Tag Archives: Christian Schwochow

Germany makes History as true crime trend continues

The themes of US feature film American History X meet true crime in miniseries NSU – German History X. The drama’s producer and directors discuss how they worked together to tell this real story from three different perspectives.

In 1998, American History X told the story of a former neo-Nazi who tries to prevent his younger brother from following the same path he did.

Gabriela Sperl
Gabriela Sperl

Almost 20 years later, the same right-wing themes are studied in a German miniseries that takes its inspiration from a series of brutal murders and the resultant trial that is still progressing through the courts system.

NSU – German History X opens as a clandestine far-right terrorist group called National Socialist Underground (NSU) begins operating in Germany by gunning down immigrants in cold-blooded acts that became known as the Bosphorus Serial Murders.

Police initially believed the deaths to be the result of infighting between immigrant communities, until links were drawn to three suspects and their right-wing influences.

The fictional series is based on the ongoing trial of Beate Zschäpe, one of the trio accused over the deaths of 10 immigrants between 2000 and 2007 murders. The other two both suspected of involvement killed themselves before they could be brought to trial.

Producer Gabriela Sperl explains: “It was the biggest series of unsolved murders in Germany, which was unprecedented because you have 10 murders and you make the victims look like they are to blame. Then, all of a sudden, you find two guys dead and it’s right-wing terrorism.

“So we started thinking what we could do about this and why it took so long for a country where everything is very well organised like Germany to find the people who did it, to find the murderers. And they still haven’t found them. They still haven’t resolved it.

“Then we asked what do we do with something that’s unresolved – so we tell the story from different angles to get as near to the truth as possible. This is what we did and this is why we did a lot of research and digging and looking under stones. Now we’re further from the truth than we were in 2012!”

The three episodes are told from three perspectives: The offenders (pictured top), the victims (above) and the investigators (below)
The three episodes are told from three perspectives: The offenders (pictured top), the victims (above) and the investigators (below)

Distributed by Beta Film, NSU – German History X aired on ARD-Das Erste in March this year. The show’s cast includes Albrecht Abraham Schuch, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Anna Maria Mühe, Almila Bagriacik and Tom Schilling.

Each installment of the series, known locally as Mitten in Deutschland: NSU, focuses on a different aspect of the story, with episodes titled The Offenders, The Victims and The Investigators. Three directors – Christian Schwochow, Züli Aladag and Florian Cossen – then took charge of each film.

They attribute the idea of focusing each episode on a different perspective to Sperl, with the directors brought on board the project before any words had been committed to the scripts.

“We met with Gabriela quite a few times before the writers were involved and that was a great approach,” says Aladag. “From the beginning we were thinking about three strong perspectives. That’s why we liked Gabriela’s idea – we knew we couldn’t bring the whole truth to the story because it is still going on.”

NSU-German-History-X-The-Investigators-2

Schwochow continues: “If you see filmmaking as a quest for truth, perspective is one of the strongest tools you have. In this case, that was the brilliant idea. Gabriela said that if we told the story as if a coin had three sides – one from the side of the neo-Nazis, one from the victims and one from the state – you come to something in between those three parts that is maybe not the whole truth but is very truthful.

“The idea is not having one aesthetic concept or one author, but that every perspective stands on its own. You see three films that look very different but they cross over. When you look at all three of them, you get a brilliant idea of what 3D storytelling looks like.”

The directors also discussed the extent to which continuity should play between each episode, but the idea of one style or tone was quickly dismissed.

Züli Aladag
Züli Aladag

“Of course, we discussed whether the films should look the same and if we should have a miniseries where you can’t tell the difference – but if you want that, you shouldn’t ask three directors!” says Schwochow. “Each of us found our own way to tell our story. Sometimes just the three of us would meet so there was always a connection and an exchange of research.”

Cossen describes the events retold in NSU – German History X as “one of the biggest post-war political and criminal scandals,” adding to his desire to honour the victims through his work.

“They have been very quickly forgotten,” he says. “Just facts, numbers and dates – no human beings, no families, no biographies. So this is also to remember the victims who have been horribly treated by the German authorities, which can never be amended.”

The miniseries marks the latest show coming out of Germany that analyses the country’s past, following dramas such as Generation War and Deutschland 83.

“We have a very special history so we have special stories to tell and that shouldn’t be forgotten,” Sperl explains. “The fact that Nazi ideology is resurging is really frightening.”

Florian Cossen
Florian Cossen

As a result, the production, led by Wiedemann & Berg Television, was kept under wraps to avoid unwanted attention while the real trial continued its passage through the courts.

Sperl continues: “We kept it very quiet – we didn’t talk about it. We didn’t do any press and kept it very low key. We didn’t want to provoke any legal problems or for Nazis to disrupt the shooting. You never know.”

The subject matter led to several additional hurdles for the crew, however – the most notable of which was finding extras willing to play Nazis on camera.

“We had a challenge to find extras who would shave their heads and scream all that Nazi bullshit, to give their face for very little money,” Schwochow says. “We didn’t want to employ real Nazis. We had a person who did all the extras casting and one day she came up with an idea to ask all the left-wing supporters to take part and they helped us. All the people you see in the film are from the political left. That was a hard thing to solve because we had a lot of extras.”

Another challenge was the script itself, which the producers and directors determined must be authentic without turning the production into a documentary.

Aladag notes: “The challenge for all of us was to be precise, to be authentic, to have a great script. We worked on the script together until we were really happy with it. We didn’t want to shoot before it was finished. So each of us started really early. Shooting took six months to prepare.”

Christian Schwochow
Christian Schwochow

The directors also sought to make their own films stand out in their own way, creating new obstacles. Schwochow’s installment, for example, had no scored soundtrack, instead using Nazi rock music in the background.

Cossen explains: “The musician and the author recreated Nazi rock because we didn’t want to pay any royalties to real Nazi bands. But you hardly notice. You have to think how they think in order to not only make it good but to compose that kind of evil music so that it gets to you and works emotionally.”

Beyond the storyline and its direct resonance in Germany, Schwochow ultimately sees NSU – Germany History X as a warning against political and social issues affecting much of Europe as right-wing politics find new footholds in many countries.

“You don’t have to explain what’s going on in Europe at the moment but we’re facing so much racism everywhere and we’re building a fence around the continent,” the director says. “People should be very careful who they vote for and who they follow.”

Cossen says he wants the audience to feel “true empathy” with the victims, not just pity, “and understand what it means to be in their situation; to be more sensitive against foreigners and immigrants and to be more sensitive against our own inner racism.”

He adds: “There are many things we want people to think about. There’s not just one focus. We’re also curious about what lies between the films – what’s not told is as important as what is.”

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Making a Fortune: Christian Schwochow and Robin von der Leyen

A Dangerous Fortune director Christian Schwochow and producer Robin von der Leyen tell Michael Pickard why Ken Follett’s novel was perfect for an adaptation.

Dublin is making a habit of doubling for Victorian-era London. From crime drama Ripper Street to horror Penny Dreadful, the Irish capital has become a popular filming location for 19th century period dramas thanks to its narrow lanes and surviving period architecture.

More recently, it became home to the production of Die Pfeiler der Macht (A Dangerous Fortune), an adaptation of Ken Follett’s best-selling novel for German broadcaster ZDF.

Described as a story of love, greed, power and politics, it follows Hugh Pilaster (Dominic Thorburn), the son of a banker who is orphaned by his father and left at the mercy of his beautiful but power-hungry aunt Augusta.

Hugh and his best friend Solly (Albrecht Schuch) both fall in love with working-class Maisie (Laura de Boer) – but when Solly proposes to Maisie, Hugh leaves for America. Six years later, he returns rich and successful, only to find his feelings for Maisie haven’t changed.

Directed by Christian Schwochow (The Tower), the three-hour miniseries is produced by Kerstin Schmidbauer, Robin von der Leyen and Wolfgang Cimera for Constantin Television and Network Movie. Global Screen is distributing the drama worldwide.

A Dangerous Fortune
A Dangerous Fortune was adapted from Ken Follett’s book of the same name

“Making the film was one of the most spectacular and intense experiences of my working life,” Schwochow recalls. “We lived in Dublin for five or six months. I worked with an amazing Irish crew. Everyone had very impressive CVs and had worked on international productions before. Just three or four people came with me from Germany, including my director of photography, and some actors. Living in Dublin, working in Dublin was fantastic. It was a wonderful experience.”

Location scouting took place all over Europe, taking in Prague, Belgium and parts of England. But Constantin Film had previously set up in Dublin – for 2014 feature film Love, Rosie – and von der Leyen was keen to revisit the city.

“We had an excellent experience with the crew in Ireland,” he says. “The tax credit is also very attractive, but we chose Ireland because you really get the feeling of London of the late 19th century. It was much more authentic shooting on the locations there. All that together made it very easy to go to Ireland. We had a great experience there. We would definitely love to go back sometime.”

A Dangerous Fortune was the result of a 10-year development deal between the producers to build a slate of Follett adaptations. The first results were seen in 2010’s Eisfieber, based on the novel Whiteout, before focus switched to A Dangerous Fortune three years ago.

“What’s special about Ken Follett is the richness of his stories,” Schwochow says. “When you open his books, you’re drawn into a world that’s so colourful and so precisely described because he puts so much effort into the research.

“Of course, there’s a lot of imagination and creativity in the storytelling but, on the other hand, the characters and the setting are so rich. It’s a great pleasure finding such strong, rich and colourful poetic material.”

A Dangerous Fortune
Laura de Boer and Dominic Thorburn share a clinch

In particular, the director describes A Dangerous Fortune as a gift for filmmakers: “You open the script and you drown in a world that is completely unknown and very rich because you have so many settings. You have the world of the rich, noble people and the poor – it’s like a big playground. And you have characters who, even though they live in a very distant period, feel so close.

“In a way it’s a story about young people trying to find a different way in life from their parents and the difficulties, and the struggle to find your own identity in a world that seems very free and open but actually has lots of limits and boundaries. That’s what I found very interesting and is something that comes back again and again in my films.”

American writer Annette Simon penned the scripts, working with Schwochow to create a vision of Victorian London that avoided the serious tones often adopted by other period dramas.

“Telling the story in a very naturalistic, realistic way isn’t something that interests me so much,” Schwochow admits. “Too many stories from the Victorian period are told in a very serious way and I tried to find a way with Annette to go over the top.

“You find so many crazy things when you start investigating the Victorian period – the way people acted, how they communicated – there was so much pretending and hiding of the truth. And this is why we tried to find a style that’s more fairytale, crazy and over the top.”

Though many European dramas with international ambitions choose to shoot in English – Borgia being just one example – the production team decided A Dangerous Fortune would air in German, even though some of the actors spoke English on set, with their lines later being dubbed into German.

A Dangerous Fortune
The drama was filmed in Ireland capital Dublin

Von der Leyen explains: “If you shoot abroad, you usually have the main cast you bring from home and all other roles you cast locally. In this case, we had them speaking in their native language so they knew what they were saying. If they spoke German, then they wouldn’t have understood what they were saying and their acting wouldn’t match what they were saying. So we decided this would make more sense and give the cast the chance to give it their best. We were very happy about the decision.”

Schwochow, who is attached to direct Letterbox Filmproducktion’s finance miniseries Bad Banks for ZDF and Arte this fall, continues: “Everybody spoke their mother language – in one scene, Dominic would speak English and the German actor would speak German.

“Because you can’t rely on the language, you have to have actors who understand that they have to listen to and look at each other, to find eye contact with each other and help each other. Dominic always knew what the scene was about and we even tried a little bit of improv. It was different from when you have actors who speak the same language but it was very easy.

“It got more difficult when I had to find the German voices for the dubbing. That process was more intense than finding Dominic.”

The cast also contributed to the cheerful mood on set, which Schwochow describes as one of the aspects of the production of which he is most proud.

“After the second shooting day we were a big creative family and no matter if people had seen my work or worked with Ridley Scott or Steven Spielberg, they were giving everything,” he says. “There was a great partnership between the German, Irish and English actors.

“And even though we had a very tight schedule, shooting in just 49 days, we worked so well that we didn’t feel in a hurry. We had an open creative atmosphere. The whole production felt very free and open-minded with not much pressure. I’m very happy it went this way.”

Praise is also reserved for Irish costume designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh, whose work contributed to the high production values afforded by the €8m (US$9m) budget.

“The opulence of what you can see, the costumes, the locations – that’s something we’re proud of,”adds von der Leyen. “We had a great crew.”

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