Kyle Cubr: Before you started this project, how familiar were you with Willi Herold’s story, and what drove you to make a film about him?
Robert Schwenkte: There are only two films in Germany that deal with the past, the Third Reich and World War II, through the point of view of the perpetrators. Germany stands pretty alone in that. Every other nation that was involved in World War II has conducted some kind of investigation cinematically as to the dynamics of the system and the people who were on the wrong side of the ethical question. I wanted to make a film that would be from the point of view of the perpetrator with a different set of questions from the audience that would be about the dynamic structure of national socialism. I looked for stories, found several, finally zeroed in on the Herold story because I felt that it allowed me to have all the levels and layers of the system represented—from the ordinary solider, to the judicial system, and to the generals all the way up, then I went and researched it. There’s one place in Germany, the archive of Budenberg, where the last surviving file is archived. [That’s where] all the core transcripts, diaries, letters form people who survived the camp or where at the camp when he was there [are kept]. I very intensely studied that file. The film is based entirely on that file, even down to some of the dialogue. For example, when the generals say, "Well this man is a good man. He’s the kind of guy we need in these times." […] That’s a verbatim transcription of what was said. I shortened it, I contracted it, but that was true. I also realized I didn’t know enough about the time, so I embarked on a ten-year historical research mission. I tried to educate myself on psychology. Like everyone that’s human, I ask myself “Why does this guy do these things?” I found out for myself that all answers I could find were simplistic or reductive. What I also realized was that I wanted for the audience to arrive at their own interpretation of that question and find their own answer. I decided to leave a blank with this character. Everyone else you get why they do what they do, but with him I left it blank. I didn’t want to categorize him as a sadist or in clinical terms or define him psychologically because I think that would have distanced the audience from what I wanted them to do which is find the answer to that question for themselves.
KC: I like that approach. Did he do it out of self-preservation? Did he do it out of a desire for power? Was he steamrolled by the circumstances he got caught up in? It’s hard to tell.
RS: It is hard to tell. My hope is that each person can find for themselves an answer that satisfies and jives with their worldview. Maybe the person next to them comes to a different set of answers and maybe when they start talking, a discourse follows. What’s interesting is that a lot of people balk at that blank spot, that void. They feel that it’s a mistake rather than a conscious, deliberate refusal to do it. Because people want to be told. They’re not used to leaning forward anymore and to project themselves into what they see. They just want me to tell them the riddles answer and I don’t want to do that. […] My best cinematic and reading experiences are when I had to lean forward and invest myself into them.
KC: The choice to shoot in black and white creates an interesting juxtaposition with Willi’s character. Does he see the world in black and white? Does he have any empathy in him? Near the end, you break that up with a singular color shot of the camp in modern times. What were you hoping to achieve with shooting the film in black and white.
RS: I wanted to make it palatable and watchable to be honest. I knew that it was going to be a movie that contained a lot of violence. I didn’t want to give people too much reason to run out of the theatre. I wanted them to watch it until the end. At the same time, if you don’t show any horror and if you don’t show any violence, you’re betraying the victims. That was the fine line. Black and white in the ’50s wouldn’t have done this. Black and white now, because it’s so seldomly seen, creates that distancing effect which helps the movie.
KC: This is your first German film in nearly fifteen years. What brought you away from the Hollywood system?
RS: Really, the story. I never wanted to make films in Hollywood. That was never my goal. I kind of ended up doing it because I was having a hard time getting my third film in Germany financed and I needed to work. I had studied in LA and my wife is American, but that was never my sole interest. I knew I wanted to make this film, but it took me a while to figure out how to make it. It was almost like how a sculptor looks at a block of marble. You start to chip away, rest the tools for a while then go back. It was that process to figure out how to make this film. I knew what I didn’t want to do, but after a certain while, you have to commit to something. You can’t just make a film out of negation.
KC: Did you enjoy the creative liberties being able to write it yourself?
RS: Oh yeah. Of course a movie like this could never have been made in the Hollywood system because it breaks too many conventions. The Hollywood system is based on creating a product that sells. Most decisions are made on that goal, to sell it to as many people as you can. With this film, the decisions we were able to make were solely based on the question of what is best for the story and what is best for this film. We knew this was going to be a confrontational, provocative film where selling it to as many people as possible wasn’t the primary goal.
KC: Let’s talk about shot composition in the film. There’s a lot of leftward movement in the film, almost exclusively, until the end when Willi is on the run when he finally starts to move towards the right side of the frame. These distances he travels are usually done as long shots except when it becomes more claustrophobic with closeups when in the camp. How did you approach your shot composition?
RS: I generally don’t start with the composition. I generally start with what I want to say with the shot. From there, I try to find the best possible placement for the camera. It’s all very practical and pragmatic for me. I know in advance at what point in the narrative I want to have the audience inside of [the action] and at what point outside of it. For example, […] just by virtue of the choices he makes, the audience would start to feel the distance from Willi Herold. If you don’t mimic that with the camera, it might feel like you’re oblivious to the point where the action is creating a chasm between the character and the audience. A lot of it is very instinctual. I’ve made my movies with the same [Director of Photography Florian Ballhaus]. We never talk about shots. We always talk about theme, character, and what we want to achieve in the scene as we work it out.
KC: A lot of this film revolves around the dangers of groupthink and blindly following the leader. Do you feel that there are any parallels between that era and today’s political climate?
RS: I think sadly that the film has gained over the past four years some relevance to that respect. We are faced again with a whole slew of barbarians all over the world who are hollowing out the democratic form because they ignore its norms. You can’t have a form without a norm. They pay lip service to democratic processes and flaunt them at every turn. […] I’m as liberal as you can get. Democracy is not a privilege, it’s a right. It’s being subverted and we need to fight for it. [We need to] call the opposing forces by their true names and not mess around.