“My name is Udo,” says Udo Kier sitting in his home in Palm Springs, a converted library built by Swiss architect Albert Frey. The German actor – whose more than 260 screen credits include films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Gus Van Sant, Lars von Trier and Alexander Payne – has connected by Zoom for our call, which I had been told was no certainty, due to his lack of technical savvy. Before we can start the interview Kier takes me on a video tour of his house – pointing out the art collection, with works by Andy Warhol and David Hockney, and a life-size plastic deer, with a bandaged leg.
We are joined on the call by Scottish actor David Hayman, supping from a pint of Guinness, and Israeli producer Haim Mecklberg. But the subject of our conversation lies elsewhere, in a remote corner of Colombia, the setting for the tragicomedy “My Neighbor Adolf,” directed by Leon Prudovsky, and being sold at Cannes Market by Beta Cinema.
In the film, set in 1960, Polsky (played by Hayman), a lonely, grumpy old man, spends his days playing chess and tending his beloved rose bushes. News has just reached the town that Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann has been abducted by agents of the Israeli secret service, Mossad, in Argentina.
The secluded existence of Polsky, a Holocaust survivor, is interrupted by the arrival next-door of an old German man (Kier), with a beard that looks like it might be false, and heavy-framed dark glasses.
Polsky becomes convinced this new arrival is none other than Adolf Hitler himself. Naturally, nobody believes him, so he embarks on a mission to gather evidence, and in order to do this, he befriends the old German, who goes by the name of Mr. Herzog.
Mecklberg has known Prudovsky since the director was at film school, and when he saw Prudovsky’s graduation film, “Dark Night” (2005), which was shown at Venice, he “fell in love with it.” He offered to produce Prudovsky’s debut feature film, “Five Hours from Paris,” which was released in 2009. After making a short together, 2012’s “Welcome and… Our Condolences,” their paths parted as Prudovsky went off to work in television, but seven years ago the director came to Mecklberg with the idea for “My Neighbor Adolf.”
Kier recalls when Prudovsky came to see him on New Year’s Eve, after Kier had read the script, and liked it. “I realized he was very precise, he knew exactly what he wanted,” Kier says. “And my next question, the most important question, was: ‘Who is going to be my partner?’” Learning that it was Hayman – whose credits include “Sid and Nancy,” “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” and TV series “Taboo” – and having satisfied himself that this was the right guy, he signed up for the project.
“I like movie where there are, basically, two main actors,” he says. “It is the story of these two old… old? I mean, experienced men, with different totally backgrounds.”
His first impulse was not to meet Hayman until the shoot, adopting a Method Acting approach, but they did meet beforehand. “We got to know each other and we really connected right away, and we had a great time,” Kier says.
“We had a wonderful journey. It was a love fest from the beginning,” Hayman says. “Udo is an absolute sweetheart. He is a pain in the ass as well. He never shuts up. He makes far too much noise on set. But he’s just a wonderful human being.”
Hayman believes the two of them “created some screen magic.” There’s also some hilarity. It’s like a cross between “Rear Window” and “Grumpy Old Men,” he says. “That’s the spirit of the film.”
As with Kier, Hayman was drawn initially by the script. “In the beginning is the word. It all begins with a story on a page, and it was such a beautiful script, and I think any actor worth his or her salt would absolutely respond to it,” he says. “It was just such a beautiful journey of two men, coming from polar opposite starting points, full of hatred and bitterness, both their lives have been destroyed by Nazism and the war, and Polsky’s family gassed in the concentration camps.”
In one scene they try to strangle each other, in another Herzog sets his dog on Polsky, but by playing chess together Polsky and Herzog begin to bond, and it emerges that the reason Polsky survived the camps was due to his ability to play chess.
“It is about their extraordinary journey together – they have to build the relationship and they do it through chess. It’s a wonderful story of redemption and forgiveness, and finding the best in each other and overcoming your hatred and your prejudices,” Hayman says.
Mecklberg says: “The way they treat each other is like they are playing chess with each other, with Polsky always calculating three moves ahead. But this is really just the means by which they start to understand each other.”
He adds: “Although the film is really witty and funny, also very mysterious and dramatic and entertaining, it carries a very current and important message, a beautiful message I think. Because here we have two people who hate each other because of their different pasts and the different ideas they have, and because of accents and culture, and just because they are different, and slowly they learn to know each other. Basically it is all about fear – we fear the different, we fear the other. But once you shed the fear and you get courageous enough to understand the other one, to meet him, you meet another human being, and you know they are not really different.”
Asked how they kept the balance between comedy and tragedy in the film, Hayman says: “The secret is to play the truth. You don’t play the comedy, and you don’t play the drama, you play the truth of the situation and the truth of the characters.” He adds: “It’s a sitcom with a great dramatic underbelly to it.”
Mecklberg says, having seen an early cut of the film: “It’s way funnier than the script was because it was so truthful. Whenever the reaction of David and Udo was real it was really funny because the situation is extreme, and you can either get scared by it or get a great laugh out of it.” It was dramatic at the same time, Hayman adds.
Although Kier hopes he enjoys the movie – it is in post so he hasn’t seen it yet – both he and Hayman say they never enjoy watching their performances, always finding fault with their work. Kier screws up his face as he imagines the ordeal of watching himself. “I always think I could have done it better. I say, ‘What did I do there? What is that hand movement?’”
The Zoom call wraps with Kier asking Hayman when he’s coming to visit. To which Hayman replies, “I’m coming when it is Udo Kier Day.” And he explains that in Palm Springs they have an annual day to celebrate the life of Udo Kier, on January 3rd. With that Kier lifts up his laptop to show everyone a framed photo of a star with his name on it – it’s a photo of his star on Palm Spring’s answer to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, next to Lauren Bacall, he says. Kier adds that, as well as the plastic deer, he also owns a life-size plastic horse, named Max von Sydow, and that on Udo Kier Day he will arrive with the plastic horse. At which point, Hayman jumps in to say that he is going to lead the plastic horse, with Kier on its back.
With a laugh, Mecklberg says: “You have to understand: Udo’s favorite topic is Udo. But David’s favorite topic is also Udo. So whenever I spend time with them we always talk about Udo.”