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An Interview with Georg Maas: “You Can’t Ask What the Message Is”

Tom TrambowCopyright: Tom Trambow
Scene from “Two Lives”: The limits of how reality is perceived (Photo: Tom Trambow)

12 September 2013

Georg Maas has had unexpected success with his third feature film and is even hoping for an Oscar. Two Lives is no light fare, though. In our interview, the director explains what Peter Gabriel and his German teacher have to do with the film.

Mr Maas, congratulations! Your film “Two Lives” just won the main prize, the Golden Gnome Audience Award, at the Audi Festival of German Films in Australia. Did you think that the film would be so popular there – especially considering its very German theme?

Maas: Well, but the film is also about lies and truth, about a family where someone didn’t tell the whole truth, where a lot is built upon lies. And those are themes that we all are familiar with somehow – regardless of the history of a specific country. And yet we were indeed very surprised by the success. I also never imagined that the film would constantly be sold out.

“Two Lives” is – like your two previous films “New Found Land” and “PfadFinder” – about an unresolved past that interferes in the present. It also has an intercultural element, in this case between Germans and Norwegians. Would your film also have worked if the story had not taken place in Norway?

Ad hoc, I’d say yes. What it’s actually about can be described using a sentence by my German teacher that I will always remember. He said, “What I’m going to tell you now, ladies and gentlemen, is not important for your final exams, but for your lives: Reality is everything but the nonsense we think it is.” If we were more mindful of this, I think there would be far less violence and war. People could no longer say we are the enlightened Christians and they are the backward Muslims or vice versa. We are the rightful believers and they are not. None of that would work anymore.

The film “Two Lives” by Georg Maas tells the story of Katrine, the daughter of a Norwegian mother and a German soldier who grew up in a Nazi children’s home and then in the GDR, finally fled to her biological mother and found happiness in marriage and family in Norway. When a young German attorney seeks parties who will sue for reparations in court, she is asked to testify. Attempting to cover up her Stasi past and protect her stolen identity with lies, she becomes entangled in a web of contradictions and finally is faced with the shattered remnants of her false existence. Two Lives will be in German cinemas on 19 September. The film will be Germany’s entry for best foreign-language film in next year’s Academy Awards.

It sounds as if you have a documentary approach; as if you were mainly interested in establishing the truth, which is a rather unusual approach for a feature film director.

I would not call it documentary at all. You need stories to express certain impressions you have of our surroundings or “reality.” In that respect it is misleading to ask what the message of a film is, because then you might as well have just stated the message directly. It’s only possible via the story. In this respect it is something more poetic.

But telling stories can be both retrospective and explanatory as well as forward-looking and lend meaning. Where do you see yourself?

Good question. I tend more to “lend meaning.” Another crucial access for me for Two Lives has to do with Peter Gabriel. Parallel to its production, I made the film The Real World of Peter Gabriel with Dieter Zeppenfeld. In an interview, Gabriel told us that one of his chief themes is work on the “us and them,” so the “good and evil.” Two Lives is constructed so that the protagonist Katrine is both good and bad so that the viewers are always realigning themselves. There’s none of that simplistic, Hollywood identification with good or evil.

So the character of Katrine’s husband serves as a great projector. He remains pretty much in the background so that as a viewer you can readjust yourself quite easily based on his position.

Exactly. In a Hollywood film he would have been the central character. Instead, we have her as the central character and he shines through.

“Two Lives“ is your second film with Juliane Köhler.

Juliane Köhler only had a very minor role in New Found Land, but we got along so well that I sent her the screenplay for Two Lives immediately when I finished it a couple of years ago.

How did you get in touch with Liv Ullmann, who hasn’t made a film in years?

That was funny. To be honest, I had no idea that Liv Ullmann is Norwegian. Because of her Ingmar Bergman films I thought she was Swedish. Our Norwegian producer sent her the screenplay. She thought it was great and turned us down. The reason was that she, as a 68-year-old, did not want to play a gravely ill 80-year-old. So, we proposed that we set the film in 1990 instead of 2003 so that Liv Ullmann could play the role at her own age. We rewrote the entire screenplay and also changed the character completely. In doing so we realized that 1990 is much more exciting with regard to the Stasi part of the story. Since the Stasi is in the course of dissolution it is all more thrilling, the pressure is much greater.

“Two Lives” will soon be in the German cinemas. While accompanying the course of a finished film, usually directors are already thinking about their next project. What are your plans?

For me, it’s the opposite. With my previous three films, one always led into the other. I still shot documentaries on the side, but in the past 15 years there was never a phase when I did not know what my next project would be. And before I fall in love with the next one, I want a little time to look around. I am also lucky that renowned agents from Los Angeles saw Two Lives on the film market in Cannes and are now sending me screenplays. There is one that I’m very interested in. I would like to do something that’s already been developed before I develop my own next screenplay and commit another few years to one specific story.

Andreas Ströhl conducted the interview.

Copyright: Tom Trambow Georg Maas was born in Aachen in 1960. The trained carpenter studied at the German Academy of Film and Television (dffb) in Berlin and at the European Film Academy. His teachers included István Szabó, Tilda Swinton and Krzysztof Kieslowski. In addition to feature films and documentaries, the director also makes video clips, video installations and advertising films. Maas lives in Berlin.

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