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BERLINALE 2020 Berlinale Special

Johannes Naber • Director of Curveball

“We took the truth over the top and made it surreal; with the facts at hand, it wasn’t hard at all”


- BERLINALE 2020: We chatted to Johannes Naber to get the low-down on Curveball, his adaptation of a true and twisted story that triggered the 2003 Iraq War

Johannes Naber • Director of Curveball
(© Gudrun Schoppe)

Rarely mentioned in the famous spy stories, the German secret service, the BND, is finally in the spotlight in Curveball [+see also:
film review
interview: Johannes Naber
film profile
, named after a most unreliable Iraqi informant. Director Johannes Naber shines further light on his adaptation of a true and twisted story that triggered the 2003 Iraq War, premiering in the Berlinale Special section of the 70th Berlin Film Festival.

Cineuropa: Did you ever contact the real “Curveball”, Rafid Alwan, during the film’s production?
Johannes Naber:
No. I decided that the positive things I would have got out of it would have been less than the negative outcome that I fear his involvement would have resulted in. After all, he is a most unreliable source of information. But I have talked to people who met him, and I have a clear picture of him. However, now that the film is out there, I’d like to get in touch and give him the possibility to speak up. I look forward to listening.

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While Rafid does very much exist, Wolf Arndt doesn’t, at least not as a BND agent. The film takes other liberties as well. How did you treat the concept of truth versus fiction?
I started off in documentaries, so treating the truth correctly is a matter of conscience to me. It’s filtered through my dramaturgic lens, though, which means that I try to build a character from existing information. Wolf does not exist by name, but was modelled on a real-life BND bio-expert who was Rafid’s case officer. So Wolf is very much someone who could have been this guy. We used similar methods for the whole process.

The story gets quite twisted after a little while…
Which was very much intended. We took the truth over the top and made it surreal. With the facts at hand, it wasn’t hard at all. Crazy things certainly happened and had to be covered.

It’s also funnier than one would expect at first. Was this intentional as well?
Let’s say that we didn’t prevent it from happening.

In many ways, Curveball falls into the spy genre and features Germans, but for once, it’s not about any world war or cold war, but something quite recent. And for once, it’s not the MI6 or the CIA at the forefront, but rather the BND, which is rare.
Absolutely. The BND’s story is very much about inferiority complexes in regard to the CIA and the other secret services. During the Cold War, the BND was always the lousiest of them all. The CIA and the others could do things that were beyond the norm, but the BND had strict rules about acting in accordance with German laws. They also had bad budgets and didn’t have great recruits. It was never cool to work for the BND. I can’t think of a single one of the famous spy films or books where they are mentioned.

Here, they’re given what is possibly their finest hour or at least 15 minutes. And you provide Wolf with a CIA lover, a sled chase from a mountaintop fortress and other James Bond-like treats.
We just dug down in that big pile of clichés, and we loved it.

Sebastian Blomberg and Dar Salim form a great odd couple. Did you write the parts especially for these actors?
With Sebastian, yes, from early on. He’s one of Germany’s best actors – not the easiest, but brilliant. To find his counterpart was hard. We wanted an actor of Iraqi origin who could be funny and also very authentic. We found five in all, and most of them didn’t work. But Dar Salim… He’s famous for Game of Thrones and action flicks with lots of muscle, and in the Scandinavian crime films, he’s very serious – and he also didn’t have much hair. But something told me he could be funny. And he said, “OK, I can’t be funny in Denmark or the USA, but let’s try it here in Germany.” We gave him a wig, and then he was a perfect fit.

Is it wrong to have as much fun as one has while watching a film with themes like these?
I do manipulate your emotions and morals, don’t I? At least I try my best to. To be true to the story and then not to bore the audience is my aim – that and making the world a better place.

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