on that low voice and sometimes make her sing off-key to worsen her voice – you have to be a very good singer to do that – [because] that’s the way Nico sang. So we found a voice, the body movements, the look and the eyes and then the expressions and we did all that in the studio when we were recording the songs, so we did all that using actually the words that Nico herself had written, [which] was the most interesting work that we did on the character. It was very physical. It wasn’t very mental. We were just trying to find this voice and this way of moving onstage. We started by saying we were not going to imitate Nico. We did look a lot at her performances, but then we put them away and we started working on our own Nico because of course Trine couldn’t do an imitation of Nico. It would’ve been ridiculous or funny or grotesque. We wanted her to do her own Nico and mainly, it was [discovering her] through the songs.
Visually, the film immediately sets a tone and establishes the era. How did you work with your cinematographer Chrystel Fournier to create the aesthetic?
This was the first time I had worked with Chrystel. I had seen some of the movies she had photographed and I liked her style, especially [after] I had seen an interview where she explained how she had done a movie and I realized she was a person who thought a lot and worked on each movie in a different way according to the kind of material she had. I knew we needed a strong [visual] idea [for this film], so I had the feeling that she was the right person and we made a few important decisions at the beginning [because] now with digital, a lot of DOPs take all of the decisions afterwards when they’re doing the color correction, but I think it’s before when you have to decide a lot of things if you want to put together an image that is significantly different from the ones we’re used to seeing on TV or in theaters, like [how] the format is a square image [because] we were looking for something that would imitate the VHS quality and bring back that ‘80s feeling. Of course, we didn’t shoot in VHS, but we looked for that kind of quality in working with the image and we worked with the other departments – with costume and production design – to have the right colors and the right atmosphere for the photography. It was a very, very interesting collaboration and I definitely want to work again with her.
“Nico, 1988” opens on August 1st in New York at Film Forum and August 3rd in Los Angeles at the Nuart. A full list of theaters and dates is here.