West/Christian Schwochow

In honor of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, Anthology Film Archives presents West, by acclaimed director Christian Schwochow. (See the trailer here.) Between 1949 and 1990, roughly four million people left the German Democratic Republic for West Germany, seeking a better life. Most passed through the Emergency Refugee Centre, a harsh, institutional refugee camp. In West, Schwochow tells the story of Nelly, a single mother who’s constantly hounded by the US Secret Service the moment she sets foot in West Germany, and Hans, a lost soul incapable of starting a new life. Based on the novel Lagerfeuer by Julia Franck.  Availability: Opens in New York City, Anthology Film Archives, Nov. 7; click here for times and tickets.  Thanks to Thessa Mooij, Silversalt PR, for arranging this interview.


DT:  You captured Nelly’s paranoia so viscerally that I almost felt like I was watching Polanski’s Repulsion. Can you tell me how you got such a physical and emotional feel to the film?


CS:  My family left East Germany just after the wall came down—our application was accepted the morning of November 9! We never had to go through a refugee camp like this, but before our application was approved, we always wondered if we would have to live in such a center. So in one way it’s a strange place for me, but on the other hand, it’s familiar, because we were dealing with the thought of living there. And I did a lot of research. I spoke many times with Julia Franck, who wrote the novel the film is based on. She lived in this place for many months when she was a child, so I spent hours speaking to her and listening to her memories. I also spent a few days living in a home for homeless people, because I felt this is a similar place, where you don’t have any privacy. Wherever you go, there are other people. Other people’s smells, voices, sounds, noises. There’s been quite a few of these camps. The biggest one in Berlin still exists. Nowadays it’s a place for refugees from Iraq and Syria. I spent many days there just to get an impression of how it feels; that’s what my DOP and I tried to put into the images. It’s also what I did with the sound work later, to make it as physical as possible and to create an atmosphere where you’re never alone. The first thing people are told when they arrive at a refugee center is don’t trust anybody, because the secret service from GDR and Russia can be behind every wall.


DT:  The secret service from the US, England, and France also.


CS:  Also. Of course. I was born in 1978, the year the film was set. I didn’t experience these things myself, but with the many interviews I did, I just tried to get a feel for how it felt in the cold war era in West Berlin.


DT:  The film presents the East German/West German divide in ways that Americans aren’t necessarily familiar with, but from what I gather, most Germans aren’t familiar with it either. Is that the case?


CS:  That’s very true. I would say 4 or 5 million people passed through places like this between 1949 and 1989. For most people, it was a place they could leave after ten or maybe twenty days, and these are the ones who probably don’t have strong memories. But the ones who stayed longer, many of them are traumatized, and they won’t speak about it. So it’s sort of an unknown phenomenon still today. Most people did find a new life in the west. That’s a fact. And probably a better life than they had before. But not everybody. So people like Nelly or Hans existed. Many of them. It’s not easy to speak about it when you have so many hopes and so many wishes and then you fail in starting a new happy life. That’s the reason these people stayed silent until today.


DT: The character of Hans was particularly tragic. In the GDR, he spent two years in a Stasi jail, but in West Germany, he was accused of being a Stasi spy. Were the West Germans that unkind . . . or suspicious?


CS:  Even today, if you’ve had a certain biography in East Germany, people will ask you, Haven’t you worked for the secret service?  Because now we know—and people in the west always knew—that the Stasi was such a big organization. There were so many people working for the secret service, and there was a general suspicion toward people from the east. This is what the character of Nelly has to experience. She has these mysteries in her biography, so it could easily happen that she’d get questioned. Yeah, you were suspected. It’s not a question of people in the west being unkind; they really wanted to know who’s coming into our country.


DT:  As you said, you were born in ’78. What do you remember about the fall of the wall?


CS:  I remember it quite well. I was eleven years old, and because my parents had this application going on, the state of the country would be discussed in my family every day. I grew up with parents who were very young, in their midthirties, with many friends from the art and intellectual scene in East Berlin. We would always have people at home discussing the country and the politics, what you could change, whether people should leave or stay. My father went to jail when he was eighteen because he tried to escape from east to west. He had many difficulties going to college when he was in his twenties, so I grew up with my father’s personal background always being talked about. Then, in fall ’89, many things would happen right underneath our balcony—big demonstrations, big riots where police would beat up or arrest people. I saw that with my own eyes when I was eleven, and you never lose these images. We had the news images from China, where the army would use weapons against their own people, and there was an atmosphere in East Germany in fall ’89 that it was always possible the army or the police would start shooting. They never did, but everybody felt this fear, so the last weeks before November 9 and the days around November 9 and after are still very, very present for me.


DT:  Is the prevailing memory one of fear, excitement, anticipation, jubilation? What was the overall feeling?


CS:  Maybe excitement. Because everybody—not everybody, but we—felt there was so much going on in our country. Things constantly kept on changing every day, so everything was there: Big hope. Fear, of course. The whole country discussing it. At school. In the streets. In the church. In the news. It’s hard to imagine this in Western countries. Everywhere was this kind of tension. I can’t point to one certain feeling. It was everything between fear and hope.


DT:  What do you want foreign audiences to take from the film?


CS:  It’s going back to a period in history that seems to be a very long time ago, but in fact it isn’t. First I want to make people think about the power of secret services. We know now what they’re doing, monitoring us, and sometimes I feel that we actually don’t care. My whole country is being monitored, and we just don’t give a shit. I want people to think, How safe do we feel? We never talk about the big companies like Google that collect all our private information. So this is one thing—I want people to reflect on the position of the secret services in our days. Second, I also want people to think about what has changed for refugees. I would say not much. It’s still so complicated. Maybe it will get more complicated. A person leaves his country for good reasons and wants to start a new life, but I would say refugees are really welcome nowhere. What I portray in this film is the destiny of millions of people nowadays.


DT:  I believe your mother wrote the screenplay?


CS: Yes.


DT:  How was it working with your mother?


CS:  I find it funny that people can’t imagine it. There are so many family businesses, like the butcher or the restaurant next door, where sons and daughters and parents work together. But it’s true that we’re probably the only writer/director mother/son team in the world. We haven’t met anybody else. When I started going to film school, I realized that I didn’t want to write alone. It made me depressed. It’s horrible. It takes two years, three years, four years to write a script, all by yourself, and I just couldn’t do it. My mom and I would always discuss the things I would write or create, because I started to write and take photographs and make music when I was very young. My mom used to work as a journalist, so we would always discuss literature and films and theater, and we started working on a short film when I was in film school. It worked pretty well because we share a similar sense of humor, we have a similar outlook, and we kind of think in the same way about people and characters. We share similar values. And what’s very  important is the fact that there is no vanity between us. We started working on my first feature, November Child, and we found a similar cinematic language, so we kept on working together.


DT:  Did anyone try to get in the way of your making the film?


CS:  No. I was lucky. I’m still quite young for a director, and the first two films I made, which also dealt with the German-German separation, were very successful in Germany, so I felt a lot of trust in my work when I started working on West. Also because Julia Franck, who wrote the novel, is very famous in Germany now. People would say, “It’s a difficult subject, it’s a difficult film,” but the producers got the money.


DT:  Is there anything you want to say to international audiences?


CS:  I was touched that wherever I showed this film, people are so curious. They would always say, “We’ve never heard about these things” and “This film gives us a new perspective.” This doesn’t happen that much in my country. In my country we’re a bit fed up with our own history. I got so many positive reactions wherever I showed the film—quite a few times in North America, we have a theatrical release in France tomorrow that is much bigger than it was in Germany. I just want to say thank you, because I had such a great time with the film outside of Germany. Funny, isn’t it?


DT:  Things frequently happen that way. What’s your next project?  You’re in the middle of shooting something now.


CS:  I’m in Dublin shooting a big film. It’s a historical period piece set in Victorian England, 1860 to 1890. It’s based on a novel by Ken Follett called A Dangerous Fortune. It’s a big family epic, and it’s something completely new and different for me, with horses and coaches and Victorian prostitutes and opium dens. It’s just crazy.


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