Michael Verhoeven‘s “The Unknown Soldier” revolves around the Wehrmacht-Exhibition, which was showing in eleven major cities between 1999 and 2004, challenging an established social taboo. Up to that point, the image of the “morally proper” German forces had been kept up in the public debate in Germany. Suddenly, there were photos of Wehrmacht officers killing civilians. The nation was severely shaken. Any participation of the German forces in Nazi crimes was unbearable to the people in post-war Germany, so it continued to be publicly denied. The documentary traces some of the crimes the Wehrmacht is alleged to have committed. Verhoeven won a BAFTA as well as festival awards in 1992 for “Das Schreckliche Madchen.” First Run Features opened “Unknown Soldier” in limited release last week.
Please introduce yourself…
I started acting on stage and in film already as a child of 10 years. As my parents both were actors and my sister as well, it seemed to me quite normal to stay on stage or in front of a camera. While playing an interesting role in the French-German movie “Marianne de ma jeunesse” (Marianne, my first love) in 1954 when I was sixteen, I watched carefully the famous director Julien Duvivier. How did he make us act the way he wanted? How did he talk to the actors, to the cameraman, to the crew?
How did you initially learn filmmaking and how has your skill changed over time?
With other directors like Helmut Kautner, my father Paul Verhoeven (not related to the Dutch “Robocop” director), Kurt Hoffmann and Peter Beauvais, I discovered the different ways of directing. And I realised, that the “master” Duvivier’s method was not my way of leading a crew and creating a film. He was a tyrant. I preferred the more psychological way of directing, which I had experienced with directors like my father and Kautner.
Acting in film, watching what happened on the set, listening to actors and to the way a director changed their voice, changed their attitudes and overcame the obstacles–that was my film school as a real film school did not exist in my youth in Germany.
In 1965 I established together with my wife Senta Berger the Sentana Film Production in Munich. It was the year of my graduation as a medical doctor. I had studied medicine parallel to my work as an actor.
In 1967 I produced and directed the film “Paarungen” after the play “Dance of Death.” The main parts played my father Paul Verhoeven and Lilli Palmer. Most of the films I directed in the following years I produced as well. Like my colleagues Alexander Kluge, Volker Schlondorff, Fassbinder and others of my generation, I needed to have my own production company and needed to produce my films because the established production companies were not interested in the topics nor in the style of our films.
Please talk about how the idea for “The Unknown Soldier”came about…
MV: You have to imagine that I am not a documentarian. All films I had made before were pure fictional. But on the 1st of March 1997 a demonstration of 5000 Neonazis took place in the heart of Munich, the St.Jakobs-Platz, where the Jewish Community Center is established. The Neonazis came from all over Germany to protest against the exhibition about the crimes of the German “Wehrmacht.” I spontaneously called camera teams to hurry to the St.Jakobs-Platz and decided to confront the Neonazis with questions.
This was the beginning of my work on that documentary, which started before I even had watched the exhibition. It was not only opposed by the right-wing of German society but as well by people of all levels and groups.
The exhibition “Die Verbrechen der Wehrmacht: Vernichtungskrieg 1941-1944” showed that the Wehrmacht, which means the regular army, was involved in killing civilians during the attack against the Soviet Union. From my schooldays on I had learned, that the Wehrmacht was “clean” and the ugly things were done only by the SS and brutal paramilitary squads. But the legend of the clean Wehrmacht is a fairy tale, which was transmitted from generation to generation, because each family in Germany was involved in WWII one way or another. In every family was a grandpa or a father, who had served in the army. Therefore crimes executed by the ordinary soldier were unbelievable.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
The exhibition proved that the legend was a lie. Having watched the so called “Wehrmachts-Exhibition” I had the suspicion, that there must have been some arrangement between the Wehrmacht and the SS to make all these crimes against the civil population in the Ukraine and White Russia happen. That was the moment I decided to do a documentary, to ask historians and to search for evidence in these countries.
The biggest challenge was to find eye-witnesses. I found them in the Ukraine and White Russia. In my own country I found only one single veteran, a man of ninety years, who did not deny [anythin]. In the center of my search were the crimes against the Jewish civilians.
How did the financing come together?
Well. I did not expect that the investigations would need about seven years, and I did not expect, that the film rights on photo- and film-documents would be that expensive as they happened to be. Honestly, my film is still not financed yet.
What is your next project?
My next project will be a movie about a girl named Laura and her family in Munich after the war. It’s the story of a poor Jewish family which keeps secret that they are Jewish, in order to protect Laura, so she can be like all other German kids. But Laura finds out and insists in her Jewish identity. By the way, my family is not Jewish. Another project I am preparing is a satire about a society which expels its elderly people. The film is after the treatment of well-known play-write George Tabori, who passed away a couple of weeks ago at 93.
How do you define “independent film?”
My definition of “independent film” is the most possible dependent way of filmmaking. Why? Because (in Germany) you depend on subsidies from the film support system. And this system depends on the TV channels as they dominate the juries. And the TV channels depend on common taste.
But on the other hand, “independent film” is what I am producing and directing from the very beginning and I learned to struggle with all these difficulties. In the beginning I never got any help or film support. But again and again, I have to put a mortgage on our house to have a film financed. Anyway I like to make my own decisions and my own mistakes.
What are some of your favorite films and what are your non-film interests?
The old big miracles of film are “Citizen Cane” and “8 1/2.” And most of the films from Bergmann and Truffaut and the early shorts of Polanski. Why? Because they use their own film language, which I am glad to at least understand. Recent favorites include Steven Frears and the German low budget film “Shoppen” about loneliness and the need of love.
My interests outside of film are politics and other arts.
What advice would you give to emerging filmmakers?
My advice to young filmmakers is don’t be afraid of neglecting rules and “laws” in filmmaking. Just do your thing!