When X Company‘s Livia Matthes was growing up in Berlin, she saw bullet holes scarring the walls of many buildings she passed, daily reminders of the toll the Second World War took on Germany. Meanwhile, in school, she learned about the toll Nazism took on the world.
“In Germany, we have the most Third Reich education in the world,” she explains. “We start in third grade, and until 13th grade, we have Nazi education each month. We learn a lot from the time we are small children, so I know a lot about that topic.”
However, even with her background, Matthes found her character Sabine—Franz Faber’s sheltered wife—a little mysterious when she first landed the part.
“There is no material on the wives of Nazi officers,” she says. “There’s nothing, it’s really crazy. So basically, it was an empty page.”
Matthes and the show’s writers have taken that empty page and created one the show’s most compelling characters. Over three seasons, viewers of the CBC spy drama have seen Sabine grow from an isolated mother trying to hide her disabled son, Ulli, from the Nazis to a woman being manipulated by everyone around her to a woman who is ready stand on her own.
As this week’s episode, “Friendly Fire,” begins, Sabine is still reeling from her father’s revelation he believes Ulli was “a parasite.” But Matthes says that painful blow is the final step in Sabine’s journey to autonomy.
“After that conversation, there’s just really no one left she can trust anymore, and basically she has nothing to lose anymore,” she says. “So she will take her life into her own hands and just do what she feels is right and follow her own heart.”
Matthes—who has multiple German TV and film credits and recently popped up in the Netflix series Sense8—joins us by phone from Brazil to give us more insights into Sabine and tell us what she loved most about working on X Company.
How did you become involved in X Company?
Livia Matthes: I had auditioned for another part and then a couple of months later, I received an email that I didn’t get that part, but they would like to propose to me the part of Sabine. So I prepared myself because there wasn’t much information for her, and I really read a lot of books and watched a lot of film.
Then when we all met again in Budapest to shoot Season 2, Mark and Steph told me that they really liked what I did and wanted to know more about Sabine and explore that part more. Then she became a constant character on the show.
What were your first thoughts on Sabine?
When I did research, I couldn’t find anything. There are no documentations, there are no articles, there is nothing if you search the Internet or go to the library. There is no material on the wives of Nazi officers. There’s nothing, it’s really crazy. So basically, it was an empty page. I could interpret her how I wanted to, or how I thought a Nazi woman would be. But in this case, I personally think she is not a typical Nazi woman. Yes, she’s the wife of a Nazi officer, but she doesn’t know what he does, she doesn’t know much about the whole system, she was basically kept in a golden cage. She had to break with all of her friends and neighbours because no one was allowed to know she had a disabled child, and she kept him. They were not allowed to keep a disabled child; they were all sent to the camps, where they did experiments and then killed the children. So it was really interesting for me, the human part. In the beginning, she and Faber never talk about politics, they only talk about personal stuff. Only later, when she wants to be included in all the decisions, that they talk about politics and about life outside.
Ulli’s death was one of the most poignant storylines X Company has ever done. How difficult was that for you to portray?
It was so hard and emotional. I tried to prepare myself psychologically, how the person must feel in that moment. It’s just really insane. I think it was more Faber who decided to kill Ulli, because Sabine’s the mother. I don’t think she would have given up so quickly on rescuing or saving him. Maybe she would have tried to run away at night, do what a lot of Nazi people did, try to escape on a boat to Argentina or Brazil or whatever. But she was a wife, so the man back in those days had all the power to make the final decision, and she couldn’t come up quick enough with an alternative.
Sabine’s Season 2 storyline with Aurora became a fan favourite. Did you have any idea their friendship would be so popular?
Nooooo. [Laughs.] I didn’t expect it at all, but it was so cool. I loved it. It was super-cool. It was a pleasure personally to play that and also for Sabine, because Aurora was basically the first person since she had her disabled child, that she could create a friendship with. Because basically, she didn’t have friends for years. So, for her, Aurora was a very, very special person, the first person she could open up to, because between the Fabers, they don’t really open up—well, they do at the end—but they don’t really talk about their feelings. They hide them from each other. So Aurora was the first person in a very long time that Sabine could open up to.
Did you have fun shooting those scenes with Évelyne Brochu?
Yeah, we did. We were all in Budapest, so it was like a school trip with work, because we all didn’t live there, and so we became a film family. We only had each other. We would help each other learning lines before really large or difficult scenes, we would meet the night before together and help out each other with all the accents. We would try them out and help each other, so it was really fun. And I think also because the topic of X Company is so heavy and sad and full of fear and tears that, I guess, you need another extreme to balance it, you know? So we all had a lot of fun, and I think that was necessary to keep the balance because the psychology was very heavy.
The Fabers’ marriage has been a very difficult one, but Sabine has been making an effort to get closer to Franz after finding the bullet holes in that dress a few episodes ago. What is the state of their relationship going into Episode 309?
Right now, the relationship between them is starting to get really interesting because, since the death of Ulli, there’s been an invisible wall [between them]. I think Sabine couldn’t forgive Faber for killing him, or for not trying to do something else before killing him, so she erected a wall between him and her heart. And right now, coming into the final episodes, now that she’s emancipated herself from Faber and from her father, from just everyone, they open up in the relationship. Faber couldn’t tell her what he’s up to in order to save her and thinking she wouldn’t understand what he’s doing, but now they’re together in the same boat. Now that she’s discovered the atrocities of the Nazis, and she’s decided that she wants to help as well, I think he tries to see her with different eyes, and their relationship starts to get interesting.
What was it like working with Torben Liebrecht?
Torben is really cool. He’s like an acting monster. He’s a really great actor. In real life, he’s super nice, and he’s one of the funniest people I know. Even right before the take, we’d joke about stuff and then all of the sudden it’s ‘Action!’ and we both become those very different characters. It was really fun, and it was a big jaunt to act with him because it’s really intense to act with him. Then when they yell ‘Cut!’ it’s all jokes again. It was really quite a strong contrast. I really enjoyed it.
Sabine has been very close to her father, but in last week’s episode, he threatened to ‘dispose’ of Ania and revealed that he thought Ulli was a ‘parasite’ and an ‘aberration.’ Where does that leave Sabine?
It’s horrible for her because he was basically the last person in the world she could trust. She can’t trust Aurora anymore, she can’t trust her husband anymore, and right now she’s getting to know who her dad really is. Of course, he’s a loving father, but she’s emancipating herself and becoming her own woman and having her own brain and starting to think about herself, instead of only taking the opinions of her father figure or Faber’s opinions. And now she sees who he really is, and it’s the closest person in her life, so it’s horrible for her. It’s horrible to know what he thinks. And after that conversation, there’s just really no one left she can trust anymore, and basically, she has nothing to lose anymore. So she will take her life into her own hands and just do what she feels is right and follow her own heart because everyone around her, through her eyes, is just crazy.
Can you give any hints about what will happen with Sabine in the final two episodes?
No, I can’t! [Laughs.] But what I can say is really what I just said. She will follow her heart, her instincts, and she will do what she thinks is right no matter what.
Did you learn anything new about the war from playing Sabine?
For me, what was personally very interesting is to get into the head of a German person at that time. Because Berlin is a super international city now, I grew up amongst people from all around the world, and it was the most normal thing. So to enter into the head of a person who lived during that time, the big personal question is, ‘How could the Nazis and the Third Reich even happen?’ And if you enter the head of, let’s say, a typical person who is not very political at the time and try to see it through her eyes, it changed my view a bit. Because it’s easy to say nowadays, ‘Ah, you should have done something straight away.’ But back in the day, the whole Nazi machine is everywhere. It’s the neighbours, it’s the people you work with, it’s the pregnant women [in Episode 307] who only talk about babies [for the Reich], it’s throughout your family, it’s everywhere. The whole Nazi machine is so present. And in Sabine’s case, she’s not politically active, she doesn’t have political knowledge. Where would she start to do something against it without risking her own life? It changed my view on how hard it was to be a resistance fighter or to do something against the Nazi machine.
What did you enjoy most about working on X Company?
I don’t know if there would be just one thing. It’s all a mix because it really was a trip. For me, shooting those very emotional scenes. It was hardcore, but it was also the best acting school I could have. So playing Sabine, but also being with that crew. Everyone was so passionate about what they do. We worked together in one boat and worked together for the same bigger goal, and we would help each other, help each other running lines. It was that mix of a very emotional Sabine character put together with that incredible crew in beautiful, beautiful Budapest.
X Company airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on CBC.
Images courtesy of CBC.