Christian Schwochow • Director of Je Suis Karl
“Je Suis Karl is a work of fiction, but it is based on research”
by Ola Salwa
- BERLINALE 2021: The German director chatted to us to break down his study of infatuation, screening in Berlinale Special
Cineuropa hopped online for a quick Zoom chat with Christian Schwochow, the director of Je Suis Karl [+see also:
interview: Christian Schwochow
film profile], who connected from his Berlin home. His film, a German-Czech offering in Berlinale's Berlinale Special strand, is a study of infatuation: with a person and with an ideology, which, as in most cases, is not what it initially seemed. The title alludes to the Je suis Charlie slogan that was coined after the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo office in 2015. The protagonist, Maxi (Luna Wedler), who by chance survived the bombing of her home, falls for the charismatic Karl (Jannis Niewöhne), who conceals his connection to the far right.
Cineuropa: You were quite a risk-taker when it came to making Je Suis Karl…
Christian Schwochow: You mean concerning my personal security?
More in terms of your decision to cast the leading actors without them meeting during an audition. The film relies heavily on the chemistry between them, so it was a bold move.
I believe that making films is about taking risks. The casting process for my movies is always different. In this case, I believed that Jannis was the perfect fit for playing Karl, and it took me much longer to find the ideal actress for Maxi. Luna was actually my first choice, but she didn’t want to take this part. I organised a big audition, but I didn’t find anybody. And then my DoP, Frank Lamm, worked on a film with Luna, and they had a long discussion about how I work. Frank knows that better than anyone because he has done all of my films. Luna said that maybe she had made a mistake by not coming to my audition, so Frank called me and asked whether I was still interested in casting her. I was, and I invited Luna, who was in the middle of shooting, to meet me over the weekend. Jannis couldn’t join us then. After two minutes, I knew that Luna was the only one who could play Maxi, and even though the two [lead actors] never met before shooting, I think it worked out pretty well.
Speaking of your long-time collaborators, you and the co-writer of Je Suis Karl, Thomas Wendrich, also made a TV mini-series called NSU German History X, about a neo-Nazi organisation that killed several people in the early and mid-2000s. Is the story behind your new film based on facts in any way?
Je Suis Karl is a work of fiction, but it is based on research. After we made NSU, we realised that there was more material, and that there is a shift in the far-right movement, especially among young people. They’re no longer skinheads, who of course do still exist; there is a new group of young fascists, and they are on the rise, getting bigger everywhere in Europe.
When we started working on the film, which was five or six years ago, the story felt more fictional back then. We could not have guessed that Trump would become president, that Britain would vote for Brexit or that Poland would regress, as it has recently. In Germany, we have a populist party, which sits in every federal parliament. Not long ago, the Hanau killings happened, and there was also the story of a German army officer who had started to build up a fake identity as a Syrian immigrant and was planning attacks in the name of Islam. And finally, a few weeks ago, we saw images of the storming of the Capitol in Washington, DC. It’s all in the film. It’s nothing we made up.
You also show the alluring image, so to speak, of terrorism today: the organisation in the film comprises educated, smart, fashionable people.
I think we have to take the far right seriously, and we need to understand why they always come back and have always been successful. Because offer them a home, something fascinating, and they kind of create a whole new, adventurous lifestyle. Look at the actions of the Identitarian movement – it’s about going to the mountains, it’s about pushing back immigrants, which is an act of violence, but they sell it as a lifestyle, as a kind of religious event for young people. Also, these groups have artwork and music, which is supposed to be really cool. So, nowadays, these people look more like hipsters than ritual fascists, and this is what makes them fascinating and attractive to young people, who very often don’t differentiate actual political left from right. The far right uses the identities of groups like Amnesty International, Greenpeace or Fridays for Future, and it’s hard to understand for young people what they actually stand for in the first place… We found out that there is a whole new movement that is trying to get into the mainstream culture and not only reach kids, but also reach us, the “morally settled”. I live in Friedrichshain in Berlin, a very liberal neighbourhood, yet we don’t have any immigrants here. When they came in 2015, one could feel the change within the population even among the people who claim to be left-wing or open-minded. That is what these far-right groups have realised, and fear is what they use to become part of the mainstream culture. That is why it’s dangerous.
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