Bettina Blümner

Bettina Blümner interviewed by Rory MacLean

Bettina Blümner with Rory Maclean
Rory MacLean with Bettina Blümner. Copyright: Rory MacLean
Bettina Blümner  
with Rory MacLean
The role of the interviewer is to listen. One asks questions, gains the subject’s confidence, draws him or her out and then – for the most part – keeps quiet. The subject’s responses and revelations are nudged to direct the interview’s development. This empathetic approach was much more the style of the late, great travel writer Norman Lewis than, say, of Woodward and Bernstein. Lewis’ working method was to be a ‘semi-invisible man’. It’s said that he could enter a room, take in what was happening, and leave again without being noticed. I aspire to do the same, while acknowledging the subjectivity of observation and in the selection of words committed to paper. But my attempts at semi-invisibility utterly failed on Friday when I met Bettina Blümner. Time and time again during our interview, I found it was me doing the talking. I answered her questions about why I’ve moved to Berlin, which movies I most admire, and what I see as the role of the artist in a post-modern consumer society.

The ease with which I chatted reveals more about Blümner than about me. This young director, not long out of film school and already with an award-winning documentary feature to her credit, has a gift for bringing people out of themselves. “I like observing people,” she told me when I finally managed to stop babbling. “I enjoy hearing and then retelling their stories.”

PrinzessinnenbadSo it’s no surprise that Blümner’s startling feature debut is so frank, intimate and revealing. Prinzessinnenbad (‘Pool of Princesses’) observes the lives of three 15-year-old girls living in multicultural Kreuzberg in Berlin. Over the course of a year, beginning at the popular Prinzenbad lido, Blümner follows the trials and tribulations of the daughters of extremely-liberal, single-parent homes: boyfriend crises, teenage sex, chatroom flirtation, petty crime and special-education classes. The director’s triumph is to have gained astonishing access to their lives.

“I’d start a conversation with the girls and they’d continue it without my input,” explained Blümner with enviable humility. “I’d simply say, ‘I don’t understand why you prefer Turkish boys,’ and they’d begin talking. The subject was my choice but I gave them the freedom to respond however they wanted, if at all.”

Achieving this level of intimacy wasn’t easy but it came naturally to Blümner. Teenage life fascinates her, as does the Prinzenbad pool. “Every day in the summer as many as 9,000 people visit the pool,” she told me. “Everybody is half-naked and – for teenage girls – the pool is where boys are met, where first connections are made. It’s very sensual.”

Film trailer for Prinzessinnenbad (‘Pool of Princesses’):

To cast the film, Blümner befriended the Prinzenbad’s lifeguards who introduced her to the local youth clubs. At one of them a Turkish teen guided her to his classmate Klara Reinacher. Over the next six months Blümner often met Klara and her friends Tanutscha Glowasz and Mina Bowling. As she won their confidence, she brought along a MiniDV camera, shooting on the fly, never asking the girls for a retake. A grant from the Nipkow film fellowship Programme, and producer Katja Siegel’s enthusiasm for her showreel, bolstered both Blümner’s confidence and her prospects, leading to a commission from television companies RBB and ARTE as well as and funding from FFA and the Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg. Cameraman Mathias Schöningh joined the team, composing arresting and thoughtful images without compromising the film’s essential cinema verité spontaneity. With editor Inge Schneider, Blümner structured the narrative in 50 episodic acts. Local Kreuzberg hip-hop bands provided the score. A feature length version won both commercial success and the Best Documentary award at the 2008 Deutscher Filmpreis.

“I don’t like appearing in my own documentaries. I like to pull myself back. Although I acknowledge that the final, edited film is life seen through my eyes, I feel responsible for the protagonists. I must not give a wrong impression of them.” Blümner then laughs, explaining another - more obvious - reason for the girls’ powerful on-screen frankness, “Klara, Tanutscha and Mina were also not very shy.”

Before becoming a filmmaker, Blümner studied photography. “For me there was always something missing in still photographs. The image alone was never enough. I wanted to tell the stories of people. So I turned to documentaries and then – as I wanted to enhance reality, to invent the whole story – I began to work in fiction.”

At the respected Baden-Württemberg Film Academy her graduation film was an adaptation of a Tobias Wolff short story The Chain ('Die Kette'). The following year she won a scholarship to Cuba’s Escuela de Cine Internacional EICTV where she made two award-winning shorts, 13+15 and La Vida Dulce. Today she is developing new ideas and scripts for both documentaries and dramas. In all her projects she tells the stories of young people and families through the episodic, interconnectedness of closely-observed lives. If she takes the advice of the American entertainment newspaper Variety, she may even follow director Michael Apted’s example with his documentary Up, by revisiting her Pool of Princesses trio in seven years.

“To my mind a director has more freedom in documentaries than in fiction films,” she told me. “In fiction there are so many producers and script writers, and so much money involved. I like to go back and forth between the two disciplines. I believe that if one only makes film dramas, then one loses a sensibility for life.” Blümner won my trust, confirming through her character and her work that “making documentaries keeps me attached to life.”

Soon I was talking again, this time about my experiences in keeping ‘attached to life’, about research trips providing the raw material for travel books, and how an upcoming factual project on the Bosnian War will feed directly into my novel on wartime Germany. Bettina Blümner tilted her head, leaned forward and listened. As I chatted away, Norman Lewis was nowhere to be seen.

Rory MacLean
January 2009

    Weblog: Rory’s Berlin-Blog

    Rory MacLean Weblog
    Settling in Berlin: Travelwriter Rory MacLean gives an amusing and insightful account of his new home.

    Youth in Germany

    Fashion, music, dress, political orientation: what exactly is it that defines youth and youth cultures?