After a number of entertaining Hollywood-productions, Robert Schwentke returned to his birthground to make Der Hauptmann, which has a definitive take on prisoners-approach. The grim drama, about a German deserter at the end of World War 2 who uses a found officers' uniform as way of escape, is a polaring experience, a 'warning from hell' shot in bold black and white.
After making a career in Hollywood you returned to Germany to make, if I count correctly, your third German film? There is a myth that in America you have all the money in the world, but no freedom, while in Europe it is the other way around. That being said: what did you miss making a film in Europe?
"You are talking about a very specific film, which has such a voracity, it could never been made outside of Germany, it had to be in German. It's a German film about a German incident. Of course, you are completely right: if you had tried to develop this script in a studio based system, the movie breaks so many narrative conventions, we would never have been able to do it. It was liberating because sometimes with Hollywood movies you are held responsible for something that you had no responsibility over, and you have to defend choices that you didn't actually make, which is very tiring and not much fun. With this film the buck stops with me. I wrote it, I directed it, I made the choices... whatever is in the movie, whatever doesn't work, whatever you don't like: no other person than me made that choice. I have had a lot of luck in Hollywood being able to make the sort of films I like to make, but you have to deal with focus groups and stuff. But we have that in Germany as well: films are reshot and recut because of focus groups, in just the same way. It is a myth that in Europe people walk up to you and say: “here is my 5 million, go forth and do as you like.” Heads roll as much over here as there, companies are made or destroyed. The only thing that is different is that budgets are a bit smaller."
It's been said that you can't make a war movie, because every war movie is an anti-war movie.
"No. No. That is so completely untrue. In fact most so-called anti-war movies are war movies. First of all there is the fetish of war. Even a film like Apocalypse Now fell victim to that fetishism, you cannot have your cake and eat it. You can not play Ride of the Valkyries and have helicopters flying into the sun and pretend war sucks, because you are making it very sexy. In Saving Private Ryan for example, the moment you get into what I call 'boy scout drama', where you have a bunch of boys banding together, saying things as 'we have to take out that MG nest. Let's do it! The moment you get into that kind of dramatic narrative mode, you are not making an antiwar movie, you are making it dramatic. The moment you make it exciting, the moment you have people feeling satisfied at someone getting killed, you've lost. You are not making an antiwar movie anymore. There are very few of those, in fact. Come and See by Elem Klimov is one and Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket is absolutely one, it doesn't get more anti war than that. Well, maybe with the exception of his own Paths of Glory. Kubrick was able to do that because he is disciplined as a filmmaker, and also as a thinker and intellectual. He was able to prevent himself being seduced into the obvious pitfalls of war. Even in one recent film, the filmmaker said, “I wanted to make war experiential for the audience'' - I cannot think of a more foolish endeavour than that. It is the silliest thing I ever heard."
It doesn't look the same, it isn't the same, but it reminded me of a film that played here two years ago: Land of Mine.
"I have not seen it. It’s a Danish film, right?"
One of the similarities is that both films are set at the end of the war.
"It is not a period that is talked about much. It’s also not talked about how Germans killed other Germans: the whole story of the deserter as such has barely been told. This is because deserting was seen as high treason - there were no deserters, it didn't fit the narrative."
Is a film like this an easy sell?
"In terms of distribution, yes, we have offers from all over the world. Obviously there seems to be a demand for the film. It is a polarizing film, it is not a consensus film, not everybody will feel the same way about, and that is part of what we wanted it to be, of course. It is not a film made just to entertain you. In fact, to make an entertaining film about fascism seems almost obscene to me. I think Salo is still the most relevant cinematic contribution to the discussion on fascism - I actually understood something about fascism watching that film. Der Hauptmann is not an easy film, it is not an easy film for me either. It was not an easy film to write or to make and it wasn't easy for the actors, but we all felt that it was a film that we needed to make. Because we had certain things to say. And curiously enough, a film like that doesn't exist in Germany. There are only two films told from the perspective of the perpetrators since World War Two. One is Die Wahnnseekonferenz, a television film from 1984, a fantastic film, but the strange thing is: there are a mountain of films about people doing the right thing in World War Two and during national socialism. Don’t get me wrong: this is not a judgment, I'm just talking about the fact that there is an imbalance and that other cinematic cultures have far more movies told from the perspective of the perpetrators than Germany does."
Why tell a story from the perspective of the perpetrators?
"Well, it confronts the audience with a different set of questions and a different set of propositions. If you don't have a character who you can morally identify with, the experience of watching a film, watching a narrative unfold is completely different. I think it is just as valid a narrative as the celebration of heroism. There is no doubt, there were heroes. Anybody who went against that system was heroic. But the facts are that a lot of people had to get with it, or get out of its way for this to happen, for this to work. And in Germany we have a national myth, that is the clean Wehrmacht, created by the allies and by the post-war German federal public government that said that the atrocities and the genocide were all committed by ideologically driven fanatics and the SS. And that the regular army was innocent. Well, in 1989 there was a huge scandal in Germany because a traveling exhibition that consisted of photographic evidence that had been found in Russian archives -this is post Iron Curtain of course- these photo's had been acquired by the Russians from German POW's and they were proof that the Wehrmacht was guilty as sin. Just because you were not SS or ideologically driven, didn't mean that you didn’t partake. And this idea that as long as we were not Nazis we can't be evil is one of the biggest problems that came out of this myth. The truth is that the membrane between civilisation and chaos is paper thin, not even paper thin. The truth is that we can go from one to the next very, very quickly. And it happens all over the world, all the time. It has divorced us from the truth, which is that we are all animals and all capable of doing horrid things. As humans we are able to rationalise the worst things imaginable and we can find the best reasons for what we are doing. There was one guy in World War Two who was, during massacres, only killing children. And his reason was: I know how to kill properly, I just don't want them to suffer. To him that was perfectly lucid."
The film plays as a history lesson, but clearly also a warning for the present.
"It's like a warning from hell (laughs). Yeah of course we are talking about films from a certain moment in time and a movie that is about the dynamic structure of national socialism. You know, it wasn't one guy in the bunker that went crazy and led a country into the abyss. A lot of people had to either be helpful or to get out of the way for that cultural catastrophe to occur. And that dynamic characteristic I was very interested in. So it's about that, but it is also about what I perceive as an innate human propensity to be cruel and unjust and to create enemy images or to turn other human beings into enemies or to dehumanize them, which is of course where it always starts: with the rhetoric. And words can kill. Yes, there is a relevance to the story -sadly - especially in the last two years where it sort of became the universal state of the union."
Der Hauptmann premiered during IFFR 2018 en screens in Dutch cinemas from 19 April.
Photo in header: Photo: Joke Schut. Interview: Anton Damen.