Susanna Nicchiarelli’s award-winning film, Nico, 1988, features a tour-de-force performance by Danish actress Trine Dyrholm’s as singer-songwriter Nico (whose real name was Christa Päffgen), formerly of the Velvet Underground. Dyrholm interprets rather than impersonates the singer during the lesser-known later period of her life when she was approaching 50. Leading a solitary existence in Manchester, England, Nico’s life and career are on the ropes, a far cry from her glamorous days as a Warhol superstar and celebrated vocalist for the Velvet Underground. Nico’s new manager, Richard (John Gordon Sinclair), convinces her to hit the road again and tour Europe to promote her latest album. Struggling with her demons and the consequences of a complicated life, she longs to rebuild a relationship with the son Ari (Sandor Funtek) she lost custody of long ago. Nico, 1988 presents a stunning portrait of a brave and uncompromising musician. I talked to writer/director Susanna Nicchiarelli about this moving film.
Danny Miller: I thought this was such a gorgeous film. I knew about Nico but wasn’t very familiar with the later part of her life. How did you decide that you wanted to focus on this period?
Susanna Nicchiarelli: From the beginning I wanted it to be about the final part of her life because few people knew much about it. It gave me the possibility to turn around the cliché of the typical biopic where you’d show the main character’s success and then rapid decline. Despite her difficulties, I found that in the final part of her life, Nico was actually pretty happy, and I thought that made it more interesting. I watched a lot of her interviews from this time period and I loved her irony, her way of joking with the journalists who were always trying to make her talk about her past. She was much more interested in her present, despite all of its challenges, and I thought she faced it with a lot of courage.
Yeah, honestly, I had the feeling that I’d rather sit down with 49-year-old Nico than when she was in her twenties and famous the world over. I just found her so much more interesting at this stage.
I agree. I don’t know if you noticed this, but when you see the images of Nico in her twenties, she never seems totally at ease, she always looks a bit embarrassed. I don’t think she ever really felt that the image of the blonde ice queen really belonged to her. She seems much more at ease later on when she has black hair and is not focused so much on her appearance — she just seems more herself. I think that finding yourself is a complicated journey and can take a lot of time. And that’s something I wanted to say with this movie, which is something you don’t usually see in biopics because so often an artist’s life is seen as being about how successful they are in the world. I think it’s a lot more complicated than that.
It was interesting to see how much her German identity impacted her life.
It had a huge impact — her being born in Nazi Germany and growing up during the Second World War and then living in the ruins of Berlin and going hungry. I think that shaped her identity in a major way — much more than singing with the Velvet Underground. Which is not to take away from the importance of that record — it’s certainly a part of rock history — but Nico’s life was so much more than that.
It seems like many people didn’t want to accept Nico as anything other than the beautiful blonde icon.
Yeah, even Andy Warhol said that she “became a fat junkie and disappeared.” That was mean — and very untrue. She didn’t disappear at all, she was writing soundtracks for Philippe Garrel movies and doing all sorts of interesting things. I think she got negative press partly because of her iconic image. She was so beautiful that they couldn’t accept that she could become something else.
Right. How dare this perfect Aryan queen decide that that she wanted to reject that label? And how dare she age like a normal person? I have to talk about Trine Dyrholm’s performance. I’ve seen her in a few other films and she was always great, but this was just extraordinary. Obviously you’d have no movie if you didn’t have someone that good in the role. Was Trine always on your radar as you were writing the film?
Yes, she was. She’s been one of my favorite actresses for years and always found her to be very generous in the way she gives of herself on screen. I remember seeing her once on the red carpet at Venice where her film Love Is All You Need by Susanne Bier was premiering. She totally rocked that red carpet next to co-star Pierce Brosnan and I remember thinking how incredibly different she seemed from the woman on the screen. I’m a woman who has had breast cancer and there was a scene in that film where she comes out of the water naked and you can see the marks from her surgery and her baldness because she took her wig off and she’s just so beautiful in that moment. There’s something very rare about her and what she can do on screen.
And the fact that she was also a singer must have helped a lot.
Yes, that was essential. Trine was a singer before she became an actress and I really needed somebody who could sing Nico’s songs and show the changes in her character through her music. It’s pretty rare to find someone who could sing and act that well. And, you know, Nico often sang off-key and that’s hard to do, you need a very good singer to accomplish it!
Even though she’s not imitating Nico, I watched a bunch of clips of the real Nico singing after I saw the film and she just nails it so perfectly.
We didn’t want Trine to try to sound exactly like Nico, I think that would have been ridiculous, we knew we had to find our own version of Nico and I think Trine really did that.
Such vulnerability. I assume it was a creative rather than a legal decision to never mention the name of French actor Alain Delon who was the father of Trina’s son?
Yes, that’s right. I didn’t want to tell Nico’s story through the men she was involved with, as has often been the case with her. So I decided not to mention them at all, even Brian Jones. The only person that gets mentioned is Jim Morrison because Nico used to refer to him all the time and how he encouraged her to write her own songs which, for her, was a major turning point in her life. The real man of her life, of course, was her son, and the relationship she had with him the major event of her life.
All of the scenes between Nico and her son, Ari, were so moving. I know you had talked with Ari extensively as you were writing the screenplay and that he supported your vision for the film, but were you still nervous when he watched it for the first time?
Oh, God, yes! He saw it when it first came out in France. I was sitting next to him, pregnant already (Nicchiarelli is about to give birth to her second child), and he smoked something like three packs of cigarettes during the screening which was horrible, but I wanted to be next to him while he was watching it. At one point, watching Trine, he turned around and just said to me, “She’s good.” That’s when I knew we had made it! I was really worried about his reaction because it’s partly his life we were showing and it’s pretty painful stuff. I didn’t take that responsibility lightly.
Can you imagine how Nico herself would have responded to the film?
I think she would have liked it because I respected her desire to not show a nostalgic image of who she was or to focus on the image of her that was in other people’s heads, but instead I showed how she was in control of her life and her art at the end of her life. I think she would have liked the fact that the movie is never too sentimental or too dramatic, even though dramatic things happen. I think it respects Nico’s tone and her relationship with life.