An Interview with Andres Veiel
Complexity, Contradiction and Obstinacy
Andres Veiel is one of Germany’s most renowned directors. After completing his degree in psychology and a course of study in film directing at the Künstlerhaus Bethanian in Berlin under Krzysztof Kieślowski, Veiel has worked as an author and director of film and theater projects since 1990. Many of his works take place in the fringe regions between reality and fiction.
Mr. Veiel, we always read about “documentary filmmaker Andres Veiel”, but that label doesn't necessarily fit. You do so much more than that, right?
Sometimes research is complicated, like with Der Kick, which told the backstory of an atrocity committed by a group of right-wing extremists. We realized quickly that a documentary film wasn't possible. “If you come here with a camera, one of you isn't going to get out alive...”
I had trouble researching the background of the financial crisis as well. In places where social power is concentrated, only a certain image of reality is allowed. Control is exercised through PR agencies and lawyers, whose job it is to precisely define how the public light shines on their clients in business and banking. When you are looking at business dealings in legally unclear areas it gets even more complicated. In those cases, I have to sign a waiver with the lawyer that I will not publish the material.
I imagine that your work as a theater author and director is a bit different?
For Das Himbeerreich (Raspberry Empire) I questioned 25 board members of German and international banks. In the theater, unlike in documentary films, I can make more of the informants anonymous, so the stage is really the only place to still deal with topics like that in public. On top of that, the production costs are far lower than in film, so there aren't really any people who stick their noses in it. During the production of Das Himbeerreich for the Deutsches Theater in Berlin and the Staatstheater in Stuttgart I was given total freedom: eight weeks of rehearsal time and the theater managers only ever came at the beginning and the end. They didn't get involved or try to control things.
The label doesn't matter to me, really. First I start with the research and then I try to find a format for the story that fits the material. That could be a radio play, feature film or a theater piece. I am not interested in investigative documentary films where I am forced to show people with pixelated faces and distorted voices.
Your debut as a feature film director came in 2011 with the film “Wer, wenn nicht wir” (If not us, who?). Was it difficult to convince sponsors and editorial staff to switch over?
I had read Gert Koenen's amazing book about the early RAF (Red Army Faction), which deals with the biographies of Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader and Bernward Vesper, but I didn't want to make another documentary film about people who are already dead, like Die Überlebenden or Black Box BRD. Also, because of my theater work, I am familiar with managing actors so it wasn't too difficult to get some partners on my side. After three-quarters of a year my producer Thomas Kufus financed the film. Working with the set designers was particularly exciting, and of course my experience in documentary film flowed nicely into the project. I pay very close attention to things like that. How does someone set up his or her apartment? What is hanging on the walls?
Those are the moments you spend in a room when the host has left the room to go get something to drink…
Exactly. In a documentary film I can decide, for example, whether or not I want the Kokoschka painting on the wall to be in the background for an interview with the director of Deutsche Bank. In a feature film I can create the room myself. For three months before we started filming I sat down with the set designers every day and we thought about how Gudrun Ensslin's room would have changed from the early 1960s to 1969.
You didn't take the traditional film degree path. You began with a degree in psychology...
I wanted to be an analyst. I found the idea of getting involved in people's stories fascinating, but over time it proved unsatisfying because clinical psychology focuses too much on deficits. I started doing theater works for prisons and for a long time saw it as a welcome sort of rebellion. It became a foreign body that the institution wanted to rid itself of.
The film “Caesar must die” by the brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani was of particular interest here?
Yes, because you also see there how the elements that individuals bring can cause a dynamic sense friction that is then fabulously expressed on the stage. I always read the prison records later and for me the point was always to focus on the potential that people could bring to the table, not the deficits. It wasn't until one of the inmates was holding a knife to my throat that everything was put into painful perspective.
How did you end up crossing paths with Krzystof Kieślowski?
That happened when I was studying. I didn't know him, and then saw the film Blind Chance, which is still one of the best films ever made. I knew I had found the right guy. This teacher-student relationship was incredibly important for me. Kieślowski was very demanding, which was difficult for me because I have always struggled with authority figures.
Your skepticism of authority and power has remained with you. We both recently – with Juli Zeh and Ilija Trojanow – signed the petition against NSA activities.
Yeah, the whole subject shows that our fantasies are not enough to imagine what is actually possible. The subject of power and surveillance was a central them for me even way back when I was a student.
Michel Foucault provided a very clear analysis of the use of power in his book Discipline and Punish. “Tell me about yourself, then I can do something for you.” Direct force is no longer required to get information. Modern psychology's methods of divesting information are a more subtle form of confession, so we don't really need torture anymore. We admit everything on Facebook and Amazon.
“Black Box BRD” was – 2001 – very successful in the cinema with more than 120,000 viewers. Its popularity managed to create a short-term buzz around the concept of feature-length documentary films, but things have changed of late. How do you feel about that as a longstanding member of the professional association “Arbeitsgemeinschaft Dokumentarfilm” (i.e., “Documentary Association”)?
We are fighting against it because things are getting increasingly difficult. I teach a lot as well and see big differences between now and back then. My first films, like Balagan (1994), were easily financed with budgets of just DM 700,000 (almost EUR 360,000). That is unthinkable today! Students have to wait forever until they get EUR 20,000 from a broadcaster – if they're lucky. Documentary films are chronically underfunded, which is a bitter contradiction. You study to learn a profession that gets minimal recognition in society, and when you can't get paid decent money in the industry people suddenly have the attitude that “anyone can make documentaries”.
In the August 31, 2013, issue of the Financial Times they quoted American producer Ted Hope, who said, “Documentaries now offer the best return of investment of any genre among films that make more than $ two million at the box office.” Do you see this happening in Germany?
Despite the problems I just mentioned, I am still optimistic that there will be a demand for documentary films in the future. There is a growing culture of “hors d'oeuvre” style consumption of documentary film work on TV and online. Films that risk something, that investigate a backstory and create interrelationships are increasingly rare. There are many – even young – viewers who long for that, which is why I like going to schools with my films, like I did recently in an eastern German region. It was no problem for students in the 11th and 12th grades to stay focused during a 100-minute-long documentary film. The point more and more is to familiarize the youth with the genre of a feature-length documentary film because this format of displaying societal processes is welcomed with gratitude and lively discussions.
Outside of your artistic work you also take clear political stances, for example as a participant in “Mapping Democracy”, an event-series that focused on the prospects and viability of democracy in the future.
This attitude allows me to push the limits over and over again. I was invited to China, actually to show If not us, who?. The censorship authorities had a problem with it, presumably due to the nude scenes, so I offered to soft-filter those scenes or hold sandwich paper in front of the projector. They declined, so the film is now being shown on a special viewing tour to the embassy and consulates. I will accompany the film on its tour because I want to find out what the censorship is about.
In January you have been invited to Egypt by the Goethe-Institut. Have you ever been there?
I went to Egypt for the first time in 2008 and I knew that we were not able to show my film Balagan to the public. But film students who I worked with insisted on seeing it. “It'll put you in a bad mood,” I predicted. And yes, afterwards it was eerily silent despite the fact that we had a heartfelt and open relationship. The controversial main character – a Palestinian who, through his work with the Israelis, is considered a traitor and then shows up in nude scenes as well – shifted the mood, but you have to be able to deal with that as a filmmaker because that is where the most interesting conversations begin.
Since then, Egypt has done a 180° turn. The art scene is developing an exciting dynamic and the “Cimatheque” in Cairo has created a vital focal point for independent filmmakers.
It is all very exciting. The developments there are so fast. What is true today is questioned tomorrow. I am interested in seeing how the country is doing and how the current condition is expressed in films from there. What are the topics and who are the filmmakers? Travel warnings aside, I am looking forward to it. I'm not easily scared.“Black Box BRD” has become part of the political education and is shown in schools. That is exciting, given the amount of problems government institutions created for you during the making of it – including a search of your house. As a member of the young audience, what does your 15-year-old son Lukas say when he sees “Black Box BRD” or other works of yours?
There is hope. I recently made a film for ARD and he said, “Papa, that is your first good film.” He also complimented me for Das Himbeerreich: “Papa, I didn't fall asleep.” That was different from his comments at the Berlinale when I won the People's Choice Award for Die Spielwütigen where he was seven years old and said, “This is so boring. When is it over?”
There are rumors in the industry that the NSU will be the focus of your next film?
I have already done a lot of research into the subject of the NSU. It will succeed or fail depending on access to certain individuals. If I don't get access, I won't make the film. I have a great sense of calm and a simple lifestyle, which gives me the freedom to concentrate on research for years at a time without having to compromise. I am also working right now on two feature films, a documentary film and I have some offers for theater work as well.
You said in an interview once that, “I think about the audience – the film has to have an effect.” Do you seek to make a connection in advance?
It is a goal of my work to maintain a high level of complexity, contradiction and obstinacy. How can I tell a complicated story without reducing it to banality? In order to get feedback early, I always do demo viewings because my films take you on a journey that I have already been on, show you discoveries and force you to accept contradictions. There is a desired level of risk. Ultimately, you get the big surprises when the premier finally comes and you are reprimanded by your friends or suddenly hugged by people who you thought looked at you as if you had two heads.