Johanna Wokalek

The Inscrutable

Johanna Wokalek in Der Baader Meinhof Komplex  Copyright: Constantin-Film
Johanna Wokalek in Der Baader Meinhof Komplex  Copyright: Constantin-Film
She can hardly complain about not being in the public eye, although perhaps it has all become too much for her. Johanna Wokalek has been in some of the biggest and most expensive feature films of recent years, whether playing Gudrun Ensslin, the figurehead of the terrorist Red Army Faction, or the fictional pope, Johanna von Ingelheim. For an actress of her standing such spectacular roles cannot to be taken for granted.

She was born in 1975, the daughter of a doctor. Wokalek does not enjoy being the centre of attention - even in the roles she plays she often comes across as thoughtful and reserved. She works on her characters in an intellectual as opposed to an intuitive way, but once she is in character, she is capable of surprise. Considered stand-offish, Wokalek can also be self-confident and cynical like no other. And when she reveals her beaming smile, then every film is set off as if by magic in another direction.

The Stage as a Second Home

Johanna Wokalek is one of those actresses who come from theatre and view the stage as their second home. She was accepted at the Max-Reinhardt-Seminar in Vienna straight after leaving school and was taught by no less a person than Klaus Maria Brandauer. Under his instruction she developed her acting maxims: “The most important thing is the thought. How to make words that I have not thought up myself, my own. As if they had come from me, were felt by me, conceived and thought by me.” The opposite would be to prove oneself in every scene. Wokalek revealed her talent in the much-celebrated production of Alma – A Show Biz ans Ende, playing the role of the Viennese femme fatale Alma Mahler-Werfel, in Brecht's Threepenny Opera, and in the title role in Hauptmann's Rose Bernd. In 1999 the 24-year old won the Alfred-Kerr Prize for these roles she performed at the Schauspiel Bonn.

She made her film debut in Aimee und Jaguar (1998) as part of a lovely women's clique and revealed in full the cheeky attitude redolent of Berlin. Since then Wokalek has played mainly starring roles. Hans Steinbichler cast her in his modern 'Heimatfilm' Hierankl (2002), in which she played a girl who goes to visit her 68-year old parents after years of silence and starts a twilight affair with her mother's ex-lover. She received the Bavarian Film Prize for that role. An even larger number of people watched her next film but saw mainly just her legs when she played Leila, an inmate in a psychiatric hospital with behavioural difficulties in the film Barfuss (2005), alongside German pin-up Til Schwieger, who also directed and produced. In this rich half-baked disability romance she manages the difficult task of not caricaturing the naïve and child-like star-gazing girl in a nightdress. Thanks to her, the film received a Bambi.

Talent for Self-Control

The contrast to her role in Uli Edel's much-debated RAF drama Der Baader-Menhof-Komplex (2008) could not be greater. As the lascivious and fanatical Gudrun Ensslin, Johanna Wokalek is almost too sexy for a terrorist. Stern magazine named her “the real sensation of the film”. Smoking and swearing and hurling herself against her cell door, she was finally given the opportunity to use her physicality. The haunting scene in which Ensslin spies upon her cell-mate Ulrike Meinhof (played by Martina Gedeck) was almost completely improvised. And yet she did not feel any connection to the pastor's daughter Ensslin, who also comes from Southern Germany: “I understand from a historical point of view the longing for a fairer world, and even wanting to fight for it. But the moment the killing started then I no longer understood her.” However in the film there is no sign that the woman “was ultimately completely alien to me”.

Johanna Wokalek in Die Päpstin  Copyright Constantin-FilmIn contrast, the internationally-successful film Die Päpstin (2009) made use of her talent for self-control, yet at the same time could be described as her most difficult role. The screenplay did not assist in making the job of being a woman dressed as a man in pope's robes any easier. Even a monk's tonsure did not disguise the very delicate female body (“I had short hair for the first time since I was three year's old”). Nevertheless in Sönke Wortmann's epic film, Wokalek made an impression with her representation of firm faith in the face of medieval religious fanaticism – using a bold mixture of feminine assertiveness and abnegation, but above all, the constant fear of being found out.

Happiest living in Vienna

Want to see a piece of the real, the inscrutable Johanna Wokalek? She keeps her personal ideas about religious faith, as she does all her private affairs, secret. She views public galas, to which she is frequently invited because of her many awards, as simply part of the job. It's like playing a part, something that enables her to do the job in the first place. “On the one hand one is prepared to give everything, but on the other hand, one is protected by the character.” She is happiest living in Vienna. (“This city has an atmosphere that enables so much creativity.”) Here tradition dictates that the much-adored actors of the city theatre scene are allowed their peace and quiet. At Vienna's legendary Burgtheater she has already played the title roles in Kleist's Kätchen von Heilbronn and Lessing's Emilia Galotti as well as in more modern plays, such as Neil LaBute's Some Girl(s). Hopefully the German film industry will not have to wait too long to make full use of Johanna Wokalek's charisma and joy in her work.

Philipp Bühler is a freelance journalist and film-critic living in Berlin.
Article translated by Penny Black

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
December 2009

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