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TRANSILVANIA 2022

Franziska Stünkel • Director of The Last Execution

“Cinema is a place of collective experience”

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- We talked to the German director, who focuses on a nightmarish relationship between the individual and the communist regime in East Germany in the 1980s

Franziska Stünkel • Director of The Last Execution
(© China Hopson)

What can possibly entice someone to collaborate with the much-feared Stasi? And with what personal consequences? The second feature by German director Franziska Stünkel, The Last Execution [+see also:
film review
interview: Franziska Stünkel
film profile
]
, which was shown in the main competition of the Transilvania International Film Festival, delves directly to the heart of these questions, showing how easily a repressive regime can crush a person’s soul. Here is what the director has to say about just how true her fictional film is and how we should never be allowed to forget the mistakes of the past.

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Cineuropa: Films inspired by true events range from historically accurate to pure fiction. Where is The Last Execution located in this gamut?
Franziska Stünkel: The Last Execution is a fictional film. It is based on the life story of Dr Werner Teske, who was sentenced to death and executed in the German Democratic Republic in 1981. For me, it was important to tell the legal story of Werner Teske in such a way that it would be respectful of the historical facts. He did his doctorate at the Humboldt University in East Berlin and was recruited by the State Security Service with the promise of getting a professorship if he worked for the secret service. He became increasingly alienated because of his work in the secret service, eventually stealing forbidden intelligence documents. He went to prison, then his trial started and he was sentenced to death. Even according to GDR law at the time, this sentence was completely unjust. It was a trial that took place in strict secrecy. I wanted to re-enact everything that happened in court as accurately as possible.

Nevertheless, he is called Franz Walter in The Last Execution because I wanted to make it clear that there are, of course, fictionalised passages. There were, for example, temporal ellipses to allow us to focus on the essential aspects of his life. Not everything can be researched either. My complete focus was on Franz's inner life. You can only conjecture how a person actually feels, and I tried to get as close to him as possible.

From a social and psychological point of view, how important do you think it is for cinema to explore the untold stories of the past?
In my opinion, it is extremely important: knowledge of the past is important for us to grasp the present and anticipate a possible future. I spent several years researching this film, and in the process, I came across a wealth of life stories that tell us so much about an individual's behaviour in such a political system, and a lot about the abuse of power that a political system can bring about in an individual. It is important that we talk to each other about the past. Cinema is a place of collective experience. On my cinema tour through Germany, the conversations after the screenings usually lasted two hours instead of the 20 minutes we had intended. At the [recent] screenings at Transilvania, I also sensed how great the need for this exchange was.

From the safe distance of the present, it's so easy to unambiguously and categorically condemn those who made compromises in the past. Do you judge your protagonist?
I wanted to make a film that is told completely from the perspective of one human being. I have to be able to understand why he chose that path. Only then can I later derive an insight for myself. If I judge and condemn, I remain on the outside. I don't have to approve of everything he does, but I do have to be able to understand it.

It’s exactly what you said: from a distance, it is always so easy to judge. But while you're experiencing something, it's often difficult. This film is about decisions in life. For this movie, for example, I was interested in questions like: does something just happen to a person? Can we decide freely? How can we be manipulated? How does one create an awareness of the causes of one's own decisions, which are shaped by education, society and a political system, among other things?

Lars Eidinger puts on an impressive performance. Can you describe how you worked together?
It was a wonderful and intensive collaboration with Lars Eidinger. We shot at original historic locations, such as the former GDR prison in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen and the headquarters of the Ministry of State Security in Berlin. The awareness of these historical places had a great influence on our work. Tape recordings from that time were also a guide. But above all, it was the constant conversations about the character. The more precise you get, the more universal the statement later on.

What about the female characters? Do you think it's hard to be a feminist when you are telling a story from the past?
It is painful for me, as a woman, to see the conditions in which women had to, and still have to, live because unfortunately, it does not only concern the past. But it is precisely these stories that sharpen our view of women's and human rights. That's why I think it's important to have female characters. This film shows a patriarchal system of injustice in which women are marginalised and are often used only as pawns for power struggles or as leverage.

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