Now almost two full decades after the fall of the wall, many signs in German political and cultural discourse suggest an increasing desire among Germans for having their country (finally) be considered “normal”. One might indeed concede that the desire of many Germans that their country be no longer considered abnormal is to some degree understandable. Nevertheless, this expression of the desire for normalcy inevitably foregrounds both the reasons for Germany’s status throughout the 20th century as a country that was decidedly not normal, and the suspicion that this desire serves simultaneously as an expression for the wish to be (finally) done with the process of reunification and its troublesome aftermath. Today, one runs the risk of causing considerable irritation with many Germans if one suggests that post-millennial Germany remains haunted by its poorly handled reunification process, which “normalized” significant inequities – some pre-existing, others the effect of the reunification itself – between the West (FRG) and the East (GDR). (1)
Among the many inequities that are today running the danger of being forgotten, of being simply swept under the carpet of “normalization”, is also the fate suffered by German filmmakers who hailed from the GDR. For characteristic of the recent resurgence of German cinema is the fact that the vast majority of the directors responsible for it were born, and/or got their start as filmmakers, in the West. In stark contrast, GDR film legends such as Frank Beyer and Heiner Carow have essentially disappeared from post-reunification German film culture, although these two were at least able to find some work in television, unlike many of their peers from the GDR who simply disappeared altogether. (2)
One of the rare successful contemporary German directors who was born and raised in the GDR – and who finished his film school education there – is Andreas Dresen. Having made a series of short films for DEFA – the former East German state-controlled studio – Dresen managed to adjust to the market-driven rules of filmmaking characteristic of reunified Germany. (3) With eight feature-length films to his name thus far (in addition to his more than two hands full of television films), Dresen has by now earned himself the reputation of being one of contemporary Germany’s most reliable, interesting and well-respected directors. Unlike some of his filmmaking heroes of the GDR, such as Beyer and Carow, he may very well have been lucky that his own filmmaking career had not yet taken off in the GDR (as he had not yet begun making feature-length films by the time the wall came down). One may speculate, for instance, that Beyer and others, who in 1990 could look back on their long, well-respected GDR filmmaking careers, had perhaps internalized the film production system of the GDR to such an extent that they were unable to muster up the sort of flexibility required by a non-state controlled filmmaking system. As Daniela Berghahn compellingly argues,
For most [DEFA filmmakers,] the dismantling of the east German film industry meant a free fall from complete security to total independence, from the status of a once revered artist to a nobody. They lacked vital contacts with producers in the west and independent east German production companies were only gradually being set up. Inexperienced in raising funding for films – they had never had to worry about budgets, which had been centrally allocated by the Film Office and the studio management – DEFA’s filmmakers lost their way in Germany’s notorious film subsidy jungle. (4)
In contrast to these well-established GDR directors, Dresen was still relatively green behind the ears by the time he was forced to cope with capitalist production circumstances; he simply had less ballast to throw off and was thus better positioned to carve out a niche for his peculiar brand of filmmaking – one that bridges the humanist, neo-realist tradition of many GDR films on one hand and the commercial, entertainment-oriented impulses valued by a market-driven film production systems on the other. (5)
In other words, in the context of (German) film history, Dresen’s case is fairly unique, not only because he was able to work continuously as a filmmaker over the past two decades, but also because his work has become increasingly popular with audiences, while maintaining the respect of the majority of German, and also international, film critics. Dresen’s most recent release, Wolke 9 (Cloud 9), premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2008. The film was awarded the “Heat Throb Jury Prize” from the Un Certain Regard jury and received almost unanimous critical praise, with not a few critics calling this film about sexual desire in old age a “masterpiece”. Dresen, that is, has become the rare case in (contemporary) German film culture: a director popular with a wider audience and the critical establishment. (6)
The following interview with Dresen took place in Athens, GA, USA, March 2008, when he was the guest of honour at the “Andreas Dresen German Film Festival” held at the Ciné Art House Movie Theatre. The Festival was organized in conjunction with “The Meaning of Culture: German Studies in the 21st Century” conference at the University of Georgia. I want to thank UGA professors Christine Haase, Antje Ascheid and Martin Kagel for helping me to arrange this interview, which I conducted in German and subsequently translated into English.
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You were born in 1963 and grew up in former East Germany (GDR). Please talk a bit about your experience growing up and what inspired you to become a filmmaker.
I come from a theatre family. My mother is an actress, my father was a theatre director and my stepfather, Christoph Schroth, is also a theatre director. (7) My mother lived with me alone for a long time, so I spent much time hanging out in theatre canteens, since the operating hours of kindergartens do not suit the working lives of theatre people. This milieu left a strong mark on me. I experienced how difficult working in the theatre is, what it means politically to make theatre in the GDR. It wasn’t always easy to receive permission for doing the things one wanted to do. For example, when my father worked at the Deutsche Theatre in Berlin, he at times was not allowed to stage certain productions; and in Schwerin, some of Schroth’s productions had restrictions imposed on them. Because of my awareness of these problems, I had never planned to work in the theatre. My father bought me an 8mm camera in the mid-1970s. It was an AK 8, a small, square box with a spring mechanism that you had to wind up. With this tiny camera – which I still own – I began my first filmmaking efforts, shooting material at the zoo. I was just a child then, only eleven or twelve years old. Soon the stories I told became more complex and dealt with various small problems one was faced with when living in the GDR. These small films were frequently satirical.
Another crucial experience for me occurred in 1977 when my father moved to West Germany. That was the time of the “Biermann affair” (8). The GDR took Wolf Biermann’s citizenship from him and expelled him. He subsequently gave a famous concert in Köln [Cologne], West Germany. In response, many people working in the cultural sectors in the GDR signed a petition demanding of the East German government that Biermann be allowed to return to his home. The petition did not succeed; instead, it ended up making life very difficult for many of the people who signed it. My father left for West Germany because of his signature, even though he was allowed to keep his passport. A number of artists, including Jurek Becker (9), were forced to leave the GDR without having to relinquish their passport and thus citizenship. The GDR did not want to face the embarrassment of having to admit that once again a leading intellectual had left the country. So my father lived from 1977 till 1989 as a citizen of the GDR with a GDR passport in West Germany.
Adding to the absurdity of his situation was the fact that, between 1980 and 1984, he was the artistic director of the theatre Schauspielfrankfurt – as a citizen of the GDR in a city [Frankfurt] governed by the conservative Christian Democratic Union [CDU]! By the time my father was forced to leave, my parents had already been divorced, with my father living in Berlin, and my mother and I in Schwerin. But seeing my father leave for the West was still a very painful experience, as it meant that he wasn’t as easily accessible to me anymore as he had been before. A wall was now between us! That was the first time when I realized that politics could affect you personally, that politics has something to do with oneself, that it isn’t something abstract. That was the first real political turning point in my life, and it shaped me considerably.
What kind of cinema did you grow up on in the GDR? How much did you know of the New German Cinema – directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, etc. – that was going on at the very time when you became interested in filmmaking in the mid- to late-1970s?
I’m of course very much influenced by Eastern European cinema, since many of those films were shown on television but also in the theatres, which also screened films by Volker Schlöndorff and Fassbinder, not all but some. I saw Fassbinder’s Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1979) in the theatre, and I seem to recall that I also saw Schlöndorff’s Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, 1975) in the theatre. In other words, West German films that had strong leftist tendencies were screened in the GDR, especially those films that criticized West Germany. And, of course, there was always the ability to catch films on West German television. In fact, we saw many more West German films in the GDR than vice versa. After reunification, my colleagues who had grown up in the West knew much less of Eastern European cinema than we did of Western European cinema.
Although I saw a lot of West European films, it was Eastern European cinema that left its strongest mark on me, especially Soviet directors of the 1970s and ’80s, though not filmmakers such as Andrei Tarkovski, whose later works I find a bit too artificial, too mannered; it’s not my cup of tea. I preferred directors such as Vasili Shukshin, who is much less known in the West than Tarkovski. He made excellent films that were close to the ground of real, common people in the Soviet Union. For instance, Kalina Krasnaya (1973) is a wonderful film.
Other directors who interested me include Eldar Rjasanov, a Soviet director of the 1980s, whose Vokzal dlya dvoikh (A Railway Station for Two, 1982) is really interesting, or Aleksandr Mitta’s Gori, Gori, Moya Zvezda (Shine Brightly, My Star, 1970). I also liked films from Georgia. Otar Iosselliani is perhaps the best known because he now lives in France. Iko shashvi mgalobeli (Once Upon a Time There Was a Singing Bird, 1970) is a very interesting film. Of course, Andrzej Wajda or Hungarian filmmakers such as István Szabó or Zoltán Fábri: I could list a whole bunch. But I was also always interested in a director such as François Truffaut: his attitude towards people, his way of telling stories – I always liked that. We could see many of his films in the GDR, and even if they were not screened theatrically you could catch them on West television.
These Eastern European filmmakers lived in countries that were more or less controlled by the Soviet Union. For these films to express a critical point of view, they had to tell their stories in fairly subtle ways, relying on metaphors and subtle poetic imagers, etc. Are you more interested in Eastern European cinema because of the way it was more subtle than its Western counterparts, given that, at least on the surface, one did not have to work too hard to figure out what, say, a Schlöndorff film wanted to communicate?
I think that’s true, since the circumstances for Eastern European cinema resulted often in a more poetic way of telling stories. One had to rely on creating subtexts and audiences were schooled in reading them. These films are not like bumper stickers you put on the back of your car; rather, they resemble poetic parables into which you can read something, which encourage you actively to interpret them, which is why these films are of continuing interest even today. One of the most powerful examples that come to mind is a Polish short film, The Cage. I recall seeing it at the world amateur film festival of UNICA [Union Internationale du Cinéma non professionnel] in Tallinn, which I attended, I think, in 1987. The film was about two minutes long. You didn’t see anything but wooden bars vertically across the screen, behind which a hamster ran back and forth. The soundtrack played the first few notes of the 4th Movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, “Ode to Joy”. Then the hamster began to gnaw at the bars. At the moment he made it through and broke towards the camera, the 9th Symphony rejoiced, and the camera moved upwards to reveal that the hamster had eaten himself into the cage in order to get to a food bowl that was placed in the middle. That was the end of the film. At the time, this short almost ended the festival because it upset some delegates from socialist countries. Some members of the jury even resigned. This was highly explosive stuff, even though you didn’t see anything but a hamster eating his way into a cage. But the idea is quite beautiful: that’s the anticipated Wende. (10) I think it says a lot about how Eastern European cinema works. Of course, this is a rather bold image, but all good films, including DEFA films, featured such moments. In this respect it was a different way of making films, of telling stories – something we’ve unlearned a little bit, as these days films are made more crudely.
In the mid-1980s, you began studying film at the Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen (HFF) “Konrad Wolf” in Babelsberg. What was your experience like? Who taught you the most, both about the craft of filmmaking and about film history and theory?
I had a happy time at Babelsberg, which is largely due to my arrival in 1986 coinciding with Lothar Bisky’s becoming the new rector. Bisky, who is today the leader of the party “Die Linke” [The Left] in Germany, clearly was a Mikhail Gorbachev representative. He had nothing more urgent to do than opening the school internally and externally, and students seized these new freedoms. It’s always nice if you can open your mouth and someone protects you! In this sense, we weren’t particularly courageous, but we used the chances we were given at the time. It was suddenly possible to tell different stories, which in turn allowed us film students to walk upright through this time, always protected by someone like Bisky. So, it was politically a good time for me, although one of my own films, the short film Was jeder muss … (1988), which dealt with the N.V.A. [East German Army], was censored as well. Bisky censored this film by saying, “We can’t show this film for a while, but I like it when the productions of my students cause a stir all the way up into the politburo.” That was the best prohibition one could imagine. It was an extremely liberal time at the school, extremely unusual for a media school in a socialist country, and this was due to Bisky. He shaped the school politically, but he never was my teacher.
My teachers were others such as my friend and mentor Günter Reisch, DEFA director of films such as Nelken in Aspik  and Anton der Zauberer [Anton the Magician, 1978]. He didn’t so much teach me craft in the traditional sense as exemplify for me a human way of coping with the medium. I had already worked with him as an assistant on a film, Wie die Alten sungen … , before I enrolled at Babelsberg. You could simply learn from him how to work in this job with people who belong to your team, how to integrate them into a process that depends on all people involved working in unison. In any case, that’s how I perceive working on films. Before working with him, I had a different idea of what a director ought to be.
In addition, I had a few teachers who were excellent in the traditional sense of teaching. Perhaps the most important for me was Peter Rabenalt, who taught film theory and music theory [film composition, film music]. That was extremely interesting. We did film analysis and were educated in film dramaturgy, beginning with Aristotle and going to the present. We also studied dramatic literature as well as film composition, investigating issues such as how the eye reacts when it sees an image and to what point in the frame it moves first. Babelsberg provided a tremendously well-founded education based on orthodox teaching principles. I still draw upon this experience to this day, not least because I was able to do a whole bunch of films there. I really took advantage of my time at Babelsberg, in this protected environment. We also had theory seminars, which were perhaps for me the most important.
We read people such as Sergei Eisenstein, whose work I think is great. We studied him, for instance, with Rabenalt. I essentially studied for six-and-a-half years. Before I arrived at Babelsberg, I worked as a volunteer at DEFA. To volunteer there at the time was quite different from what it means to be a volunteer at a film studio today. We enjoyed a real education. Even then we studied film theory and film analysis, and that at a high level with Helmut Lütge. We also learned how to use a camera; I did panning exercises with a loaded 35mm camera, and we subsequently looked at the material on screen, which back then was possible at DEFA. I also made a silent 35mm film and cut it on a 35mm editing bay, as a volunteer. Those were fantastic conditions, really! The most important DEFA directors came to visit us in seminars to discuss their films with them.
As part of your music theory training, did you also cover Theodor Adorno and Hanns Eisler’s Composing for the Films?
Yes. I even participated at a conference on their theories. That was very interesting. I have to admit I’m not a real Adorno-fan, but the book is a classic. My education in music theory came in handy for me many times. For example, we also analyzed operas and since then I had the opportunity to stage Mozart’s Don Giovanni. (11) So, my exposure to music theory was extremely helpful; I had not anticipated that the extent of my education would be so helpful for my praxis later on.
Another aspect that left its mark on me to this day was the principle of education at work at Babelsberg. No matter what you wanted to do later on, during the first eighteen months of your studies you had to focus on documentary filmmaking, as it was also the case at some Polish film schools. I frequently cursed, since I wanted to do fiction film and was eager to learn how to work with actors. I really did not want to learn how to make documentaries. But their rationale for forcing us to deal with the documentary form was: “Before you sit down at your desk and make up life, please take first a look at real life as it exists. Go on the street, talk to people, try to find your stories there; and then, once you know everything, sit down, play God and try to create it yourself.” So, I reluctantly began to deal with documentary filmmaking, and I gradually began to enjoy it more and more. I really discovered through documentary filmmaking with what gifts reality presents storytellers. I do documentaries to this day from time to time and very much enjoy it. This principle – to go into reality, to talk with people, to research – is very helpful. You come up with things that you could never make up on your own.
It sounds as if you enjoyed an almost ideal education in filmmaking!
Yes, almost. What I missed, and what I also missed once I became a professional filmmaker, was a healthy dosage of provocation. I wish someone at Babelsberg had told me: “Look, now that you can do this, try and see whether you cannot tell the same story in a completely different manner.” In other words, I wish someone had kicked me – in the best sense – in order to force me to discover different ways of making film. However, I don’t mean to endorse what I see happening at some film schools today, where they simply allow the students to do whatever they want to because they don’t want to interfere with an artist’s individuality. I believe that every art entails a lot of craft that you have to learn first; you can liberate yourself eventually.
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Looking at your films, from Stilles Land (Silent Country, 1992) to Nachtgestalten (Night Shapes, 1999), Halbe Treppe (Grill Point, 2002) and Willenbrock (2005), I get the feeling that you began kicking yourself, for it is noticeable how your craft – the way you make films – changed in those fifteen years. Silent Country, which is about small-town theatre life during the waning days of the GDR, is still fairly conventional. In Night Shapes, Die Polizistin (Policewoman, 2000) and Grill Point, one can tell how your craft – and perhaps even your attitude towards filmmaking – begins to change.
For me, the most significant break was the filming of Night Shapes. After Silent Country, I worked for television for a few years. (12) I never had to do something I did not want to do, so I did not feel uncomfortable doing television work. I don’t dislike contact with television at all. Christian Petzold probably told you similar things, given he, too, made films for television. (13) I got to know some really engaged people working for television, good editors that insist on high standards and fight hard for making good television. I think people watching television deserve that what television offers them is decent and not simply trash. After all, I was able to shoot a film such as Policewoman for television, something that is perhaps unthinkable from today’s perspective. But back then, now almost a decade ago, it was possible, and without the support of television we would have never made it. Of course, initially it took us a long time to find someone who was willing to support the film.
Who produced it?
The WDR [Westdeutsche Rundfunk]. The RBB [Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg] has also become more courageous; I enjoy working with them now. But back then it was the WDR where we suddenly found a home. Of course, they could afford breaking a leg for art because their income from mandatory television fees is high, but they also had good people. (14) I worked with Wolf-Dietrich Brücker. (15) He has lots of experience, an incredible passion for film and a big heart for film people. Deep in his heart, he is really a film person, so as a television producer he tries to make good films for television. He fights for good projects, for which I’m quite grateful.
In the end, we have to admit that hardly any good cinema film can be produced in Germany without having television as a financial backer. In this regard, Grill Point is an exception, as I financed it with the help of prize money. But all of my films were co-produced by the ARD or ARTE. (16) Without them, I would not have been able to make my films.
What about the ZDF?
I only made one small film with the ZDF, a children’s film. (17) My first encounter with television was Mein unbekannter Ehemann (1994), a co-production of the SWR [Südwestrundfunk] and ARTE. (18) After that, I worked a lot with the WDR and, of course, with the RBB. All of these were good collaborations. The only problem I experienced related to the length of Policewoman. The WDR had me cut it by seven minutes for television screening. I didn’t want to, but ended up doing it anyway because the WDR told me that they would cut it on their own, which is what I wanted to avoid by all means. This was the first time where I had to sully my own film, which is what you have to call it, I’m afraid. Except for one cut, which in hindsight I wish I had made for the cinema version as well, all the cuts were shitty ones; they damaged the film. But other than that, my experience working with television has been positive throughout.
Is the fact that you basically never worked with the ZDF simply due to your positive experience working with the producers at the WDR, so you really had no reason to work with the ZDF? Or are there reasons pertaining to content and æsthetics that prevented you thus far from working more with the ZDF? I’m belabouring this point because the ZDF produced many of the so-called “Berlin School” films, which is a different kind of cinema than the one you make. It seems to me your films are much more story- and character-driven than theirs. In films by, say, Angela Schanelec, Thomas Arslan and Christoph Hochhäusler, the stories are often extremely reduced, so much so that a plot summary wouldn’t take more than a three-by-five card. (19) Is there a relation between this and you not having worked that much with the ZDF?
No, it’s coincidence, really. I almost made Silent Country for the ZDF’s “Kleines Fernsehspiel” program, but my producer, Wolfgang Pfeiffer, did not want to do this at the time, since the “Kleines Fernsehspiel” offered impossible production conditions in the early 1990s. (20) They offered a budget of 400,000DM, and you were not allowed to come up with additional financing. You had to make do with the money they gave you. That’s pure exploitation, which is why they changed their financing policy. We had even developed Silent Country for a while with Claudia Tronnier from the “Kleines Fernsehspiel”, but then Pfeiffer intervened because he disliked the conditions offered by the ZDF; he subsequently managed to establish much better production conditions for me. That’s the reason for not having worked with the ZDF at the time; it had nothing to do with æsthetic differences.
At one time, Policewoman was also considered by the ZDF when the NDR [Norddeutscher Rundfunk, another ARD affiliate], which had initially been interested, canned the project. We shopped the film around until it finally was accepted by the WDR. Later on, after the film won a prize, the ZDF editor who had decided against making the film told me that he was sorry for not having made the film, that he made a bad decision. (21) I thought it was remarkable that someone like this would admit to having made a mistake. But the reason for not having made Policewoman had nothing to do with æsthetic differences. I think it was indeed difficult to read the script and imagine what the finished film would be like, which is why it just didn’t do anything for those who read the script: they simply could not image how the film would eventually look. Wolf-Dietrich Brücker proved to have more imagination! Or perhaps he simply had more courage.
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Silent Country is a film about the theatre, a world you obviously know inside-out due to your biography. With many of your other films, however, one doesn’t immediately get the impression that they are about your biography, at least not on the surface. Was this particular film something you had to make? Was it something you had to get out of your system, so to speak, in order to open yourself up to the outside world, in the documentary sense you discussed above?
Making the film had a lot to do with experiencing a massive transformation. After I finished my studies, I ended up on the free market, when I had thought all along that I would end up working for DEFA. At the time, I was completely lost. Wolfgang Pfeiffer approached me at the Berlinale after a screening of my short film, So schnell es geht nach Istambul (1990), and offered to help me make my first feature. I went with Laila Stieler, my co-writer, to his office where he asked us what we’d like to do. (22) We didn’t have a finished script handy, since at DEFA directors and writers would usually collaborate on developing a script. So, we simply said that it would be nice if our first film could tell a story that has to do with our own experiences. And the reunification process had deeply affected us, and it is a special experience, which not everyone can claim as theirs. We thought this would be worthwhile material for a story. At the time, there were a whole bunch of more-or-less-absurd stories that took place at theatres during the Wendezeit (23), and we thought this would make for a good premise. In other words, we liked the idea of not restaging the big demonstrations in Leipzig. Since then, this has been done ad nauseam and mostly in totally stupid ways, because the results are always considerably weaker than any existing document of the actual events. Our idea was from the beginning to create a microcosm of the GDR, a mini-GDR. We were going to use a small theatre in a small city and wouldn’t leave this location for a single minute. The large events, the world-shaking events, would only enter the film through the bull-eye of the television; otherwise, we would not leave that environment because we were able to tell everything there, since the GDR used to have such a micro-atmosphere: it was an island. So we built an island in this island and took it as a model.
Wolfgang Pfeiffer liked the idea, so we began researching. We travelled to a lot of theatres and collected stories. And I could draw upon my own experiences with the theatre world. We established the plot very quickly, and then we merely had to follow the events – that is, the events constituting the production of a play and, on the other hand, the events on the second level, the world-historical level. We wove in a love story, too. We found the film’s structure very quickly and were able to hammer out the script in about two weeks. We made the film in hardly any time at all: after our initial conversation with Pfeiffer in March, we began shooting at end of September.
It was important for me that Silent Country had a lot to do with my own little stories. For instance, the note hanging at the theatre’s public message board that constantly disappears – I witnessed that at film school. Somebody had told me to check out a note at the message board, but when I got there it was gone. The same the next day. Such small moments, where you begin contemplating where betrayal begins, in what situation you should or should not act courageously – that was of interest to us. That’s why I think the film has some real value even today, because it was still immersed in this time period, really close to it.
As one of the few German films…
I think it might be the only truly authentic film about this time period that we have. Much more authentic than, for example, Frank Beyer’s Nikolaikirche , which somehow occupies a place in the middle of the events and fails because of it. The model-like nature of Silent Country allows it to transport history, the large events. In hindsight, I think that’s the real quality of the film, not its craft. There are many things we could have done better, more elegantly. The film still walks on crutches; one can feel fear, and one notices our struggles with issues of craft. But, oddly, in this case it doesn’t ruin the film because its limitations have a certain charm. Still it annoys me, for I think it might have worked better had I been able to do certain things more elegantly. But that’s unlikely; the film came probably too early for the skills I had at the time.
Last year, I was quite surprised by the positive reception the DVD release of the film received. All of a sudden, the media took note of the film, which is unusual after all these years. I think it’s a nice DVD: if you explore it, you can learn a lot about the GDR and the transformational period, since my student films, which are included as extras, deal with it as well. If you want to know something about the reunification, you can discover a lot on this DVD. (24)
That the film managed to receive such attention through its recent DVD release seems symptomatic for the fact that Germany still struggles with the effects of its reunification, that it hasn’t yet worked through this event; it certainly hasn’t done this in its film productions of the past eighteen years.
I think this is quite sad. I have to admit this is a sore spot in my biography. The history of the GDR, or my past, my growing-up in the East, this continues to shape who I am. It’s something very special; that I was able to experience this lends my biography a significant quality, for not everyone has been forced to live in two completely different ideological systems in their lifetime.
Which is why for me this event, as a material for stories, is far from exhausted. Thus far, I have dealt with the GDR in my films three times: very directly in Silent Country and the made-for- television productions, Das andere Leben des Herrn Kreins  and Raus aus der Haut [Changing Skin, 1997]. Two of these – Silent Country and Changing Skin – are not half bad. At least they tell a lot about the GDR or contain something about which I would love to say more. Each time, though, these films failed with audiences in terms of ratings and box office. Of course, I don’t make films only for the audience, but I am certainly not an autistic filmmaker who films only for himself, and certainly not these kinds of stories.
As a result of these failures, I have not made another film since 1997 that explicitly deals with the GDR. I declined all offers that had the GDR as a focus, and I also stopped working on the stories about the GDR I still had in my drawers. I certainly was somewhat bitter, since I felt that the stories I would like to tell about the GDR were not particularly welcome. It seems people prefer getting the simple truths, stories about the Stasi agent who turns against the system [i.e., Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006)] or the GDR as a picturesque system with funny cars and odd objects [i.e., Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye, Lenin! (2001)]. That’s not to say that these films are necessarily bad films, but for me they have relatively little to do with the GDR or with being a reflection of GDR history.
I think it would be interesting, to take the example of the Stasi, to show how such a system takes root in the everyday and how it can insinuate itself into everyone. Most agents had families; they lived a perfectly normal life, having BBQs on the weekends with friends in their dachas, and on Monday they went back to the office and denounced people. I find this micrological approach interesting because it puts the system in close proximity with oneself; it makes it suddenly possible for oneself to engage today the issues raised by the history of the Stasi. Where would betrayal begin for me? Would I be susceptible to being seduced by the system? Coming to terms with this history would begin here, if engaged seriously. But this would be painful for both East and West, and this is why I think the time is not yet ripe, or maybe I have not yet been able to muster up the courage to start anew with this process. Perhaps now has come the time to try again. If I found the right material, I would certainly do it.
Yesterday, I read that the German supermarket chain Lidl spied on all of its employees.
Betrayal is close by and, of course, also exists in our supposedly liberal and democratic world today. If I were to deal with GDR history now, I would not do it to reconstruct it or to show how it used to be. I would be interested in such projects only in order to raise questions about today. Could it not be that things are in Germany today in some aspects still like they were in the GDR? Are there not lessons we can learn from the history of the GDR for our situation today and tomorrow? This is what’s also interesting about dealing with the Nazi era: one always gets to see in intensified form things that take place between people today as well. That’s what makes such stories exemplary and thus of interest. In this sense, there is a gap in my work, I know; in the past few years, a feeling of resentment has grown inside of me, since I noticed how other people appropriate these stories in ways that I don’t care for at all and since I have not yet found the strength to turn towards these stories. But I feel I’m getting there. If I don’t do it soon, I won’t have much of an excuse left. If you don’t do it yourself, then you should not be surprised that others step in. And if they do it poorly, then a skewed sense of the GDR will remain, and I’d be upset, for it would be the wrong “truth”.
Too many of the recent German films dealing with the GDR, or for that matter with the Hitler years, tend to cater towards pre-existing opinions about these aspects of German history, which is why they tend to succeed abroad. But they do not inspire those international viewers to question their preconceptions about Germany. I noticed this quite strongly when talking and teaching these films in the US: they all love The Lives of Others, much to my chagrin!
This works quite well for East Germans, too. Everyone can be comfortable with such a film. Which is why it’s so horrible, since it is essentially a story that should not make people feel comfortable; it should disturb viewers. But, in the end, the film lulls people into a state of security and comfort, allowing them to say, “Great, one could remain human if one only wanted to.” I’m enraged by this! Of course, one could remain human, that’s true. What the film narrates is not entirely false, only it has little to do with the GDR. It’s simply a fairy tale and, if the film admitted this, I wouldn’t mind it so much. But since the director constantly claims in public how well he researched everything, I can’t help but being bothered by it because his film has really not much to do with reality. Independent of that, however, it’s not a bad film, in the sense of Hollywood filmmaking. It’s not my kind of cinema, but I can accept that it’s well made.
* * *
In Silent Country, the new and young director, Kai Finke (Thorsten Merten) has a conversation with the theatre’s manager, Walz (Kurt Böwe), about the latter’s idea of having Kai stage as his first play, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Kai, somewhat hesitant, wonders aloud how one can stage the play so that it is understandable. I wonder whether this concern could not also apply to you, as your filmmaking philosophy, if you will – that the material you present has to be understandable?
I don’t think it’s really my philosophy, but I do think film should be comprehensible. But what does this really mean? Kai’s remark should also be seen in the context in which it occurs. After all, Walz, his new boss, selected the play in order to attract attention for his small theatre. As he says, “Small stars must shine brighter or else they won’t be seen.” So he decides to stage Godot precisely in order to raise some eyebrows, regardless of whether his local audience will understand the play: “Understanding or not, what matters first and foremost is that we stage the play.” He simply wants to be noticed, for his reputation; for me, this is pure opportunism on Walz’s part, and Kai goes along with it.
But generally I want for my stories to be decodable, and I labour that my films work without demanding certain pre-requisites. I don’t want to overwhelm viewers with a mountain of secondary literature, which they would have to read beforehand in order to understand my films. Ideally, viewers can just go into the theatre, sit down and make discoveries if they feel so inclined. But it’s not that I crave understanding at all cost. So, I ask myself: “By whom do I want to be understood?” After all, I have to try to find a form for my stories that remains exciting and that doesn’t always present everything on a silver tray. For instance, for the film I just finished editing, Wolke 9 [Cloud Nine, 2008], I worked on a dramaturgy that tends more towards omitting information, to not tell everything to its end and to not explain everything about the characters. In the course of the production, I abstained from providing biographical information about them. Night Shapes is my first film in which I show characters in such a manner. They merely exist as long as the camera accompanies them, and then they disappear again. For a short while, we observe how they live, and in this short time span they don’t have to narrate their biography unless it’s absolutely necessary for the story. As a result, each viewer is bound to read and thus understand the film slightly differently.
What’s more important to me, however, is the emotional understanding of a story – that one can engage the story without always relinquishing one’s distance to it. For example, with Grill Point, we worked hard to create means for instilling this kind of distance. We disrupted the process of identification like Brecht used to do. At times, we purposefully deconstructed the narrative, which is something we discussed at great length when shooting the film. I’m referring here to all these interview sequences, which completely disrupt the main story because it’s unclear how exactly they relate to the diegetic events. (25) We even made a version of the film without these sequences, which I thought was horrible and boring.
Some of my films have a certain pseudo-documentary aspect. Because of specific narrative techniques, they seem to claim that the film is close to real life, even though this is of course not the case. They are perfectly normal fictional stories but shot with the help of specific techniques. To improvise still means to design, which is often ignored; as a result, critics quickly talk about “authenticity”. But there is no authenticity in the cinema! If you want authenticity, you should look out the window. You can see truth in the cinema, but you don’t see anything that’s authentic. Cinema has always something to do with leaving something out. It’s based on a process of selection. Film is a big lie and at times I am interested in calling attention to this fact. We did this explicitly in Grill Point. The film has such a strong documentary feeling that, at times, we simply wanted to lift the curtain to tell the audience that we’ve been deceiving them the whole time – but, now that they know this, they can keep watching. We do this with some regularity throughout the film every ten or twenty minutes.
Something similar occurs in Sommer vorm Balkon (Summer in Berlin, 2005). (26) I’m thinking of the horrible Schlager [simple, highly sentimental pop songs] regularly assaulting the diegetic environment. That’s quite well done.
The film is totally unrealistic because it uses a strong formal language. Contrary to what many think, many of the scenes were not shot with a handheld camera. There are some handheld scenes, but they probably amount to less than 40 percent of the film. Most scenes are filmed using a tripod, very classical; the mise en scène is consequently very tableaux-like. This has also to do with Wolfgang Kohlhaase’s language, which almost demands such a visual style. (27) His is a completely non-naturalistic art language to which we added these Schlager. They provide an additional means to disrupt a viewer’s immersion in the mise en scène precisely because no one listens to such horrible music anymore; Nike (Nadja Uhl) would certainly never listen to it.
The world in the film is an artificial world, which doesn’t mean it has nothing to do with real life; it has a lot to do with it. But it is a formed reality rather than ‘real’ reality, beginning with the apartments in which they live, which in reality look very different. And Roland, the character played by Andreas Schmidt, isn’t real; if one wanted to be malicious, one would call him a caricature. Of course, that’s not quite the case, for he plays an archetype, so his acting is in essence akin to how the Schlager music works: he exaggerates in order to reveal the reality behind it, which is what makes his performance interesting.
This is my idea of realism. Realism has nothing to do with showing the world as it reveals itself naturally or photographically. Realism has something to do with speaking the truth. And I find truth by shaping, by rendering, something in a film.
All productions, no matter how documentary-like they appear, are always artificial. I always realize this when I go to a film academy to work with students; they always think all they have to do is point the camera at something and then everything begins. Generally speaking, nothing begins that way.
Realism is a widely misunderstood concept. In teaching, I often notice how difficult it is to bring across that realism is a style, that it is not a representation of the real world. Having to fight against this misunderstanding goes a bit on my nerves.
It goes on my nerves, too, since I am permanently confronted with people who think all we did is point a camera more or less randomly at a scene. In reality, it’s very complicated to stage such scenes. The effort that goes into staging them involves as much effort as staging scenes for a big Hollywood film, even though the latter uses different means than we do. But, of course, these are means. We endlessly edit in order to select the right moments, and we deceive viewers wherever we can. As a result, viewers gain the impression that everything happened just so, but this effect is not an indication of a lack of design; on the contrary. So, I am annoyed when people talk about how authentic things are in our films. There’s nothing authentic about them.
In this context, one of the more remarkable phenomena is that the response viewers, including critics, have to such films is quite obviously driven by their desire to judge: discussions about such films are always about whether or not the film is a good or bad – that is, correct or incorrect – representation of reality. And if such a film is deemed to present an incorrect representation people usually get annoyed. It’s an incredibly reductive discourse.
This is highly annoying indeed, since it implies a complete lack of consideration for the craft that goes into making films, as if we just pointed a camera at actors who do whatever they feel like doing. This is really condescending, especially towards the actors. I notice this attitude at film academies when students begin to test out improvisation: they often seem to believe that to improvise means to simply let the camera roll. In reality, to improvise means that one creates an effect that does not allow the viewer to notice the preparation that went into the scene, but of course much preparation has to happen before improvisation can take place.
When re-watching all of your theatrical releases – Silent Country, Night Shapes, Grill Point, Policewoman, Willenbrock, Summer in Berlin – I was struck by how much they actually differ from each other. And yet all films produce that “Andreas Dresen” feeling, an auteurist signature, if you will, which usually manifests itself already in the first ten minutes of your films. Your films don’t really belabour the same subject matter or topic, and stylistically they differ from each other. You worked a lot with the same people, with Laila Stieler, with the same producer, and some actors such as Axel Prahl, who’s acted in four of your theatrical features (Night Shapes, Policewoman, Grill Point and Willenbrock), appear in more than one of your films. Is there such a thing as a Dresen signature?
I don’t think I can really speak to this. In general, I don’t try to repeat myself, which is why each film looks a bit differently, even though producers and television people encourage me to do just that in hopes that we will be able to repeat the success of a previous film. I don’t want to do this, which is why I usually do something else entirely in my next film. For instance, after the success of Grill Point everyone wanted that we would make “Grill Point 2” or at least something in a similar vein. You get bombarded with scripts that resemble the successful model. So, I went on to make a documentary film, Herr Wichmann von der CDU (2003), and after that we made Willenbrock, which was very different from anything I had ever done before. Even though Willenbrock, which as a project already existed before we made Grill Point, was made with the same team that made Grill Point, the film looks completely different.
What is of interest to me is what a new project offers me in terms of new thoughts, formal challenges, narrative aspects that are unusual or new for me, etc. Whether in the end there is a consistent signature across all of my films, I can’t say, but of course they all have something to do with me. I think you probably can tell stories only with a certain basic attitude toward life and people, which doesn’t change much at all for me. Perhaps this has something to do with my Christian love of mankind, though I sometimes wish I could tell stories like Luis Buñuel, with such meanness and subversiveness. I always try this, but it’s difficult to overcome yourself. People often ascribe to me such a basic love for people. I think it’s a fair description, for it corresponds to my personality: I am very trusting. This affects the films and the characters. Such a basic, trusting attitude can get in the way in certain cases, though. For instance, in hindsight I think it might have been better if, in the case of Willenbrock, I had dared to approach the main character as an asshole. (28) But, at the time, I thought that the film wouldn’t work if the film had presented the protagonist in a completely negative light. Now I think this is nonsense, that we could certainly have done this. I think I lacked a bit of courage when making Willenbrock; perhaps it was the wrong story for me, I’m not sure.
That’s my favourite of your films.
I think the film is being totally underestimated. For me, it contains a very interesting, subversive message and in terms of artistic design it is the most sophisticated of all my films. I was allowed to draw upon a great range of skill registers, and the film was very difficult to make. It contains, from slapstick comedy to thriller elements, most facets of great narrative cinema. The making of Willenbrock demanded a lot of me. But, even so, I still think it could be better. Perhaps it would have worked better if I had dared to look at the protagonist from a more radical angle, if I had asked more of the audience. Perhaps it’s a bit half-hearted. It could have been a truly radical film, a malicious piece. It still is, I think, which is why people didn’t like it, for the film hurts, if you think it all the way through. It’s a very cold film. But, in the end, it’s not painful enough. I think it could have been had I gone further in my conception of the protagonist. Looking at him, I realize where I stood in my own way. So, I’d be really interested in depicting a completely negative character in order to find out whether I can do something like this.
Perhaps we can ascribe your attitude to your “humanism”. Policewoman has an ending reminiscent of Vittorio de Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948), with the policewoman (Gabriela Maria Schmeide) and Benny (Paul Grubba) walking together away from the camera in the film’s concluding shot; and Night Shapes ends with the teenage misfits by the sea, an image overtly evoking the ending of Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959). Both Truffaut’s film and Night Shapes trace a flight away from the big city to the wide-open sea, which seems to connote liberty for the protagonists, but there’s nowhere to go from there, either in your film, where the kids will have to return to Berlin, or in The 400 Blows, where Truffaut captures the entrapment Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) feels in what appears to be a moment of utter liberation through his famous zoom-in-on-a-freeze-frame shot. Neorealism and filmmakers such as Truffaut are often described in terms of humanism; many critics accused such directors of being overly sentimental. But if one thinks through the end of Bicycle Thieves a bit further, one would have to note that, even though father and son reconciled with each other, we still know that they don’t have food on the table and lack the means to change this situation. Or, in Truffaut, one has to say, “Okay, the kid managed to escape from the juvenile detention camp, but where is he going from here?” I have a similar feeling when watching your films. On the one hand, there’s a clear affirmation of humanity, but, on the other, it seems apparent in your films that such humanity does not necessarily solve the problems the films depict.
No, not at all, indeed! I think this is most explicit in Night Shapes. If you look at the conclusions to the individual stories, there are always moments of compassion and mercy, which were very important to me. It’s perhaps my most religious film, which has nothing to do with the fact that the Pope appears in it. (29) The film is full of moments where the characters experience brief instances of redemption. When the junkie-girl, Patty [Susanne Bormann], after having just stolen from the helpless and somewhat hapless farmer, Jochen [Oliver Breite], who came to the city to have a “good time”, puts back some money into his wallet – that’s a message. She’s perhaps the saddest, most lost character that I have ever depicted. But she is not entirely lost; there’s still a remnant of humanity in her or else she wouldn’t act like that at that moment. It’s a really important moment, albeit a small one. Or take the character Peschke [Michael Gwisdek]. At the moment when hen he puts his hand on the head of the young African boy, Feliz [Ricardo Valentim], with whom he accidentally got stuck for a day, you realize that he is simply a lonely man. Suddenly, for a short moment, he is focused on himself and doesn’t hide behind his need to talk incessantly. You could pick such moments in each story. That’s not altogether unimportant, I think, and yet the ending isn’t particularly upbeat. He does not adopt the little black kid; instead, he gives him a bit of cash and leaves him to his own devices on the street. And the junkie-prostitute disappears and throws away the address the farmer gave her. So, clearly not everything is well at the end of these stories, and most of the time I try to find such endings.
With Policewoman, this is interesting in so far as that the protagonist does not change in any way. She’s one of the few characters in the film who, at the end, is just like she was at the beginning; nothing really happens with her, or, rather, notwithstanding the events she experiences, she doesn’t change – which is what I find interesting. Her colleagues always tell her to develop a thick skin, a protective mantle that would allow her maintain greater detachment from the individual human fates with which her job confronts her. She always responds agreeably to such encouragements because she thinks that’s indeed necessary, but in the end she is incapable of doing it. She’s the same at the end as she was at the beginning, and I think that’s the happy message of the film: that there remains a moment of compassion against which she can’t fight, thank God. She probably won’t be doing this job forever, for it seems unlikely that she will be able to cope with the job’s inherent demands. But the fact that she can’t do her job in any other way, even though she’d like to, shows that her heart is essentially much smarter than her head. I think that’s quite nice, and I like it as a message, for people are not always driven by their rational minds. Evidently, something exists that appears indestructible, at least in some people. Of course, there are also indestructible assholes, but they appear rather rarely in my films; even Ronald, in Summer in Berlin, has an endearing side to him.
Yes, he’s charming, as is Willenbrock.
And just at the moment when we begin to feel some pity for Ronald, because he opens himself up, Nike kicks him out of her apartment! His dumb macho attitude actually gets him fairly far with her, but, at the very moment when he opens himself up, she throws him out. That tells you something and it’s pretty mean. In this moment I feel pity for him.
The connection between Nike and Katrin (Inka Friedrich) in Summer in Berlin raises the question of solidarity – an issue that seems important to your work at large. Their story, their friendship, seems to come full circle, as the film ends with them once again sitting up on the balcony surveying the summery neighbourhood environment before we leave them as the camera pans away. Throughout the film, however, their interactions are at times characterized by a serious lack of solidarity, especially when Ronald enters the picture and they become jealous of each other. What’s interesting is that the film is set, like most of your films, in a lower-middle-class/working-class milieu, focusing on working people, unemployed, as well as homeless people who all barely make ends meet. These are often lost characters who perhaps should place a lot of emphasis on the concept of solidarity. What I like about the film is that it makes an interesting point about how difficult in fact it is in the age of Hartz IV for the downtrodden to maintain solidarity, especially for those with whom they perhaps should feel the most solidarity – and you do this in a film that’s clearly made to address a larger, more mainstream audience. (30)
Their relationship is a partnership of convenience.
Until Ronald enters the picture …
Yes, indeed. As soon as someone gets between them, it’s over with their friendship. At the end, they are glad that they have each other again, but who knows for how long this’ll last this time. The next guy is bound to appear. The film shows how difficult it is to maintain reliable relationships and how highly we should esteem moments of sympathy when they do occur in a world that generally does not promote such an attitude among ourselves. Because of the fact that the film talks about loneliness in so many different ways, it also always raises the issue of sympathy. For instance, the way Nike works as a nurse with old people was very important for me – that she isn’t all the time the Mother Theresa of these old folks, that she pokes fun at them, etc.
But also that she is not condescending towards them.
She approaches her job in a very pragmatic way, and at times she does put in a little extra effort as if it were the most normal thing. That’s interesting. But she does it without copping a sentimental attitude or being patronizing; she does it because she thinks it’s the right thing to do.
Earlier, you already pointed out that critics ascribe to you a certain predilection for the all-too-human. In the worst case, this could easily turn into sentimentality. I think that’s quite wrong when it comes to your films, though. It seems a very superficial way of reading your films and their endings. The ending of Summer in Berlin isn’t upbeat or sentimental. It seems fairly obvious to me that the film showed us, as do your other films, that there are dynamics and structures that transcend these two women, or all of your protagonists, and these dynamics and structures work against the possibility of such happy endings, or, in any case, emphasize how difficult it is to achieve such an ending and have any naïve faith in their possibility.
Yes, and we must not forget that the image of the two women is not yet the ultimate end of the film. For it’s followed by the appearance of a title on the screen (31), and then we see a house completely enveloped by scaffolding, suggesting that it will be renovated and turned into yuppie apartments. In reality, this was probably really the case, which is why we shot this last image. So, the women won’t live there any longer, as they won’t be able to afford the rent there anymore. Since they are likely to move away, they probably won’t stay neighbours, so their friendship will likely last only till the day after tomorrow. The end of the film, finally, is an image of a bird flying away – an image for how one breaks out of such relationships once more and for the fact that they’ll last indeed only until the day after tomorrow, which is what the whole film is about. The fact that the two women come back together – that Nike knocks on Katrin’s door even though she had rejected her before, that they momentarily find back together – is a result of the fact that right now they have no one else, but that’s not a solid basis for a friendship. It won’t last.
Today, in Prenzlauer Berg, there are real estate agents who specialize in selling only apartments on the top floor of these houses! (32)
Yes, and throughout the film there have been hints at this ongoing transformation of the neighbourhood. For instance, Katrin paints pictures of her neighbourhood, which reveal how these houses used to look. The film talks about how Prenzlauer Berg is changing, has already changed, without wanting to judge this process of transformation. The film talks about a neighbourhood in which our protagonists have less and less a chance to live, to make their home. That’s what the ending is about: that in such a situation any notion of solidarity quickly dissipates when everyone is faced with brute survival.
* * *
Earlier, you said that you think Willenbrock would have been better had the protagonist been even meaner. I think it actually works quite well that Willenbrock (Axel Prahl) is so charming, for the film essentially is about lack of security, or a sense that the familiar sense of security is slipping away. It’s about the experience of insecurity. His wife essentially knows that he has affairs, but she tolerates this up to the moment when the sense of insecurity takes a hold of him, when it undermines his cock-sureness so much that it comes with him into their home. As a result, she doesn’t feel that he can protect her anymore. So, we get this creeping sense of insecurity affecting their home life, plus we get hints of the Russian Mafia encroaching upon his business: the rug is being pulled underneath the Wendegewinner Willenbrock. (33) I think what makes the film so radical is how you depict this experience of insecurity.
Yes, I think the film is radical indeed. It’s much less personal than Summer in Berlin, no doubt about it. It goes much further in terms of what it shows about our society. In Summer in Berlin, it’s still possible for viewers to get comfortable, as there’s still some resemblance of solidarity, of being-together. In Willenbrock, the protagonist is completely alone at the end, and essentially nothing works anymore for him because the world itself is such that nothing works anymore.
This has æsthetic consequences in the film. The look of the film completely changes over the course of its duration. I’ve never done something like this before. Towards the end, it’s almost a black-and-white picture, of which only a few critics took note, since it happens so slowly: it sneaks up on the viewer. We are left with a dirty black-and-white æsthetic, where everything is washed out, where nothing is what it used to be. At the beginning it’s still a slick, beautiful, well-ordered Lego®-land world; at the end, the camera dances and everything is godforsaken. Of course, this directly pertains to his state of mind, his situation, as he has to realize more and more that he can’t be saved. But he can’t be saved because we can’t be saved anymore!
At the time, I was completely fascinated by this, but I understand that hardly anyone wants to see such a bleak film. That hurts, of course. We barely had 100,000 viewers. (34) Without a doubt, this has something to do with the story, which isn’t a comedy. In the end, the film might have been too mean for it to have a chance to reach a larger audience. But I actually would have preferred it if the film had been even meaner, to be honest! If I could do the film over, I would try to make it even more radical, would go further in terms of the protagonist. Perhaps I would also narrate the story with more cracks.
That would be quite interesting, especially if you were to stick with Axel Prahl, given he tends to be often cast in roles that are similar to the one he had in Grill Point: somewhat of a chummy loser. (35) He’s been a bit typecast in such roles, obviously because he was so great in Grill Point. It would be interesting to see him play an all-out bad character.
The question is whether that is even possible. I do not know for sure that I really could do such a film. I still recall how much energy it cost me to make Night Shapes, as it was a rather untypical production process for me. By nature, I’m a bit fearful and very careful concerning my work. I plan everything very precisely, and I’m far from being a gambler. I also think it’s irresponsible to work recklessly with so much money that belongs to other people; I wouldn’t do that. Still, I realize that sometimes you have no choice but being reckless in art and especially film. Which is why I forced myself, together with my cinematographer, Andreas Höfer, to approach the shooting of Night Shapes in an unorthodox, irregular manner. For the first time, we did not plan our shots ahead of time; on location, I did not know in advance how the actual shooting, with a handheld camera, would work. To rely exclusively on the existing lighting conditions given by the locations – that was something totally new to me. This cost me a lot of energy. I permanently had to fight my fears as well as my natural inclination to sit down at home and sketch out a shooting sequence, and instead to give myself completely over to what the actors are doing on the spot. Bit by bit, I began trusting this way of working and today I have more confidence in doing it this way. Or, at least, I learned that you can always save yourself, for in the last instance there is enough craft I’ve acquired on which I can always rely. But this doesn’t mean I’m free of fears now when approaching a production in this manner.
But I don’t know if it’s also possible to create a different image of people for oneself. I think one’s view of people has to do with one’s upbringing, one’s education. And, oddly enough, in an environment where socialism was akin to a “state religion”, society’s ethical values had a lot to do with Christian values. I am an atheist, but I embrace many Christian values. That’s probably the source for my films’ “humanism”, or whatever you want to call it. It’s not that people from the West don’t have these values, but for them they derive from a different source. In the East, we were raised based on humanist principles, not in the bourgeois sense but in the sense that all people are equal and that all people have the same rights on earth. And that there ought to be no up and down, socially and economically speaking, which of course is a nice illusion. But that’s where this is coming from, I think. It’s very biographical and, whether you can really escape this, and whether one should even try, I don’t know.
I can well imagine that the kind of humanism and the notion of solidarity that I see as central to your films have much to do with your biography, with the fact that you grew up in a system that at least on an ideological level advocated the ideals of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity. And, it seems to me, one could argue that many of these values, however problematic their actualization was in the GDR, disappeared in the newly reunified country and were traded in for more neoliberal values. Isn’t it the case that you feel on some level that there were things – such as these values just mentioned – that we, as Germans, should have held onto, that some of the values important to the micrological lifeworld of the GDR should have remained options for post-reunification life for all Germans?
Yes, absolutely. That the GDR went down the tube, or that the ’68ers did not succeeded in realizing their dreams, does in principle not mean that the ideas behind them were wrong; it’s just that the realization of them did not work out. But that does not excuse you from not thinking about how things could work differently. I think as a nation we don’t do nearly enough of this. We always pretend as if we already reached the end of all our wishes, which I think is silly.
At times, I am aghast at myself in terms of how one accepts certain things as taken-for-granted. Growing up, one always asked, “What was it like during the Nazi period?” The people at the time must have known something about concentration camps, and afterwards they somehow found excuses for why they allegedly did not know. And today, consider Guantanamo Bay: we all know that there are still 700 people imprisoned, and nothing is happening. And the claim that waterboarding isn’t torture: what, then, is it? And we do all of this in the name of democracy and in countries in which we live: it simply takes place around us. These are things that deeply disturb me. We know what is going on and still we’re sitting here and have a cup of coffee. Suddenly, I understand the people who pretended not to know of anything during the Nazi years, without wanting to equate then with now, but in moral terms I do see similarities. Some things are simply being swallowed and people tell themselves that they can’t effect change anyway, so why bother trying. Perhaps it’s just this: because everyone believes that we can’t change things, it’s indeed the case that nothing is changing. This sort of self-fulfilling prophecy is rather frustrating.
For quite some time, I have paid close attention to the issue of terrorism. I worked for a long time on a project about the “Bewegung 2. Juni”, which I turned into a theatre play. (36) It’s good material, for I was interested in the ’68ers and terrorism because of the stigmatization associated with them: that these people, similar to the anti-fascists in Socialism, are being mythified to such a degree. In the GDR, the anti-fascists were like Gods. During the Nazi era, they recklessly distributed leaflets at night and were executed for this, but they went into their death upright and courageously, or so we were taught. But perhaps they also cried, but that’s not what we were told. But the point of such a depiction is to create so much distance between these people and us that one cannot but respond by believing in how fantastic these people were, and that it is impossible for yourself to be like them, to do what they did. So, you think of yourself as a cowardly asshole. And that’s the point: once everyone believes that they could not have done such things, no one is going to even try!
Such ideals can’t be lived.
Yes. It’s similar with the terrorists. From one point of view – the left – they are suddenly superheroes, and from the other – that of the right – they are nothing but monsters. Neither is true. When you meet them, you realize they are people like you and I with whom you can talk. You look at their hands and you think, “Oh God, once upon a time he killed someone with them.” You are disturbed, but eventually, when you speak with them, the distance between you and them disappears. They are normal people – only that they took a step that I initially can’t follow, but that one can nevertheless try to understand. That’s the key in such moments, which is why I’m interested in this material. The step to the moment of action is of interest to me, precisely because I don’t do anything. In order to show a different side of this aspect, the case of someone like Herr Wichmann is interesting.
He does something!
Yes, indeed, he does something!
Even though he’s in a hopeless situation. Before he even begins campaigning, it’s clear that there’s no way that he will win.
At first sight, you could say, “Oh my God, he’s a conservative asshole to the tenth degree, as well as an opportunist who either merely parakeets what potential voters are telling him themselves or strategically expresses what he believes they would like to hear.” However, if you take a closer look at him and stay with him for a while, things get much more interesting. This is what happened to me when I followed him in his political campaign. I began to understand and empathize with him, and eventually I felt pity for him, which gave me bouts of bad conscience because he puts himself out there and I don’t, quite independent of the positions he advocates. The fact is: he’s out there. He risks something! So the real question is, “How do we use the opportunities democracy affords us?” If democracy remains merely an empty shell, it’s pointless.
On the Herr Wichmann DVD, you reveal that he would have been able to insist on cutting material with which he might feel uncomfortable, but he didn’t request any changes. I find this quite remarkable. After all, some things he says put him in a rather negative light, such as the xenophobic attitude he displays and the fact that he is often quite sycophantic. That you got to leave these things in the documentary creates an interesting effect. For, even though you might have felt pity for him when following him around, I as a viewer didn’t. The film does not make him nicer than he is, and it certainly doesn’t suggest he’s somehow heroic. One responds by saying, “Okay, it’s interesting that this man is willing to devote his life to a cause that’s hopeless. On the other hand, he is not someone with whom one can identify in any way whatsoever – at least not if one’s politics are far to the left of his.” That’s what I find so excellent about this film: that it does not ask us to identify with him while still retaining our interest for him.
You do gain some respect for him – I had something like respect for my political enemy. Normally, I avoid such people like the pest and suddenly I spent four weeks together with him! The election party was quite interesting, too. I have never before spent an evening of an election surrounded by conservatives. Going into this event, I told myself that I needed to keep my cool, no matter the results. And, initially, it looked like Edmund Stoiber of the CSU would win, and my mood went sour. The CDU people wanted to celebrate with us, and I grew increasingly grumpy and downed one red wine after the other. Suddenly, the election tilted in favour of Gerhard Schröder and it was really interesting to observe how the CDU people reacted. (37) My mood improved, naturally, for it became clear that things would not be as bad as they had initially appeared. Yet, the CDU people were much more friendly than I was to them when they were still winning. They were much more tolerant. So I thought, “Tolerance is obviously not a strength of the left; others can tolerate defeat much better, or, in any case, these specific people were capable of practicing tolerance much more than I was only an hour earlier.” I suddenly felt a bit ashamed and thought how stupid I looked in this context, in terms of my ability to be tolerant. Part of democracy is to accept that someone else is victorious. That’s the way it is, even if you don’t like a particular outcome.
What you describe fits Wichmann’s own response quite well. You can tell he’s disappointed, but he accepts his defeat quite graciously, as if he embraced the maxim, “That’s the way life is.” And he took comfort in the fact that he gained one percentage point more than his predecessor did.
And that, after all his efforts! For his predecessor did not even seriously campaign, whereas Wichmann orchestrated such a big campaign!
Do you still have contact with him? What happened to him since?
He finished his studies, but right now we don’t have any contact. At the last election, we had another event, which was funny. We once more showed the film in a theatre in Friedrichshain, which is just at the northern border of Prenzlauer Berg, and I talked for a long time with him. He was surprisingly liberal; I almost thought he might soon leave the CDU. He said that for him the whole campaign run by the CDU, which was Angela Merkel’s campaign, was too right-wing, too antisocial. (38) He said he disliked this, for after all his party is called the Christian Democratic Union, which would seem to imply that some other values are at stake than just neoliberal ones. I was quite surprised by this, I have to confess. Perhaps this had something to do with the documentary, I don’t know. But it could be possible that he’s gained a different view of himself by looking at himself through an external perspective. I’m not sure whether he’s going to run again at the next election. It would be interesting to find out. I will try. I won’t film it again, that would be stupid, but I would be interested in seeing what happens to him, whether he will try once more to enter politics.
What are we going to see next from you?
I just finished two films, Cloud 9 and Whisky mit Wodka (Whiskey with Vodka, 2008). The former is about a nearly 70-year-old married woman who suddenly falls in love with another man – not with a younger man, though, but with a 76-year-old! The film tries to engage candidly with sexual desire in old age. (39) The latter film is based on a script by Kohlhaase and tells the story of a famous actor whose alcoholism threatens the shooting of his latest film, which is why the producers hire a younger actor with whom they shoot all scenes for a second time to ensure that the film will be successfully finished.
Thank you for this extensive interview.
For readers interested in seeing some of Dresen’s work, you can currently find the following films on DVD with English subtitles: Stilles Land, Nachtgestalten, Die Polizistin, Halbe Treppe, Herr Wichmann von der CDU, Willenbrock, and Sommer vorm Balkon. They can all be purchased on various German web sites, including http://www.amazon.de. In addition, the DEFA Library at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst – http://www.umass.edu/defa – released Raus aus der Haut on DVD with English subtitles.
- One would certainly not be incorrect in suggesting that the former West literally took over the former East, as is best evidenced by the fact that the newly reunited country maintained the constitution of the old West Germany, instead of having a constitutional assembly write a new, German constitution.
- Carow, a massively popular director in the GDR, directed films such as Die Legende von Paul und Paula (The Legend of Paul and Paula, 1973) as well as DEFA’s last production, Coming Out (1989), a gay love story that broke a long-existing taboo in the GDR. After reunification, however, Carow made only one more feature-length film, Die Verfehlung (The Misdemeanor, 1991), before his death in 1997. One of the most significant GDR directors, Beyer made such classic films as Fünf Patronenhülsen (Five Cartridges, 1960), Nackt unter Wölfen (Naked among Wolves, 1962), Kabrid und Sauerampfer (Cabride and Sorrel, 1963), Spur der Steine (Traces of Stones, 1966), and Jakob, der Lügner (Jakob the Liar, 1974), the last of which Peter Kassovitz remade in 1999 with Robin Williams in the lead role. After 1990, Beyer had only one more theatrical release, Der Verdacht (The Suspicion, 1991). He died in 2006.
- Notoriously, of course, German film productions are based on a mixture of market-driven decisions and a complex and ever-changing state-sponsored subsidy system.
- Daniela Berghahn, “East German Cinema after Unification”, in David Clarke (Ed.), German Cinema since Unification (New York: Continuum, 2006), p. 84.
- Of course, this explanation does not account for the fact that many other East German directors of Dresen’s own generation never really made it in reunified Germany, even though, as Berghahn argues, “the radical transformation of the cultural sphere [with the dismantling of DEFA] was a blessing in disguise” for DEFA’s next generation. (Berghahn, p. 85.) Berghahn goes on to call attention to a number of young directors, such as Jörg Foth, Helke Misselwitz and Herwig Kipping, who learned filmmaking in the East and who subsequently made a number of interesting début films: Letztes aus der DaDaeR (1990), Herzsprung (1992) and Novalis – Die blaue Blume (1993), respectively. Arguably, however, none of these directors had significant, lasting careers, as is evidenced by their thin filmographies. The only other GDR-born director of Dresen’s generation who managed to forge a somewhat more substantial filmmaking career for himself since 1990 is Andreas Kleinert, the director of a handful of theatrical releases, including the widely-acclaimed Wege in die Nacht (Paths in the Night, 1998) and his most recent film, Freischwimmer (2007).
- This is not to say that he does not have a number of critics who complain about his films as being too sentimental. Some have even given him, pejoratively, the nickname, “de Sica aus Gera” (De Sica from Gera (a city located in former East Germany where Dresen was born)), as the German “Berlin School” director Christoph Hochhäusler reports on his blog, “Parallel Film”. For an interview with Hochhäusler, see Marco Abel, “Tender Speaking: An Interview with Christoph Hochhäusler”, Senses of Cinema, No. 42 (January- March 2007).
- Schroth, born in Dresden in 1937, was one of the most prominent theatre directors in the GDR whose influence on actors was immense. Dresen, too, has the reputation of being a director who is actor friendly, frequently creating collaborative working environments in which the final outcome depends as much on the director’s as on the actors’ input.
- Wolf Biermann, born in Hamburg in 1936, is a famous German singer-songwriter. While still a citizen of the GDR, he was a committed socialist, but his nonconformist attitudes soon raised the ire of the East German government.
- Becker became famous for his novel, Jakob der Lügner (Jakob the Liar, 1969).
- Wende literally means “change” or “turn” and refers here to the transformation Eastern European countries underwent during, and in the aftermath of, Glasnost or Perestroika initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev.
- His staging of Mozart’s opera premiered in February 2006 at the Theatre Basel in Switzerland.
- Between Silent Country and Night Shapes, Dresen worked at least ten times for German television, predominantly making feature-length tele-films.
- Dresen is referring to my conversation with Petzold. Cf. Marco Abel, “‘The Cinema of Identification Gets on My Nerves’: An Interview with Christian Petzold”, Cineaste online (June 2008).
- German network television, the ARD (Arbeitsgemeinschaft der öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland) and the ZDF (Zweite Deutsche Fernsehen), is tax based. The ARD, also known as “Das Erste” (“The First”), broadcasts nationwide; however, it is comprised of nine constituent broadcasting institutions, which are based on Germany’s federal states (and in some cases co-operations between states). The WDR is the largest of the nine in terms of its tax-base.
- Brücker has worked on films such as Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola (1981), as well as, more recently, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Der Untergang (Downfall, 2004).
- ARTE is a Franco-German television network, which aims to promote quality programming especially in areas of culture and the arts.
- Freundin wider Willen (1995), which was a 25-minute episode in the ZDF series, “Achterbahn”.
- The SWR is another regional broadcaster of the ARD.
- For more on the “Berlin School”, see my essay, “Intensifying Life: The Cinema of the ‘Berlin School’”, Cineaste online (September 2008). For an interview with Hochhäusler discussing the Berlin School, see my “Tender Speaking: An Interview with Christoph Hochhäusler”, Senses of Cinema, No. 42 (January-March 2007).
- “Das kleine Fernsehspiel” specializes in producing films by directors who are in the early stages of their careers, often co-producing début and second efforts by filmmakers.
- The film was awarded the Deutsche Fernsehpreis (German Television Prize) for best director in 2001.
- Stieler co-wrote with Dresen the latter’s short films, Was jeder muss … and So schnell es geht nach Istambul; following Silent Country, she wrote the scripts for the made-for-television film, Mein unbekannter Ehemann, Policewoman, and Willenbrock.
- He’s referring here to the last months before the wall separating East and West Germany came down in November 1989.
- The DVD feature six of Dresen’s student films: Konsequenzen – Peter 25 (1987), Nachts schlafen die Ratten (1988), his once-censored Was jeder muss…, Jenseits von Klein Wanzleben (1989), Zug in die Ferne (1989) and So schnell es geht nach Istanbul.
- For the viewer, the ontological status of these interview scenes remains continually indiscernible, as we wonder whether the person being interviewed is the diegetic character at some time after the diegetic events took place or the actor playing the character. What creates this sense of indiscernibility is the fact that the actors remain in character, so to speak, as well as the fact that Dresen did not clarify for the actors as to how – as themselves as real persons, as actors doing a job, or as characters – they are answering these questions. Furthermore, we never see who asks the questions, which further hampers the audience’s ability to determine the narrative/reality status of these scenes with any certainty. Only if one happens to recognize the interviewer’s voice – which belongs to Dresen himself – might one conclude with some measure of certainty that the level of “reality” of these interviews is of a different kind than the “reality” of the events of the main story itself; however, because it remains unclear what the temporal relation of the interviews to the main story is – some of the interviews seem to post-date the main story’s end and appear inserted as flashes from the future, whereas others seem to take place during the story’s own temporal unfolding as if being a real part of the diegetic events – even this potential moment of “recognition” does not undo the effect of indiscernibility created by this Verfremdungseffect.
- For a discussion of this film, see my essay, “The State of Things Part Two: More images for a Post-Wall German Reality: The 56th Berlin Film Festival”, Senses of Cinema, No. 39 (April-June 2006).
- Born in 1931, Kohlhaase is an author and screenwriter who penned, among many other films, GDR-cinema classics such as Gerhard Klein’s Berlin – Ecke Schönhauser (1957) and Berlin um die Ecke (1965), as well as Konrad Wolf’s Ich war neunzehn (I was Nineteen, 1968) and Solo Sunny (1980), the latter one of Dresen’s favourite films.
- For a discussion of Willenbrock, see my “Images for a Post-Wall Reality: New German Films at the 55th Berlin Film Festival”, Senses of Cinema, No. 35 (April-June 2005).
- The stories take place during the time period of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Berlin in June 1996. Dresen incorporates this real-life event into his mise en scène by showing him on various televisions. The narratives, too, are affected by this incursion of reality into the fiction; for instance, in the story of the homeless couple, we witness how they are being refused a hotel room by the female proprietor because the couple is not married – a refusal of Christian kindness that is made ironic by the fact that we learn from the dialogue how excited the woman is about the Pope’s presence in Berlin.
- Hartz IV is the last phase of recommendations for the reform of the German labour market provided by a commission headed in 2002 by Peter Hartz, who was then the human resources executive of Volkswagen. Since then, Hartz IV has become a lightening rod in German politics, largely because these reforms significantly weakened the traditionally strong social security net of the German welfare state.
- Sitting at night on Nike’s balcony, drinking and talking, Nike tells Katrin how even as a child she already had a somewhat questionable reputation among boys. Katrin responds: “So ist das Leben” (“That’s how life is”), an astute albeit also clichéd insight that Nike affirms: “Aber wirklich” (“Indeed”). The film then immediately cuts to a black screen and the words “und so weiter …” (“and so on …”) appear. The film’s final images are of an overcast sky shot through leafless trees; an apartment building (we surmise it’s the same building where Nike and Katrin live, or, rather, used to live) covered in scaffolding, presumably for purposes of renovating the house into a more upscale domicile out of Katrin and Nike’s price range; and, finally, a bird flying through the sky.
- Prenzlauer Berg used to be home to many artists and the dissident milieu of former East Germany (and is also the area where The Lives of Others takes place). After the wall came down, it initially attracted lots of artists and lower-income people who moved into the neighbourhood due to its affordable housing; eventually, however, the neighbourhood underwent a process of gentrification, and today it has become increasingly unaffordable for working-class and lower-middle-class people, as well as struggling artists, who hope to make a home there.
- Wendegewinner are people who managed to profit from Germany’s reunification and are usually from former West Germany, but Willenbrock actually used to be a citizen of the GDR.
- To put this in context, Night Shapes attracted, according to Dresen, approximately 190,000 viewers in German theatres; Grill Point more than 460,000; and Summer in Berlin almost one million viewers. In the past decade, the German films that topped the annual box-office lists were seen by anywhere between two and ten million viewers.
- For example, Prahl plays similar characters in films such as Sylke Enders’ Mondkalb (2007) and Bernd Böhlich’s Du bist nicht allein (2007).
- The play is called Zeugenstand – Stadtguerilla-Monologe and premiered on 5 June 2002 at the Deutsches Theatre in Berlin. The “Bewegung 2. Juni” was active in the 1970s as a city guerrilla group, whose name commemorated the day Benno Ohnesorg was shot by a policeman on 2 June 1967 at a student demonstration in Berlin – perhaps the pivotal moment for the future development of the student movement and what would happen in West Germany in the 1970s. On 2 June 1980, some members of the group disbanded and joined the better-known Red Army Faction (RAF), which had been fighting the German state throughout the 1970s and whose activities and their consequences became subject of one of New German Cinema’s most famous films, the omnibus production, Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn, 1978), which features short films by the likes of Fassbinder, Schlöndorff, Edgar Reitz and Alexander Kluge.
- Dresen describes here the outcome of Germany’s dramatic election in 2004. The incumbent Schröder of the then governing Social Democratic Party (SPD) barely eked out Stoiber, the candidate for chancellor nominated by the sister parties CDU and CSU (Christian Social Union of Germany), for another term as Germany’s chancellor. Schröder’s uncompromising – and perhaps opportunistic – rejection of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq was probably what allowed him to turn into victory what for a long time had looked like sure defeat.
- Merkel, of course, won the election against Schröder in September 2005 and thus became Germany’s first chancellor from the neue Bundesländer (the five federal states formerly comprising East Germany), as well as the country’s first-ever female chancellor.
- Since its theatrical release in Germany in September 2008, about half-a-million viewers went to see the film.