Interview Susanna Nicchiarelli and Trine Dyrholm

She was Andy Warhol’s muse, a model and singer in The Velvet Underground. In the mid-eighties, Christa Päffgen is hardly reminiscent of that Nico, the pop icon. Susanna Nicchiarelli decided to make a film about Päffgen's later years.

When you become famous for your beauty at a young age, it might all be over by the time you’re 25 years old. Such was the case with Nico. Andy Warhol, after Nico’s days in the spotlights, said: “She became a fat junkie and disappeared.”

According to Italian filmmaker Susanne Nicchiarelli (1975), “these brutal comments were simply part of the hyper-pop culture of the sixties. You became a superstar and then, just as quickly, disappeared from the stage. Usually in a tragic fashion. Model Edie Sedgwick committed suicide, transgender star Candy Darling died a lonely and miserable death – like many other figures from Warhol’s entourage.”

“Everything was fleeting. The intriguing thing about Nico was that she survived. She was so much stronger. Later, you see a forty-year-old who managed to overcome the problems of her earlier life. She was truly self-critical. And although she died at 50, this film shows that positive side.”

The last years of Nico are central to Nico, 1988. While touring through Europe with her band, she gives fantastic, but also tragic performances on stage. In the meantime, she tries to build a relationship with her estranged son, kick the hard drugs, and find and respect herself as a human being.

  • Still: Nico, 1988

  • Still: Nico, 1988

Woman, mother, artist
Nicchiarelli was fascinated by Nico the artist, but also by Nico the woman, mother and phenomenon. “The second part of her life was actually more interesting, although it remained obscure for many people. When she turned 30 in 1968, she started writing her own music. She composed soundtracks for Philippe Garrel, very experimental. She was always looking for new sounds and didn’t care about commercial success. In retrospect, she is at the cradle of gothic and new wave. Hardly anyone knows.”

Despite intensive research, travelling and speaking to people in Nico’s life, Nicchiarelli never wanted to make a biopic. Together with main actress Trine Dyrholm, she sketched a character that is more universal, not an exact copy. Nicchiarelli: “It was never going to be a biographical fan film, but a more universal story about a woman, a mother and an artist. A woman who is looking for her place in the world.”

The acclaimed Danish actress Trine Dyrholm (Kollektivet, Festen) is a true chameleon as Nicchiarelli's version of Nico. The tall blond Dyrholm is an expressive, spontaneous woman; 'her' Nico a dark-haired, often unfortunate rock star in decay. Dyrholm, who, like most people, initially knew just the famous young Nico, soon learned to love and understand the older one. Dyrholm: “Nico is a woman who started her adult life as a model, an icon even. But she did not fit that role. She hated it. Thus, she transformed into a messy-looking, self-destructive woman who barely washed herself. I read an interview in which she said that she would rather have been born as a man. She was too beautiful to be respected and the men in her young life defined who she was. She thought that was terrible.”

“I think she struggled with many things in life. Can you be rock 'n roll and a mother at the same time? The fact that she was born a German in 1938, at a time when that was something to be ashamed of, was difficult. Everything in her life in fact revolved around identity: who are you, who do you want to be?”

Even for me, it took years before I found my real identity and I could shake off that early pop star image.” – Trine Dyrholm

Pop star image
The main character of Nico, 1988 is a middle-aged woman. Nicchiarelli: “Historically, few films are made about older women, unless they are world famous. Most of the time, films are about men and the younger women in their lives. Nico, 1988 is closer to the reality of many women who hardly see themselves represented in the cinema.”

“Could a man have made this film? There are certainly male filmmakers who are empathic enough, not all men are blind. I do think that female directors choose different perspectives, show other female bodies and have a different way of looking.” Dyrholm adds: “The ‘female gaze’ is a current theme in the film industry, but I don’t necessarily think you should be woman to tell a woman’s story in an honest way.”

Although there aren’t many similarities between the life of Nico and Dyrholm, some aspects are familiar to the Danish actress. “When I was fourteen, I suddenly became famous when I participated in the Eurovision Song Contest. I was the youngest Danish participant ever. I could sing, I toured with a band, and I was used to recording in studios and performing live. These were valuable experiences that I could use for this role.” Dyrholm sang all songs herself, together with the Italian band Gatto Ciliegia Contro il Grande Freddo. Another recognizable theme was being the living image of a pop singer. Dyrholm: “Even for me, it took years before I found my real identity and I could shake off that early pop star image.”

Nico succeeded in doing the same when she was 45 years old. “Only then did she find herself and her place in the world. This is true for many women – and men. It’s the time in your life when your career takes flight, when you have solved the child problem and when you’ve become self-assured. Although in media and film, it almost seems like a woman of that age has come to the end of her existence, the opposite is true. They are often her most successful, interesting years.”

Photo in header: Interview: Maricke Nieuwdorp