U.S. film fans probably know actress Marthe Keller from such ’70s hits as “Marathon Man” and “Black Sunday,” or perhaps Claude Lelouch’s “And Now My Love.” True aficionados are likely to recall her Garbo-esque role in Billy Wilder’s “Fedora” or in Nikita Mikhalkov’s Oscar-nommed “Dark Eyes.” But European audiences have seen her work without a pause since, most recently in Barbet Schroeder’s “Amnesia,” which bowed in Cannes, and earned the Swiss-born actress some of the best notices of her career. Variety first spotted Keller in the Michael Caine spy thriller “Funeral in Berlin” in 1966.
“Funeral in Berlin” was a big Hollywood film. How was the experience?
I was so young, I literally didn’t know what I was doing there. I came in one day and saw a beautiful woman getting made up and dressed for my character, so I thought, “This is it. I’ve been fired.” I started taking off my makeup. I got yelled at by the assistant director, who explained that this was my stand-in. I didn’t even know they existed. My whole life is a misunderstanding, and I still don’t believe that I have the right to sit in the chair.
It doesn’t sound like you craved stardom.
I was a real country girl, and it was a little job I did to make some money.
But you’d been studying acting.
I was a member of the Berliner Ensemble acting company in East Germany. It was founded by Bertolt Brecht, and when I was there, it was run by Brecht’s widow, Helene Weigel. I was also a member of the Schiller Theatre in West Germany. You don’t find a lot of people who worked in East Germany and Hollywood.
Was East German theater different than in the West?
Completely. It formed my whole life. With Berliner Ensemble, you rehearsed for eight months before you ever set foot on the stage. At the Schiller, you rehearsed for six weeks before the production opened.
Quite a time to live on both sides of the Wall.
I had a tiny apartment, and was so poor I couldn’t afford curtains. It was so close to the Berlin Wall that searchlights would come through my windows and I could hear guard-dogs barking. I got to know some people in the East who made a plan to swim under the Wannsee River to freedom, but when they came up, they were shot.
Were you politically involved?
No, but I wanted to live and study dance in East Germany, because they had very good training; I thought it would be perfect, as their society had no distractions like movie theaters or normal entertainment. My parents thought I was nuts. But I thought it would help me concentrate on my dancing. You have to be young to think like that.