»No film is as exciting as life and the stories life describes. The closer I am to these stories, the better I understand other people and what motivates them.« –Astrid Schult
We meet on a Monday morning at the publishing house Neues Deutschland, the former official party newspaper of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, located directly behind the Berlin club Berghain. The last tired dancers are on their way home back to reality, resting their bones from an endless weekend. The German filmmaker Astrid Schult invited us to her temporary studio space. The skyline of Berlin rises up outside the window into the blue sky. Inside, it is warm from the morning sun shining into the office. We talk about her working practice as a documentary filmmaker, her tendency towards heavy topics, and how to enter closed systems.
On the table with the old GDR lamp, lies the script for Winterjagd (Winter Hunt), her first fictional film. Just then, the confirmation of funding for the project had come from the film subsidy Baden-Württemberg. As with her documentary project Das letzte Kapitel (The Last Chapter), the film also deals with the Third Reich and the question of guilt and culpability. It’s this merciless war generation, her grandparent’s generation, whom she wants to ask questions, from whom she wants answers – as a filmmaker and as a granddaughter. This year, she will be traveling to the graves of her grandfathers in Russia and Belarus to see the places they were and find out more about their stories.
CH: How did your interest in film start?
Astrid Schult: Actually I wanted to become a violinist. At some point, I saw a film by chance in which the camera work fascinated me. I found the topic of the film (I can’t remember which film it was anymore) fairly uninteresting – it was about football – nevertheless, I couldn‘t look away because the images were so impressive. After that, I started working with film at the age of 19 as a camera assistant. It was not until later that I became interested in directing. During my studies at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg, I changed from camera to documentary film directing.
CH: What is special about work as a documentary filmmaker?
AS: Diving into other worlds. It’s a privilege to deal with different worlds of work and life of other people, which you would otherwise never experience. You learn so much in the process and get insight into contexts, in a different way from how sociologists or politicians experience them. How does the job center work? How does a military base function? Why was there the Tea Party movement? Closed systems also interested me. How you enter them and what rules apply.
I approach my materials with lots of openness and not with a prewritten script, even though I don’t reject documentary film scripts. I find it important with my films to hold back on judgment at first. However, I always try to convey my perspective on what is being presented.
CH: Who were your role models? Who influenced you?
AS: At the beginning, it was Andrej Tarkowskij. I was a big fan of Stanley Kubrik and had watched almost all of Hitchcock’s films. Later, it was Ingmar Bergman, Kurosawa, Herzog, and Cassavetes who influenced me. I had the feeling back then that films could also help make you a better person. I don’t know if I still see it this way nowadays. The educational aspect of films was always difficult for me. But how a film affects the viewer, challenges them, makes them reflect on things, that was what interested me.
CH: You don’t choose particularly easy topics for your films. Whether historical or contemporary material, they always involve social and sociopolitical subjects. Child poverty, unemployment, the Third Reich, and war in particular is a subject you deal with again and again. Why is specifically war your topic and how did this start?
AS: It started with Der innere Krieg (The War Within), my diploma project at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg. It deals with traumatized US soldiers who are treated in the military hospital in Landstuhl/Germany before they are sent back to Iraq or Afghanistan or to the US. Germany has been organizationally and strategically important as an intermediary station for both these wars.
I couldn’t get the facial expressions of the soldiers who were staying at the base out of my head. They had come directly from the war zone. You had a conversation with them, but they weren’t really present. They were still on duty internally. Often, they couldn’t deal with their families anymore.
CH: So how do you choose your topics then in the end, when comes the point when you think, this will be a new film?
AS: Depending on how deeply it moves me or if my interest carries on for a longer period of time. I always need a bit longer to decide on something. I have to think first very carefully about the subject, to observe it from all sides to reach a decision. But certain things occupy me again and again. Certain decisions have then become easier. It’s a new thing for me now that my projects increasingly overlap or supplement each other in terms of content.
CH: How do you handle what you see and experience during your research?
AS: Every film, every story does something to the author. If you often deal with things that are sad, it leaves marks. My perspective also changed through the birth of my son. I don’t expose myself to every subject so lightheartedly anymore. Although a tendency towards heavy subjects is in all my material.
At the moment, I’m working amongst other things on a fictional film project. This affords me another form of distance. The protagonists are not real, but rather fictional characters. It’s a thriller and a dark story. In the best case, this story is also entertaining. I find working on it very exciting.
CH: Thus far, you have mainly made documentary films. What was the process behind Winterjagd, for which you have now also received funding from the MFG (Media and Film Association Baden-Württemberg)?
AS: Though the film is fictional, it is based on research that I did for my two-part documentary Das letzte Kapitel, which deals with the current and far too late Nazi trials.
Das letzte Kapitel is about a legal interpretation of culpability. Are you guilty if you belong to a group which kills another? Are you guilty if you are a small but important part of this? Are you an accomplice? The Nazis mastered diminishing individual responsibility incredibly well. Which also almost certainly led to the fact that so few culprits and accomplices admitted to their responsibility in the Holocaust after the war and always found an excuse. Maybe their guilt was too big for them to cope with. Now is the last chance to question this war generation since soon none of them will be alive anymore.
CH: Is the question of responsibility also defining in terms of your current documentary project Die letzten Spuren (The Last Traces) – which you began in your time at Solitude – in which you set out to follow the traces of your grandfathers and will travel to Russia and Belarus for, where both lie buried?
AS: My grandfathers were common Wehrmacht soldiers. But it is a historical fact that the Wehrmacht was also involved in the atrocities of the SS and that they were also responsible, as was often denied. Whether my grandfathers were part of these things, I don’t know. I can try to understand which battles they were at, which places they were in, but I can’t find much out about their thoughts and what went through their heads.
The question of responsibility however plays a role since the topic stays with me constantly as a German with German ancestors.
CH: You are the questioning granddaughter in Die letzten Spuren – the subject of the inherited trauma of war also interests you, itself a very current topic.
AS: I think you have to be careful not to overpsychologize, but there is an element of truth to it. Certain fears which are passed on, feelings of guilt, fear of loss, existential fears. My mother, a child refugee, still to this day has irrational fears. War refugees from the former eastern territories were second class citizens in the Federal Republic of Germany. My mother’s self-image was shaped by this. To not be welcome and to be treated as inferior. She always strived not to draw attention to herself and to be recognized by society. These things played a big role for us at home.
My current projects however are predominantly about the war generation, that is my grandparents’ generation. It’s this merciless generation – merciless with themselves and especially with other people – whom I want to ask something, from whom I want answers. Unfortunately, you don’t get a lot of answers anymore. At thirty, I was at a point where I started to ask questions. But my grandmother was already long dead by then. She probably wouldn’t have told me much anyway.
CH: How are you planning the journey to the graves of your grandfathers? How will you tell the story?
AS: The graves are about 1000km apart in Russia and Belarus. It will either be a cinematic travel log, a web documentary, or an essay film. The format will become clear from further research.
CH: This year appears to be an exciting year with many new topics and projects. What are all the things that are happening?
AS: This year is for me somewhat different. The film Winterjagd is a big challenge. With Die letzten Spuren, I’m dealing with a personal subject for the first time. I want to try out a few new narrative forms. I can’t rest with one thing that works. That would be like a standstill for me.