The face is public, the soul is private

Times Staff Writer

It is Christmas Eve. Two women sit on a hotel bed, gazing into each other’s eyes. They kiss. The younger woman begins to remove her blouse. Then the older woman puts an end to the moment of intimacy and the younger one, confused and embarrassed, storms off.

The scene is from director Angelina Maccarone’s German film “Vivere,” featuring actress Hannelore Elsner in the role of the aging, lovesick lesbian, Gerlinde, whose face is lined with pain because her secret lover -- not this younger woman she has just met -- has chosen to be with her husband and children over the holiday.

The R-rated film, which opened Friday and is showing exclusively at the Sunset 5, tells the story of three women of different generations whose lives intersect. Francesca (Esther Zimmering), who earns a living operating her own taxi at night, sets out from Germany to Holland in search of her rebellious little sister (Kim Schnitzer), who has run off with her musician boyfriend. Along the way, Francesca comes upon a car wreck, rescuing the unconscious driver, Gerlinde, who then accompanies Francesca on her journey. Soon, the two are caught up in the aforementioned romantic moment.

“I saw a woman who is nearly like me,” Elsner said of Gerlinde as she sat down for lunch recently at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. “She never gives up -- and she loves and hates and suffers with all her heart. She takes to life. She doesn’t say, ‘Oh, now, I’m of a certain age and I don’t love anymore. I don’t want to suffer anymore.’ No. She takes it all.”


At 65 but looking years younger than her on-screen appearance in “Vivere,” the diminutive, dark-eyed Elsner has been an award-winning star of German cinema, television and theater for five decades. Like a Meryl Streep or a Judi Dench, she almost seems to live inside the characters she creates.

Virtually unknown to American audiences, Elsner is so celebrated in her homeland that the German government awarded her its Order of Merit, the highest tribute the Federal Republic of Germany can pay to individuals for services to the nation. Elsner, whose English is fluent but not perfect, looks around the quiet Four Seasons dining area and remarks, “If this would be a German restaurant, everybody would know me.”

Fame, she points out, has its privileges. “It’s nice to get a table everywhere. It’s nice to be always late at the airport and they say, ‘Come on.’ ” Then her smile disappears. “Sometimes it’s not very nice.” Like when she is asked about her private life.

Did she take directors as lovers? “Yes, of course,” she says, “but this is an old story.” (Her 26-year-old son, Dominik, came from a relationship with the director Dieter Wedel.)


Does she live with somebody now? “I’m not saying one word about this. Even they call me single and I hate this word, you know?”

Is it hard to be an actress in the era of tabloids? “Yes, but it’s not so hard for me because I won’t tell you all these things. If the actors want to tell everything, they must not wonder if this is in the gossip columns.”

The aura of mystery that Elsner so carefully has cultivated is one of the qualities that made Maccarone realize she was so right for the role. “She has been a star in Germany since the 1960s, I guess,” Maccarone said. “I grew up watching her on TV and admiring her. I love her warmth and passion, and I think she is one of the few stars we have in Germany who [are] mysterious and, at the same time, are totally within reach for people who admire her. . . . She is a huge star for the lesbian community as well. She is an idol. She is a strong woman. She never judges a part by ‘Can it hurt her career?’ She’s not worried about her image.”

Elsner was born during World War II in Burghausen, a little Bavarian town near the Austrian border. Her older brother, Manfred, was killed at age 6 in an Allied bombing raid while on his way to visit their grandmother.

“The death of my brother was always in our home, of course,” Elsner said sadly, adding that her father, whom she loved dearly, died at age 40. He was not a Nazi, she noted, but worked as an engineer at a chemical factory. “When my father died, I had the feeling I’m alone, I’m really alone in the world. But this feeling makes me strong.”

A fateful walk

From age 8 until her early teens, Elsner lived in a series of convents “because I was a wild girl,” she said with a mischievous smile. “I was terrible. Living in a convent, you either become a nun or somebody like me -- an anarchist.”

Growing up, she wanted to become a pediatrician, but then fate stepped in one day as she and her mother walked along the streets of Munich. A car containing a Turkish film director and a German producer pulled up. The director took one look at the girl and remarked: “She is my star.” Soon, mother and daughter were in Istanbul rehearsing for a part in his film, but the financing fell through and the movie was never made.


Still, her interest in acting was piqued. She accepted an offer from a German film company to enter drama school. “I wanted to become really good, and I knew that I had to learn really my whole life to do that,” she recalled. “I played many, many years in theater -- 20 years.” She became a leading actress of the New German Cinema of the 1970s, and in the 1980s, Elsner began to work steadily in several TV series. The next decade saw her land the lead as a female police detective in the German TV crime series “Die Kommissarin.”

When reminded that British actress and Oscar winner Helen Mirren also starred in a TV police series while working in films, Elsner brightens: “I love Helen Mirren. Ah, oh, I love her!”

In January, Elsner appeared as Countess Rostova in a sweeping European TV miniseries “War and Peace.” At month’s end, she flew to Los Angeles, where she was feted at the Goethe Institute of L.A. along with a screening of her film “Go for Zucker!,” a lighthearted look at German Jews, which won Germany’s equivalent of the Oscar for best picture.

In February, Elsner attended the Berlin International Film Festival, starring in German director Doris Dorrie’s family drama “Cherry Blossoms -- Hanami,” which was in competition. In the film, Elsner plays a Bavarian woman who gave up her dreams to raise a family. The woman and her husband now resemble “two gray stones,” the actress said. “The children are grown up, and they are like stones too. Young, busy and cold. I think this film can reach everybody. Everybody is crying when they see this film.”

Elsner adds: “I give so much of myself in my parts. I always say, if you want to know something about me, really, watch my face, because you see everything. Because every part I embody. It’s a part of my fame. It is my joy. It is my soul. Of course, I have had hard times in my life, many hard times, but I’m like a survivor. Hard times are a part of life. You have to take it. You have to overcome.”