Nico, 1988 Director Susanna Nicchiarelli on Fame and the Final Days of the Cold War

Director Susanna Nicchiarelli on the set of NICO, 1988
Director Susanna Nicchiarelli on the set of NICO, 1988 | Magnolia Pictures

“So…do you want to tell us about your experience with the Velvet Underground? Those must of been the best years of your life.”

“Well, we took a lot of LSD. That was…what we did.”

A gloomy, somewhat somnambulant film that abruptly bursts into real rock brava, Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Nico, 1988 is not the standard biopic—and for that we should be grateful. Its subject, Christa Päffgen—or Nico, of Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol acclaim—is middle-aged, haggard, touring with a band of misfits while nursing an unglamorous heroin habit. The insouciance of the Factory days has been smugly replaced with Reagan-Thatcher excess; the slick has everywhere shucked the strange. Like Wings of Desire sans the splendor, Nico, 1988 captures a late-Cold War European ethos that suddenly, and at times traumatically, appeared to vanish overnight. It is also the rare film that refuses to revel in the depraved at the expense of its protagonist’s humanity, boasting what is possibly the most banal depiction of shooting up to appear on-screen. But in her moments of shaky triumph, Trine Dyrholm’s Nico utterly radiates—without vanity or apology, the kind of female celebrity we just don’t see anymore.

Chatting with Nicchiarelli, who is expecting the birth of her second child in Rome the very same week as her movie’s U.S. premiere, the filmmaker is clearly both excited about her English-language debut and rueful that she can’t be where the action is. Reflecting upon her experience of the 1980s growing up in Italy, and the factors informing Nico’s low-fi aesthetic, the director is neither nostalgic for the past nor confident that times have gotten any better. Such measured candor resonates with the tenor of the film itself; there are eras that need not prompt our longing, icons that warrant thought over worship.

Your film captures the zeitgeist of the mid to late ‘80s in such a striking way, especially how the final years of the Cold War were in dialogue with Nico’s memories of World War II. In a way, the film serves as not just a biopic about the singer, but the time period, and how her presence within that time period was something symbolic.

Growing up in Italy—I was pretty young when Nico died; 13 in 1988. I don’t remember Nico dying because I didn’t know who Nico was at the time. But I do have a strong memory of the ‘80s, and I do have a strong memory of how Europe changed completely the year after she died. Everything disappeared; Germany reunited, the Berlin Wall fell, and a lot of things changed very, very rapidly. The Cold War had been very present in our daily imagination—fear of the atomic bomb, for example. Everything was so urgent, but then all of that disappeared.

And the film shows how out of place Nico was then—the spirit of the late ‘60s misaligned with the music scene of the ‘80s. But then, with the concert in Eastern Europe—in Prague—she captures a spirit of rebellion and independence that is so powerful.

This movie is about Nico, but I also wanted this to be a movie about the ‘80s—the late ‘80s, which was a very specific time. Image-wise, we were inspired by the VHS quality that looked so beautiful back then—those lights and those colors. But everything that looked pretty in the mid-‘80s and the second half of the ‘80s actually looks horrible today. I find that fascinating.

I wanted Nico to travel around in that kind of world and see her in that context. I found that extremely interesting. First of all because Nico’s life was so interesting historically—what she actually lived. She was born before the second World War, she lived through the second World War, she lived through the German Defeat, through the ‘60s and ‘70s, and then she died in the ‘80s just a year before everything changed. She never saw her country reunited. She never saw what happened afterwards.

I found that interesting—telling that moment in time, that generation that was born during the War. We tend to forget that the ‘60s generation was the same generation who were kids during the Second World War. Many of them lost their parents at war. Think about Roger Waters’ father, and Nico was the same as she also lost her Dad.

The ‘80s were a moment in which the people belonging to this generation arrived and were totally out of place. That’s also why, in telling that time, it was important for me to put in the song “Big in Japan.” I wanted to include an ‘80s pop song at some point in the film. When the band is running away from Czechoslovakia and headed to Poland, I wanted a pop song to come out of the radio that was completely different than Nico’s music.

And that song plays again during the credits—with Trine Dyrholm covering it.

I chose “Big in Japan” to represent an age that was actually deeply desperate. Heroin was so big, as was a certain conception of life—of fame, of success. It was all very cruel, the hedonistic ‘80s where you had to be the best or you somehow didn’t exist. “Big in Japan” is a great song from this point of view because it sounds like any other pop ‘80s music, but then it deals with big issues: success, being famous, and the emptiness of the concept of fame, of being “big in Japan.” It’s also a German song set in the neighborhood of the Zoogarten, about two kids waiting for heroin. So there are a lot of levels to it. I could have it come out of the radio and have it be funny when they’re passing the cemetery, but when Trine sings it again it at the end the words take on new meaning. The lyrics to the song are actually very interesting.

It seems like the ‘80s were a time in which global fame was achievable in a different way. Your film seems to examine who’s included and who’s excluded in that type of fame—and for what reason.

There’s a sentence that Nico says that deals with these issues: “I’ve been on the top, I’ve been on the bottom, and both places are empty.” That’s really the theme of the film. The point is, life is everything that goes on in the middle—between success and failure, famous or not famous, which are really only empty ideas or concepts in the end. Usually in biopics the concept of fame versus being forgotten seems to be the main issues of rock stars’ lives. But it’s not true. People’s lives are much more complicated and much more interesting—thank God.  

That’s basically what I wanted to say with this movie. The fact is that these final years of Nico’s life were arguably the best years because she was much more in control, she was happy, and she had her band. No matter how loser and nerdy they were, traveling around in a world that didn’t recognize their importance, she was happy. I liked the idea of setting that in an ‘80s context.

Where did you shoot the climactic concert scene in Prague?

I shot it in a school in Belgium. It was built in the ‘30s and looked very much like the style of architecture we were looking for. It was believable for Eastern Europe—the green colors, which reminded us of that region.

The film does such a great job of capturing the feeling and topography of that time. You also wrote the script for the film, and I was curious about the research you conducted to dig into the ethos of the era.

Well, first of all, in terms of the Prague concert, I met the man who organized it, the promoter in Prague. Everything is true—even the way that Nico asked for heroin before the show. The fact that the concert was illegal, that the police came—it’s all true. It’s what the Czech promoter told me, and the promoter character in the movie is based on him. It’s all more or less reality. I take no credit for that [laughs].

That’s also the moment that Dyrholm comes the most alive onstage—and on-screen. Suddenly in this dangerous atmosphere she can channel the creative demons that give her a voice, that make her such a powerful performer.

What I found interesting when I was approaching Nico’s story is that in the ‘80s a lot of rock bands would go on the other side of the Iron Curtain to play in what were often illegal, secret concerts. A lot of times these rock stars were going without understanding what they were dealing with, and what the people who would see them play were risking. I find that a very interesting theme, a very interesting thing about European history in general. On one side of the wall we were completely decadent, and Nico’s music didn’t speak to young people anymore. But on the other side, her music meant freedom. It’s fascinating if you think about it.

What do you think Nico would have made of the rapid change after 1988?

I don’t know. It’s very difficult to imagine what Nico would have done and what she would have become if she hadn’t died. Like she says in the movie, “I want to become a very elegant old woman.” That’s something that Ari, her son, told me. I asked him if she was afraid of becoming old at all, and he said, “No, she said all the time that she wanted to be an elegant old woman.” I like the fact that she said that. I find it so touching. And I find it such a brave way of dealing with her life. She was very brave in dealing with her present, her past, and her future too. I’m just sorry she could never become that elegant old woman.