Saturday, 27 August 2011

The Forgotten Trial

The Man Who Crossed Hitler

From the Sunday Times, August 21, 2011. By Jeff Dawson

Given the turf war raging across Berlin, the Eden Dance Palace shootings of November 22, 1930 were unremarkable. On the night in question, a band of Sturmabteilung (SA) — stormtroopers or “brownshirts” — burst into this grandly-titled beer hall, actually a Communist hangout, spraying bullets. They killed three “Reds” and wounded twenty. Hardly a sophisticated operation. Four men were arrested and due to stand trial.

To the idealistic letwing lawyer prosecuting the case, it amounted to far more than a routine dissection of thuggery, however. Amid the turmoil of the Weimar Republic, 27-year-old Hans Litten saw an opportunity to spear a bigger fish. Adolf Hitler might not have been personally involved in the attack but the Nazi leader’s incendiary rhetoric made him indirectly culpable, he claimed. Litten was thus entitled to summon Hitler as a witness.

Sending down the SA became secondary to the political theatre of putting Hitler in the dock. By rigorous cross-examination, Litten would expose the would-be Führer as a charlatan. Hitler had forsworn violence after his botched 1923 coup attempt, the Beer Hall Putsch. Proving his continued sponsorship of it would destroy his credibility before his wealthy backers. Better still, he’d perjure himself. Or so Litten believed.

What happened on the morning of May 8, 1931, in the Berlin-Moabit courthouse remains a historical curio. Before a packed chamber, Mr. A. Hitler of 45 Briener St., Munich, dressed in a civilian suit (uniforms were verboten), took the stand. He endured a three-hour grilling by Litten, forced under oath to account for his manifesto. In his diary, Goebbels confided at being “anxious”. With good reason. According to non-Nazi reports, Litten, at times, made Hitler squirm (the Berlin Morning Post likened Hitler to “an oily barber”).

Till recently, both Litten and the trial were forgotten, failing, for example, to gain a single mention in William L. Shirer’s The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich, regarded as the definitive work on the subject. Perhaps they were just engulfed by all that followed.

Eighty years on, the BBC seeks to correct that with The Man Who Crossed Hitler, a 90min docudrama starring Ed Stoppard as Litten and Ian Hart as Hitler. Directed by Justin Hardy, it fits with his company’s ethos of viewing history through an alternative prism. “Looking for the microcosm at the centre of a cataclysm,” as Hardy puts it.

Four years ago, Hardy Pictures came up with The Relief Of Belsen, the story of a British army ambulance unit uncovering a humanitarian tragedy beyond their comprehension. Their big entre was 2005’s Trafalgar Battle Surgeon (Hardy is descended from the kiss-me captain of HMS Victory), the Royal Navy’s triumph experienced entirely from the gloom of the orlop deck.

No doubt that the “history” here is Hitler, not yet the familiar, polished ranter of Nuremburg, but, at 42, still a minority leader, albeit growing rapidly in popularity. “A work in progress,” as Hart describes, drawing a parallel, in terms of charisma, with a certain British militant. “Derek Hatton… You know, the person on the margins of a political party, taking it in a certain direction. A very persuasive individual. And very showy.”

If Stoppard is more dashing than the pudgy Litten (nicknamed Grizzly Bear by his best friends Max and Margot Fürst), then it can be excused for dramatic licence. The film also presents events as a direct courtroom duel when, in fact, many of Litten’s questions were relayed by the judge. (Litten’s mentor, Rudolf Olden, floats like a legal Obi-Wan Kenobi, whispering to his protégé, “Lean into the bends.”)

It does not diminish what is an intriguing screen confrontation — Hart’s Hitler a bundle of barely suppressed rage as Litten skewers him on the semantics of the Nazi avowal that “the enemy must be mashed to a pulp”; Stoppard’s Litten, with the swagger of one who thinks he can save civilisation, scoffing at Hitler’s suggestion that the SA is just a Nazi keep-fit club.

Litten secured prosecutions against the brownshirts, but it was a Pyhrric victory. As the day wore on, the ineffectual judge (Kurt Ohnesorge, played by Bill Patterson) indulged Hitler’s tendency to play to the partisan gallery. Hitler never forgot his interrogator — he was said to fly off the handle at mere mention of his name — nor the fact that his father was a converted Jew. Litten was arrested in the mass round-up of opponents after the Reichstag fire and spent five years in concentration camps, tortured endlessly. He hung himself in Dachau in 1938.

Though there have been several books written about Litten, notably Crossing Hitler by Benjamin Carter Hett, who served as a consultant, most of the original archival material was missing, including court transcripts, destroyed in the fall of Berlin or looted by the Soviets.

Screenwriter Mark Hayhurst found much of his information in the accounts of the 34 newspapers reporting the trial. “The Times and the Manchester Guardian covered the case in some detail,” he says. “Litten became a cause celebre in the 1930s.” (Litten’s mother had fled to England to campaign for his release.)

There were, too, the memories and letters of Patricia Litten, Litten’s niece, and Birute, the Fürsts’ daughter (Margot had acted as Litten’s legal assistant). Jews themselves, the Fürsts escaped to Palestine in 1935. Stoppard, the son of playwright Tom, brought his own familial experience of Mittel-European Jews taking flight from the Nazis.

Whereas, once, all actors aspired to play The Dane, The Austrian, it seems, can provide a challenging alternative. In recent years Ken Stott, Noah Taylor and Robert Caryle have all strapped on the armband, following the likes of Charlie Chaplin (in caricature), Alec Guinness and Anthony Hopkins. Bruno Ganz was lauded for his portrait of the broken Hitler in the bunker denouement of 2004’s Downfall.

The pre-Third Reich model has been dramatised less often, glimpsed only in things like the movie Max, with the young ex-corporal as Viennese painter (“An entire apartment in one afternoon,” to quote Mel Brooks. “Two coats!”), or Uncle Adolf, which documented Hitler’s strange infatuation with his niece Geli Raubal.

In The Man Who Crossed Hitler, the moustache is fuller, the head adorned with an ugly “pimp’s haircut” as Litten calls it. Hart was almost an exact match in terms of height and build, says Hardy, the only problem his sticky-out ears which had to be pressed back between takes.

This is a Hitler deprived of “the oompah bands and the light show” as Margot Fürst says, but also of his acolytes. One of the few informal audio recordings of Hitler, the bootlegged “Mannerheim conversation” of 1942, reveals a man droning ad nauseum to his generals, everyone too scared to interrupt. “One of the reasons that Hans Litten was such a threat to him was because Litten says, ‘I’m going to engage him in a dialogue,’” explains Hardy. (“Who are you addressing?” asks Litten as Hitler gets on a roll. “The court,” says Hitler, phrased almost as a question.)

For Hart, who has delved into the politics of the era in Ken Loach’s Land And Freedom (about the Spanish Civil War) and has essayed real-life characters Conan Doyle and John Lennon, the biggest challenge was blinkering the hindsight. “When I did Backbeat it was about John Lennon before The Beatles had been signed and could have one of many bands who didn’t[ital] make it. They hoped they would become the biggest thing in the world. Turned out they did[ital] become so, but none of that was to be known. My obligation was not to satisfy what everybody thought[ital] they knew.”

That said, the pointers are all there, reminds Hardy — “the anti-Semitism, his ability to charm children, how he handles his right hand men and the industrialists. There are the seeds. They would ultimately be allowed to flower.”

On television, the plethora of WW2 documentaries has been dubbed “Hitler porn”. Certainly there has been no dampening of the ardour for the monumental events in the middle of the last century (although Hart jokes that his videostore has since replaced the Hitler rack with a John Hughes section). No surprise that several films have come out of Germany as the passage of time enables a re-examination of its past.

A subset of these films has been those focusing on the “Good (or contextually Good) Germans”, a challenge to author Daniel Goldhagen’s nation of “Willing Executioners”  — most famously, Schindler’s List and, more recently, Valkyrie, Good and Sophie Scholl, the story of the White Rose resistance. The new BBC drama is no different in “trying to honour Germans who put up the storm signal,” says Hayhurst. “Partly it’s a homage to them.”

Where some, like Claus von Stauffenberg, were arguably opportunistic, there is no question that Hans Litten was a true hero. Germany’s Bar Association has been renamed in his honour.

In reality Hitler was no stranger to the courtroom, having been up before the beak in 1921 and jailed for treason in 1924, during which time he wrote Mein Kampf, making him far from small fry but the most prosperous author in Germany. Seven months before Litten’s cross-examination, as the drama mentions, he had been a witness at the Reichswehr trial where, similarly, kidding Mr. Hitler assured that the National Socialist party was one of “intellectual enlightenment”.

Litten was to maintain his challenge to Nazi legitimacy, culminating in the Felseneck trial of 1932, by which time even some of the legal establishment had started to turn on him. In the film, Ohnesorge, in a veiled piece of anti-Semitism, snips at Litten’s “cleverness” and its lack of attraction “to Germans.”

The Man Who Crossed Hitler opens with a caption that speaks of “failing democracy” and “economic meltdown”, the vernacular of our present day. The most fascinating, and sinister, aspect of the drama is, given the right circumstances, just how quickly events can turn.

In 1928 the Nazi Party commanded just 2.6% of the popular vote. In less than five years, Hitler was Chancellor. With better luck in the courtroom it might have been very different… Or would it?

Mark Strong

Harder, Better, Stronger...

Mark Strong interview from the Sunday Times, August 14, 2011. By Jeff Dawson

For a man described by Sir Ian McKellen as “The greatest living actor in England,’ you’d expect Mark Strong to garner more street level recognition. But no. “I get Stanley Tucci and Andy Garcia,” he laughs, mimicking the yelp of a passer-by putting a misplaced name to his face. “Also Dimitar Berbatov.”

True, in the flesh, the tall, athletically lean, shaven-headed Strong doesn’t typically resemble his screen selves. But, stick a costumier’s rug on him, preferably one with a widow’s peak, and he’s a foreboding presence — the scene-stealer of films like RockNRolla, Body Of Lies, Sherlock Holmes, Kick-Ass, Robin Hood and The Eagle. 

He thinks McKellen, with whom he appeared at the National in Richard III and King Lear, back in the 90s, was just being nice. “I’d be amazed if that’s what he actually said.” But with a whacking 66 film and TV productions under his belt (“Christ,” he splutters), Strong might also count himself our very own James Brown, proverbial hardest working man in showbiz.

He’s been directed Roman Polanski, Peter Weir and Danny Boyle; Ridley Scott, Matthew Vaughn and Guy Ritchie have made him a house player; he’s acted with Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe. In Syriana, he enjoyed the cinematic distinction of torturing George Clooney. "I got to pull his nails out,” he says. “In between we had a cup of tea.”

Strong can still be seen in The Green Lantern, the CGI superhero extravaganza in which he plays galactic weirdo, Sinestro, the gone-to-the-dark-side tutor of Hal Leonard (Ryan Reynolds), an earthling enlisted to a sort of intergalactic police force. His chameleon skills know no limits. “My wife (producer, Liza Marshall) was with Eric Fellner. He said he'd seen the trailer ‘and was Mark in it?’… And I quite like that. Transformation was always the thing that I got a real kick out of. I love the idea of doing something where people aren't quite sure that it’s you."

He folds himself into a chair at the grand St Pancras Hotel, not far from his old stamping ground of Islington. On a Monday morning, he's still aching from his regular Friday football game, in which he hoofs the bladder with the likes of Patrick Marber, Rupert Graves and an ensemble of theps, directors and writers. “If you dropped a bomb on that game you'd wipe out half the film industry," he quips.

Word is that Strong has a bit of a short fuse, someone his teammates were oft extricating from an on-field brawl. But, turning 48 shortly, he’s now a peacemaker, he assures. “I’ve learnt my lesson."

The sense of underlying menace has been an asset. Case in point is The Guard, the new Irish crime thriller in which Strong — albeit in a supporting role — adds a typically violent (yet whimsically philosophical) element to proceedings, an addition to a roster of screen baddies that includes Lord Blackwood, the occultist adversary of Sherlock Holmes and Frank D’Amico, the drug Lord who (controversially) beats up 11-year-old Hit Girl in Kick-Ass. Even amid the posh frocks of Young Victoria, Strong lent a brooding malevolence as Sir John Conroy, manipulator of the fledgling monarch.

Recalling an eye-rolling groan from Alan Rickman, who once scoffed at my mention of his excellence as a film villain (such roles were but a sideshow to his true calling, darling), one treads warily in describing Strong in such terms. But he doesn’t mind. "I’m totally happy with it. There’s a long tradition of British actors who've got into the movies by paying baddies, of which Alan Rickman is one. The truth is, if you're not playing the lead they're the next best part."

He had been drawn to Green Lantern’s Sinestro by his discovery that in the original 1941 artwork, the character had been modelled on David Niven. “One of my heroes, always has been,” he declares, confirming his adoration with an eager regaling of passages from The Moon’s A Balloon and Niven’s drunken exploits with Errol Flynn. The lukewarm reviews —“they’re not critics’ favourites, these kinds of movies”— have been offset by some box office chart-topping both sides of the Atlantic. A sequel has been commissioned.

Mark Strong was born Marco Giuseppe Salussolia. He never really knew his absconding Italian father, brought up by his Austrian mother, an au pair who had come to London at 18. His assumed moniker is not a stage name, but rather changed by deed poll on the part of his mother as a means of “starting again and giving us a sense of belonging.”

Still, the Austrian roots are deep. Strong speaks fluent German and, for a while, studied Law at the University of Munich. "I imagined myself as a sort of international lawyer, but I think what I saw was the image — the briefcase, the raincoat, like Alain Delon, and driving a BMW."

Some reports have Strong as a troubled youth relocated to a young offender’s institute. But this has been wildly exaggerated, he corrects. As a six-year-old child of a single parent, he had been offered a pace at a state-run boarding school in Surrey. "Originally it was called the Asylum for Fatherless Children," he says, citing its Victorian charitable foundation. As he puts it, society, forty years ago, was "way more enlightened than it is today,” in terms of giving kids a leg-up.

When his mother moved to Norfolk, he boarded again at Wymondham College. Later, after Munich, he studied theatre at the Bristol Old Vic. “For me it was completely exotic. Having done the law and realising how dry it was I had an epiphany about what I didn't want to do.”

You can take the boy out of Islington but not the Islington out of the boy. An Arsenal season ticket holder to this day, it was a case of "where art met life” when Strong got cast as Colin Firth’s best mate in Fever Pitch. “On the front of the book there was a picture of a little kid in his Arsenal kit. I went to the audition with virtually the same photograph, me in my mum’s back garden.”

For much of the 80s and 90s, Strong enjoyed a solid theatre career. In 1996 came an auspicious moment, his casting in the acclaimed TV drama Our Friends In The North, alongside Christopher Ecclestone, Gina McKee and his good mate Daniel Craig. "This was a shoot that lasted a year and we had to age from 20 to 50. A lot of people didn't want to commit for that length of time, but I was very happy to do it and was very lucky that it was so successful."

Strong also had another big TV window as Harry Starks in the Krays-esque gangster drama, The Long Firm, produced by his wife, who went on to become Head of Drama at Channel 4 and now runs Ridley Scott’s production outfit, Scott Free.

Strong’s own film career came rather late. “Probably only six or seven years ago with Syriana, so I’ve been making up for lost time." For his first day of shooting on Scott’s Body Of Lies, he raced straight from the delivery room and the birth of his second child to be on set in Morocco. "As only a producer can, Liza very conveniently gave birth to him the night before I was due to start."

His turn in that film was quite magnificent, almost walking off with the picture as the ambiguous head of the Jordanian secret service. Throw in his Iranian torturer in Syriana, the imprisoned Russian playwright of The Way Back and his own ethnic mix would seem to have helped him keep it interesting.

"Arabs, Jews…. aliens," he says, before wondering whether such a statement might be taken the wrong way. He pauses. "I’m an Austrian-Italian Londoner, so to play those things that I’m not is precisely what I’m interested in as an actor. I love accents and I love costume and I love wigs and I love anything that can transport me to somewhere else. The difficulty I’d have is playing myself." He might have have added the Mexican assassin of the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men had Javier Bardem not made himself available again after initially ruling himself out.

The enormity of The Green Lantern —“You’re a very small cog in a very large machine” — has been balanced with smaller films in the shape of action thriller Welcome To The Punch with James MacAvoy, which he’s currently shooting, plus the afforementioned, The Guard, which has been getting raves. The film is not just a tour de force by Brendan Gleeson as a rogue cop in the island’s wild west, but was one of the most enjoyable shoots he’s ever worked on, Strong says, “drinking way to much Guinness and laughing far too hard” at the cast and crew’s remote Connemara hotel.” Don Cheadle, who plays an FBI agent brought over to help thwart Strong’s gangsters arrived on set the day Strong finished “I saw him at breakfast and I remember thinking, ‘You have no idea what you’ve just parachuted into.’”

Also in the can are John Carter Of Mars, from a sci-fi story by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Black Gold an epic about the oil boom in 1930s Arabia with Antonio Banderas. Most intriguingly there is the hotly anticipated big screen adaptation of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy in which Strong plays Jim Prideaux (Ian Bannen on TV) to Gary Oldman’s George Smiley. “Arabs. aliens and spies,” he says. 

He’s thrilled with the way it’s turned out “The fractured nature of the novel has been well realised in the movie. You have to work much as you do when you read the novel. They haven’t fallen for the trick of making the narrative linear so you get spoon-fed. And I have to say, the performances are amazing”

All this exposure isn’t necessarily good for you, of course. "The problem is, the more well known you become, the less people are prepared to accept you looking very, very different."

The Green Lantern is released on DVD, October
The Guard opens August 19
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy opens September 16

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Leonardo DiCaprio — J Edgar

Was called yesterday lunchtime with a last-minute request to fly to LA to interview Leonard DiCaprio for the above film, the Clint Eastwood-directed biopic of the cross-dressing FBI director (with LDC in the title role). In theory, should have been on my way to Heathrow this morning but, for one reason or another — I shan't bore you with the details — it didn't happen in the end. I look forward to the film. Huge fan of Clint. Though I hope it turns out better than the dreadful Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator.

London's Burning

Having managed to tune out a load of bleeding heart hogwash, I still keep hearing well-meaning people going on about the rioters' parents not showing enough responsibility, and why aren't they keeping their kids indoors?, blah blah blah.

They are missing the fundamental point — that, for a large part of the country, the concept of "family" is an anachronism. There's a reason why, for millennia, civilisation was constructed as it was, using the family unit as the building block. A family is a society in microcosm. With no society at home, little wonder there's no society outside.

I was in Newfoundland a couple of months ago — a hard, rugged place where people are completely interdependent. In the north, the people chop their winter fuel in the summer and leave the logs by the side of the road for months, in neat orderly piles, there for when the snows come. I asked a local whether there was a problem with theft. He looked at me with great incredulity. No one had ever heard of such a thing happening. If it did, no need for the police — word of stealing would bring such shame on the perpetrator that he, and his entire clan, would have to move away, never to return.

Monday, 8 August 2011


Went to Newfoundland at the end of June for a Sunday Times travel feature. Fascinating place, a sort of Little Britain across the water. Has a real edge-of-the-earth feel, especially up in the Iceberg Alley of the island's north. And don't you forget it's an island, either... or that in only joined Canada in 1949.

Back Home: England and the 1970 World Cup

Here's info on my book Back Home and the link to Amazon. Can't believe it was ten years ago next month that this came out in hardback. Issued in paperback for the Japan/Korea World Cup the following summer. People still say very nice things to me about it and it still crops up in all-time favourite football books lists. Was extracted in The Times (they ran a whole chapter) and was hailed by them as "truly outstanding" amongst some very welcome reviews. Also a top five sports book bestseller. That said, it's still small beer. Quite a niche market. Sadly, a few of the interviewees have since passed away.

The cover shown here is for the paperback, which I wasn't wild about. Publisher's decision. The hardback jacket had Bobby Moore traipsing off the pitch after the Brazil game wearing Pele's shirt. For me that was the image.

This was a really personal project as the 1970 World Cup was my first deep football immersion. Seven years old at the time. I remember vividly the FA Cup Final and replay (Leeds v. Chelsea) that preceded the tournament. After the World Cup, my Dad took me to my first game, Pompey v. West Ham in a pre-season friendly at Fratton Park. Still got the programme somewhere. Moore and Hurst had been rested. Some kid in the Hammers team, Brooking T.

Pompey were on the slide. Older fans were still living off the glory of back-to-back league championships twenty years before. Pre-figuring later cycles of boom and bust, there was a false dawn of recovery under spendthrift chairman John Deacon, who brought in over-the-hill stars like Ron Davies, George Graham and "Scottish George Best", Peter Marinello, but they were in the fourth division by the end of the decade.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Dead Reckoning — Dunedin Star, 1942

Here's some info about my 2005 book on the Dunedin Star, a British merchant ship which ran aground on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia in 1942. An astonishing survival tale. Follow the link to Amazon plus the Observer review. Was nominated for the Mountbatten Maritime Prize. Posting this in an attempt to move everything to one website. Details on my previous book, Back Home, to follow. Every now and then a producer will get in touch about making a film of Dead Reckoning. Very flattering, but have learned to not pop the cork prematurely. Champagne is overrated in my opinion anyway.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Crossing Hitler

Been busy over last few days speaking to the makers of the forthcoming BBC drama, The Man Who Crossed Hitler. Fascinating, tragic and little-known historical episode. In 1931, Hitler was called as a witness in the Eden Palace dance hall trial. The case had been brought against several brownshirts who had shot up some communist rivals.

In the midst of a near civil war and daily killings, the incident itself was unremarkable. Hitler himself had not been present, but the Berlin courtroom provided a rare opportunity for him to be put on the stand and cross-examined about his ideology and whether he was indirectly culpable. Unfortunately the move backfired and it merely gave licence for the Nazi leader to grandstand before a partisan gallery.

Hitler never forgot his interrogator that day, the young lawyer Hans Litten, whose father was a converted Jew. He died in Dachau.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Pedro Almodóvar/Antonio Banderas — The Skin I Live In

"Anything for the weekend, sir?"

Here's my Pedro Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas feature.

Cover story Sunday Times Culture, July 31 2011

I've Got You Under My Skin

An audience with Pedro Almodóvar was never going to be an orthodox experience. Parked on a gilded sofa in Madrid’s ornate Westin Palace Hotel, the director is talking animatedly about his cinematic influences. “The American underground, John Waters,” he gurgles. “Heheheheh. Veeeeerrrrry dirty.”

Almodóvar’s employment of a translator to bridge his jumps between English and Spanish is lending a comedic stereo effect — akin to that scene in High Heels where Victoria Abril’s TV newscaster confesses on air to a murder while her revelation is relayed by a deaf-signing woman.

His interpreter, a statuesque ex-pat beauty from Newcastle, slightly overglammed for a Sunday morning in a red cocktail dress, would not be out of place in one of the director’s films. Almodóvar’s English is excellent, but he won’t confront the press without her, because, at full throttle, warns his PA beforehand, “Pedro can get a bit carried away.”

Enter Antonio Banderas, who jumps on Almodóvar, kisses him passionately on each cheek and flops next to him. “I trust him. I admire him. I loooooove him,” Banderas intones.

A procession of waiters traipses in, having overdone the drinks order, such that the crockery on the coffee table is in a perpetual state of Mad Hatter rearrangement, causing Almodóvar to relocate his silver Raybans and leather manbag.

With everyone cutting across each other in Gatling gun Castillian and Almodóvar jumping in to expand upon Doña Geordie’s conversions, the chaos is delightfully apposite. “And British pop, Richard Lester, The Beatles and Carnaby Street,” adds Almodóvar. “Heheheheh. Much more clean. Less dirrrrrrty.”

Almodóvar and Banderas new film together, The Skin I Live In, is a landmark one, their first joint outing in 21 years. There was no estrangement. “We have been seeing each other in Los Angeles,” insists Banderas. “I gave him his first Oscar.” “Our friendship has remained the same,” echoes Almodovar. “He is like my younger brother, I call him and Melanie (Griffith) my ‘American family’.”

But it’s the resumption of a partnership that began in 1982 and was was assumed to have had its Adios with 1990’s Tie Me Up Tie Me Down… before Banderas went off to become a Hollywood star and Almodóvar transformed from outré filmmaker to double Academy Award winner.

It seems almost redundant here to point out here that Banderas is a handsome devil, the mere mention of his name apt to make women of a certain age (and some of the men) get a bit silly — usually adding, for good measure, something a bit snippy about his missus.

“The best thing about when he came to work with me, it was exactly the same Antonio as 21 years before,” coos Almodóvar. “The same person — someone who’s really alive, a great sense of humour, absolutely none of those little Hollywood star touches.”

Save for a conspicuous lack of grey, the tanned and sinewy actor dressed in (are you listening laydeez?) a tight white long-sleeved t-shirt and khaki Replay combats, looks little different. Not bad for a man of fifty.  “Yes indeed, indeed,” nods Almodóvar. “Thank you sir,” says Banderas.

Back in the day, Banderas had been Almodóvar’s leading man — or as leading as any man gets in his female dominated universe. Given that their collaborations included Labyrinth Of Passion (Banderas as a gay Arab terrorist), Law Of Desire (Banderas as a psychopathic gay hustler of a film director) and Matador (Banderas as a student toreador and faux serial killer, gayness undetermined), you’d be hard pushed to out-weird what had gone before.

But fans of their couplings can be assured that The Skin I Live In is agreeably twisted, symptomatic of a filmmaker, says Banderas, whose movies — and interviews — can stretch from “Shakespeare” to “Mexican soap opera” during their course.

Along with 1995’s Live Flesh, from the Ruth Rendell story, the film is a rare case of Almodóvar adapting from a book, the French novella, Tarantula, by Thierry Jonquet. Although, he explains “When I started writing the script, it had a life of its own. It was getting more and more baroque in the way that I was developing the idea.”

To even attempt to precis the plot, is to give things away. So, in the interests of nun-like purity (though not the nun played by Penelope Cruz in Almodóvar’s All About My Mother), let’s just say that it entails a widowed plastic surgeon, Dr. Robert Ledgard (Banderas), who seeks to avenge the death of his daughter, driven to insanity after her rape. This comes by kidnapping her assailant for some macabre and experimental comeuppance.

Almodóvar talks about his fascination with transgenesis and artificial skin, which provides the movie’s scientific gloss. Though the hook was a more traditional dramatic theme. “The revenge of the father. I found it very original, very strong and very shocking.” He has accentuated it by throwing a degree of ambiguity around the sexual assault — “an almost rape,” he says, applying the Ken Clarke-o-meter — making Ledgard an outright cold-blooded sadist.

The film has been described as a horror film. Black comedy would seem more on the money. But you can see the gothic influences — Eyes Without A Face, Open Your Eyes, Frankenstein, or more subtly, Rebecca and Vertigo. “There are echoes of all these films,” Almodóvar admits, “but I only realised most of them once the film was finished. In any case, this film is very different from any film made until now, including my own.”

Interestingly both men describe Ledgard as a fascist. From the lips of a Spaniard, this is not a casual epithet. Indeed, Almodóvar and Banderas owe their careers to Franco’s dictatorship, or rather its aftermath, when they were part of La Movida Madrileña, an artistic explosion following decades of repression.

Almodóvar’s films, an outrageous blend of kitsch comedy and melodrama, featuring a gallery of homosexuals, bisexuals, transsexuals, omnisexuals, heterosexuals, nosexuals and pay-for-sexuals was one almighty “up yours”. There are frequent pops at authority still. 2004’s Bad Education was a response to the sexual abuse perpetrated at Almodóvar’s Catholic boarding school.

Almodóvar had begun as a counterculture journalist, then as part of a glam rock comedy act, before picking up a camera — self-taught after the Generalissimo closed down the National School of Cinema. His official debut, 1980’s Pepi Luci Bom, became a cult hit, his troupe of players a tight-knit band. “We did five movies in the 80s but we spent the whole entire time together,” says Banderas. “It was a kind of a family group. We used to go to discos and have lunches...”

(He’s still quite the animal. “Have you seen him party?” asks another actor who worked with him recently. “You should see him dance. One for the ladies.”)

The director got a big leg up with1984’s What Have I Done To Deserve This?, starring Carmen Maura as a desperate housewife. His broader comedy, 1988’s Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown (co-starring Banderas), led to international acclaim.

Ant’n’Ped managed one last hurrah, but there was a parting of the ways. Drooled over by the movers and shakers (including Madonna in her documentary, In Bed With Madonna), Banderas headed West.

Banderas’ retelling of his American adventure — “You can say Hollywood years, heheheh” taunts Almodóvar — is an absolute hoot. Unable to speak a word of English, he sat and nodded politely through meetings with Beverly Hills agents.

Signing on a whim with an underling— “the guy literally taking the coffees to the agent’s offices. He said, ‘Do you want me to represent you in America?’ and I said ‘Sure, whatever’” — he was put up for the musical drama, The Mambo Kings, bagging the part on the condition he learn his lines phonetically.

It led to the role as Tom Hanks lover in Philadelphia. He met his now-wife, Griffith (their affair something of a scandal at the time). He settled. In the days of Old Hollywood Banderas’ name might have been anglicised to its equivalent, the somewhat less exotic Tony Flags. But Señor Flags hit town just as Latin lovers were hot (and with little public perception of his screen past.) It was but a short hop to playing a cartoon cat.

Almodóvar stayed put, as attached to Madrid as Woody Allen used to be with Manhattan (albeit with the occasional excursion, The Skin I Live In is set in nearby Toledo). After his Diane Keaton (Maura) and his Mia Farrow (Abril) came his Penelope Cruz (Penelope Cruz). Not that Almodóvar divides his career into Picasso-esque periods. "As a matter of fact, I do not think much about my older films. … What really moves me are the films I still want to make.."

There seems no doubt that his later works have a greater emotional depth, a certain polish. 1999’s All About My Mother won him an Oscar for Best Foreign film. 2002’s Talk To Her, arguably his best film, a drama woven from the seemingly incompatible subjects of coma patients and ballet… and a tiny man climbing into a vagina… won him an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The others have been superb — Bad Education, Volver, Broken Embraces.

Money helps. Gone are the days when Almodóvar used to shoot stuff at nights and weekends yanking his cast out of the nightclub. Though it’s all relative. The Skin I Live In cost about a third of George Clooney’s standard salary, Almodóvar reminds.

The cottage ethos continues. His brother Agustín runs their El Deseo film company. House players continue to crop up (like Marisa Paredes here). Even Almodóvar’s PA turns out to be one of his producers.

Banderas praises a director who, even at his age (though no one’s really sure, 61 probably) continues to innovate. “In a world of fast food to see somebody who still has balls to do very complicated dishes.” Though the actor’s acquired thespian “suitcase of tricks” was thrown out by Almodóvar on day one. “He got upset with me at certain points – don’t move your hands so much,” says Banderas. “Somedays you just want to kill yourself… or kill him.”

There are many recurring motifs in Almodóvar’s work — car crashes, hospitals, kidnappings (see Tie Me Up Tie Me Down), familial discord and of course, sexual ambiguity.

There is also transformation. The Skin I Live In, like others, features a character returning to their smalltown radically altered. Almodóvar, metropolitan king of the avant-garde, had strolled out of the plains of La Mancha, the son of an illiterate muleteer (“a poor family, economically talking”).

He laughs at the notion of autobiography. “When I went back (to La Mancha) it was just to open a park in my name.” But he does concede that however you might change outwardly, in essence you remain the same. “You could call it someone’s soul, or spirit, whatever word you want to use. Even science can’t touch that core of a person.”

There are loose plans to do another film together. Banderas, meanwhile, has films coming out including Steven Sodebergh’s Haywire, Black Gold, Spy Kids 4 and, yes, Puss In Boots.

In the bar earlier, Almodóvar had talked about having several scripts on the go but with one yet to ping on “this light” he says, miming a bulb flashing on over his head. I make a joke about the new EU energy-saving ones not responding so quickly to inspiration, but it gets lost in translation.

He will, not, as has been reported be making a film about the Italian 60s pop singer, Mina. “I don’t want to make biopics. It’s not for me,” although confesses he was tempted to do one about Liberace.

Intriguingly, he harbours ambitions to make a film in English. He had tried to get the rights to both The Hours and The Reader. He suspects that his lack of fluency (which is not true) might be prohibitive. More importantly, the source material must demand the story be made in English rather than doing it just for the hell of it.

It may happen. “But not in Hollywood,” he says. “I mean I don’t want to share a decision with so many people that you have in the American production way. I’m too old to learn how to behave in another way.”