Berlin February 11, 2021
Because of its plot arc and unexpected twists, you can run into trouble discussing JE SUIS KARL, particularly if trying to avoid spoilers. How would you yourselves sum up your film?
Thomas Wendrich: First of all, it's a love story and the story of a primal fear we all share: fear of that which is foreign and potentially harmful. This is an ancient, undifferentiating emotion. Our film has almost a model character in the way it plays with this fear. JE SUIS KARL shows the development of a young woman who hitherto hasn't encountered fear but who, in the end, very clearly formulates that she's now completely in its sway. The film asks: what would you do if what is dearest to you was taken away? What becomes of our certainties when the rug is pulled out from beneath our feet? And then, of course, JE SUIS KARL is a film about a youth movement that believes it has to set things straight in Europe.
What does you have to say as the director?
Christian Schwochow: Thomas described it very well. How easily are we seduced by radical thought, and, more still, radical action? How steadfastly are we able to defend ourselves when assailed by forceful political slogans and by those people in our immediate environment who are increasingly daring, coming out of the woodwork and radicalizing with their attitudes? We wanted and needed to make a film that pained us in responding to these questions. JE SUIS KARL isn't coincidentally set in Berlin's Friedrichshain, where both of us live with our families, where we're at home and have the feeling of being on emotionally, morally and politically safe ground. We started by examining this security in our own cases.
Thomas Wendrich: I think films like JE SUIS KARL absolutely have to hurt, and not only when you watch them but already during their making. That's what it did to us for five long years. Not only because we ourselves had changed during that time, but also because the world in which we anchored the film had changed. It shows a change that at first confuses, then escalates into pain. Pain is a strong emotion. In the film, too.
Your first joint project as screenwriter and director was part of the ARD television trilogy "NSU: German History X," which was broadcast in 2016. In it, you explicitly dealt with perpetrators Uwe Mundlos, Uwe Böhnhardt and Beate Zschäpe. To what extent did that work impact JE SUIS KARL?
Christian Schwochow: Even while working on the National Socialist Underground film (NSU was a far-right German neo-Nazi terrorist group uncovered in November 2011), Thomas and I asked ourselves what these terrorists and their lives had in common with our own biographies.
Thomas Wendrich: I was personally offended that the NSU were essentially my people. That their teachers were those whose education I'd also received. That their parents spoke like mine. Time and again, we examined the reasons for why Zschäpe, Mundlos and Böhnhardt took a different turn than we did.
Christian Schwochow: There it was, a rear-mirror view of the classical, familiar Nazi scene. But even during research, we noticed that a new generation of right-wingers was coming into being. It sufficed to look at the externalities, things like the manner of dress of those attending court during the NSU trial in Munich. We were there for many days; suddenly right-wingers were walking around as if they were Antifa. Then came the Alternative for Germany (AfD, a German nationalist and right-wing populist political party), the refugee crisis, and suddenly there was turmoil and a whole new mood in Germany.
Because people with radical attitudes – but a fresh demeanor and appearance – have become visible?
Christian Schwochow: Yes. There was the palpable threat of smart young people with new organizational structures. It really forced us to set NSU subject matter within a contemporary framework. The NSU film was ugly. JE SUIS KARL was about narrating the story of the right wing in a different way, a "prettified" one, if you will. Because the scene, with its unambiguously contemptuous slogans and coup fantasies, bears a completely new guise in its modern symbolism, dashing slogans and confusing weasel words. Suddenly there are young, attractive, savvy right-wingers who are multilingual, studied at Oxford, and peddle their ideology as a modern, patriotic lifestyle.
Thomas Wendrich: … and are very, very nice! And they're not just up-and-coming, they're here already! Some of them have important jobs, are on committees, in city parliaments and in police stations. It's inconceivable, and it infuriates me, but it also spurs me on.
Is German society too mute for you?
Christian Schwochow: Definitely. We can't come up with a way to deal with the AfD and their cohorts. I think the way political parties all across Europe deal with populists is weak; forever smiling about them and showing them how allegedly stupid they are just doesn't cut it. Because in so doing, people forget that these populists are also in the German Bundestag and convincing millions to go to the ballot box and vote for them.
Thomas Wendrich: What is left today, and what right? When is protest justified? Where is our humanistic basis? Should Europe become a fortress or be open to all? When we ask ourselves such questions, we quickly perceive these fears in ourselves again, fears that have recently been put on the back-burner for fear of the Corona pandemic. But no later than when people died for such convictions at the Capitol in Washington was it plain once more that they still existed and how far they're willing to go. And lest we forget: the Mediterranean is a mass grave.
Is German cinema also too mute, too unradical?
Christian Schwochow: Yes, it's too quiet there, too. JE SUIS KARL was intended as the loud film it absolutely became.
Thomas Wendrich: It's important we don't narrate the story of radicalization as a completed process, but that we create a scenario of it actually coming into fruition right now.
Christian Schwochow: For a while, we considered shifting the narrative into the near future and lending it a prophetic or dystopian angle.
Thomas Wendrich: Yes, but now I watch the film spellbound because initially I can't credit what's going on, but then I do because it's absolutely authentic. That, I think, is the key, and what makes JE SUIS KARL so breathless for me. Of course it remains fictional, a social experiment.
Is it more difficult to approach a basic thrust – as complex as it is explosive – through fiction, rather than resorting to the cinematic staple of “based on true events?”
Christian Schwochow: There were indeed external concerns that reality would overtake us.
Thomas Wendrich: In 2016, that came to pass with the attack on the Christmas market on Berlin's Breitscheidplatz. I had conceived the terrorist attack for the JE SUIS KARL screenplay only some weeks before that. At the instant of the actual attack, our premonition was vindicated. We can't outpace our own era with a film, but our certainty that we were narrating a subject of our times was reinforced. The film itself is ultimately indifferent to whether it's fiction or drawn from facts. In fictionality, we generate cinematic truth through authenticity.
Christian Schwochow: When we decided to take up arms against those whom we were narrating, fiction helped us and freed us up from research. Nonetheless, much of what we show in JE SUIS KARL isn't invented, but shown in logical form. How the New Right look, how they talk and present their attitudes, how they've created their own event culture, all that has been artistically interpreted, but is very close to reality…
Thomas Wendrich: … a reality that evinces a swamp of feints, lies, charades and criminal activity. By the way, a film is absolutely within its rights to make assertions.
Christian Schwochow: Right-wingers are always pronounced dead if they disappear from the media or public eye for a while. How come? Because people have this weird impulse to think "it's not really so bad." Meanwhile, we're reassured if the populists are "only" at ten percent in the polls. Outrageous! To me, the fear of these forces with their invective and powers of persuasion is very much present. Radicalization almost never functions through straight psychological causality. It often remains inexplicable. Children who grow up with the clear liberal ideas of their parents encounter a world in which radicality has established itself in the mainstream. Right-wing, völkisch (ethnic-nationalist) or even fascistic currents can now even be found in the environmental movement. In terms of PR, the New Right has drawn heavily on Greenpeace and Amnesty International. There's this muddying and constant evolving, and many familiar aspects no longer sit well together.
Your film shows very clearly the charm and fascination that the right wing can exude.
Christian Schwochow: That's the only way! What's the use of simple truths or accusations in a movie? Why shouldn't we show the fascination and seductive power that people like Karl have? It has to be done if we mean to expose them. And who's to say that we too won't succumb to Karl's ploys? And yes, questions like these will definitely shake some viewers.
What were the mainstays of your research? What sources did you use?
Thomas Wendrich: We closely examined ideologies and the social penetration of New Right movements, read a lot, watched films and drew heavily on extensive NSU research. When it comes to dramaturgical questions, that is to say how to authentically narrate an exemplary story, one inevitably ends up with Bertolt Brecht. And we checked out Frankfurter Tor to see what was going on in Berlin, listened in Neukölln to ascertain how the word on the street had changed. In short, we squared our artistic assertions with real life.
Christian Schwochow: Within our research team, we encountered investigative journalists who are in constant exchange with the right-wing scene. We compared the manifestos of young, educated right-wingers with the opinions of young people – including those on our team – and came up with some shocking results. A lot of what the ultra-right maintain is concurred to, or not questioned, by a large percentage of young people today. We listened to the podcasts by right-wing figures, which was as revealing as it was troubling, because they don't mince their words anymore. Ultimately, William L. Pierce's "The Turner Diaries" plays a major role even now. The similarities in diction are amazing – that longing for, and working towards, the takeover on day X.
JE SUIS KARL works as a hard-hitting drama on many levels, some of which are more tacit. In addition to political seduction, there's the taking and aiding of flight, the social treatment of relatives subsequent to a terrorist attack, mourning, and a very fragile father-daughter relationship. Was it difficult to strike a balance?
Christian Schwochow: It was, yes. Right at the beginning of JE SUIS KARL, father and daughter lose the three people closest to them. Every scene after that is burdened with death. Of course, we shot more intense material portraying grief and trauma. Thomas and I discussed it a lot, but in the editing process, I decided not to include all of those scenes. On the one hand, they were too painful and hard to bear, but furthermore they got in the way of my narrative intent. I wanted to strengthen Karl in his power of persuasion and seduction so that his force was from within, and not primarily from Maxi's trauma. My sense was that, as a viewer who hadn't experienced this trauma, one couldn't then simply distance oneself from Maxi and her gradual succumbing to seduction.
Which makes JE SUIS KARL especially interesting for a younger audience.
Christian Schwochow: That's a very important concern for us: we want to reach young audiences and get into schools! In order for her peers to be able to lock on to her, we show Maxi as a character who, despite her grief and that of her father, decides early on to face life head on…
Thomas Wendrich: … and to radically break away or just fall in love. Maxi wonders whether she can permit herself to fall in love. We as viewers are always a step ahead of her. More than once, we want to shout out to her: "No, Maxi, don't do it!" But this is precisely where the drama and pain of the story lie.
Christian Schwochow: I'd like the film to be discussed in the schoolyard and at home, both as an artistic event and in terms of its themes. In the process, it'll doubtless become clear that the generations hold different positions on the question of where we stand as a society in relation to the New Right's ideas.
Generational differences are clearly evident in the reactions after the terrorist attack. Maxi can go ahead and scream, be inconsiderate and disrespectful towards her father and make vague claims in her rage. Alex, on the other hand, is subdued, all but powerless, and left reeling.
Thomas Wendrich: Whereby Milan Peschel as Alex is an insert of us as screenwriter and director. We wanted to have this aspect as close to us as possible.
Was casting Jannis Niewöhner for Karl and Luna Wedler for Maxi a complicated process?
Christian Schwochow: Not for Karl, because Jannis Niewöhner was the only actor set in stone. He's very modest and talented, but initially claimed he wasn't really a languages guy. Karl's character, however, works primarily through language. I found this apparent discrepancy particularly appealing. Jannis really worked his way into the role, spending countless hours learning English and French, for example.
And Luna Wedler?
Christian Schwochow: She was my first choice, too. But she didn't want to do it at first because she had difficulties with the part. So I organized a big casting call, only there was no Maxi there. Luckily I left the door open for Luna, and luckily she changed her mind. Luna is so much a Friedrichshain girl for me, even though she's never lived in Berlin. Her turning me down in the beginning sent me on a long journey, at the end of which I was convinced that she alone could be Maxi.
Both of them develop enormous presence over the course of the narrative, particularly in their respective seduction and being seduced.
Christian Schwochow: I'd already cast them six months before shooting began. Jannis and Luna came to JE SUIS KARL without my having seen them act together in front of a camera. That was risky. Then, over an eight-hour-day week, we worked our way through the scenes of the script while improvising. Only ten minutes into the first rehearsal of an early scene in which Karl is wrapping Maxi around his finger, Luna was already saying, "He's got me already!"
Thomas Wendrich: I received the footage after those rehearsals and was able to make very important changes to the script, to the dialog in particular. I thought myself very lucky to be so involved in working out the characters. Now I feel unalloyed joy on seeing Luna and Jannis on screen.
Berlin, Prague, Strasbourg… Was the plot’s impetus to push Europe to its limits a given from the start?
Christian Schwochow: It was clear all along that we wanted to describe a movement with a network that meets throughout Europe. It's almost reminiscent of the Erasmus student exchange program. And again, France had to be included because the right-wingers there got big really quickly. It seemed organic to take the story there, and to Strasbourg as a symbol of the Europe we know. And Prague is still a destination that young people from all around the world long to visit.
Thomas Wendrich: Prague was important because our story needed an Eastern European component. Writing Maxi's mother as a Frenchwoman gave us freedom – in language, the portrayal of Berlin as a multicultural metropolis, and also in showing Europe's present condition.
How did you arrive at the title of JE SUIS KARL?
Thomas Wendrich: Inspiration. As a screenwriter, you quickly develop a feeling for suitable titles. In the case of JE SUIS KARL, it's clear that it aligns with the European idea and with "Je suis Charlie," the rallying cry universally taken up after the attack on the editorial offices of the satirical magazine "Charlie Hebdo." The right-wing movement hasn't hesitated to appropriate this term. This perfidious misuse gave rise to the slogan we chose as our title. Of course we discussed alternatives, of course there were concerns, but as Christian put it in the casting of Maxi: the number one choice remained the number one choice.
Music is enormously important, both in the right-wing scene, and by extension in the film. It illustrates that a huge transformation has taken place, ranging from crude pounding to multilayered, contemporary sounds.
Christian Schwochow: The movement sells the idea of being carried away and music is an integral part of that.
Thomas Wendrich: Creating a musical figure in Karl's environment in the form of Jitka, a Czech, was a conscious decision for the structure of this movement. Music has always been the gateway to ideology, and extremists are very aware of this.
Christian Schwochow: Brilliantly produced fascist music, even hip-hop, which was invented by black people, naturally does exist – that's how far things have come! For the film, we further upped the coolness factor and created a large sound team. In addition to sound designer Rainer Heesch and music consultant Martin Hossbach, we worked with the great young musician and producer Max Rieger. He composed and wrote lyrics for these tailored songs. Martin and Max then scouted artists who could perform them and weren't averse to doing so in front of the camera. Floex from the Czech Republic and Britain's Tom Hodge gave us the score.
A centerpiece of the film is the toxic rap “À la guerre,” as performed live to a roused club. Is it one of those tailored works?
Christian Schwochow: Yes, it was also composed by Max Rieger. The rap was created in collaboration with Martin Hossbach and Johann-Christoph Laubisch, a German-French actor and musician. It went without saying that we weren't going to pay a single cent of royalties to a real fascist group.