INTERVIEW: Bankole, Mattes, and Schliach Re-Tell True Story of Complex Cop Killer, "Otomo"
by Sarah Jacobson
(indieWIRE/ 11.08.01) -- "Otomo," which opened at New York's Film Forum on Wednesday, is the story of a cop killer. But instead of a one-dimensional glamorization of an oppressed black man or a highly judgmental indictment of the scrounge of society, the film is a fully dimensional, studied and complex story, looking at the situation from all sides. Frederic Otomo is a West African refugee who has been living in Stuttgart, Germany for the last eight years. Otomo can barely keep his head above water. He can't afford his flophouse rent. He is silently ostracized by the other white workers at the Labor Exchange. Any sympathy that comes his way becomes painful as it leads to false hope. So when "Otomo" is taking the train from a failed job opportunity for lack of papers, and an uptight, control freak transit cop erroneously cites him for a non-valid train ticket, Otomo looses his temper and storms off the train. Pushing the cops out of his way, this one tiny act of frustration leads him to become a fugitive in the eyes of the law.
Otomo is portrayed by French film star Isaach de Bankole, who most Americans know as the ice cream truck guy in "Ghost Dog" and the French cab driver in "Night on Earth," both directed by Jim Jarmusch. He brings a loneliness and vulnerability to the role, making Otomo's angry outbursts that more startling but completely understandable. "The story shows the loneliness of people in large cities," says Bankole. "Before making the movie I visited a few homes for political refugees. The refugees are allowed to live in Germany but not allowed to work there. (Otomo) had no friends. He had no papers. We all carry violence within us. But when the rage becomes too great, we are no longer in control. Once you cross that line, there is no turning back." The wonderful thing about Bankole's performance is that he shows you the really likable side of Otomo before showing you that rage.
As the film's story progresses, Otomo knows he has no power and desperately tries to get out of town. But there's no way to do that without money. He tries to terrorize a German woman at the river with her granddaughter. But she isn't afraid of his tough guy stance. She gets him to talk about himself. For the first time, Otomo gets to bond with someone who isn't just offering cheap sympathy. She listens. She's interested. And after getting to know him, she decides to help, even though she has no idea what the situation is that caused his troubles in the first place. From there, everything collides. The realness of the filmmaking makes the story all the more tragic because nothing is infused with false drama. You are left to draw your own conclusions because the film places no blame. Yet "Otomo" has a power that will leave you stunned and thinking.
Eva Mattes plays the older German woman who helps Otomo, who gets to see another side of him. Says Mattes, "I think it's about this; suddenly there's someone in front of her, a black man, who might represent a threat. But she sees very quickly that there's something else. More than his fear, she sees his suffering." Mattes is best known as a longtime Fassbinder collaborator ("The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant" and "EffiBrest"). She was immediately attracted to the film's social structure critique, as well as the chance to play such an intricate character.
Director Frieder Schlaich based the film on real life events that happened in his hometown Stuttgart in 1989 when the real Frederic Otomo killed two cops who were trying to bring him in for a charge of subway fraud before being shot by the police. Says Schlaich, "My starting point for this film was to ask, 'What drives a person to such an act, why is he armed on the street, how did this happen?' These questions are separate from the deed, which is in itself absolutely inexcusable. I found it disturbing that in all the reports, nothing was said about the African, except speculation." Schlaich only knew what happened when Otomo was on the train and what happened when Otomo killed the cops. Everything else in the film he created with writer Klaus Pohl. "Our idea was to make the audience care about both sides, to make people ask, 'Why did it have to come to this?' It was not our goal to blame anyone for this situation, but to trace the steps that lead to disaster." Their scenario never hits a false note, giving incredible detail to the backgrounds and inner lives of each of the characters. You feel like you know exactly who they are and exactly where they are coming from. And why.
Schlaich originally tried to make the film when the original incident happened in 1989, but he was met with so much resistance and hostility from the police department that he couldn't get access to any information. "During my research after the event, I was met with such hostility that I put the project aside at first. I approached the subject again in 1997. It was much easier then. The speculative element had subsided and it was possible to do actual research. I made gradual progress, even though no one was interested in revisiting these events." The sad thing is, the events in the film are still very much relevant, especially in America.