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Variety and Unity: Michal Kosakowski on German Angst

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By Paul Risker.

The question is an integral part of the interview, but equally it was a question that was the spark for Michal Kosakowski, Andreas Marschall and Jörg Buttgereit’s collaboration on the anthology film German Angst (2015). As Kosakowski explained: “Andreas told me about an idea that he’d had for an anthology movie. When he was traveling with his films to festivals he was ultimately asked why there are no anthology movies from Germany? And so, this was the moment the idea was born.” He adds: “We came up with three different stories that had nothing to do with each other. But finally they fitted together because we somehow saw in the stories a day in Berlin, in which the first story of Buttgereit (Final Girl) plays in the morning, mine (Make A Wish) plays in the afternoon and Marschall’s last episode (Alraune) is the bedtime story. And all the stories on a different level play with the topic of reality and fiction; dreams and real life.”

As a collection of stories seemingly with nothing to do with one another, a connection revealed only later, German Angst reflects the nature of storytelling whose foundations lie in its ideas and themes as a collective language. And in spite of Kosakowski, Marschall and Buttgereit’s individuality, there is a collective convergence, although here the connection is one that represents a lesson or reminder to the filmmakers. “We actually found this out at the end when the movie was already done and we saw that there were so many similarities” offers Kosakowski. “It is about perception of time and memories, yet we did three completely different movies because each of us comes from a different angle of filmmaking. Andreas is the guy who is very much in love with the Dario Argento movies and the Italian Giallo genre, while Buttgereit is well known for his legendary underground movies from Berlin, and that’s why we thought we had to do something together.”

In conversation with Film International Kosakowski reflected on the role the past has played in shaping and informing his creativity, film as a cathartic experience and the responsibility of film towards history. He also shared his thoughts on the challenges of producing films, the reality of the festival circuit and the way in which audience participation through crowd funding is shaping the future of film production.

Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Yes, it definitely has a lot to do with my past and where I grew up. I was born in Poland and when I was ten I moved with my parents to Austria. As a child being in a communist country like Poland I saw some really violent scenes in the street, especially during the winter of ’81 when Solidarity was very strong and they had the state of emergency. So as a child witnessing those violent scenes and also growing up in an area where people were always playing around and doing stupid things, I saw some really cruel stuff. Then coming to Austria and suddenly having access to a video library – before which I didn’t even know existed – I suddenly became a total moviegoer. I just watched a lot of movies and when my father brought the first VHS camera I suddenly discovered my passion. I started making my own movies when I was twelve and it was just playing with filmmaking, and doing a lot of experiments – learning by doing.

After school I applied to the Film Academy in Vienna where I studied production and editing. But after two years I broke it off because I didn’t like it, and because I already knew so much from my own experiences. Then I worked together with Oliviero Toscani, the guy from Benetton. He was the photographer responsible for the campaigns in the eighties. I was working there in the Fabrica Communication Research Centre in North Italy, and it was kind of study mixed with a concrete project that we were doing. There I could really discover my abilities and I had lots of budget and interesting film projects. So that’s how it started for me, and at that time when I was with Benetton at Fabrica, I was only twenty.

What was the Genesis of German Angst and the circumstances by which you, Andreas Marschall, and Jörg Buttgereit became collaborators?

I was at the Transylvania Film Festival in 2012 where I had the world premiere of my first feature length movie Zero Killed (2012). During the festival I met by chance the director Andreas Marschall, who also had a screening of his movie Masks (2011). We discovered that we were neighbours in Berlin and we lived a few minutes around the corner. We became friends because we are both horror fans and we both like dark topics and dark movies.

Hypothetically if you’d gone through another producer or had taken an alternative route to independently producing the film, how significantly would this have impacted your creative intentions? Was that freedom important in shaping the film that we have today?

German 02Definitely, because if there was support from public and state funding then of course we would have ultimately been in the TV commissioners hands, which would have definitely limited our ideas and especially the extreme character of the movie. This is a major difference because as an artist and producer I could guarantee that we could make a movie that looked the way we wanted it to look. But at the same time let’s say we knew this would be the last project that we would produce like this because it is a very idealistic way of producing. Of course I had a sales agent even before we started producing the movie and we already had a German distributor. So we knew there was a strong interest and that it would do well in certain territories. In Germany it is doing well, but it was very difficult to produce because I was depending on private investors. We had this crowd funding campaign that was successful in the beginning that gave us the start money to work on that, but it is a tough job because basically filmmaking on the small scale that we were working on is a little bit risky. But we did it and this it what counts in the end. We have had great responses from all over the world, but it’s a balance between festivals and sales, and it’s going slow, but it’s going constantly.

You talk about playing festivals as being a balancing act, but the circuit allows filmmakers and their films a chance to find distribution, while for other films it is a chance to reach an audience they may never have an opportunity to reach. In reality how important is the festival circuit for filmmakers?

In our case since we had a sales agent, and he was responsible for the sales and festival coordination. And this is very important because many independent filmmakers that have no sales agent of course apply to every festival possible. It costs a lot of money too in some countries, although in others it’s free. But if you show the movie at too many festivals within a short time then you kill the movie. There are more and more festivals coming up, but you have to be really careful how you place it and that’s why it’s good to have a sales agent who knows the market pretty well, and who is well connected to the buyers from the territories. But you have to find a balance and actually festivals have nothing to do with sales. In some cases the festivals can be a possibility to attract a distributor and to network, but it is definitely important to have a sales agent because without that it really is a bigger job to get it sold than it is to produce the movie. And this is what you need as a filmmaker because you have a lot of investments for which you have to hand back the money.

Ultimately a lot of people look at the filmmaking process and see it as concluding once the film is completed. But in some respects this is only the beginning, as once you have made it you then have to get the film in front of an audience. Would I be correct to say that filmmakers have to do more across the process now than they have ever had to do before?

It also depends whether you do a short film or a long feature. If you do a short film then festivals are the perfect spot for presenting your movie because it is really difficult to get a distributor for short films. There are DVD collections of short films that you can get in on, but very little money is paid, and so short films are basically for the filmmakers…. They are a kind of a calling card of what they can do, what their quality is and how they deal with filmmaking. But the moment you produce a long feature film then you have ultimately invested more money and so you have to really put a lot of energy into promoting the film. On the one side you have all the social media, which when you know how to use the tool can allow you to reach a great audience. You can even use the VOD platforms that are offered such as Vimeo, and I think YouTube has one as well. I think you definitely do a different kind of viral marketing than twenty years ago because the tools to produce a movie are also much cheaper today than they were twenty years ago. Today there are movies already shot on iPhone and you just have to create the ideas and have the energy to make something out of them. But it’s definitely a big change and shift. When we did the crowd funding campaign at the beginning of this movie, we were promoting the project ‪24/7. It is a full time job and you have to be communicative, and to present your film so that it is visible to the audience.

The collaboration between the filmmaker and the audience is a vital one and crowd funding has created a new level of interaction that now exists through the audience’s active participation to help make a film. How do you perceive the way that film is evolving and the benefits of this level of interaction?

I have seen many projects recently that have been developed by audiences. There is a movie now produced by a friend of mine called Sky Sharks, a German production about Nazi zombies flying on sharks [laughs], and when they launched the crowd funding campaign they were actively involving the audience to create the content as well. I think for the future it depends where you want to have the money come from. If you want to have money from the crowd funding audience then you will have to involve them more and more in the process. You will have to make them feel as though they are stars and I think this is the direction it is going. Although there are also other possibilities where you have filmmakers who are going the traditional way of getting a lot of public funding and bigger investors. In the end it is about how to create a genius idea that doesn’t cost so much money, like the movie IT Follows (2014). I saw it yesterday with Andreas in the cinema and I was so fascinated by the simple way of filmmaking. There were five or six visual effects shots, and the whole was made with an incredible combination of image, sound and music. I think it is a good example of how first of all you have to have a great script, story or idea, and then you try to find a way to put it into a very minimalistic and simple way that doesn’t cost so much money, but which can be very effective.

The first segment of German Angst leaves a question over whether she is awake or whether she is dreaming, as well as the question of action versus the desire and fantasy to act. Your following segment possesses an almost fairy tale like feel that offers the unpicturesque setting an almost dreamy feel. Perhaps it can be attributed to your use of music or the physical performances of your actors, but it forced the contemplation of how cinema can juxtapose beauty with ugliness.

Yes, and I think it is also important to mention how the idea for this episode was born. I told you that when I was ten I moved to Austria. I didn’t speak German at all and I was experiencing xenophobia in schools where I was sometimes beaten up by the pupils because I didn’t speak the language. I always had this wish, this fantasy at the time to change the rules and just let the perpetrator experience what it feels like to be a victim. I took this idea from my experience and I put it into this fairy tale way of telling the story. I think that this fairy tale feeling also comes from the music, which is in the background constantly. But it was important for me to show that it’s actually just a game in your head, and once you are in an awful situation which you have no way out of, then the human mind makes up your own reality that allows you to survive.

In many ways your segment is centred on opposites, of the physical versus the psychological and specifically how the two form different dimensions of existence.

Yeah, and that’s why at the end of my episode the girl survives, so that physically she can continue her life, but psychologically it was the biggest nightmare she went through. Her boyfriend was burnt alive and the idea was to show that you can survive because it is a wishful thinking that you have in this moment. And how when your imagination is strong enough, it can sometimes help you to survive.

To address the Nazi presence in your segment, I don’t want to use the phrase that I’ve found it hard to believe what happened, but I just find it more difficult to comprehend with age. Discussing or considering whether your character can psychological survive raises the larger question of whether we can ever escape this chapter in our history that has left such a deep scar.

I feel the same way. Being born in Poland, a country that suffered a lot during the Second World War, and from the stories of my grandparents who both survived the war, I am still trying to comprehend what the cruelty was about. I am forty now and it is so unimaginable. In my episode it was important to me to build a bridge between the past and the present, in which the Neo-Nazi scene is growing and growing. It is not only a geographical phenomenon here in Germany, it is all over the world. You can find them in North and South America, Europe and Russia. I just wanted to show that this problem is growing and it was important to show that the same cruelty is depicted in both the the past and the present. And this is what I am criticising a lot here in Germany, especially of fictional movies about the Second World War that are showing it in a very soft way. It’s really deforming the memories of the war and what war actually means, especially the Second World War. I wanted to show this directness and why it was possible was because it was an independent movie. I could allow myself to go that far, especially with the baby scene, which is still something that hurts me as well when I see it. But it was a story from my grandfather who saw that happen during the Second World War, and through his words I created such an horrible image that I had to get rid of it by shooting it.

So much of our understanding of history is shaped through entertainment and you pick up on an important concern of history not being responsibly depicted through film. There is nothing wrong with using history as the basis for entertainment, but we should also remember the importance of paying tribute to and the need to depict our history accurately. Ultimately it is important to be cautious of not creating a disconnect from historical truth, but are you concerned that over time this will be a problem we will be forced to confront?

German 03I could speak for hours about this topic because it is really interesting. But let me start with this for example. The flashback sequence in my episode of the Second World War was acted by a Polish reenactment group that are actually doing a lot of reenactments in Warsaw about the Second World War, and especially the Warsaw uprising during ‘44. They are reenacting it for large audiences, usually on Sunday’s and in public spaces, or the original places where it actually happened. This group is very interesting because on the one side they try to depict how it really was – the cruelty of war and what actually happened, and on the other hand they try to engage with young people so that they’ll familiarise themselves with their own history. The young audience watching these Second World War reenactments are into history books, which is proof that they are more into reading about what happened in their country. And I think one interesting fact about the reenactment group is that there is a sensibility now for history. Poland is a very young country. It has existed for twenty five years and now it can really process it’s past. There is a danger that when a tragedy is further from the present then the foggier it becomes, but we can understand it through movies that are produced about those times, whether it is mainstream or independent cinema. But it has much to do with witnesses from the time, and there are still many witnesses alive from the Second World War. But in ten years they will probably all be gone and then it’s the responsibility of filmmakers to present the history in a way that is understandable in that same way. So when a director decides to make a popcorn film about this, then you have to clearly communicate it is such – how the facts in the movie can be changed. But then there are movies like Son of Saul (2015), which won a prize in Cannes about Auschwitz, where the camera follows one guy constantly. And this is quite serious stuff, but it is a very good movie and I’ve just seen the trailer. I read a good critical piece about it and this is very responsible filmmaking. So I think you have to clearly communicate what it is. If you use history in computer games then of course it is a computer game, and you have to be aware that it has changed. But communication to know what it is remains important.

You spoke about being told this one particular horrific story by your grandfather. Do you therefore look upon German Angst as a cathartic or a self-healing experience, and do you perceive film as having the potential to offer a cathartic experience to storytellers?

It somehow has something to do with self-healing, especially for me to understand the past. And in my case I just wanted to show that the violence that is depicted in the movie is very hardcore, but translated into the psychological pain that I had, it is actually the same. It is actually worse, and it was important for me to show it in that radical way that really hurts. It really hurt me and that’s what I like to do with my movies. I always take a directness like in Zero Kill where people talk about murder and they depict it that was the same kind of painful catharsis for these people that were reenacting their own fantasies. So this is also a kind of style that I use to transport a certain idea that I want to tell. And of course there are people who understand it and there are people who both can’t and don’t want to understand it; who don’t want to look at what is beneath the surface. If you just want the surface of a movie then this is the wrong movie too watch.

German Angst is an uncomfortable film that takes us to a dark place, which we have to endure. There will be those that will perceive it as having excessive violence beyond which there is little else, but when you look beneath the surface the film is exploring a range of ideas. I wouldn’t want to say you are targeting an intellectual audience, rather you are seeking an audience that is willing to interact with the film, embrace it and look beneath the surface.

It is important for me as a filmmaker to produce movies that are raising more questions than are offering answers. If you start asking questions about yourself then this is what great movies are about. But of course I love popcorn cinema as well. If I want to switch off my brain for two hours I’ll go and watch Jurassic World (2015), which is fine as well and it has a right to exist. But cinema and a movie in itself has so many possibilities to play with, from the aesthetics to the content that it’s always bad to not take the chance if you have the opportunity to create an emotional buzz.

Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Would you agree with this idea of change and if so how has the experience of German Angst impacted you both personally and professionally?

There is a very simple answer – it’s like getting pregnant and then giving birth to a child. It really is like this. I have four kids so I know what it is when a baby is born, and I would compare it to that. First of all, you just have to take responsibility, and then like when you have a child it changes you. Afterwards you are not the same person because everything around you changes and it is the same with movies. It is born and then you have to continue taking care of it, like now. We are doing this interview and so I try to promote it as best as possible. So I think this is the best comparison and I agree that it changes you as you are different than you were before the movie. And you grow with movies, so the next movie you shoot will again be a different topic, and it will lead you down a different path – again another child. And the great thing about filmmaking is that it is never the same. It is always a new experience and it’s always an incredible task. But you have to carefully choose your project because that’s what will remain from it.

German Angst in now available on home video in the US from Artsploitation Films.

Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.

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