THE ART OF SPIEGELEI
“We were really lucky to get a review in the Hollywood Reporter after the film’s world premiere at the Berlinale earlier this year - this is quite an unusual thing to happen to a small German movie,“ explains Greek-German director Nikias Chryssos to Lodown. “Even better that this review was quite a good one, which helped us a lot in terms of getting invited to other festivals as well. I think it said something like ‘The best German language movie featuring a talking leg, ever’.” It’s actually pretty easy to get worked up on the current status of contemporary German cinema, which tends to trip rather uninspired lines between wannabe comedies and cinema of moral concern. But believe it or not, there actually is a kind of new wave of young German directors that just love to revolt against a narration and visual vocabulary that seemingly got stuck in the past for good - which unfortunately doesn’t imply that too many people are paying regard to this subtle storm. The latest addition to this exquisite circle of talent goes by the name of Nikias Chryssos, whose debut feature “Der Bunker“ has been receiving a lot of love (and mystification) recently at basically every festival it got screened at. And rightly so: Chryssos adopts topics usually connected with the good ol’ German Betroffenheitskino and perfidiously deconstructs them in order to give birth to an absurd and fairly dark modern fairytale that’s detached from regular definitions of space and time. So what is it all about? On paper it’s about a fairly eccentric family suffering from delusions of grandeur and the nameless student who’s temporarily living with them to finish his final thesis in the seclusion of their home. Things start to get slightly fishy when they insist that he should tutor their son Klaus, who is supposed to become the President of the United States anytime soon, regardless of the fact that he’s neither American nor the sharpest knife in the drawer in the first place. Then there’s Heinrich, an alien warlord that seems to live inside the mother’s wounded leg. And there’s a passion for evenings filled with corny jokes. And isn’t it strange that eight-year-old Klaus actually looks at least triple his age? One of the strongest aspects about “Der Bunker“ certainly is that it’s much more than just a sequence of loosely sketched absurdities. Instead it effectively combines elements of grotesqueness and horror and offbeat comedy under the disguise of an intimate play that just loves to be manifoldly interpretable. Bold and brilliant. Furthermore it presents the best ode to a fried egg ever. Lodown had the chance to talk to the young director about his extraordinary debut in August.
Following the quotation from The Hollywood Reporter you just mentioned: was the role of mysterious Heinrich actually a more prominent one in the beginning... did you cut it down, because it was just too obscure?
____If I remember it correctly, there was a fifth person involved in the plot in a very early draft of the script... a kind of shaman, who’s kinda exorcising this family - and the talking wound - so to speak. But soon I found it more interesting to focus on four people only - father, mother, child, and the student. I was working with some of the actors before in my short films, and it was clear to me that they would play prominent parts in my first full-length feature, especially since they usually get casted in a stereotypical fashion - junkies, tough guys, criminals - and I was looking forward to seeing them play very unusual roles. The mother is played by Oona von Maydell, and I knew her from recording a song with her for one of my short films. Before we shot “Der Bunker“, we were joking around about a character named Hugo, who gives his mother secret advice about how to guide the family... a kind of a demon who you’re not too sure is actually real or if only she can hear the voice. (laughs) And for the film this idea got turned into Heinrich, the alien lord that lives inside the mother’s wounded leg. But to come back to your original question: this particular role was always meant to be quite mysterious.
Having known the actors for quite some time and working in this house together for a few weeks doesn’t automatically imply that there’s room for improvisation, right? At least the film doesn’t necessarily look like this.
____True. This happened a lot while filming my short films, particularly “Hochhaus“, where the dialogue was mainly loosely sketched out. In the case of “Der Bunker“ the script was a very detailed one - we allowed ourselves to improvise and deviate from the script, but in the end hardly anything went into the final cut. The most unexpected surprises were happening in the editing room, where transitions between scenes suddenly gained a kind of dynamic I wasn’t expecting before. I had to get rid of some personal favorites though... but maybe these will then reappear as extras on the DVD.
But before the DVD comes out there will hopefully be an official release in theaters, right?
____Yes, this will actually happen in January 2016. The reaction from the audience at the different festivals we’ve introduced the film to as well as the majority of reviews were actually really positive... but I know that it’s a rather tough film to distribute. You can’t even add it to a specific genre, right? I like that it can be read on many different levels: a dark satire, an absurd comedy, a family horror film or a trip.
Exactly, and that’s one of the reasons why I actually was so enthused by it...
____I would say that this is kinda alluring, indeed... especially since this isn’t just a weird kind of nonsense movie, but it has something to say as well. I experienced it during the world premiere at the Berlinale earlier this year: people laughed but they were pretty irritated and distraught as well. When you do a film like this in Germany, you’re already more than happy that people will at least get the chance to watch it on the screen or on DVD.
Which leads me to the question about what actually drives someone like you to want to become a director in Germany in the first place. If you’re lucky your film will make the festival tour, but regardless of how positive the reactions might be, that doesn’t guarantee you that people will ever see it in theaters. Isn’t that incredibly frustrating?
____This is actually a very good question, indeed. In terms of “Der Bunker“ it was a mix of anger, frustration, and the joy of creating something different. The two short films I did before were quite successful when they were making the festival circuit, so my position to want to do a feature film was actually a pretty solid one. But in terms of “Der Bunker“, well, for a very long time it seemed to be impossible to get it financed through the obvious channels like film funding and so on. This became a very frustrating process because you re-type your original script again and again. The people you have to deal with, sometimes it feels as if they’re speaking a completely different language, to be honest... it’s like this hedged artificial kind of officialese that you simply cannot decode. In the end, I produced it myself, and the production company of the Hans W. Geißendörfer co-produced it. And as painful as it was to get to this point, it definitely was the best decision, because I was able to do the film as I originally intended to do it. Still it’s a strange thing to know that if this film is going to fail for whatever reason, that’s probably it in terms of my filmmaking career. Luckily it didn’t, and a good deal of that is owed to the team I was able to gather around me. To do an independent film, especially in Germany, is a tricky thing... and to be honest with you, I don’t have the slightest idea how you can ever recoup if your budget isn’t insanely low. It’s a total mystery to me. So maybe maintaining a certain level of naïvety could help to not lose it completely. When I was entering film school, I did it in a rather naïve way, because I didn’t have any masterplan and I couldn’t actually pin down right from the start what I actually wanted to do. When the time was right I just did it. Unless you’re Til Schweiger, it’s pretty hard to get an income from wanting to be a movie director in Germany... so you’re basically forced to work in television, where things usually don’t take as long to get developed. (laughs) So, yes, even though I don’t know if I would suggest becoming a director as a brilliant career move to anyone, there is a deep joy about the entire creative process of making a movie.
Why is it so hard to do something offbeat in Germany... you know, when you look at the very majority it’s basically the antidote to forward thinking, right?
____I know what you mean... it’s actually quite sad, isn’t it? Especially when you compare our situation to smaller countries like Belgium or Holland, where they don’t shy away from pushing the envelope. Maybe it’s because official film funding in Germany works like public authorities do, and we all know they grind rather slowly. The editors in charge usually are part of certain committees, which implies that there’s this fear of having to justify things or even advocate a rather inconvenient position - especially when the finished result turned out to be commercially disappointing. The weird thing is that these people in charge don’t even have any kind of personal risk to take... so maybe it’s also a matter of a lack of good taste, who knows! The majority of producers over here aren’t necessarily known for taking any risks either. It’s pretty much a surreal chain of anticipatory obedience in service of the mainstream audience and worn-out ideas. There’s a lot of attitude in aesthetics, so when you look at the very majority of German films, you get an idea where we’re at. But I think it’s also a problem that the actual filmmaker brings to the table - really a lot of projects are kinda mushy and sugar-coated right from the start, which doesn’t make it any easier to try to realize something different. So all in all it’s absurd to think that there will be a shift in terms of style and taste and content anytime soon. (laughs) Or maybe I just don’t have any skills in selling ideas, because there are German films like “Totem“ or “Nothing Bad Can Happen“ (“Tore Tanzt“) that made it into the theaters, and still they’re rather transgressive.
So would you say “Der Bunker“ basically is your reference to not have to realize your next movie in Germany?
____I wouldn’t go as far, no... but obviously it is the major goal of basically every director to be able to realize an international film. There’s an idea to make a weird kind of sci-fi movie, but I just can’t imagine doing it in Germany... because then you need to have the same conversations with the very same people - who didn’t understand you the first time around - again. (laughs) If they knew that the majority of German debuts that go beyond the Schweighöfer crowd will bomb anyway, why not finance a few that at least deal with some bold ideas?
Speaking of which: do you remember how you originally pitched “Der Bunker“ back then?
____(laughs) I was basically trying my best to go all out to get it financed. I was selling it as a critic on our educational system and on those “helicopter parents“ and on parents who send their kids to a kindergarten where three-year-olds are already learning Chinese and business English and whatnot. And you can easily read the film like that if you just want to... and actually I was really interested in raising questions about pressure and drill within the classic textures of a family. When the Geißendörfers came on board, they were already aware of my short films, so the only premise they were insisting on was that the film actually looked good - and not like a second class TV movie. Obviously that was something I was more than willing to implement.
Yeah, I found it really interesting that the set design and costumes basically work like a fifth protagonist...
____Yes, that was really important to me. When you realize your movie within a very restricted space, all the details need to be spot-on. It is really challenging to make things look interesting when every scene takes place in the very same house... and Kleinmachnow - where we shot “Der Bunker“ in a single family house that we were allowed to remodel - isn’t necessarily home of the Overlook Hotel. (laughs) We turned our attention particularly to the outfits the kid wears, because the boy should look as if he was getting decked out by his mom on a daily basis... from 50s sailor suits to handmade knitting experiments.
Was it actually clear from the beginning that you would cast an adult actor - Daniel Fripan - to play the kid?
____Pretty much so. I’ve worked with him on “Hochhaus“, and we got along really well. For this role I wanted him to grow his hair long, but he had to play a bad guy in another film in-between and had to shave his head... so we had to come up with this cute-looking wig, which is reminiscent of “Little Lord Fauntleroy“. It also would’ve looked too creepy in this situation to present a bald kid. (laughs) Also, whenever he showed up on set just wearing his pyjamas, it immediately got me in a very good mood. He usually has to play nazis or petty crooks in other films, so I wanted to see him in a very different role... because his potential as an actor is almost dramatically underestimated, in my opinion. I didn’t see him for two years and then met him for a beer late at night at a Turkish fast food joint in Berlin. And when I asked him if he’d be interested in playing an 8-year old child, he jumped on my lap immediately, hugged me - and that was the casting.
I like that it never really becomes clear if “Klaus“, the boy, really is a kid or if he’s a young adult that’s forced to still wear children’s clothes by his mom...
____Yes, I like this ambivalence a lot as well... it’s important that it never really gets solved. Therefore you can also easily read it as a kind of prime example or ante-type of “the child“... (laughs) and maybe that´s why Daniel looks a bit as if he’s in drag the whole time..
Did you pin down a kind of reference system before you started to shoot?
____As soon as it became clear that all the actors I wanted to work with were actually on board for this one, I focused on personal favorites in terms of stylistic influences, indeed. 70s Trash. Marx Brothers. Tim & Eric’s Awesome Show. Nicolas Winding Refn. David Lynch. Argento. Certain comic books. Obviously, it was important to not only cite things, but to flawlessly integrate them into your universe to make them entirely you own. It shouldn’t be about doing a homage via certain scenes or tickle a specific genre. I am much more interested in presenting a meditative and pretty much self-sufficient microcosm strong enough to function as a platform for any kind of (psychological) projection. (laughs) Or simply sell it as “Bingo Bongo meets The Shining“.