By Tom Ue.
Claus Räfle has directed over forty feature-length documentaries for German television. Die Heftmacher earned the Grimme Award for best work of TV journalism. Der Kandidat, received honorable mention at the Max Ophüls Awards. His documentaries Blitzhochzeit in Dänemark and Die Stunde davor each received nominations for Best German TV Documentary from the Prix Europa. In what follows, Räfle and I discuss his new film The Invisibles, which uses documentary and narrative feature to tell the story of four real-life survivors in Nazi Berlin and how they hid in plain sight. In what follows, Räfle and I discuss what it means to do justice to this chapter in history, and the challenges behind realizing this project.
Congratulations on this beautiful film! You have directed a number of documentaries before. What interested you about this particular project?
Thanks, Tom, I am glad you liked our movie – it’s great that many people are touched by its true story, which we mixed with a feature movie based on the interviews with the four protagonists.
It was very fascinating to get to know that about 7,000 Jewish Berliners tried to resist their deportation to the camps in the East – and tried to survive in their own hometown, in their neighborhood – but with new identities. It was a very special and very emotional rescue story because those who survived could only do so because there were some Germans – not many, but some – who were risking something to show humanity.
You wrote, directed, and produced this film. Which part of it is the hardest? Why?
The hardest was the fictional aspect, because it was a debut – we did a complete shooting of a 110-minute fiction movie with four chapters, plots, and many actors. I have done many documentaries before, but a movie and, in this case, a historic movie that was special and a debut. It went well: I urgently want to go for another one – a full feature movie next time!
Did you design the film with the four stories in mind?
We designed the movie on the basis of the interviews we did about six years before we could start with the shooting. It took us six years to convince partners in Germany – subsidies, and TV, and distribution, and world sales company – to make this story and how we wanted to tell it in this mix of fiction and documentary and that it will have a chance in Cinema and in TV. But finally, it worked out very well. It was a success in Germany cinemas, and it was licensed to 25 countries.
What led you to focus on these four characters?
We were looking for two women and two men who could tell us their stories of survival during those Nazi years in Berlin in a good way: full of emotions, proud that they could overcome, that they were more clever then the Nazis, and telling their rescue story in a warm-hearted way as they got help from very few good Germans.
How did you decide on when to move from story to story?
One of my favorite movies is Short Cuts (1993) by the legendary storyteller and director Robert Altman: I had the idea to tell four or even five stories and mix them with archival material. I thought that they would move themselves. It’s like a domino: After the first moves, it pushes the next piece of the story till it comes to the final piece when the two young Jewish guys pray for their lives.
Some of the story was almost unbelievable. We thought the documentary makes it more real: it underlines the truth and it pushes the emotional power, that these four people went through those real stories and survived. And finally I thought that it will be important to take advantage of this opportunity as there are very few still living victims of the Holocaust who can give us their testimonials.
Are there particular affordance and limits that you identify with each genre?
Although I worked with these four stories to bring them together a documentary and a fictional movie – in Germany, we call it docudrama – this subject is difficult for us. It is a very special format for movie story telling.
Did you film the documentary or the narrative feature first?
We started with the interviews and wrote the screenplay on the basis of their stories.
At multiple stages, it’s clear that you value the actual experiences of characters much more than dramatic action: for example, Eugen Friede tells us that his stepfather poisons himself; however, we don’t see this scene. How important is fidelity to history for you in this project?
We could not show everything. Some scenes could not be realized because of budgetary limits.
You show and juxtapose many ways of reading the same historical moment: the characters in the feature film are committed to surviving and they do not have access to the information that they will come to possess. Similarly, neither the characters nor the interviewees have access to the intertitles that give the viewer specific historical information. Tell us about this concept.
I am not sure, if I understand this question correctly: The four characters did not know each other during those years. But they lived in the same town, almost in the same neighborhood and their antagonist was the same. The City was the capitol of Nazi Regime: the Gestapo, the Germans, and everyone who believed in the wrong ideology.
Why is it so important to call attention to this history?
Very few people in the early 30s could imagine and anticipate that a country like Germany could develop in such a way in very few years: to become a racist dictator-driven system. Who could imagine that Germany would destroy almost all codes of agreements of civilization? Who could imagine that this formerly culturally developed country could establish death camps – death camps where they killed millions of people just because they where Jews? Because of that, Eugen Friede asked Why at the end. People will try find answers to this question again and again – and probably we will never be able to answer it. The only answer might be that evil will and behavior drive people and when they take over power, it starts to become very dangerous.
Is there content from the interviews that you had wanted to, but didn’t, include? Why?
We used almost all the important moments of the interviews.
The film brings together quite a large – and remarkably talented – young cast. Tell us about the casting.
Myself and my co-author and wife, Alejandra López, watched many showreels. We spend so many hours to get the right feelings that the decisions we had to made were right.
Did the actors have access to the documentary content?
Yes, we showed them parts of it, so they could get a feeling for the original characters. But what impressed them was that those stories were true and that these characters were the same age as themselves.
The film regularly uses medium close-ups to hone in on characters’ expressions. What kinds of direction did you give the actors?
I just looked to see that everything was real, that they did not push. I don’t like big action drama and when people start to shout around directly. You have to believe the story and less is mostly more, as many famous directors have said before.
What is next for the film?
I would like to tell a story about how some of the responsible Nazis tried to declare after it was all over that they innocent. That it was not their guilt. That they tried to do the best and that it somehow failed – but of course, although there were so many dead people and a destroyed Europe. I am starting to develop a story about that psychological moment – which is very universal and interesting in modern times – as we just go through a backlash of some bad political ideas, unfortunately….
What is next for you?
Maybe I’ll get some support from the U.S. for this next project?
Tom Ue is Assistant Professor of English at Dalhousie University and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London. He is the author of Gissing, Shakespeare, and the Life of Writing (Edinburgh University Press) and George Gissing (Northcote House Publishers / British Council) and the editor of George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Edinburgh University Press). Ue has held a Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Toronto Scarborough.