Diane Kruger On David Cronenberg’s Personal Grief That Informed ‘The Shrouds’: “He Was Reliving A Little Bit Of His Life Every Time I Came On Screen”

Strange but true: after 15 years as an international movie star, propelled to fame in 2004 by Wolfgang Petersen’s historical epic Troy, German-born Diane Kruger won the Best Actress award in Cannes for her first-ever performance in her native language. Fatih Akin’s provocative 2017 drama In the Fade, in which she played a widow consumed by revenge after a terror attack, revealed an unexpectedly tough new side of her glamorous persona.

This year she returns to Cannes starring alongside Vincent Cassel in David Cronenberg’s The Shrouds, a very different, and for its director highly personal film about the very same subject, love and loss, following his own wife’s death in 2017. This typically Cronenbergian plot centers on Karsh (Cassel), a businessman and grieving widower who creates a device to connect with the dead, using a high-tech burial shroud. This burial tool — installed at his own state-of-the-art but controversial cemetery — allows him and his clients to watch their specific departed loved one decompose in real time.

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DEADLINE: How did you get involved with The Shrouds?

DIANE KRUGER: I got a call saying that Léa Seydoux had fallen out of his film and that David Cronenberg wanted to offer me the movie. I just got the script, and David just happened to be in Paris, so we met and, well, I’d say we immediately hit it off. We talked for hours about the script and why he wanted to make this movie. To be honest, I felt very moved that he asked me to be — basically — his wife in the film.

DEADLINE: Are you a fan of his movies?

KRUGER: Yeah, very much so. I mean, to a point where I think, even before I was an actor, I was aware of his films without knowing who he was. I remember as a kid watching The Fly and being completely terrorized. I think The Fly, along with the first vampire movie that I ever watched, was in my head forever, and I was equally terrified and fascinated with that. So, I feel like he’s always been part of my subconsciousness. I just think that, as an actor, you always look to find a director who can completely immerse you in his own universe. There’s a lot of movies out there these days, but I think it’s very rare to invent a whole genre for yourself as a director. Any actor would drop everything to get the chance to work with someone like that.

Diane Kruger interview
Diane Kruger with Denis Moschitto (second from left) in In the Fade.

DEADLINE: What can you say about the part, or parts, that you play?

KRUGER: I play Vincent Cassel’s deceased wife, who you see in various stages of her illness. She’s passing away from breast cancer. You also see me as her sister. And then I’m also playing an avatar that Vincent’s character has created in her memory.

DEADLINE: How did that work out for you?

KRUGER: The most difficult part was the wife, because we only see her in flashbacks, and those scenes tend to be quite emotional, for obvious reasons. I don’t know how to explain it, but… Knowing that the story was based on a personal story made it a little bit… I don’t know. I felt both of us were kind of tiptoeing around each other a little bit in those scenes, because I felt like David was reliving a little bit of his life every time I came on screen. But the sister was very fun to play. She’s very eccentric, as you’ll see in the film, and very, very, very different.

DEADLINE: What conversations did you have with David about the film? It obviously deals with ideas of grief and loss, but his films are also quite funny too…

KRUGER: We talked at length about that, about grief, what it means to be married for someone for so long. One of the things that struck me the most, and I think Vincent actually says it in the movie, is that when [Cronenberg’s] wife passed … He had been accompanying her through the entirety of her illness, so he knew that she was going to die. And he said that when she passed, the worst part of it was that he really wanted to jump into the coffin with her, because the thought of her being alone in death was almost impossible to take, and he had this incredible urge to just jump in. That really struck me.

So, the movie’s very much about that; about losing someone, even though you know you’re going to lose them. About growing old with someone, and what that actually means, what love actually really means, that sort of love you had with the physical body of someone, even if you know they’re dying of a sickness, an illness, the physical part we don’t talk about very often. The movie, in a very Cronenberg way, talks about that. It’s also very funny because at moments it’s kind of absurd. Especially, the sister character has true moments of absurdity. So, for me, it was kind of a fun balance.

DEADLINE: Was it a dark part to play? Did it weigh heavy on you?

KRUGER: It did, whether he meant that for me to carry that or not. Obviously, it’s very personal to him, and maybe I made more of it than I needed to. But David is a very… I don’t want to say he’s detached, because he’s right there with his actors, but, just like his films, there’s a step back from reality, from what’s actually happening on the set. But he was also very specific about character traits and very sure about how certain scenes needed to be done, because they are based on actual things that happened to the both of them. It’s a little bit strange for an actor to step into that kind of bedroom intimacy with someone who’s the survivor of that situation.

DEADLINE: And how was Vincent Cassel as your husband?

KRUGER: Vincent was a wonderful partner. It’s kind of the first time that he’s had a lead role in English, so I know that he worked a lot on that. There’s a lot of dialogue, and he worked with the dialogue coach for many, many months before we started filming. David doesn’t rehearse really; he doesn’t do table reads and all that kind of stuff, so Vincent and I would meet pretty much every night before we had a big scene together, just to go over dialogue and such.

DEADLINE: Would you describe The Shrouds as a genre film?

KRUGER: Yeah, but it’s the Cronenberg genre, right? It’s less gory than the last one he did, but it definitely has that tone. It’s kind of hard to define what genre it is. It’s not a horror movie by any stretch.

Diane Kruger interview
Kruger in Inglourious Basterds.

DEADLINE: It’s hard to identify themes and genres in your work. You’re a very fluid actress…

KRUGER: The only genre that I don’t really like for myself is the pure slasher type of movie. I’ve been offered the odd one in my career, but I just don’t like watching them, so I’ve naturally never signed on to one. Although, who knows, it might be fun to do one. I think I tend to do a lot of films that are satire. I love a comedy. I haven’t done many, but they’re really fun to make. I feel like I’ve done one and a half. I always like to find roles for myself that sort of have an undertone of something light and comedic.

DEADLINE: Which are the one and a half?

KRUGER: Well, there was a French film with Dany Boon [A Perfect Plan, 2012], many years ago. He’s the king of comedy in France, so it was kind of easy to do that with him. And then there’s a part of me that feels like Inglourious Basterds is very funny. There are definitely funny scenes in there.

DEADLINE: Speaking of which, you came to Cannes with Inglourious Basterds in 2009. How many times have you been to the festival now?

KRUGER: I haven’t counted but I’ve been a few times. Really, my career started in Cannes. In fact, the very first time I went to Cannes was probably the most extravagant one. I’d just made a French picture by Guillaume Canet, which was called Mon Idole [2002], and I was going to be given the Chopard award for Best Newcomer. I was filming Troy at the time, which was only my second film, on location in Malta, but the producers wouldn’t release me to travel to Cannes. So, I guess Chopard sent a small private plane to Malta to get me, after I wrapped that night. I was wearing a wig for Troy and so, in the plane on the way to Cannes — without electricity — this poor hairdresser was trying to get the glue out of my glued-back hair. I just remember it being absolute craziness. And then, wearing a dress I’d never even tried on before, I went from wherever the plane landed — I guess Nice — straight to the ceremony, and then I went back the next morning to set. I’ve never had that experience again.

Kruger with Brad Pitt and Melanie Laurent at the <em>Inglourious Basterds</em> photo call in Cannes.
Kruger with Brad Pitt and Melanie Laurent at the Inglourious Basterds photo call in Cannes.

DEADLINE: What do you remember of that year at the festival with Inglourious Basterds?

KRUGER: Being very nervous, because no one had seen the movie, right? Quentin was cutting it, literally, I think, until the day before it screened. I know that they’ve changed things now but, at that time, Cannes would screen the movie for the press first, and then afterwards was the photo call and then the press conference. Which is great, but also terrifying at the same time because sometimes you get to the press conference and you already know that your movie’s not good or that nobody likes your film.

Anyway, so we get to the photo call and all our agents, managers… Everyone is rushing to meet us, coming out of the screening saying, “It’s great, it’s great! People love it!” So, we’re all super energized for the premiere [laughs]. It’s so hard to watch a movie for the first time anyway, let alone watch it with an audience at Cannes, and then, of course, as soon as the lights come on, Quentin was looking at all of us to see if we liked it. So, immediately, there was all that confusion, of us wanting to jump into his arms and congratulate him, and people liking the movie. But it made for the best premiere party that I’ve ever been to, for sure.

DEADLINE: Was your performance in Inglorious Basterds, as Bridget Von Hammersmark, the first time you were able to draw on German actresses as an influence? You perhaps absorbed a little bit of Hildegard Neff, and maybe even Marlene Dietrich, for that role…

KRUGER: Hildegard Neff, yeah. Knowing Quentin, when I met him, I knew he wasn’t going to tell me he based that role on Marlene Dietrich. That would’ve been too obvious for him. And I was right, because he immediately cited a different actress, Zarah Leander. But for me, it was always Hildegard Neff. She had a very specific voice, especially her singing.

For me, I grew up with those kinds of films. My grandparents would watch them. I remember getting the script and feeling like, “If I get the opportunity to audition for this, I know I can do this.” It was all on the page. But, having said that, Quentin’s dialogue is not easy for a non-English language native speaker. It’s very nuanced, and it has very American references that not everybody would know of or have heard of. So, it’s not easy to learn. But I just remember that because I did [audition], we got to meet. And that look in Quentin’s eyes, I’ll never forget it. I love him so much. He’s such a geek about filmmaking and movies. You just want to please him. [Laughs.] There’s something about him. You want to see him happy. He’s just such a big teddy bear when he’s on set.

DEADLINE: Do you still remember now why you wanted to become an actress?

KRUGER: I was a ballet dancer before. I studied with the Royal Academy. I don’t come from an artistic family at all; I’m from a very small place in Germany. Being on stage and doing performing arts seemed to be the only way for me to be able to release certain anxieties and tensions that I was experiencing in my childhood. Like a lot of kids — I’m assuming — I never fitted into my class, or my school, or with what was important to those kids and what they wanted to become. I just didn’t see it. I was completely lost as to what it was that was expected of me. I always loved reading, and I loved performing, and… I don’t know, I just loved being a better, more exciting version of myself, I guess.

I ended up being cast as a model in Paris, and it was there that I discovered Romy Schneider’s French work. She was my favorite actress growing up. And so, little by little, it dawned on me that maybe the French liked Germans who could speak French. I met a young man who was an actor, and he suggested, “Why don’t you go to [Paris drama school] Cours Florent? Study for three years and see?” I did that, and I still, to this day, think they were the happiest days of my life. Smoking way too many cigarettes, discovering Victor Hugo, and feeling very, very French. Those were my college years, I guess, and I never looked back.

DEADLINE: How long did you stay in Paris?

KRUGER: I’m still kind of in Paris. I moved there when I was 16, and I’ve kept a place there ever since.

DEADLINE: Is it really true that In the Fade was your first ever German-language performance?

KRUGER: Yeah, I mean, I speak a little bit of German in Inglorious Basterds. But I left Germany when I was very young. I don’t even have an agent in Germany. I don’t know a lot of people in the German film industry. I started in France.

DEADLINE: What attracted you to that project? It’s a really tough part. Did Fatih have to convince you?

KRUGER: No. I was a huge fan of Fatih’s work. He’s a big, big star in Germany, even outside the film industry. When you walk with him in Hamburg, people stop him all the time for autographs. It’s kind of crazy. He’s sort of the poster child for German cinema, but also for a certain kind of rebellion, I guess. In Germany, there’s lots of Turkish immigrants, and so his films touch upon subjects that are very much what’s happening in Germany.

DEADLINE: How did you meet?

KRUGER: When I was on the jury in Cannes, he had a documentary there [Polluting Paradise, 2012], and so I asked if I could come and meet him. I said, “If you ever, ever have anything for me, even if it’s a day’s work, I’ll do it. I love your films. I think you’re awesome.” [Laughs.] It took him five years to call me back, but I was completely starstruck by him. And when I read the script… It was the role of a lifetime.

Diane Kruger interview
Kruger with director Fatih Akin after winning the award for best actress for her part in In The Fade.

DEADLINE: What do you remember about the night you won the Best Actress award for In the Fade?

KRUGER: We were still in Cannes, because we screened on the Friday before closing night. I was getting ready to leave when they called to say, “Please stay.” We knew we were getting something, but we didn’t know what. It was a very emotional time for me, because I hadn’t seen the movie prior to Cannes. Fatih had only just finished it. It was a very emotional shoot, and I hadn’t been able to work after it wrapped, because a lot of stuff happened. My stepdad passed away; my grandmother passed away… I was just emotionally emptied out. I couldn’t take on any more work. I signed on to projects only to pull out the day after.

So, that was all happening. And then four days before the movie screened, the Manchester attacks happened [when a suicide bomber killed 22 people and injured many more at a 2017 Ariana Grande concert in the UK]. All this stuff came back. I’d been seeing people grieve for so long that it was like an endless black tunnel of people grieving. So, when they called my name, I was truly, truly overwhelmed. I almost didn’t even go up. It was a total blur. But also, in a way, a relief. A relief to feel like, “Well, somebody saw it. Somebody appreciated the work and appreciated the movie.” Cannes means a lot in that respect, because it’s not like the Oscars, where you can campaign for it. There’s no studio that spends thousands of dollars in advertising. It’s a very immediate thing: You screen the film, and, if they like it, they give you recognition for that. It felt very spontaneous and just… real. It’s a real moment. I’ve been on that jury myself, and I know what happens in that room. So, I was very, very appreciative.

DEADLINE: Did you enjoy your time on the jury or was it stressful?

KRUGER: Both. It’s amazing how heated things get. And I learned a lot, to be honest, because, obviously I’m an actor, so I look at movies and performances from a very particular point of view. It’s a very emotional point of view, in a way. So, to be in a group of people that are producers, directors… I don’t know, it just alters your perspective when you find out why some people don’t like a movie, or a performance, or why they do like it. It’s a very interesting thing to be part of. I loved it. It was also really cool to be in Cannes and only do that. You’re so protected from all the other things that are happening. You’re not supposed to read anything. I didn’t even really go out anywhere. I just got up every morning and watched three movies. So, yeah, it was an awesome time.

DEADLINE: You’re working on Fatih Akin’s new film Amrum. What can you say about that?

KRUGER: I’m just doing a very small part, because it’s really a movie about a young child. I’m going to go right after Cannes to do it. Hark Bohm, Fatih’s co-writer on In the Fade, wanted to make a movie about his experience as a young kid at the end of World War II, on this small island of Amrum in the north of Germany. He was going to direct it himself, but he’s too old now, so Fatih took the project over for him. It’s a very emotional, sweet story. I’m just really doing a four-day part.

DEADLINE: Do you have a favorite place in Cannes? You’ve obviously been there a lot

KRUGER: No. It’s tough when you’re there. You can’t go anywhere. It’s craziness. My favorite place is probably the backstage area of the Palais. If you’re a jury member, or if you have a film there, they take you backstage, and you see all the pictures of the people that have come to Cannes, that have won in Cannes. And you meet the people that work there. They’re all cinephiles, right? All they want to do is talk about movies. It’s really awesome.

Diane Kruger interview
Kruger with Guillaume and Christian Carion on the Palais steps after the screening of Joyeux Noel.

DEADLINE: What’s your favorite memory?

KRUGER: I’ll share it with you. One of my first films in Cannes was Joyeux Noel [2005], and we screened out of competition. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s a picture about a Christmas truce, based on a true story that happened on Christmas Eve in World War I. I play an opera singer [who sings for the troops on the Western Front]. In Europe, obviously, everybody has a story about World War I. Most of our great-grandparents had someone who was in the war.

Read the digital edition of Deadline’s Disruptors/Cannes magazine <a href="https://issuu.com/deadlinehollywood/docs/0514_deadline_disruptors?fr=xIAEoAT3_NTU1" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:here;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">here</a>.
Read the digital edition of Deadline’s Disruptors/Cannes magazine here.

The movie got a 20-minute standing ovation, and as we were gathering to leave, all the people that had actually paid for their seats had come downstairs, and they were standing on the red carpet on both sides where, usually, the photographers are. There were hundreds and hundreds of people, and the festival put on a recording of “Ave Maria”, which I sing a cappella in the film. We didn’t know they were going to do this, but as we were coming down the steps, all these people — not journalists or photographers — were standing there applauding, with tears in their eyes. It’s the most amazing memory that I have of Cannes. I cannot even begin to tell you what a feeling that was. So, Cannes truly can be magic. There’s all the parties, all the glitz, and the glamour, but there are also real people that go to see the movies that are born at the festival and that then go out and touch the lives of so many others. Cannes is magic that way. I hope it’ll never change.

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