Ilona Ziok

Rory MacLean meets Ilona Ziok

© Ilona Ziok
© Ilona Ziok
'When an audience leaves the cinema, I want them to remember the film they've just seen, not to immediately forget it,' said Ilona Ziok, director of four highly controversial German feature-length documentaries. 'My films always have a message because I feel a responsibility towards this country. Our past has to be dealt with in a proper way.'

Ziok's father was an aristocrat from the Lower Rhine region who had to move east due to his opposition to Hitler. Her mother came from a wealthy Silesian landowning family. Ziok was born and raised on their family estate, and was a child when her mother spirited her west to escape the discrimination of the Polish Communists against the 'landowning class' which began in 1968. She attended primary school in England and high school in Germany. She studied Political Science, Slavic Languages & Literature and Art at Frankfurt University, then theatre and feature film directing in New York, LA and Moscow.

'That's why my style was never typical "made-in-Germany",' she told me with a wry smile when we met near her Berlin home. 'I have a different perspective because I didn't spend my whole life here. Hence when dealing with our history my perspective is different, in part because there were no Nazis on either side of my family.'

Ziok's four documentary films are rebellious, provocative, heartfelt and humane. Her Carousel (1999) tells the story of the Berlin artist Kurt Gerron, one of the most famous German entertainers of the 1930s. A Jew, Gerron was deported to Theresienstadt and ordered to stage a cabaret so as to deceive the world about the true nature of Nazi concentration camps. Nevertheless he was later gassed to death in Auschwitz.

'It is a poignant film,' said Ziok with both passion and clarity. 'People are so often moved by it that they cry at the end or stay in the cinema for another ten minutes in complete silence. Carousel makes it clear that the Hitler regime not only destroyed the Jewish population, and any opponents to its ideology, but by murdering those millions, the regime also destroyed the essence of rich pre-war German culture.'

Film poster Fritz Bauer Tod auf Raten © Ilona ZiokThe difficulty of raising finance for such controversial films often led Ziok to question if Germany had truly dealt with the legacy of Nazism. While the German government financially supported her documentary Fritz Bauer: Death by Instalments (2010), all the country's major film funds and main TV broadcasters rejected the project. Fritz Bauer, one of the first and most important democrats to pave the way for German democracy, was the Hessian state attorney who initiated the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial. He also served as prosecuting attorney at the important Brunswick trial that began the rehabilitation of the men and women who had resisted Hitler, and who - in legal terms - remained 'traitors to their country' until 1952. It was only at that trial that the word 'Unrechtsstaat' – in reference to the National Socialist regime – first came into effect as a legal term in Germany.

To this day Bauer's untimely death in the bathtub remains a matter of controversy.

'Civic courage is a citizen's duty,' Bauer once said. By using archive footage, full-length interviews and poignant music, Ziok draws the viewer into the heart of an enduring historical quandary, while portraying Bauer as a model fighter for human rights and universal values.

'Justice matters to me deeply,' said Ziok. 'In Germany we criticise people who dirty the nest, people who are 'Nestbeschmutzer'. In my work I want to draw attention to those 'Nestbeschmutzer' whose good voice has been ignored or stifled, and so help to bring justice for those individuals in social terms and on a national level.'

The Count and the Comrade (2009) recounts the story of two men whose family backgrounds and beliefs could not be more different, but who were united in their resistance to Hitler. The film traces the lives of Count Carl-Hans von Hardenberg and Comrade Fritz Perlitz from their involvement in the resistance against the National Socialist regime through Germany's post-war division and reunification, reflecting on 80 years of German history – but without seeking to judge.

'Political memory knows only one victor – at least until the next revolution,' said Ziok. 'We artists on the other hand have the obligation to preserve the memory for posterity.'

The Sound of Silents film poster © Ilona ZiokHer film The Sounds of Silents (2006) also mirrors aspects of Ziok's own morality. This documentary tells the story of Willy Sommerfeld, the last, living 1920s silent movie pianist, and a witness to the century. 'In the film I wanted to revisit how the events of 100 years shaped the life of a 103-year-old man. Willy's love for music withstood every historical upheaval and kept him alive way beyond the usual life span. He never "sold out" and didn't allow himself to become downtrodden and bitter despite difficult and destructive circumstances.'

As in all her films, Ziok uses no voice-over narrator. She neither stages re-enactments nor uses manipulative editing techniques. Yet her powerful and focused dramaturgy enables her to create documentaries that are as exciting as thrillers, winning her accolades and admirers (including Sandy Lieberson and Roman Polanski) around the world.

Now in production is Ziok's moving, new film Sing a Song of Socialism which traces the history of East Germany through dozens of its patriotic songs, some of which are sung by Johann Georg Reißmüller, the highly-respected political editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Projects in development include 'Love Letters from Berlin', a profile-cum-musical history of Berlin as seen by composer and musician Manuel Göttsching, The Making of Seven Up! about the 1972 meeting of the famous Krautrock band Ash Ra Tempel and Timothy Leary, a portrait of East German archaeologist Friedrich W. Hinkel who saved the ancient pyramids of the Sudan and a documentary on the Freemasons, Ziok having been granted first-time access to their archives and exclusive, on-camera interviews.

'With such rich histories involving real heroes, why would I ever use actors to make a fiction film?' she asked with laugh.

© Ilona ZiokZiok uses biography as a means of exploring a particular historical period or event. She cares deeply about the action of individuals, and how those actions effect on society. It's not simply the character that captures her imagination, but rather what he or she represents to humanity.

'My personal goal in making films is to understand the dynamics of politics, history and the psychology of human behaviour. But I am also driven by a deep wish to restore the forgotten and the repressed to memory.'

Rory MacLean
October 2014
Related links

Dossier: Media Art in Germany

History, tendencies, names and institutions