In the fall of 2014, I was covering the Chicago International Film Festival when I stumbled upon Dietrich Brüggemann’s German drama “Stations of the Cross.” It was a shattering portrait of misguided faith featuring superb performances from Franziska Weisz and newcomer Lea van Acken, who went on to star in the first German adaptation of “The Diary of Anne Frank” (which premiered at this year’s Berlinale to much acclaim). “Stations” ranked high on my Top 10 list of 2014, and has since then become one of my all-time favorite films. I reached out to Brüggemann soon after seeing the movie, and he was gracious enough to give me his first U.S. interview, which I published on Indie Outlook.
Brüggemann’s latest film is “Heil,” a dizzyingly audacious satire about modern day Neo-Nazis that garnered German Film Critics Awards for Best Screenplay and Best Editing. I was startled to find its portrayal of rampant idiocy oddly relatable, considering how my country is currently going through an election that feels like a satire in itself. Donald Trump’s stated gratitude toward his “poorly educated” supporters, combined with the endorsement he received from the Ku Klux Klan, are scenarios that would fit right at home in an American version of “Heil.” When I asked Brüggemann about his thoughts regarding Trump, as well as the recent comments made by Anne Frank’s stepsister comparing him to Hitler, he quipped, “Donald who?”
After viewing “Heil”—which has yet to acquire an American distributor (and richly deserves one)—I spoke with Brüggemann via e-mail about media-fueled hysteria, German comedy and “the little idiot” that resides in us all.
I love the use of humor in your celebrated short film, “One Shot,” as each level of artifice is revealed and deconstructed. Who would you cite as some of your comedic influences?
Monty Python’s Flying Circus. All four seasons. Playing in an infinite loop. And Woody Allen, likewise. And some Germans you never heard about. And Flann O’Brien. Lubitsch, Wilder, and last but not least: Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker, who were underrated masters of intellectual deconstruction.
What particular aspects about the Coen Brothers’ “Burn After Reading” inspired your own “league of morons” in “Heil”? There are also dashes of the Three Stooges in some of the slapstick, as characters lose all sense of self after getting smacked in the head.
I only saw [“Burn After Reading”] once, but the whole tone felt liberating, like: Hey, it’s possible to make a movie where everybody is an idiot! I’m not too familiar with the Three Stooges, I must admit, but whenever I bump into them, I like them a lot. I guess there are also traces of Danny Kaye’s “The Court Jester” in “Heil.” And I play a lot of piano to silent films, so I’m on friendly terms with Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton and you-name-them.
How is this film reflective of the right-wing extremism and Neo-Nazism in modern day Germany?
Plainly, I got most of what happens in the film from reading the papers. It’s scary, but I wouldn’t say it’s gonna take over the country. I’m confident that history doesn’t repeat old mistakes, but makes new ones.
How problematic has the German inland secret service proved to be, considering that it’s organized state-wise as 16 individual entities that often lack competent communication skills?
That was one of the elements that facilitated the so-called NSU (three Nazis going underground in the late 90s and over the next 13 years killing dozens of people, largely unhindered by state authorities). On the other hand, right now there is a right-leaning populist party, very successful at the moment, who wants to centralize the “Verfassungsschutz,” and is being accused for trying to build a new “Gestapo.” It’s complicated.
What has the creative collaboration been like with your sister Anna, both as a co-writer and an actor? Was the role of Doreen written for her?
We wrote the scripts for my first four features together. “Heil” was the first one I wrote by myself. We were busy doing [“Stations of the Cross”], she had a little baby, I was in California for three months, the tone was different from the earlier films, it just happened that way. Doreen was actually not written for her. I was planning to cast someone tall, voluptuous, valkyrie-like. But then I realized: No, this is Anna. Most people didn’t even recognize her in the part.
I briefly met Liv Lisa Fries at the Chicago film festival a couple years ago (she was there with “Zurich”), and really enjoyed her work in “Heil.” She was the most sympathetic person in the film, for me, by far. How did she become involved in the project?
Liv is the sweetest, most generous, least complicated person you’ll meet on a movie set. Her character also acts quite idiotically, [but] she’s the most likable person in the film. I love the way she handles this balance. I had known her for years, but we never worked together. I generally avoid screen-tests, I prefer to just watch demo reels, then call the actors and offer them the part and trust in them. Her part was the only one we did a casting [for] to ensure onscreen vibrations with Jerry [Hoffmann], who plays her boyfriend. But the minute her name came up, I knew she was right.
What inspired you to include an actor playing yourself in the film, and do you share his desire to elicit laughs that stick in the audience’s throat?
Do you remember the killer in “Scream” (or “Scream 2”) saying: “This is life imitating art imitating life”? Or that Björk video where she rides to town on a train, goes on a stage and performs a theatre play where she goes to town on a train, goes on a stage, and so on? I guess it’s similar things. “Laughter sticking in peoples’ throats” is a common truism in Germany. It’s what people typically say when asked about their work. We’re serious people, we value comedy highest when it’s almost tragedy, not when you laugh your head off.
There are multiple cameos in the film, and I was delighted to see Lea and Franziska pop up (as well as you—I believe—as the man who asks Nina whether she actually wants to bring a baby into this world). What inspired this rather Hitchcockian cameo?
I love casting fellow directors. And I love casting musicians. I also love actors, but you just get a wider scope of human diversity (in terms of face, body, attitude, and general vibrations) when you don’t restrict yourself to professional actors. “Smokers Outside Hospital Doors” is actually an old song by a band called “Editors.” I loved the dignity and tragedy in there. And it’s maybe the only sensible line in the film, so in an act of bold self-empowerment, I gave it to myself, impersonating a smoker outside a hospital.
How did you go about designing the opening title sequence, which is filled with imagery lampooning Hitler and Nazism?
It’s actually on YouTube! That’s basically a little meditation about Hitler and the Nazis becoming pop culture memes, about actual history being covered under millions of tons of books and films and images. The rest was expertly handled by an amazing guy who spent months on doing the animation and the writing.
The lyrics of the song that plays over the end credits are also deeply incendiary and provocative. What is that song, and was it written for the film?
No, I just found it and it felt right. It was by the same guy (with a different band) as the opening song, and they were on the label that I did lots of videos for, so it was easy to get. I also shot a video for that song, later last year.
Would you say that Germany, as the film suggests, hasn’t changed nearly enough in the 70 years since World War II?
Oh yes, it has changed quite a bit. My film doesn’t say the usual “all Germans are still Nazis on the inside” thing. Some are, definitely. Others have structural similarities. You can be a left-winger, [but] your thinking, the way you deal with other opinions and conflicts, can be structured in a totalitarian way. “Heil” pokes quite a bit of fun at this. In general, I guess there are certain properties of human behavior that will never change. We always tend to form groups and be hostile towards other groups. And there’s always a certain percentage of awful people committing atrocities, filling the news and making everybody think that everything is horrible.
What they don’t say in the news is “330 million people just went about their everyday lives and nothing special happened.” Media keeps us in a constant state of desperate hysteria, and “Heil” is largely about this hysteria, and about those three percent of total idiots who fill the news, and maybe also about the little idiot inside all of us. So I’d say there is hope for progress, even if it takes centuries. It’s an everyday rule of thumb that everything you do takes roughly seven times longer than planned.
What led you to write your next script in English and set the story in California?
I spent half my childhood abroad. I don’t feel particularly German. Still, when I make a film, it’s always gonna be “a German film,” first and foremost. But we’re an international generation, and some stories just can’t be told here. That idea I wrote just came to me and stayed and kept fascinating me, so I did the research and wrote it down. It’s not like America has been waiting for my movie, but still I think it’s a story that should be told, so all I can do is go out there and try.
For more info on Brüggemann and “Heil,” visit his official site. You can also check out his photographic “works in progress,” Americanorama and Panorama People. Brüggemann is currently planning to write a novel that is based on an idea for a movie dealing with the end of the world, which he says “would be impossible to finance in Europe.”