Updated: Jan 3, 2020
Filmmaker Interview by Chris Olson
I recently caught up with #filmmaker Alexander Tuschinski and the subject of his upcoming documentary, The Songwriter of Botnang.
Gerda Herrmann was born in Germany in 1931 and has been writing music since her early 50s. She just finished her 394th song a few days ago.
Gerda, how did you meet Alexander?
In 2008, Alexander graduated from Dillmann-Gymnasium in Stuttgart. Shortly before that, we got to know each other at a concert there. He then submitted his poem “I Sat on a Stone” and the score for his song “Internet Love” to be included in our anthology überBrücken, and performed it competently at a reading in the Stuttgart City Library. We kept in contact until 2012, but I reached out to him again in 2018 when Stuttgarter Zeitung wrote positively about the premiere of his film Timeless, and I congratulated him on it.
Alexander, what made you interested in doing this documentary?
I find it highly inspiring how Gerda Herrmann has always managed to remain positive and creative even when facing the most difficult times, like growing up during World War II. Visiting is always a wonderful experience. As we eat cake, we talk about all kinds of topics, and then she often performs her newest compositions and discusses them in a wonderfully warm and unpretentious way. One day, I spontaneously suggested filming the documentary, since I wanted to preserve the experience and show others what our visits are like. My idea was to interweave her art with her fascinating first-hand accounts of history. Gerda’s memory is amazingly detailed and she still has many letters, photos and other souvenirs from her life, which I thought were ideal to illustrate the film.
Gerda, what did you think when Alexander proposed this documentary? Were you excited? Had you ever thought about appearing in a film before?
I was very surprised and had to laugh when Alexander mentioned calling the film The Songwriter of Botnang. I had never thought of a documentary film about me and with my participation. On the occasion of my 80th birthday in 2011, I had a book of my poems printed. It was called Lebenslinien — in Versen nachgezeichnet, and I continued my musical biography in six volumes that contain the scores for opus 1 through opus 342. In addition, ten anthologies have been published containing texts by young people — about 25% of them with international roots — that testify to my commitment to creative writing, because language is very important to me. That was sufficient as a “legacy,” I thought.
Alexander, how did the filming proceed? Did you do a lot of pre-production?
Initially, there was little planning. A regular conversation is not planned, and, similarly, I wanted to let the film “develop” its own structure during the course of filming. After agreeing to do filming, I visited Gerda by myself, carrying a camera and some small lights. The first day, I interviewed her about many topics, and she played the piano and showed me a few photos. From this, I assembled an initial 17-minute edit. I sent it to Gerda and she liked it. Then I asked if she had more photos, which I then filmed during my next visit. On each subsequent visit, I filmed new footage about topics that I felt would benefit the film, edited a new rough cut overnight and then sent it to her the next morning, proposing new ideas. Sometimes, Gerda also contacted me with ideas for topics, and over the course of about seven or eight visits, the film was created.
Gerda, how did you prepare for the filming? How did it feel to be in front of a movie camera?
The first day of filming was quite spontaneous. Little by little I found pictures and old letters that showed my roots on my mother’s side in Botnang. In the beginning, it was quite difficult for me to describe my childhood experiences while looking directly into the camera.
Alexander, I noticed some interesting cinematography when Gerda plays the piano. How did you shoot those scenes?
I love to make scenes visually interesting. We filmed with one camera, so Gerda played each piece three or four times so I could get all camera angles. I did no story-boarding, I “built” the scene in my head while filming and decided spontaneously what kind of camera angles or moves should be next. Initially, I thought that editing different performances together would present a challenge; but during filming, I saw how remarkably precise Gerda is at keeping tempo and intonation when repeating a piece — you could overlay audio from one take with visuals from another, and in most cases, they would be in perfect sync.
Gerda, I am fascinated by the way the film interweaves your life story and your music. How the two are connected? Has your style evolved or changed over the years?
When I find a text that I like and that touches me, I set it to music. I find them in various places, for example in calendars. Over the years, melody and piano accompaniment have become much more simple compared to when I started in 1984. This may be due to the “finger technical” possibilities in old age or because of the maxim: “Man, concentrate on the essence!” (Note: This quote is from a poem by Angelus Silesius, saying: “Mensch, werde wesentlich.” Literal translation: “Human/Man, become essential”).
Alexander, how did you choose which music to go into the film?
On the first day, we filmed the songs “Feminist Moritat” and “Tanderadei.” Gerda happened to play them for me one day, and I asked her to play them again for the film. We also filmed her looking at concert footage of her song “Der Panther,” which I found a particularly strong musical piece. It’s based on Rilke’s poem. While editing, I felt that several songs mentioned by Gerda should be heard as well — like her very first piece, “Elegie,” or the song based on her father’s poem. When the film was almost done, I suddenly noticed there was a long segment in which we heard no music at all while she talks about her childhood and World War II, so I asked her which instrumental pieces she could play that fit the mood. It was fascinating to “dive into” her oeuvre while selecting those.
Gerda, when the film had its world premiere in Germany, how did you feel?
The premiere at Delphi Arthaus Kino in Stuttgart was an emotionally intense experience for me: To see myself on the big screen (I could never have won a beauty contest), and then to receive so much positive feedback from people around me. At the Q&A afterwards, with the microphone in hand next to Alexander, I was able to make the audience laugh. All in all, the premiere was a wonderful present for my 88th birthday which was on the day after. Thank you, Alexander!
Alexander, what are your plans with the film?
I have submitted the film to various international film festivals. After its festival run, I will be looking for different ways of distribution. My main goal is to reach as many viewers as possible, as I think Gerda’s art and her way of thinking are quite inspiring. While she has been creative in various fields all her life, she only “properly” started composing songs when she was 53 years old, and by now, she has a big and impressive oeuvre as a songwriter. It’s never too late to start expressing yourself creatively — that’s one message that viewers might keep from watching the film.
Gerda, do you have any messages for our readers from your life experience?
My maxim is: Neither lose courage nor sense of humour! That’s what I advise others, and I often say it to myself.
Interpersonal contact is very important for me, too: When a friendship with a fellow student of Turkish origin was in crisis, my youngest son made such a beautiful statement: “We are sitting in the same tree, at the same height, but on different branches.” I have continued this thought in a song: The roots are deeply founded in many cultures worldwide, its blossoms are different, even the fruits taste different — protection and care are important, so that the tree may thrive — as my life’s dream. (Note: Here, Gerda Herrmann quotes one of her poems that rhymes in German: "Schutz und Pflege sind wichtig, dass gedeihen kann der Baum – als mein Lebens-Traum.")
Gerda, we have a recurring question that ends all our interviews. It is a kind of a running gag. Alexander responded in the past, and so now I ask you: What would you say if you were a dolphin?
As a dolphin, I would look for waters without plastic waste and I would always make beautiful sounds.
Watch the Movie Trailer for The Songwriter of Botnang below.