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She ate a paper ball at the audition, she lied about being able to play the piano and she cut holes in her good clothes to look the part – and she got the role. Hannah Herzsprung, who plays Jenny in Four Minutes, confesses to Andrew L. Urban.

In the classical but cosy ambiance of a penthouse suite of the Double Bay Stamford Hotel in Sydney, the effervescence of Hannah Herzsprung seems hardly contained. Unlike her hard-as-nails on screen character, Jenny, in Four Minutes, Hannah exudes a youthful femininity, tinged with contempo touches, like the black hair that’s been given a dark blue electric shock, drawing out her extraordinary blue eyes. She is casually smart in a deep mauve wrap that half covers a low cut white top. Gold thongs at the end of her neat, dark blue jeans show off cute red toenails. Her smile is fresh, natural, genuine. Her career is now rocket propelled - the total opposite of her character Jenny – spiritually, emotionally and geographically.

"I just burned to play Jenny"

“You know, after I read the script I just burned to play Jenny,” she says with animated hands. “I’m totally not her, but I was fascinated by her … what happened to her to be like that, I kept wondering.” Hannah and about 1200 other aspiring young actresses burned to play Jenny, as writer/director Chris Kraus went through the auditioning process for more than a year.

Four Minutes is a prison drama like no other. Former pianist Traude Krüger (Monica Bleibtreu) has been driving to the same women's prison at Luckau almost every morning since 1944. She teaches her female students - thieves, frauds and killers - how to play the piano. Like the convicted, volatile young murderer, Jenny (Hannah Herzsprung), whose short life is already filled with trauma, abuse and loss. When the 80-year-old piano teacher discovers the girl's secret, her brutality and her dreams, she decides to transform her pupil into the musical wunderkind she once was, defying Jenny’s violent temper – not always with success. Besides, Traude has secrets of her own ….

“Yes, but you know, Monica is really only 60 and she looks 40 and behaves like 20,” laughs Hannah. “So they had to work hard to make her look old!” Monica Bleibtreu is the mother of famous German star Moritz Bleibtreu (“I didn’t meet him yet, but like every other German girl, I’d like to!!”) Monica, like the rest of the film’s cast, is an experienced and respected actor. Although she has formal training and has had eight years TV experience, this is her first feature film role AND her first leading role, Hannah felt intimidated until she met them all and found them warm, caring and professional.

Both Hannah and Monica were nominated in the Best Actress category at this year’s German Film Awards. “I hope Monica wins,” she says generously. (And Monica did win. But Hanna won Best Supporting Actress Award for her role in Das Wahre Leben [Real Life].) Indeed, both roles are acting showcases. For Hannah to get the part in Four Minutes, she had to start with an audition that required her to play Jenny in two scenes. In the first, she is having another battle of wills with Monica’s piano teacher, Traude, who is laying down the law; there were three rules written on a piece of paper that she wanted Jenny to remember. At the end of the scene, she scrunches the paper into a ball and hands it to Jenny, saying: “Eat it!” In an act of acceptance, Jenny does.

"I was the only one who actually ate the paper in the audition!"

“What I didn’t know until after I got the part,” says Hannah, “is that of all the girls, I was the only one who actually ate the paper in the audition!” She had worn a wig to the audition to hide her beautiful hair, in the style of the tomboyish, rough and tumble persona of Jenny. “I cut holes in my expensive jeans and made my jumper all dirty … and I wore my oldest sneakers … that all helped me,” she says.

In the second audition scene, Jenny lets out her frustration by smashing her fist into a mirror in the prison toilets. This time, Hannah managed to avoid really smashing her fist into the glass. But her dedication and passion impressed Kraus. So did her endless stream of questions. Hannah was in Munich on the final day of shooting a telemovie, Emilia – The Second Chance. “I was playing a support role in this drama, and the last day was a very emotional scene, lots of crying and so on … at 8 in the morning, on the way to the set, my agent rang me and said ‘You got it!’ and I was so happy I found it very difficult to do the scene and be all miserable!”

She scampered back to Berlin, where she was to show off her piano playing prowess to the director and his team. In the film, she has to play a couple of tricky classical pieces – one of them with her back to the piano. At her audition, when Kraus asked if she played piano, she had said yes. “I mean, I thought well, this is a movie…they can cover my playing if they want.” She could play Twinkle Little Star and another children’s tune – and that’s all. Kraus was aghast. “What am I going to do with you?!” he moaned. “I’ve given you the role and you’re perfect … but the piano!” Hannah hadn’t realised how important her credible piano playing was going to be for the film.

Hannah was sent immediately on an intensive, daily piano course that would have to get her up to speed in six months. At the same time, because she would be required to do her own stunts (fights, mostly) she had to get into shape. She was sent off to kickboxing lessons. The kickboxing piano player was being forged into Jenny.

“I was scared,” says Hannah, “that the audience wouldn’t believe me … that they’ll see the acting. I’ve seen so many dramatic performances where I could see them acting, I didn’t want that. I wanted the audience to feel that it’s Jenny, just as I felt it. But Chris is such a perfectionist, and his belief in me gave me great confidence.”

Published June 21, 2007

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Hannah Herzsprung
Monica Bleibtreu, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Hannah Herzsprung at the German Film Prize award ceremony in Berlin May 4, 2007.
Pic Reuters/Hannibal Hanschke

.... in Four Minutes

... in Real Life

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