Filmmaker Interview by Chris Olson
Hi Alexander, nice to speak to you again! How goes life in Germany?
Hi Chris, glad to see you again! Life is great - many new projects came about here in Germany, and I am currently very busy planning my next feature film "Revolution!", which is the sequel to "Timeless". It will start filming in Germany later this fall.
It seems you have been busy since last we spoke. You just completed two silent
films. What can you tell us about them?
I always loved silent films. I grew up watching the comedies of Laurel & Hardy and Buster Keaton on VHS, and have many friends who are either film collectors, film historians or both. So, I felt it is about time to do some silent movies as a little challenge to myself. Back in 2008, when I was 19, I already did a silly silent "zombie-movie" as a gag, but this time, I wanted to do them properly and as faithful as possible to the era: Hand painted title cards, early 20th century style costumes and makeup. There is Five Lovers Down which is a comedy that will have its world premiere this September in Greece at Mykonos Biennale. And there is Woyzeck, a dramatic adaption of a famous German play, which is my homage to early 20th century one-reelers. They both go together well, I kind of see Five Lovers Down as the comedic prelude to Woyzeck.
Tell us more about Five Lovers Down
Five Lovers Down shows famous dramatic episodes from different epochs involving lovers. They always end tragically in similar ways – the repetition and way they are edited makes it highly comedic. That film was a joy to make: We got to experiment with very different costumes and makeup for each setting to make it look period correct, and I shot parts of it on black&white Super8 film just for fun. The idea came up very spontaneously when Thomas Goersch, the starring actor, visited me one day and we joked around what kind of film I could do next. Afterwards, I quickly wrote the screenplay – and we did the film.
You mention that Five Lovers Down is comedic. How did you feel about creating comedy in a silent movie style? Was it very different than your other comedies?
In my feature film Timeless, I had already done a silent movie homage in the opening scenes –
they are pure slapstick set to music and have a bit of a 1920s feel to them, although that film is in colour. In Five Lovers Down, however, the comedy is much more subtle than that, it is based around the way the scenes are put in context. Each episode by itself is staged like a 1910s dramatic movie – but the way they are intercut makes them very funny.
What about Woyzeck?
Woyzeck is a famous German dramatic theatre play by Georg Büchner that has been made into films many times in the past - the most famous version probably the one by Werner Herzog starring Klaus Kinski. I felt that if I did a version of that play, I needed to do it in a way nobody else has done to make it interesting. In Five Lovers Down, there is a short Woyzeck episode that worked particularly well. After I finished editing of Five Lovers Down, I realized that it would be fun to do a bigger dramatic film centred on Woyzeck – in the same style. Thomas Goersch and the other cast members were very enthusiastic when I mentioned that idea, and all wanted to do it.
I adapted the play to fit a one-reeler structure of an early 1900s drama, with the goal to make a film that could actually be from the period. The idea being if someone in the early 20th century would have set out to make Woyzeck, it would have been very similar to this film. I am very proud how Woyzeck turned out. I added some small funny/weird elements to it – but the overall tone is quite serious, showing a man’s descent into madness. It was quite fascinating: On set, we were laughing between takes, it was a very joyful, funny atmosphere – and as I assembled the film in the editing room, this one-reel drama starts emerging on the screen. That’s pure magic of filmmaking, so to say, a wonderful feeling.
What would you tell a young filmmaker who wants to do a silent movie, too?
I sometimes see people doing silent movie style videos in which they deliberately use silly overacting, speed up the motion etc., in order to make it funny. I find that a bit silly, as those films only work if you look at them from today’s point of view – 1920s audiences would have found those exaggerations bizarre (e.g., quick movements only happened when silent films were years later played back with a faster frame rate). When I did Woyzeck and Five Lovers Down, my approach was: We only have b&w film stock. We have no audio. How can we make this film work the best way possible?
I approached it as if I were a director in the silent era wanting to make a comedy and then a drama to the best of his abilities – without exaggerating elements to get laughs from modern audiences.
Using only stylistic means from the era, I ignored how strange/funny they might look today and instead focused how to tell the story in the most effective. Some elements come naturally when filming without audio: For example, overacting – which is necessary to an extent and came up naturally to better tell the story visually. There are no stylistic elements included just for the sake of being silly. So, I guess my advice is to avoid silly clichés. If you do it in a style faithful to the period, it will work well without intentionally silly acting, unnatural movements or things like that. Watch silent movies to get a feeling for their style. Then, go to set, take the film you do seriously (be it a comedy or a drama), and focus on telling the story using stylistic means from the era. Focus on the signified (the story you want to tell) that happens to be told using a signifier that’s unusual today (a film in the style of the early 20th century), but don’t make the signifier the main appeal. And please, don’t add digital dirt and scratches to the video to simulate old film stock.
Many times, they look fake and ruin the illusion. A good, restored silent film from the 1920s can look almost pristine – the only damage I put into my films was a constant, very subtle movement in the frame, as if it was an old, shrunk 35mm print wobbling in the scanner. I did that by filming every shot – including the intertitles – free handed, trying to do it as steady as possible, as if using a tripod. The resulting, slight motion in the frame gave me the natural look of wobbling shrunk film stock I wanted.
Is it unusual for a filmmaker to go back to making short films between making features? What are the benefits of doing this?
My biggest satistfaction as a filmmaker is to go on set with the actors, film something, edit it afterwards and just create a finished film. Without wanting to sound cheesy, it feels kind of magical, to see a film you imagined come to life. It's a wonderful and satisfying way to spend time, and I want to do it as often as possible. When I finish a feature film, there is always a period afterwards during which it is screened at festivals, in which I plan the next film, etc., a period where there is no filming. Thus, I love to fill that period doing smaller projects, be they films, be they creative writing, any way to be creative. In short films, I can experiment with certain aspects, try new things, and be very spontaneous. I know that some filmmakers stop doing short films altogether after they start doing features – but to me, both are important and satisfy different artistic goals. I guess it’s a matter of taste.
Do you like to work with the same crew on your short and features?
I love working with the same people on many projects. I have many regulars who appear in many of my films, like Julia Csatary who acts in both silent films and has been in most of my films since 2009. That way, each set is a fun reunion between old friends.
I am also excited to collaborate with new actors/actresses. The major discovery in these silent films to me was Hakan Aygün – a first-time actor who impressed me so much that I intend to cast him in future projects.
The lead actor in both films is Thomas Goersch. How did you meet him?
I met Thomas in 2015, when I was looking for an actor to play the morals minister in my feature Timeless. He is very talented – and has acted in quite a lot of genres. He loves to do extreme roles like Woyzeck, a man driven to insanity. To watch him transform into the character on set was quite something: One minute, he is funny, joking around in between takes. Then, before the take, as he gets into character, he becomes a whole different presence.
He additionally did the costumes for Five Lovers Down together with me and did the makeup in both films - to help make them look period look correct.
Would you recommend new filmmakers attend courses? Or simply go out and start shooting?
Both. It has always been my attitude you can’t learn how to be creative, but you have to learn the technical background to express your creativity. In filmmaking, there are many technical aspects. For example, what do different camera settings mean? Different light temperatures? How to record the audio properly? How to operate editing software? Etc. You have to learn those in order to put the ideas in your head on the screen in a way that is satisfying. As with every art, the technical basics have to be learned. You can’t be a painter if you don’t know how to hold a brush, etc. How you learn them is up to you – be it autodidactic or at a film school.
But you can't do without practice, and if you have the passion to do films, just go out and do it. Digital technology removed so much of the costs of filmmaking – if you have an idea for a small film, just take a few friends and do it! If it’s not as good as you imagined, just do the next one, you will get better! All that while learning your craft either by yourself or at film school, wherever, just do it. To me, one of the great aspects of film school (I went to Hochschule der Medien in Stuttgart, Germany) was the amount of input you get every day in different fields. All kinds of different classes show you things that you might have never stumbled across otherwise, while being surrounded by like-minded people your age... I have to say, I personally find being a student a highly enjoyable experience.
You struggled to answer when we interviewed you before...so...what would
you say, now, if you were a dolphin?
Well, a good question. This time, I would respond in a style appropriate to my latest films: