08/03/2012 04:58 PM

Coping with Paralysis

'If There Is a God, He Is Certainly Not to Blame'

Samuel Koch became paralyzed on live television. Philippe Pozzo di Borgo's story was the basis for the hit film "The Intouchables." They spoke with SPIEGEL about solitude, how friendliness can be a powerful tool and how jokes about the disabled can still be funny.

It's the first time the two have met: Samuel Koch and Philippe Pozzo di Borgo are having dinner together in a Munich hotel while Germany plays Italy in the European Football Championship. They talk and laugh a lot, and despite their 37-year age difference and vastly different backgrounds, they have a lot to say to each other. Koch and Pozzo di Borgo are two men who have suffered the same bitter fate.

Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, 61, whose autobiography served as the basis for the hit film "The Intouchables," comes from an old, aristocratic French family and was, as he says, "born with a silver spoon" in his mouth. As the offspring of the counts of Pozzo di Borgo and the Marquis de Vogüé, he grew up in castles and manors. He attended the best schools in France and worked as a manager at Moët & Chandon before eventually becoming the director of the equally famous brand Pommery. It was a champagne life.

In 1993, at the age of 42, he broke his spine in a paragliding accident. He wasn't paying enough attention on that day, he later said when explaining what caused the accident. He had been forced to close a subsidiary in Switzerland and dismiss many workers, and he wasn't in very good spirits. Three years later, his wife Béatrice died after a long battle with cancer. Pozzo di Borgo sank into a depression from which his caregiver, whose story was highlighted in the film, helped him emerge. Today Pozzo di Borgo lives in Morocco, where the climate is beneficial to his health, with his second wife Khadija.

Pozzo di Borgo had a hobby that he believed he had mastered and used to smoke hand-rolled cigarettes and listen to loud music on his Walkman while hovering in the air with his paraglider.

Koch, for his part, was a daredevil from an early age. Now 24, he started gymnastics at six, and later on there was hardly a sport or outdoor activity he hadn't tried, including bungee jumping. Koch achieved fame in Germany for all the wrong reasons on Dec. 4, 2010. During an appearance on the hit German game show called "Wetten, dass…?", in which contestents perform various outrageous stunts, Koch had planned to jump over five cars driving towards him using Poweriser jumping stilts. On live television, he failed, smashing into the roof of one of the cars, which was being driven by his father, and landing awkwardly. He has been paralyzed from the neck down since then.

Hard Time Saying No

The accident came just as Koch had figured out what he wanted to do with his life. He had been accepted by the prestigious University of Music, Drama and Media in the northern German city of Hanover. The bet that he had been negotiating with the ZDF television network for months suddenly became less important to him, Koch writes in his book "Zwei Leben" (Two Lives). Nevertheless, he says, he didn't want to withdraw from the show at the last minute. He doesn't like conflict, he adds, and has a hard time saying no.

Both men are so-called tetraplegics, which means that their arms and legs are paralyzed. They can only move their heads, and even that range of motion is limited. Koch also retains some control over his right hand. It's one of the most severe forms of paralysis.

When the two men, in their wheelchairs, are returning to their hotel rooms after dinner, they engage in a duel of politeness in front of the elevator. There is only room for one wheelchair in the elevator, and each of them insists that other one go first. Finally, Koch puts an end to the standoff by driving his electric wheelchair toward Pozzo di Borgo's wheelchair and giving it a small nudge.

"We're tired," Pozzo di Borgo says the next morning, as he is being pushed into the room where the interview is taking place. Koch also complains of tiredness. As is so often the case, both men spent a painful night and had difficulty sleeping. "Let's start quickly and take advantage of the time," says Pozzo di Borgo. The wheelchairs are positioned so that they can both look at each other comfortably without having to turn their heads too much to the side. A French interpreter is sitting next to them. "You never know how long our bodies will play along," says Pozzo di Borgo. "In that respect, we tetraplegics are unpredictable," he adds with a smile.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Koch, did you like the film "The Intouchables?"

Koch: Yes, of course. But that could also be because I can relate to the subject matter, at least indirectly.

SPIEGEL: Does the film paint a realistic picture of life as a tetraplegic?

Koch: I recognized a lot of things. But in some places, where everyday life becomes critical, complicated and not very pretty, the film was skillfully edited. In one scene, for example, the protagonist Philippe is standing in front of the aircraft and then, suddenly, the camera cuts to him strapped into the plane. It's the same with clothing, when the camera suddenly cuts to him wearing a different outfit. I wish things went that quickly in real life. In my experience, it can sometimes take half an hour.

SPIEGEL: Which scene did you particularly like?

Koch: "No arms, no chocolate." Philippe's caregiver says that to him while holding some chocolate in front of his face. I thought that was really amusing, especially since close friends and family members say similar things to me.

SPIEGEL: Isn't that cruel and mean?

Koch: Yes, perhaps both. But I think it's funny. "No arms, no chocolate" -- that's just the way it is. Why should we whitewash things?

SPIEGEL: What other scenes did you identify with?

Koch: I was especially moved by the scene in which Philippe is in so much pain at night that he's practically jumping out of his skin. It shows him cramping up and literally tossing and turning inside, because he can't actually toss and turn, until his caregiver takes him on a walk around the city to distract him. I also often experience such nights filled with pain. Luckily, I've also had friends and caregivers who, like in the film, weren't above carrying me out to the beach at 3 a.m.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Pozzo di Borgo, how did you find out about what happened to Samuel Koch?

Pozzo di Borgo: A German TV crew visited me in Morocco, where I live. They told me about Samuel and asked me to say a few words of comfort to him on camera.

SPIEGEL: Then you felt the need to get in touch with Samuel directly, and you talked on the phone a few times. What do you discuss with each other?

Pozzo di Borgo: We talk about new things, tricks of the trade, things to help us in our jobs in the paralysis industry. You know, we have a challenging job that requires very special training. It's helpful to share tricks with one another.

Koch: When I met Philippe last night for the first time, it was very pleasant. He knows exactly what it means to lie awake for nights at a time, tormented by phantom pain. He knows what it means to be unable to breathe on your own, and how it feels to be suctioned and to be unable to speak. He's already been through all the things I've experienced or will experience. Somehow that created a certain sense of familiarity right away. Other people can't really relate to that so well.

SPIEGEL: What can you learn from Philippe?

Koch: When I was in the rehab clinic, they constantly told me: Samuel, you can't always be so polite and friendly. Go ahead and push people around. After all, it's about your life. But that goes against my nature. When I saw Philippe for the first time yesterday evening, I immediately noticed how affectionate he is with the people around him. And how, in his apparent helplessness, he's still helpful. I asked him if he had ever been unfriendly. No, he said, not once in his 19 years in a wheelchair. His reasons were pragmatic. We need the people around us, we depend on them, he said. That's why it's smarter to be nice to them. For me, it was a very important validation, an excellent example and proof that it is actually possible to be friendly, and that it even helps you.

SPIEGEL: What else can you convey to Samuel, given your almost 20 years of experience as a paralytic?

Pozzo di Borgo: Oh, I don't think there's a whole lot I can convey to Samuel. I'd much rather convey something to you, you and all other non-disabled people.

'We Can Be of Use to Other Wheelchair Users'

SPIEGEL: Go ahead.

Pozzo di Borgo: I think that we disabled people shouldn't be the only ones who are friendly. In fact, all people are dependent on one another. We all need each other. If the non-disabled were also friendlier, both to us and to each other, the world would be a more pleasant place. Kindness is good for everyone.

SPIEGEL: You were 42 when you broke your spine in a paragliding accident. How do you think you would have coped with it if you had had the accident at Samuel's age?

Pozzo di Borgo: For a young man like Samuel, it's a great deal more difficult to come to terms with such a blow, much more difficult than for me. I had already led a first, great life, an active, successful life in the business world as a champagne industry executive, for 20 years. At 42, it's certainly easier to come to terms with a second and totally different life than at 23. I was certainly more fortunate than Samuel. It's better to get into the disabled business at a more mature age. On the other hand, he now has a higher life expectancy than I do. The younger you are when you have the accident, the better the body adjusts to it. I'm not worried about him.

SPIEGEL: Do you agree, Mr. Koch, that Philippe was more fortunate?

Koch: Of course, age does make a difference. But I don't think that you can say which of us is happier or unhappier now. Calamities can't be categorized. It always depends on how the individual deals with it. For some people, being separated from their parents can be much more painful than paralysis is for others.

SPIEGEL: You had just moved away from your parents and started living an independent life. Then you had to return home because you needed care. Of all unfavorable moments, was it the most unfavorable?

Koch: It's true that I was full of motivation and just about to get my life going when all that was suddenly cut short. Although it's never a good time for something like this, it was and still is a pretty bitter experience. On the other hand, I had also spent 20 years having a really great childhood and youth, and I'm thankful for the wonderful time I was able to have.

Samuel Koch's father Christoph is sitting on a chair two meters away, listening to the conversation and observing Samuel, including the posture of his head and his facial expressions. Occasionally he gets up and holds a water bottle with a straw in front of his son's chin, so that he can drink. Later on, he massages Samuel's neck muscles. Pozzo di Borgo proves to be an avid coffee drinker, as he had told us before the interview. He drinks his coffee through a straw.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Koch, millions of Germans witnessed your accident on live television. And Mr. Pozzo di Borgo, more than eight million Germans and more than 20 million people in France watched the film version of your story. You are both among the most prominent paralytics in Germany. Is this a blessing or a curse?

Pozzo di Borgo: More of a blessing. Perhaps, because of our celebrity, we can be of use to other wheelchair users, and perhaps even for the non-disabled. I have nothing against being the clown of the system. It's okay. I've always been convinced that we have a responsibility, no matter what state of health we're in.

Koch: For me it's both. I already feel uncomfortable when I'm sitting alone in my room, in my wheelchair, and can't move. And I really feel this sense of discomfort when I go outside and other people are looking at me. It's even worse when cameras are pointed at me. But as Philippe said: If this publicity does some good or is somehow productive, it helps you cope a little with the senselessness of this sort of accident, if only because it has led to something meaningful in other respects.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Pozzo di Borgo, do you feel uncomfortable when you're lying in your wheelchair and others are looking at you?

Pozzo di Borgo: I was 42 when I got into this thing. You acquire a certain maturity after a while. I really don't care what people think about me. It's like this: Our society places a great deal of value on things like youth and performance, and being athletic and full of energy. That's why many people have trouble coping with the fact that we've been slowed down so much and that we have so little ability to react. People are afraid of us. The only thing we can do is to seduce them, with our smiles and with our humor. Once we've made the connection, we're home free. Touch us!

SPIEGEL: How do you make that connection?

Pozzo di Borgo: Whenever a woman approaches me, I ask her to give me a hug. I ask men to shake my hand. It's a way to reassure people, because they're afraid of their own weakness.

SPIEGEL: Do you also feel that people are awkward around you?

Koch: Yes, of course. I try to react the way Philippe does. I just say: "Kisses are welcome." Or something like that.

SPIEGEL: What sorts of awkwardness do you observe when people try to interact with you?

Koch: The classic one is the outstretched hand hanging in front of my face. The hand just sits there and sits there, until the other person starts to blush in embarrassment, because he realizes that I can't return the handshake.

Pozzo di Borgo: In Paris, I occasionally fall out of my wheelchair. Then I say to people: Would you please put me back in my wheelchair? But no one touches me. We usually have to wait for the fire department to arrive. But that's part of what I call my "job."

Koch: Some people talk to me as if I weren't just physically but also mentally disabled. They bend down to my level and ask, carefully articulating every word: "C-a-n y-o-u u-n-d-e-r-s-t-a-n-d t-h-e w-o-r-d-s t-h-a-t a-r-e c-o-m-i-n-g o-u-t o-f m-y m-o-u-t-h?" Then I say: Of course I can. What's wrong with you? Why are you talking like that? It certainly happens that people associate mental disability with a wheelchair. But I can't say that I was better able to make the distinction when I could still walk.

SPIEGEL: What about you, when you could still walk?

Pozzo di Borgo: I was so successful, so fast and so driven that I didn't even notice other people. I didn't see that there are people who live in a different rhythm. In a sense, I needed the blow to my head to be able to stop, and to understand what's really going on.

SPIEGEL: Jokes keep popping up in the books you've both written. You have almost a humoristic take on your situation. Do you have a favorite joke about paralytics?

Pozzo di Borgo: Do you know where to find a paralytic?


Pozzo di Borgo: Back where you left him.

Koch: Yeah, that's a good one.

SPIEGEL: Are the disabled the only ones who can crack disabled jokes?

'I'm Constantly Afraid I Will Be Left Alone in a Corner'

Koch: Not necessarily.

Pozzo di Borgo: If it's a good joke I'll accept it, no matter who makes it.

SPIEGEL: The film about your life is also bursting with self-irony. "I would shoot myself," Abdel, the caregiver, says to Philippe, who replies: "That, too, is difficult for a paralytic." How is it that you can laugh about your fate?

Pozzo di Borgo: Humor is also a tool. You know, I'm constantly afraid that I'll be left alone, sitting in a corner. Because I no longer have the physical strength to convince you to help me, I just make you laugh. Then, you'll pay attention to me. The escape into humor is also a pragmatic way of dealing with our situation. And it's better for everyone involved.

Koch: There's a German poet named Ringelnatz who said: "Humor is the button that prevents us from bursting." There's a lot of truth to that. Besides, laughing is more fun than crying, at least for me.

SPIEGEL: Neither of you mince words when describing the condition of your bodies. You, Mr. Koch, write: "My hands hang there like the dead tentacles of an octopus." And in your book, Mr. Pozzo di Borgo, you write: "Pozzo has lost his virility. He's become the leaning tower of Pisa, always tilting to one side or the other." Why do you write so harshly about yourselves?

Pozzo di Borgo: Because you have to be honest about things. We're not in a movie theater here.

Koch: Naturally, most people can't imagine how it feels to have such broken limbs that just hang there, or what it's like to fall over, like some tower without a foundation. Parables or metaphors can help convey to others how disgusting or gruesome the situation can be.

Pozzo di Borgo: That's the important message Samuel and I have. You can remove yourself from even the most difficult situation if you can clearly name your fate, and if you've accepted it. But only then.

SPIEGEL: In a speech you gave when you celebrated your 60th birthday, you said that you were celebrating "42 healthy and 18 disabled years, each of which counts as seven, the way it is with dogs." What brought you to that comparison?

Pozzo di Borgo: When I was young and healthy, I had the impression that I would be young forever. Since I've been disabled, I appreciate every second. Besides, it's much more strenuous to live one year as a disabled person than seven years as a healthy person.

"Does anyone mind if I stretch my legs?" Koch asks carefully. He has been sitting in his wheelchair with his legs at an angle. "Please," replies Pozzo di Borgo. "I've been lying here comfortably the whole time." His shoulder keeps twitching, an external sign of the inner pain that torments Pozzo di Borgo day and night. But his face doesn't reveal the pain; instead, it remains friendly the whole time.

SPIEGEL: How do you see it now? Was there a reason for your accidents?

Pozzo di Borgo: If there is a God, he's certainly not to blame. He didn't want it. It's bad luck, a mishap, a mistake we made or an accident, but it's also an opportunity for us. Perhaps we were somewhat on the wrong path, and that's been corrected. That would be sort of a reason. At any rate, I'm not angry with anyone because of my accident, and I don't blame anyone, be it on earth or in heaven. I try to make the best out of it.

Koch: Philippe always has these incredibly intelligent responses, completely to the point. I like that. Unfortunately, I can't really see a reason for my accident. But I do believe that God can also fix a bad situation, that is, that he can straighten out a crooked path, and that I too will be able to see some sense in all of this over time.

SPIEGEL: Do you think it's okay that 60 milliseconds, as in your accident, can determine whether someone will live his life as a gymnast or as a wheelchair user?

Koch: No, fate is a stupid thing. (He chuckles.)

SPIEGEL: You have said that you were thinking of Psalm 23 as you ran toward the car in "Wetten, dass…?" "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want." Do you say today that psalms are nonsense?

Koch: No, not at all.

SPIEGEL: Shortly after your accident, you asked yourself: "What if God doesn't want me to be able to walk again?" What do you think today: Does God want you to be able to walk again?

Koch: God undoubtedly wants physical integrity for everyone. However, I believe that he has a different list of priorities than I do. Apparently other things are more important to him than my being able to move -- unfortunately.

SPIEGEL: What about you, Mr. Pozzo di Borgo: Did you become religious as a result of your accident?

Pozzo di Borgo: Before my accident, I had a center of gravity that moved between my head and the area below my belt. Since the accident, this center has moved upward, and now it's between my heart and heaven. Spirituality has become essential to me, as a disabled person. What distinguishes Christianity from many other religions is that it isn't necessarily a divine hand that decides everything, but that God wants us to be free people who assume responsibility. It would be good if the center of thought in our society would move a little higher up, especially above the waistline.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Koch, you even performed your jump on "Wetten, dass…?" with a blindfold. Do you now think, in retrospect, that you were perhaps tempting fate?

Koch: No, I didn't tempt fate. People do riskier things every day. I myself have done much less controlled things in daily gymnastics training. Maybe the jump with my eyes blindfolded could even have succeeded if I had focused more on the routine performance of the exercise. But it's boring to think about that now.

Pozzo di Borgo: I'm speaking for myself now, not for Samuel. I engaged in a very dangerous sport, paragliding, a high-risk sport. Our society encourages this sort of thing. We seek that feeling of strength, the extreme experience. And, in fact, you do think of yourself as immortal and indestructible. But the search for that feeling of strength, and the belief that we are indestructible, these are absurdities of the modern age. An accident like this puts things back in perspective, sometimes a little brutally.

SPIEGEL: Do you keep up with advances in spinal research, in the hope that you'll be able to walk again?

Koch: I'd like to preserve the hope of being able to walk again one day. But I don't spend every day obsessively searching for results of the latest research. When Philippe signed a copy of his book for me, he wrote: "Stick in the present!" For the time being, I'm living in the here and now. It isn't easy, because you face a fundamental question: Do I invest a huge amount of time in training, in optimizing my condition, or do I live completely in the present and allow the physical to run its course? At the moment, I'm trying to develop a mixture of the two.

Pozzo di Borgo: Although Samuel is disabled, he's also one of the greatest athletes around. He has extraordinary discipline. He's a champion. We paralytics are champions of immobility. We are forced to display tremendous discipline. I've been doing exercises every day for 19 years, and I have to be very disciplined about my nutrition. This is absolutely necessary to be able to sustain yourself and survive.

SPIEGEL: Is the hope for a cure, or at least an improvement, important to you, Mr. Pozzo di Borgo?

Pozzo di Borgo: I don't believe that I'll be able to walk again one day. When Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Superman, became a paralytic he said that he would be able to walk again in five years. He didn't make it, and he disappointed a lot of people, especially the disabled. But he also generated hundreds of millions for research. Samuel could very well be part of the first generations to benefit from this research. In nanotechnology, for example, they're working on the development of exoskeletons, and on conducting impulses directly from the brain to the muscles.

SPIEGEL: Do you welcome any form of research?

Pozzo di Borgo: I was once offered a robot that would feed me. They came to the hospital with the machine, and to annoy them I said: "I only eat peas." Of course, the peas never made it to my mouth. Then I asked the people: Who exactly placed the plate with the peas on the machine? The woman from the kitchen did it, they said. Then I said: I prefer that woman over the machine. Technology shouldn't be allowed to isolate the disabled, and it can't be an excuse for healthy people to say: We gave you a machine, and now you're on your own.

SPIEGEL: You once expressed the wish: "Pull the plug on me! Just don't ask anything more of me. I don't have any strength left." What sort of a moment was that?

Pozzo di Borgo: In the first year, there's almost always a moment of discouragement. But in my case the real low point came much later. I only felt truly disabled three years later, when my beloved wife Béatrice died. With her death, I suddenly became lonely, and loneliness is the worst thing of all. I also know about a lot of people who aren't in a wheelchair and commit suicide, because they're very lonely and they haven't found a purpose. It's almost always the others, our fellow human beings, who give us a purpose. That's why my therapy concept is not to be alone.

'Women Aren't Afraid of Fragility'

Koch: Being in society is a life-saving measure for us. That's why it's so important that people are not afraid of us and actually like to approach us. Hugging and kissing, for example, keeps us alive. But we have to create the conditions for that ourselves. In the hospital, I was told that there were now three possibilities for my development. First, I could let myself go completely, lose all interest, see nothing but suffering, isolate myself and eventually become lonely. The second option looked like this: The need to constantly communicate everything could easily lead to my dictating things to others, which would eventually turn me into a tyrant, and that too would ultimately lead to loneliness. The third possibility sounded the most appealing: You accept yourself as you are, and you become happy as a result.

We take a break. The two men eat a snack. Koch switches his wheelchair to the prone position for a short time so that he can relax. Now Pozzo di Borgo's second wife Khadiya, who he met in Morocco nine years ago, enters the room. Wijdane, the couple's biological child, jumps around the room with her long pigtails, climbs up onto the wheel of her father's wheelchair, hugs him and cuddles with him. Later on, she climbs up into Koch's wheelchair and kisses him on the cheek. The little five-year-old girl displays the uninhibited approach to paralytics that both men would like to see in others.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Pozzo di Borgo, in your book, you describe at length the important role physical closeness, desire and sex played in your life. How has that been since your accident?

Pozzo di Borgo: Unfortunately the accident makes you lose your sexuality. The first thing they offered me in the hospital after my accident was a talk with a sex therapist. Today they've cut budgets, and the first position they've eliminated in that of sex therapist. But the sudden loss of sexuality is a big problem for those involved. It's a completely banal neurological consequence of the accident that you lose this world of emotion and experiences. I had the great fortune to be married to women who came to terms with the loss of my sexuality. Women already have a great advantage, in that they have more reason and sense than men. They're more adaptable.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Koch, how did you cope with this loss of sexuality?

Koch: Even before the accident, I had made a deal with myself to concentrate only on my future wife and to avoid all possible -- or impossible -- liaisons, so that I could conservatively, or naïvely, wait for the right one. The accident helps me a little more with that resolution.

Pozzo di Borgo: How sensible! Fantastic!

SPIEGEL: Hardly anyone can rhapsodize more enthusiastically about women than you, Mr. Pozzo di Borgo. You say, for example: "The magic of a woman soothes me," or "Thanks to women, I survived." What is it about women that makes you so enthusiastic?

Pozzo di Borgo: Women aren't as afraid of fragility. They're not afraid when they see me. They're completely natural.

SPIEGEL: You describe yourself before the accident as greedy, egoistic and ambitious. Do you regret today that you were like that?

Pozzo di Borgo: Good question. If I had known what would happen, I would have behaved differently. But there's so much noise in our society, so much movement, that you usually don't even see reality. I often say that I would like to return to the world of the healthy and of business, but under one condition: that I can return with my baggage as a disabled person.

SPIEGEL: You, Mr. Koch, write about Samuel, when he was healthy: "I was quite an asshole for a while." What do you regret?

Koch: "Je ne regrette rien," although I'm not proud of everything, either. But of course I've had a lot of time to reflect since the accident, and would certainly do a few things differently today. But I wouldn't say that someone who has suffered such a stroke of fate necessarily becomes a deeper person. Someone in rehab said to me: "He who was an asshole before the accident is still an asshole after the accident."

Pozzo di Borgo: Very good!

SPIEGEL: You say that you recognized the harshness of the system as a result of your accident. What exactly do you mean?

Pozzo di Borgo: We are in an achievement-oriented society, and I was one of the high achievers. But the standards have become so high that many people capitulate and are sidelined. There are fewer and fewer people who are still in the system, and more and more who are forced to the edges. The financial crisis, which was really just a logical consequence of all this absurdity, has accelerated this development. People suffer from neuroses, they've become introverted, they are no longer able to cope, and they become excluded or feel excluded. Mankind has lost the meaning of life.

SPIEGEL: Has your view of our society changed, Mr. Koch?

Koch: I've suddenly gained insight into areas that I had no idea about before. I now know what still needs to be improved, even in such a model social welfare state as Germany, not to mention other countries. It would take us less than a day's journey to end up in places where Philippe and I wouldn't have survived after our accidents.

SPIEGEL: Is it fair to say that you've gone from being a big capitalist to a critic of capitalism?

Pozzo di Borgo: I was always suspicious of capitalism, especially financial capitalism, which destroys values. The champagne company I managed was very German in some ways. All employees were involved, unions were represented on the supervisory board and employees had a lot of say. But when we were bought out by a financial investor, he decided that all profits would go into his pocket from then on. The first thing he told me to do was to lay off half of my employees. I had my accident shortly after that.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe there's a connection?

Pozzo di Borgo: Absolutely. I was very distracted during my fateful flight, and I wasn't myself, partly because I sensed that I didn't want to be part of that sort of a system anymore.

Koch: Even before the accident, I had decided not to pursue a sensible profession with the prospect of making a lot of money. Money and power were not among my ideals, because both are so fleeting. The accident only reinforced my beliefs.

SPIEGEL: We live in a nervous time where things move faster and faster. Does this pace exclude you, the people who move at a slower pace?

Koch: Perhaps it's more that we represent the counterweight on the scale and help slow things down. But I don't really feel excluded. I'm here in Munich today, and I was in Berlin the day before yesterday. But I think it's also important to pause sometimes and come to rest -- which I probably only discovered because I had to.

SPIEGEL: You resumed your studies at the University of Music, Drama and Media in Hanover in April. What have your first experiences been like?

Koch: The university has opened up new perspectives for me, ones that I hadn't anticipated. It's affiliated with the Institute of Journalism and Communication, where I'm also allowed to attend lectures. At the moment, it's more of an orientation and even an experiment for all of us, the instructors, my fellow students and me. It's really enjoyable to once again be around the people and in the environment that I had once become so fond of.

SPIEGEL: German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has been in a wheelchair for more than 20 years, and has been in the top echelons of politics that whole time. Is he a role model for other disabled people?

Koch: I think so. I was in the German parliament building recently, where everything is nicely wheelchair-accessible. He's apparently done a lot when it comes to removing barriers, and even with some very pragmatic things. It's also very important that, despite his disability, he doesn't allow himself to be disabled and actively participates in life; not just his own, but also in the lives of 82 million Germans. You can hardly be more active than that.

SPIEGEL: How difficult do you think it is for a wheelchair user to wield the influence that he does?

Koch: It certainly takes a lot of strength, even though Schäuble isn't quite as disabled as the two of us. There is definitely a difference between being a paraplegic and a tetraplegic, like we are. We can't even use our hands in a functional way, which means that we need help with everything. At least Schäuble can eat on his own, write, read books, open a door and scratch his nose. I would be so ecstatic if I had only one hand. I think Philippe feels the same way.

Pozzo di Borgo: I'd be grateful for so much as a finger.

SPIEGEL: Would you like to see more disabled people in leadership positions?

Pozzo di Borgo: It's extremely important for disability to be reflected in everyday life in our society. When you place a wheelchair into a gathering, you create team spirit. The wheelchair creates social cohesion, in politics, in companies, in associations, in the family, wherever. Besides, a disabled person is twice as capable and clever as someone standing on two legs.

Koch: Naturally.

Pozzo di Borgo: If not three times better.

Koch: I heard that the brain of the tetraplegic, like the hearing of a blind person, can develop into a high-performance processor. Where sensitivity is missing, as it is in our bodies, it's simply concentrated somewhere else.

SPIEGEL: What did you learn from your caregiver Abdel, a petty criminal from the suburbs who came to you almost directly from prison?

Pozzo di Borgo: He helped me regain courage and the enjoyment of life, after I became severely depressed following the death of my wife. I, the aristocrat, was exposed to a new world through him, the world of the banlieue, the social hot spots, places where people are marginalized. I wasn't familiar with any of that before. You can't leave these people on the margins of society.

SPIEGEL: Abdel, for his part, says this about you: "Without Pozzo, I would probably be dead or in prison." In capitalism, they'd probably call it a win-win situation.

Pozzo di Borgo: Absolutely. Although I wouldn't be in prison without Abdel, I could very well be dead.

SPIEGEL: How is Abdel today? What's your relationship like?

Pozzo di Borgo: We see each other regularly. He's a businessman now, a successful chicken farmer. He's married, has three children and has gained 30 kilos.

SPIEGEL: Thirty kilos? Then he's doing well.

Pozzo di Borgo: Yes, very well. I'm always so happy to see him again. But he's still crazy.

SPIEGEL: In the film, Philippe says: "The boys from the banlieue have no pity. That's exactly what I want. No pity!" What's the worst thing about pity?

Pozzo di Borgo: Pity doesn't heal. When someone weeps for me, he's actually weeping for himself, and we can't all start weeping. For healthy people, pity is a way of protecting themselves, but it doesn't do me any good.

Koch: Pity doesn't do anyone any good. Compassion is better. I think it's sweet when little children say: "Wow, you really have it good. You never have to eat on your own, you never have to go anywhere and you never have to get dressed yourself. You really have a cushy life. I wish I had that." That's what I like. But there are also those, who are not children, who say: "It's really not all that bad. You're doing well. You're a public figure and you're well known. After all, that's what you wanted!" That, of course, is nonsense and the opposite of compassion. It doesn't lead to productive cooperation.

SPIEGEL: Philippe, you too dream of "cooperation between upright and prone members of the human race," as you write in your autobiography. What is your vision?

Pozzo di Borgo: It can't work if there is too much pressure, and if the demands of our system contradict human nature. It isn't just the physically disabled who fall by the wayside because of the pace of things. Others are also increasingly unable to stand up to the pressure. Now I ask you: What exactly is the logic behind a system that leads to such exclusion? There's a suicidal aspect to it all. We ought to bring people back into the system. If disabled people managed to return a little of that common sense to healthy people, I'd be very happy.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Koch, Mr. Pozzo di Borgo, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Markus Feldenkirchen


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