“Revision” by Philip Scheffner Death at the border

The film “Revision” asks a lot of questions for which there are either no answers or too many answers.
The film “Revision” asks a lot of questions for which there are either no answers or too many answers. | Photo (detail): Bernd Meiners © pong

It is summer 1992 and two men lie dead in a field near the German-Polish border. The case drags on for years and is eventually closed – unsolved. Nearly 20 years later, a documentary film called “Revision” is looking for some answers.

The corn is high and a line of men is combing the entire field. Sometimes just heads and shoulders appear above the stalks. The camera follows one and then the other as the party continues to look around. They are searching for something. Was it here? There? Two of them are sure. “It must have been here,” says the one fireman who was at the scene long before the police were. “What did I see? One was shot and the other, well, he was breathing but just barely. He was on his way out.” “Did the police ever even ask you what you saw here?” “No.”

Immigrants mistaken for wild boar

This film has many beginnings. One of them goes like this: “Nadrensee, a lake in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, June 29, 1992. Two harvest workers in a thresher find something lying in the field. When they take a closer look they recognize two dead bodies. They drive with the thresher toward town to get help while behind them the field is in flames.” Another goes like this: “At 3:00 a.m., three hunters go out on the prowl. One is a former police officer. He knows his territory, but the other two are here for the first time. They come from near Frankfurt am Main and are on a hunting holiday.” The voice of the narrator is accompanied by images of the area: grain fields, windmills, motorways, a village alleyway with cobblestones, and tiny houses with gardens. Nadrensee in 2011. “On June 29, 1992, between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m., the hunters are driving on the connecting road between Nadrensee and Rosow. They stop beside a field, get out of the car and look through binoculars toward the east. One week later the Nordkurier, a newspaper, reports that there had been a mix-up with some hunters. They had mistaken illegal immigrants for wild boars.”

Court case without family members

Nearly 20 years after the deadly shots at Nadrensee, documentary film director Philip Scheffner is back on the trail. The film's title, Revision, is a legal term meaning to contest a ruling. Unlike an appeal, a revision doesn't completely reopen a case. It is merely a review to ensure that the proceedings were handled correctly – typically without a new trial. Scheffner's film shows what the court failed to do, reconstructs the visibility conditions at the scene of the crime, and asks witnesses questions that the court did not ask. It also shows a human side by going to the families of the victims, who were unceremoniously “informed” of the death of the two men but were told nothing about the court hearing – they learn of the latter during the filming of the documentary. Scheffner turns the two “illegal immigrants” from Romania, as the press referred to them, into two humans with names and origins: Grigore Velcu from Craiova and Eudache Caldera from Alba Iulia.

Scheffner's approach is unusual. At the beginning of the conversations, interviewees get to hear their own statements played back to them. “During the shooting I experienced the process of filming them listening to themselves as a very active element,” says Scheffner. “It gives the person in front of the camera a degree of control and changes the power structure in the room.” The witnesses get to rethink their statements. Did I say it like that? Did I correctly express myself there? Did I really experience it like that? Like in his last film, Der Tag des Spatzen, Scheffner's Revision also connects two seemingly unrelated events: the death of Grigore Velcu and Eudache Caldera with the pogroms in Rostock-Lichrtenhagen just weeks later, where numerous material witnesses at the time had come over the green border with Velcu and Caldera. At Nadrensse, just as in Rostock, the police came far too late, botched the gathering of evidence and stood watching as neo-Nazis set houses on fire where immigrants lived.

Deadly borderlands

Revision also addresses Europe on the whole and the handling of human rights issues. The film gives us statistics from Fortress Europe, an NGO, according to which more than 14,500 people have died along Europe's borders between 1988 and 2009. Instead of acting against right-wing extremists and better protecting refugees from attacks in the future, the German parliament decided in December of 1992 to further limit the basic rights of asylum seekers. The eastern expansion of the EU now includes Poland (2004) and Romania (2007), which means five years after the district attorney's appeal to the county court of Neubrandenburg was rejected, Grigore Velcu and Eudache Caldera could have come completely legally to Germany – if they had been alive.

The film asks a lot of questions for which there are either no answers or too many answers. Where did the fire come from? Why didn't the hunters go to find their prey? Why weren't they punished for a failure to provide assistance? It is almost uncanny how clinically Scheffner's film deals with this grotesque criminal case. Only once, toward the end of the movie, in a conversation with the defendant's lawyer, is the outrage of the director noticeable. In all those years, did his client ever try to make contact with the family members of the victims? The lawyer says that he had never actually talked to his client about that. All they had done was report the incident to the liability insurance company. This legal coolness leaves the director speechless for a moment.

Revision won the Fritz-Gerlich-Preis for Civil Courage at the Munich Film Festival 2012 and has been in theaters since September 13, 2012.