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Beyond the Wall: Dir. Christian Schwochow on His Intriguing Historical Drama ‘West’

Beyond the Wall: Dir. Christian Schwochow on His Intriguing Historical Drama 'West'

Announcing the end of the Cold War in Europe and representing the
long-awaited reunification of Germany, the fall of the Berlin Wall
became a moment in
history engraved on the world’s memory as a symbol of regained
freedom and the end of oppression. But while the physical division no
longer exists, the
fears and unaddressed violations of privacy continue to be a
delicate subject 25 years after. Both sides had their own assumptions
about the other. For those living on the Stasi-controlled state, the West was perceived a mythical land of prosperity and life out of the shadows. Evidently, for those in the capitalist side, the East was a gloomy house of horrors in which everything you did or said could be used against. But as with most situations, things weren’t as clear cut as popular belief made out to be.

As someone who lived on both sides of the wall, German filmmaker Christian Schwochow can testify of these stereotypical assumptions. To him, Germany is still a country quietly divided by an invisible wall built on the notion that most people don’t have any interest in revisiting this time period. At the same time, he is concerned about the unquestioning compliance and passiveness most citizens show. He believes we talk about the infiltration of secret organizations in people’s lives as if this was a thing of the past, when it’s more aggressively present today than ever before.

In his latest film “West,” Nelly (Jördis Triebel), a strong-willed  mother, and her son Alexej (Tristan Göbel) leave the East and arrive in the West to become refugees. Their new home offers more challenges than benefits. Nelly is constantly interrogated by an American intelligence agent John Bird (Jacky Ido) about her partner’s whereabouts. In their eyes she is a criminal by default, and her every move is analyzed for any trace of subservient defiance. Meanwhile young Alexej is humiliated and mistreated based on the place he was born, even if that is simply on the other side of the infamous concrete border. Suddenly the land that promised endless wonders doesn’t seen so different from the image of what the East is supposed to be like.

Schwochow talked to us from Ireland where he is working on his next film.

Carlos Aguilar
:

As a German filmmaker why was it important for you to make a
film about this dark period in your country’s history? Was it because
you felt compelled
by the source material? Was it the political implications of it?

Christian Schwochow:
With her novel Lagerfeuer (Campfire), upon which the film
is based, Julian Franck became one of the first young writers to have a
different
perspective on this time period. When I read it, what she described
felt, on one hand, very strange because I didn’t know about these
places, these refugee
centers. On the other hand, it felt very familiar because I grew up
with parents who always discussed the state of the country we lived in.
They were
always reflecting on “Should we stay? Or should we leave?” My dad
was 18-years-old when he went to prison because he tried to escape from
East to West.

When I read the book for the fist time I was in first year of film
school, so it was totally out of reach to get rights for a novel like
that. It took me
almost 10 years to come back to this story. There are so many things
that people, East Germans included, experience when they have hopes for
a new life
somewhere else. They take a big risk to leave their country and
start in a new place. Most of them succeed in starting a new life, but
many have a very
hard time in the process.

I feel this is a subject that becomes more and more important
nowadays because we have millions of refugees all over the world who
come to Western Europe
or the U.S. and in many cases they are just not welcome. This
combined with the special atmosphere of the Cold War years in West
Berlin struck me in a way.
There are so many things in this story that relate to my personal
family history that once I read this novel it just never left my heart.

Aguilar:
Tell me about the social mechanics in Germany today regarding the legacy of the East and the West. It’s only been 25 years, relatively a short time, since Germanay became a unified country once again. Is there still a sense of separation, of families divided by this border even if it’s no longer there physically?

Christian Schwochow:
I think there were quiet many families who were divided. However,
there are also people who lived in either side of Germany, but who never
had or have any
relationship with the other side whether it was former East or
former West Germany. There are people who are still not very curious
about how people lived
on the other side of the wall. Therefore, there are still so many
stereotypes and misguided ideas about both sides.

It’s still very common
for someone from
the West to believe that a former Eastern person or a former Eastern
family must have been unhappy living in East Germany. There is also the
common
assumption that a family or a person who left the East and moved to
the West must have found happiness right away, which was far more
difficult in most
cases.

Aguilar: In your film, East and West don’t seem to be so different. When Nelly and Alexej arrive in West Germany they immediately become suspects by the mere fact that they came from the East. They were running from the Stasi and came to find a similarly invasive system in the West. They find another group in control that wants to know everything and hide it away.

Christian Schwochow:
It’s a historical fact that the Stasi did horrible things and that
they monitored a lot of people in East Germany, but I find it very
interesting to think
about the importance of the Western secret services back then and
still working today. Since what happened with Edward Snowden we know
that there is still
so much going on. Secret Services are everywhere. They are part of
out daily life. We just don’t really care. We are not concerned at all.

I’m not sure how it is in America, but for what I can say about
Germany, most people give their information willingly to anyone who asks
for it such as
companies like Google. We just don’t question it anymore. When it we
learned that our chancellor’s phone was being monitored there was very
little debate
or outcry. I can’t understand that. It’s a bit of a coincidence that
my film was released in Germany just a bit after Edward Snowden share
all these
details with the public. Still, people don’t really discuss it for
some reason.

Aguilar: In order to support the information on the novel with more historical accuracy, what kind of research did you do? Were you able to find reliable information on such a secretive time period for both sides of Germany, and most of Europe for that matter?

Christian Schwochow:
There was quiet a lot of research from my part. I’m lucky to have
parents who were very involved in political issues during the Cold War. I
wrote this
script together with my mother. In their work as journalists they
always dealt with these issues related to the country’s separation. We
had many friends
we could talk to about this, including Julian Franck, the author of
the novel.

She spent many months in a refugee center in Berlin when she was a
child. I also spoke with people who worked in these camps. I spoke with
an American
Secret Service agent. I talked to a former headmaster of the refugee
center. This was the historical and political research I did, but I
also tried to get
a sense of how it felt to live in a place like this.

For weeks I kept going back to this big refugee center in Berlin for
people from Syria, Iraq, and other countries. I also spent time in a
center for
homeless people to get a sense of the physical and psychological
experience these people had to go through. There are refugee and
homeless centers all over
the world, and it hasn’t really changed much.

Aguilar: Writing a script about a mother and a son with your mother must have been a rather interesting experience. How is your relationship with her as a creative partner? Did  you infuse this work in particular with the personal experiences you share with her?

Christian Schwochow:
We’ve written the scripts for my three features together, “West
included. We are already a team and it has always worked out pretty
well
because we share a similar sense of humor. We have a similar
curiosity about the world. We have our own great way of discussing
things and even fighting.
There are no egos between us. Things that usually can get difficult
while collaborating with another artist are not difficult between us. We
left East
Germany right after the fall of the wall.

My parents had submitted an application to East German government so we
could leave to the West, the application was accepted on the morning of
November 9 th, the historic date. We left East Germany and
we move to the West. Many of the things that Nelly and her son Alexej
experience in the film
come from what we experienced, mostly details. My mother was always a
person who wouldn’t just say what people wanted her to say. She would
always question
things, and she would always stand for her own opinions and ideas.

The situation Alexej experiences at the day care when he talks about
his red neckerchief and what people thought it mean, it was exactly
what I experienced
at school. People didn’t really know how to deal with us coming from
the East. Our personal experiences were of crucial help when writing
this script.

Aguilar: As you mention, it seems that as time goes by young people have less and less interest in looking back at the past. In those terms, was it challenging to work with Tristan, who plays Alexej, and explain to him the historical context in which the story takes place?

Christian Schwochow:
As you can imagine for a 10- year-old boy – which is how old Tristan
was when we shot the film – the whole historical background is very
theoretical.
Working with him on certain scenes I tried to find things that he
can relate to from his personal life. He lives with his mother and four
siblings.
Therefore, he understand that sometimes a mother can’t concentrate
only on one child and she has difficulties spending time with each one
as much as they
need it. I tried to find ideas that he, as a 10-year-old living
today, could connect with.

We taught him Russian for the part. He did pretty well. I had great adult actors like Alexander Scheer, who plays Hans, took good care of Tristan. The same goes for Jördis Triebel.
She has two small children of her own, and it was very easy for her to
create the
mother and son relationship with him. We tried to act very
professionally with the young actor. We didn’t want to treat him too
much like a child.

What also helped was that we had numerous extras in this film. We
had many people, adults and children, from Eastern European countries
that had gone
through similar experiences. Many of them share with us what they
had gone through, sometimes just a few weeks before we met them to make
the film
together. I tried to help him create his own truth with his
character by showing him as much as possible about the historical
details and searching for
those things that he could relate to today.

Aguilar: The character that I found the most intriguing was Hans. He becomes a target for people at this center to express their resentment and anger towards the repression they experienced in the East.  Why was it important for you to include an ambiguous character like in the story?

Christian Schwochow:
He is very important for me because it’s a fact that there are many
people that left their lives behind and tried to start a new life in the
West but
didn’t succeed for many reasons. They probably were too scared, too
overwhelmed, they were shocked by what they found or by how they were
treated, or they
just developed certain fears. Hans is one of them. I needed a
character like him in the film because these people never really spoke
about their
experience. Still now, people assume that those who lived in the
East where unhappy and once they escaped everything turned into
something wonderful and
free. They believe in that cliché of the “Golden West.”

The ones who didn’t succeed couldn’t tell success stories. Even
today they don’t talk about it because it’s just too difficult for them
to speak about
plans that failed. You will hardly ever find this kind of people in
the media doing interviews or mentioned in books. Hans is a voice for
these people. It
was also important that the man who everyone suspects of being a
villain is in the end the person who carries hope for Nelly and Alexej.
She decides to
trust this man even though she probably will never find out what’s
the truth about him.

Something very unique about Germany these days is that once you are
suspected or accused of having worked for the Stassi, it doesn’t matter
if you were
18-years-old, or a child, or an adult back then. Even if you deny it
you won’t get rid of this suspicion. It doesn’t matter what you do,
this stigma will
stick with you. In some cases it’s true because there are many
people who collaborated with them, but there are many other cases in
which someone suspected
them without proof. These people will never get rid of this.

Aguilar: Nelly is a determined woman with a strong personality. Besides what’s on the novel, did any qualities from your mother or other people in your life influence you while writing this character?

Christian Schwochow:
I grew up with very strong women who would have their own strong
opinions and who would speak their minds. My mother is like this. My
grandmother was like
this. They were women who tool the risk not to fit in because they
were strong characters. In East Germany it was very normal for a woman
to go out and
work even if she had children. A few weeks after giving birth women
would return to their normal working life. We never had housewives in
East Germany.
Nelly is a very familiar person for me because I think I know quiet
many “Nellies. ”

Looking at it from an outsider’s perspective one could say, “She is
stubborn,” “She could have cooperated with them,” “She could just say
what they want to
hear from her,” but she is not like that. She is a woman with
characteristics we usually attribute to a male protagonist. She defies
this.

There is also the fact that she has a secret. I feel like we can
believe everything she says in this film. I believe everything she says,
but I know that
for the audience she might be a character that you can’t really see
through in the beginning. I hope that eventually people can feel her
emotions, her
trauma, and her fears. I just thought it was more interesting for
her not to be nice or understandable right from the start.

Aguilar: 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall
where do things stand?

Christian Schwochow:
In Germany we have started to make many films about our own history.
However, we tend to make the stories as simple as possible in order to
find very
simple truths. I made this film to provide another perspective and
to show people something they have probably never heard about.

On the other hand, the secret services still play such a prominent
role on our daily life and we seem not to care anymore. This has nothing
to do with East
and West. It’s so easy to look back and say, “There were two
different countries, one was the free country and in the other people
weren’t free,” but it
was so much more complicated. Looking back at this time I’ve
realized why it’s still so difficult for German people to communicate
with each other.

At the same time I wanted to make a film about what it means to be a
refugee today. I believe this will become an increasingly bigger issue
for the Western
World. We are still desperately trying to find answers for this
problem.

For a list of screenings and events where the film will play visit HERE

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