I have a particular fondness for Baran Bo Odar's debut feature Das Letzte Schweigen (The Silence, 2010) [German website], perhaps because it is a film that accompanied me on last year's festival circuit. Although it didn't show up at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, The Silence had already received buzz from its premiere at Locarno. At Toronto, Sebastian Kiesmueller, Head of Marketing at Bavaria Film International, was kind enough to offer me a screener so that I might be prepared for its joint North American premiere with Los Angeles at San Francisco's Berlin & Beyond Film Festival. I'm grateful to Sebastian, Sophoan Sorn and the Goethe Institut for arranging time for me to sit down with Baran Bo Odar to discuss his film at that time. The Silence next appeared at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January of this year—where Bo Odar was featured in Variety's "10 Directors to Watch" sidebar—and yet again in July at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal, Canada. Although, to my knowledge, The Silence will not receive a theatrical rollout, it is available on German editions of DVD and Blu-Ray (although I haven't been able to determine if these include English subtitles).
As synopsized at Bavaria Film International: "A bicycle found in a wheat field. A missing girl. Is history repeating itself? 23 years ago, a young girl named Pia was raped and murdered at this exact spot. Has the same thing happened now to 13-year-old Sinikka? Krischan, the retired police inspector who led the first investigation, is convinced that there's a connection between the two crimes. His efforts to capture the killer back then were unsuccessful; this time, he is determined to bring him to justice together with his younger colleague David. While Sinikka's parents are trapped in an agonizing period of waiting and uncertainty, their daughter's fate rips open old wounds in the heart of the first victim's mother. She, in turn, has the unsettling feeling that a visitor to her home—a nice young man, married with two children—is her daughter's killer. As the days go by, an unbearable heat lies over the town's modest homes like a bell jar. And behind the doors, once intact worlds begin to fall apart."
Baran Bo Odar was born 1978 in Switzerland. He studied film at the Munich University of Film and Television from 1998 to 2006. In 2001 he completed a directing internship on Doris Dörrie's film Naked and left to spend a year in Barcelona. Together with Mike Marzuk he founded illegale farben filmproduktion/Munich in 2003. He also completed the Masterclass—commercial and promotional film at Munich University. In 2003 he was invited to participate in the Berlinale Talent Campus and in 2005 his short film Quietsch (Squeak, 2005) screened at the 55th Berlin International Film Festival. In 2006, after making a number of short films and docu shorts, Baran Bo Odar shot his first feature film Unter der Sonne (Under the Sun) for which he received two awards in the category best new director: the Studio Hamburg Newcomer Awards in 2006 and in 2007 the Munich Feature Film Award.
[This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!]
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Michael Guillén: First of all, let's start with your name. You're born in Switzerland?
Baran Bo Odar: Yes.
Guillén: But is Baran Bo Odar a Swiss name?
Bo Odar: Not at all. I was born in Switzerland but my parents moved to Germany when I was two. Also, both my mother and father are not German or Swiss. My mother's side is Turkish and my father's side is more from Russia. "Baran" is, I think, almost a Jewish name, but again neither of my parents are Jewish. "Bo" is just a nickname and Odar is an invented name. My grandfather, who was a doctor, had to flee the Russian revolution because he was in the White Army and not the Red Army. When he had to flee, he lost his whole family. He faked an ID, and chose the name Odar because it means "doctor" in some other language.
Guillén: What a rich family history! I'm intrigued by young filmmakers who come to filmmaking after having studied other disciplines. You studied to become a painter. What has carried over to filmmaking from your painting?
Bo Odar: The whole meaning of telling something through pictures. Every painting for me tells a story. Maybe not limited to 90 minutes but the point being that for me a painting is not just a situation; it tells a story. I think why I love making movies is because it is about telling a story through pictures. As a filmmaker, I'm not a great fan of dialogue—I love dialogue; I love Woody Allen!—but it's not my style. Perhaps I'm not good at it? There's a saying in Germany: a picture is worth a thousand words.
Guillén: We share that saying here in the States.
Bo Odar: As a viewer there's much more to interpret in an image. That's the big power of movies: the audience has to interpret the images as a story; to get their own story out of the images. I don't think a filmmaker should be pointing his finger and telling the audience where to look. I think the audience should consider the images, think, and get their own story out of it.
Guillén: Was the subject matter of your paintings figurative? Or abstract?
Bo Odar: It was both. Like a lot of other people studying painting, I copied great artists. I started painting when I was 12. I also did comics. I started painting with oil when I was about 16 and from then on kept painting with oil. I did figurative paintings influenced by Francis Bacon and abstracts influenced by Mark Rothko. I was very attached to the painting style that came out in the '50s after the World War. I admired those painters who were destructive on the one hand but poetic and beautiful on the other. I kept on painting even when I entered film school. I even took a year off from film school to study painting in Barcelona because I missed it so much. But I realized while going to film school that I couldn't do both. Either you're a painter 24 hours a day or you are a filmmaker 24 hours a day. Maybe I'll go back to painting when I get older and settle down?
Guillén: Well, we're the ones who lucked out by your choosing to become a filmmaker. Do you have a sampling of your painting on your website?
Bo Odar: No. Because I wanted to keep my painting private. For example, Ulrich Thomsen—the actor who plays the killer Peer Sommer in The Silence—he collects a lot of art and he always collects from the people he works with. He owns a piece by Lars von Trier and all these other people and he wanted to buy a painting from me; but, I didn't want to give him one. I think it's good to keep something private for yourself. Creative output shouldn't always be thrown out into the world. Painting is very private for me.
Guillén: You had read the novels of Jan Costin Wagner?
Bo Odar: Yes.
Guillén: And you didn't think his first novel Eisemond (Ice Moon, 2003) would adapt well into a movie because it had too many interior dialogues? But then you received the manuscript for Das Schweigen, before it was even published? Is that correct?
Bo Odar: Yes. He had just finished it and he sent it to me as a Word document. It was supposed to be published two months later. So I was lucky to read it before everyone else, especially the other production companies. Constantin Film, the big production / distribution company in Germany, really wanted to do this movie too. I would never have had the chance if they had seen the novel before me. They would have outbid me.
Guillén: What a great break for you! It's a remarkable story. I'm aware that last month you won the Frankfurt Book Fair Award for Best International Literary Film Adaptation. The judges praised your "extremely disturbing and compact film version which with great subtlety interrelates the stories of perpetrators and victims."
Bo Odar: Yes.
Guillén: So if Eisemond had too many interior dialogues to make a good film, what was it about Das Schweigen that made you think you could turn it into a good movie?
Bo Odar: I loved the prologue to the novel. I became very attached to it. The prologue in my film is very similar to the prologue in the novel: the images that Jan Costin Wagner created in his prologue and the mood between these two characters Peer (Thomsen) and Timo (Wotan Wilke Möhring) who aren't talking to each other but you get a sense that something's wrong. The novel starts with them sitting in an apartment that's too hot and—though you don't get the feeling of what's really going on—you do get the feeling that something will go on; that something is going to happen. Within reading the first 15 pages of the novel, I thought, "I want to do something like this!" So it was that prologue that attracted me in the beginning; but, in the end, it was the characters that hooked me. Even the killers were so rich, full of emotion and suffering.
When I was 12, I read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and it destroyed my life, I would say. [Laughter.] From then on I became interested in the dark side of human beings. The Silence is very dark. Everyone says that. Not in terms of the images because the cinematography is bright; but, the material is dark. While making the movie, I never had the feeling that it was so dark. I only realized it after I had finished the movie and received audience response. That's just to explain that, maybe, I'm a dark person? Even though I'm a funny person. Honestly, I never even thought of the killers as being that dark because I feel that this dark side is a part of each of us as human beings.
Guillén: I wouldn't limit The Silence to darkness. I would suggest it is profoundly deep. It's a movie that goes down. Why I was culling out your background in painting is because—when I first saw your film—I was instantly reminded of the painting "Landscape With the Fall of Icarus" (attributed to Bruegel). When I first saw this painting at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, I was disturbed by its seeming well-being and the overall indifference to the tragic plight of Icarus. I sensed a similar provocative balance struck in The Silence between the narrative's sordid events and visual strategies that allowed an ameliorative distance. For example, your repeated usage of aerial photography as if the camera's eye were somehow above the events. Was that balance in the novel or did you apply it as a filmmaker?
Bo Odar: No, I applied it. The novel was never like that. Also, the novel takes place in the winter so I changed that seasonal setting completely. I've always wanted to do a western so—after I read the novel—I said to my DP, "Let's do a western!" I always had the feeling that we were filming a western more than a thriller or a drama. I'm interested in human beings situated in wide shots in nature, much like what Terrence Malick does in his work. Again, this is also the story of Crime and Punishment. You have this beautiful world we're living in and nature—in and of itself—is not bad, but human beings often do bad things. In the end, I would say that's my message: we live in a beautiful world but humans are the disease within it. Sometimes. We're also not monsters. I'm aware it's dangerous to think in such a black-and-white box, because this is what breeds such historic atrocities as the Nazis or what's going on today in Iraq. And yet I suspect that 90% of people want to think in terms of black and white. Sometimes even I want to think like that. For example, I have a daughter and—if someone were ever to do something to her like the perpetrators in The Silence—my first reaction would be to smash them against the wall, or kill them. Perhaps we need to step one step ahead and ask why these things are happening? Because there's always a reason, I think. No one is born bad. I don't believe so. Even Hitler wasn't born bad but there were so many things that happened to him in his life that he turned into a monster; but, still, he's a human being. And that's actually what's the most terrifying thing for me, that he is a human being. All these Nazis were human beings but they did these terrible things.
Guillén: You're 32?
Bo Odar: Yes.
Guillén: For someone who read Crime and Punishment at 12, I think it stands to follow that at 32 you'd be dealing with such a dark and difficult—I would say nearly gnostic—theme; i.e., the immanent violence within beauty, within humanity. Attempting to separate good from evil is when the dangers of projection begin, such that this person becomes bad, or that group of people become bad, and we are good to fight them, when in truth we are all bad and good.
Now the title of the film for English distribution is The Silence; but, that's not the literal meaning of the German title Das letzte Schweigen, am I correct?
Bo Odar: You're correct. Das letzte Schweigen means The Last Silence. One of the problems with the English title is that, first of all, there's already a film called The Silence (1963) by Ingmar Bergman. But, more importantly, there's no real English word for schweigen. In German, The Silence would be actually De Stille. Das letzte Schweigen refers to the situation that no one is talking about and the active decision not to talk. There's a fine balance between schweigen and silence, such that they mean the same, but the German word is much richer and explains more what the movie is really about. A lot of the characters in the film—in fact, almost all of them—decide not to talk about their feelings or their fears. Timo, the young perpetrator, for example, that's his biggest issue: he cannot talk about what he's done.
Guillén: In his review for Screen, Mark Adams observed that the "silence" of the film's title referred to Timo's silence, his disappearance from the scene of the crime for 23 years, and that in some ways the film's most disturbing element is that Peer killed the second girl—not so much out of pedophilic predation—as simply an effort to break this silence and send a message to Timo. Within the film's procedural, this is what proved confusing to law enforcement. It's also what is significantly striking about the film. It leads me to question this central relationship between Peer and Timo. In an odd way, you could almost say their's is a love story.
Bo Odar: It is actually. For me it's absolutely a love story. It's maybe the only love story that really happens in the movie. Even though I don't think of it as a homosexual love story, it's a friendship love story, or a soul mate love story. For example, Katrin Sass who plays Elena and Burghart Klaussner who plays Krischan, the retired police inspector, almost have a relationship in the film but it isn't really a relationship that works. You get that as an audience member. That's the reason she breaks up with him because she realizes their relationship is based upon a desperate need to reach out to someone, not love. The only true love is really between these two perpetrators. That's also what I liked in the novel. Their relationship wasn't homosexual but it also wasn't its direct opposite. For me, they were soul mates and—as my mother told me—you're lucky if you maybe meet three people in your life who could be your soul mate. Peer met just one person in his life: Timo. That's why I also decided to end the film where I did. As the young cop says, Peer becomes the loneliest person on Earth. Which is the problem. Which is why he became this monster in the first place.
Guillén: His loneliness in that final scene is visceral. You can feel it. I find it accomplished on your part as a director to present such a problematic figure and have us feel for him.
Bo Odar: That was my goal, to be honest. The novel had a completely different ending but I always had this image of a janitor standing in the doorway, closing the door, and that we should have a feeling for him. There was a big screenwriter in Germany—you wouldn't know him—who told me he hated me for inspiring him to feel pity for Peer at that moment. The whole time he wanted Peer to be arrested and punished for his evil; but, by film's end, he was touched by him in that moment. But that was my message. Despite the horrible things he had done, Peer was also a human being. He needs a lot of help to change.
Guillén: Again, I would consider that a gnostic moment. When I was younger I had the opportunity to study with the Dutch theologian Gilles Quispel who was likewise a historian of Christianity and Gnosticism. He told me a story I have never forgotten. During WWII when he was teaching at Utrecht University the Nazis had occupied the city when the Allied forces flew over to bomb them. Quispel recalled being in the street watching the university being bombed at the same time that the Nazis were shooting down Allied planes. Witnessing this destruction on both sides, caught between them both, he felt a profound stillness. He could not identify either side as good or evil; he could only witness this scenario of destruction.
That moment of stillness, that gnostic moment of truth, is something I feel your film captures and provides to your audience as experience. And I suspect it's an experience audiences want to have that—on their own—they wouldn't know how to have. The Silence succeeds in presenting these problematic issues about the nature of good and evil in a discomforting though acceptable way.
Your ensemble of characters all seemed to have a secret grief that they each do not know how to articulate and which they each kept bottled up inside. I'm impressed that as such a young filmmaker you were able to direct—not just one or two actors—but an entire ensemble of experienced performers who portrayed these various levels of secret grief. Can you speak to how you worked with such an ensemble of actors and how you kept them on the same playing field?
Bo Odar: I would like to respond first by saying that, yes, I am young but I believe that everyone can understand things that they have not directly experienced; particularly tough experiences like death and losing someone. For example, I will never forget driving in a car with my niece when she was six years old and all of a sudden she started crying. I asked her why she was crying. "I don't want to die," she answered. That was the moment for her when she realized there was going to be an end to life. That moment profoundly touched me because it was kind of sweet that a six-year-old would be worrying about death. I assured her she had plenty of time and didn't need to worry, that we all will die but that's okay, that's life, it starts and it ends; but, I found it so interesting because—when at a similar age I realized that I was going to die—I began forcing myself to experience extreme situations.
For example, I didn't want to go into the military service. Like many Germans, I avoided war so I wouldn't get into that kind of extreme situation. Instead, I decided to work in a clinic that treated epileptics. I ended up seeing a lot of people dying in front of me. I felt it was important to experience because it helped me get over the fear of what might happen to me. It was important for me to see this terrible thing that could happen to a person every day. Experiencing that might be why I ended up being able to tell such a story as The Silence? I'm interested in extreme situations and I have tried to put myself in them.
I also had a schoolmate who died very quickly, within a few months, from cancer. I was about 22 or 23 at the time and I remember being interested in how differently my friends handled that situation. We all began to separate from each other after that death because we were all handling our grief separately. Perhaps that is why I can tell a story about grief? I know how differently people react to grief.
But to answer your question about how I work with the actors, as Christopher Nolan said once in an interview (which I found quite interesting): a director has to be mediocre; good at everything but never too good at any one thing. If, for example, you're too good as a musician it will complicate your role as a director because you will have constant conflicts with your musicians and will try to take over and do it yourself. A director has to know what he wants to do. That's the first step. He needs a vision. The second step is that he needs to translate his vision to other people so that they can help him effect his vision.
It's the same with working with actors. All of them have different techniques. Some of my ensemble were quite big stars in Germany, one did a lot of theater work, some only worked in film, and that proved very interesting to me to work with these different techniques. It forced me to change the ways I interacted with each of them. Working with Wotan Wilke Möhring, for example, I realized he works less from his head and more from his gut. Sebastian Blomberg, on the other hand, works a lot from his head. It was more of a challenge when I would be directing two or three of them at the same time because they all worked differently; but, that ended up being the best directing school for me. I had to learn how to speak to each actor to help them understand what it was I wanted from them. Some I had to guide, and others like Wotan I just let them do what they knew to do. For example, I always had to talk to Sebastian before we began shooting to discuss his character's motivations, whereas Wotan didn't need that; he just wanted to act and then I would talk to him afterwards about what did or did not work and offer suggestions about what he might try next.
In short, a director needs to knows what he wants from the characters. That involves all the work he has to do with the script before shooting. If he has issues with his characters during the script writing, if he doesn't know his characters, then he will have real problems as a director on set. I knew what I wanted, I guess, and the actors felt that. Even Burghart Klaussner told me he was surprised that such a young director knew what he wanted. Of course, he didn't know how much I struggled—I tried not to show it—but the struggle was good.
When you write a script, you always think you know how the story has to work but then you get on set where other people get involved—not just the actors but the prop master and the DP—all these human beings with their own emotions and their bad days. That's what I like about being a director. Every day is a challenge. You get some balls you get to play with but sometimes the ball is too big or too small. I find it interesting that a director thinks he knows 100% how a scene should play and then someone else makes a slight change that makes the scene work so much better. Even a variable like the weather can produce great changes. It starts to rain in a scene that's supposed to be sunny but the rain makes the scene much more interesting all of a sudden in a way you never thought of before. That's what I love about making movies. You have to improvise.
Guillén: Wotan Wilke Möhring has rapidly become one of my favorite European actors. His range is tremendous. I just saw him in Männerherzen (Men in the City, 2009) where he provided the serious anchor to that rather broad comedy. Can you speak to what it was like working with him? You mentioned he's more of a physical actor who works off gut instinct?
Bo Odar: What I love about Wotan is that he is similar to me. I am not an intellectual guy at all. I'm not stupid, but I trust my guts and my emotions, and I love the unconscious. I think the human brain often gets in the way of our lives. I like him because he's always trying and doing and—through that process—realizing what's working or not. I also loved Sebastian Blomberg, but sometimes working with him was difficult for me because he always wanted to talk about his character. I guess sometimes I think a character can do anything because I can do anything. Sometimes I'll have the feeling that something isn't right in a performance, but I don't mind because by doing it I find out if it isn't right and I won't have the actor do that again, instead of just talking and talking and talking. Working with Wotan was great. He is one of the best German actors working right now and, as you said, he can do anything. He can be funny. He can be very serious. He can be a dark character, as in this film. I hope he earns an award for this performance.
Guillén: I hope so too. The ensemble was indisputably fantastic but his particular performance as Timo brought depth and pathos to the narrative.
I'm aware that—based upon the strength of your short film Squeak (Quietsch, 2005) and your graduate thesis Under the Sun (Unter der Sonne, 2006)—the producers of The Silence approached you. How much did they influence the casting, or how involved were you in the casting, of this consummate ensemble?
Bo Odar: I was completely involved in the casting, though I did have a casting agent Anja Dihrberg. I didn't decide who I wanted to work with by watching audition tapes at home. I made sure I was at the auditions because I wanted to see which actors I had a connection with. We ended up casting a lot of famous German actors and I was surprised that they were willing to go through this audition process. Often a famous actor will say, "Do you want to work with me or not?" and avoid the casting process. But these actors were all willing to go through the casting process because they were fond of their characters and wanted to play them. For them the characters in the story were challenges. The producers never said to me, "You have to work with this actor or that actor because it will be great for box office." They were supportive of my choices. Because we had so many actors and they were all good, the real problem was creating an ensemble that would work together on screen.
Guillén: Returning to the expressions of grief, your film represented different kinds—you had the senior investigator bringing up a case file from his past that had been haunting him for years and the mother of the initial victim who refused to change her daughter's bedroom years after her murder—but, what struck me as odd and somewhat funny was David Jahn, the young investigator, who in one sequence wakes up wearing a dress. Can you speak to that?
Bo Odar: Well, first, that character in the novel is very different from the character in the movie. In the novel he's much more dark and silent, almost a cliché of this younger man who has lost his wife. Also he was much more Finnish. When I was talking to Sebastian during pre-production about his character, we decided to change him from the character in the novel, to make him more of a freak from the very beginning of the film so that not only the audience but also the other characters in the film would perceive him as strange and freakish. But we wanted to turn this freak into the guy at the end of the film who sees the truth. We thought that would be interesting.
The idea of the dress was actually Sebastian's idea. We were trying to figure out how to deal with the issue that he had lost his wife and was living alone in his house. Of course, we could have shown photographs of her scattered throughout the house but we didn't want to show it like that. Instead, Sebastian came up with the idea that—because he missed her and longed to touch her—he could accomplish that by wearing her dresses. We shot several scenes of him in the dress, including an introductory scene where he answers the door to receive a package delivered by the postman, but we cut them out so that it ended up with the single scene where you see him in the dress after he wakes up from having his dream.
Guillén: That incongruity proved effective, actually.
Bo Odar: Yes. It's a funny image because a man in a dress is always a funny image but it's also kind of pathetic and sad.
Guillén: Sad, because he didn't know how else to deal with his loss. I mentioned earlier your senior thesis film Under the Sun. Your DP for that project, Nikolaus Summerer [website], likewise collaborated with you on The Silence. My understanding is that you storyboard your films quite thoroughly. When you were storyboarding, you were envisioning the aerial shots? And how involved was Nikolaus in that process?
Bo Odar: Nikolaus sits next to me while I draw the storyboards because I can draw and he cannot. We watch, of course, a lot of movies together. We watched a lot of Terrence Mallick movies to—as I mentioned earlier—create the effect of a western through the relationship of people to landscape. Usually when I write the script, I already have the storyboard in mind. I'm very visual in my scripts. But then I sit down with Nikolaus and try to explain how I want to make the movie. We sit there and literally construct the storyboard. I draw it and he adds things to it and we discuss how the camera should move. The finished film, I would say, is about 99% the same as that storyboard. The only changes we made were to resolve production issues. For example, all of a sudden it would start to rain and we would have to improvise. Maybe, like every director in the end, I am a control freak. I want to be as prepared as possible before I start shooting so that—if unexpected things happen during shooting—I can react quickly. I could never create the storyboard on set, for example. That would make me crazy because I wouldn't be able to concentrate on the actors. Also, by working this way with Nikolaus, I can immediately trust him from the moment we start shooting because I know he knows how it should be shot.
Guillén: It sounds like you intend to work with him again?
Bo Odar: Yes, absolutely.
Guillén: Between the two of you, you've established a visual signature.
Bo Odar: Yeah, yeah, it's very important. I could tell you some insider stories. The producers first wanted Anthony Dod Mantle to film the movie because they wanted a big name. He's a great DP, of course, we met, and we talked about the project—he's a very nice guy—but then he won the Oscar® for Slumdog Millionaire and all of a sudden he had so much on his mind. I would never do that again, however. I was young and, catering to the producers, thought, "Okay, let's try a famous DP. Why not?", even though I had worked with Nikolaus on Under the Sun and he was perfect; but, sometimes in the beginning of a production like this, you underestimate teamwork. I went back to Nik and was glad we made the movie together. Anthony would have done something completely different.
Guillén: There's no question, like I said, that the two of you have developed a visual style, impressive not just because it's a pretty picture but because it's visceral. Along with the sound design, the audience feels these visuals. Case in point, there's the one scene where Timo runs away from Peer and it's the only time in the film that the camerawork is distinctly handheld and erratic, which creates a certain feeling. How did you decide on that feeling for that scene? It's so different from the rest of the movie, which is markedly restrained.
Bo Odar: We also used handheld in the dream sequence. Those are the two moments in the film where a character is running. In the rest of the movie all the other characters are fairly still—they either just stand there, or observe things, or just look—but, in those two moments it was the first time a character was running. We wanted to express through the camera work that those were the two moments when those characters were trying to break out for a moment, though they end up remaining stuck in their shell and return to sitting and watching. That was the reason behind our using a handheld camera in those sequences, whereas the rest of the time we used dollies or static placement.
Guillén: Last night's projection at the Berlin & Beyond Film Festival was digital, but did you shoot on 35mm and, if so, what camera?
Bo Odar: The 35mm ARRI.
Guillén: Has this become the preferred camera of choice? I was speaking with Benjamin Heisenberg the other day and he said he used the ARRI for The Robber.
Bo Odar: Really? I don't know about it being the preferred camera of choice but I love the ARRI cameras; they're great. And I love 35mm. I don't want to shoot in digital though, I know, I will have to someday because the industry is changing.
Guillén: Are they relatively small cameras?
Bo Odar: No, they're big. We shot with the 535, the ARRICAM Lite, the slightly smaller 435, and with the 235, which is the really small one.
Guillén: I think the 235 is what Benjamin used for The Robber.
Bo Odar: Sure, because it's a very physical movie and they probably needed something light for the DP or the operator. Every time we used Steadicam or during the dream scene when Sebastian had the body mount on him, we used the light camera for that because the actor was carrying the camera himself and still it weighs about 80 kilos.
Guillén: To situate your narrative, you decided to combine two different genres: the thriller and the melodrama. These are genres that can often be overblown. Yet The Silence is quite restrained. It is a melodrama, it is a thriller, but the overall effect is one of restraint. Can you speak to how you reined in these genres to create that sense of restraint?
Bo Odar: To be honest, I never make movies thinking about the genre. I think that's something that other people are projecting onto The Silence to sell it. I think that's why genre was invented: to sell movies. It makes it easier to sell them. Marketing can compare The Silence to a genre film like Seven and that gives people an idea of what the movie is like and whether they want to see the movie or not see the movie. But I was never stuck on the idea of making a thriller or a melodrama. I was more interested in the story.
Honestly, I prefer genre movies that break the conventions of genre or mix up the genres. For example, I really admire Bong Joon-ho's Salinui chueok (Memories of Murder, 2003) because it's not only a thriller, but a drama and a comedy. Good movies are never just one genre. Two movies that had a profound influence on me as a young man were Blade Runner (1982) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). They're also both blending genres. Blade Runner is a sci-fi movie set in a sci-fi timeline, and it has action and thriller elements to it, but it's actually more a drama about someone who wants to be a human being and who wants to live. That struck me when I was young. When Rutger Hauer says he wants to live, for me it's the whole point of the movie; not that someone is chasing and hunting down replicants. The movie is more about its philosophical questions. Even Harrison Ford asks himself, "Am I a human being or am I also just a replicant?" How important is memory for human beings? Is it our memories that make us feel alive?
Lawrence of Arabia is, likewise, a historical epic but, again, is more of a drama for me. It's about a man who is suffering because he's been forced to be someone who he really isn't but who—in that moment when he becomes Lawrence of Arabia—becomes alive. I'll never forget that scene when he's coming back after attacking Aqaba and the General says, "You have to go back" and Lawrence replies, "I don't want to go back." The General suspects Lawrence doesn't want to go back because he's afraid of war and that war is too tough for him, but Lawrence says, "No, that's not it, I like killing people. That's why I don't want to go back." I was 12 when I saw that movie and went "Wow!" because this is a fear that anyone can understand. For me, that scene is one of the best film moments of history.
Guillén: Again, just as we've been discussing, it's a scene where he recognizes the danger of his own potential to embrace the dark side in himself. To finish up here, I'm impressed with your sound design and how it interacts with the music in the film. My understanding is that the original music was composed by Michael Kamm and Kris Steininger, who operate under the name of Pax de Deus. Their music incorporates tense dissonant sounds; but, it's also melodic in turns. Where I especially noticed the seam between the sound design and the original score was in scenes where the rustling of leaves blended with their intense and hypnotic score. Can you outline the decisions that went into balancing the sound design with the music?
Bo Odar: The sound of the film was very important to me. That's why I ended the film with the sound of the children, for example. The whole sound design was based on that. There were a lot of scenes where you hear the sound of children in the background. Even if you can't hear them, they're always there because it's a movie about children, about losing children, even killing children. Christoph Ulbich [website], the sound designer, and I sat and talked a lot about this, especially the background sound and what should it tell? For example, in the scenes with Timo and Peer we decided to always have the sound of children in the background.
With regard to the music, I had heard a piece by Henryk Górecki, a composer from the '70s who composed contemporary classical music that, to me, sounded very cinematic. I was attached to that and gave it to the musicians and told them we had to do something like that. I felt the sound design, even the music, should hurt the audience and that it should reveal the inner life of the characters.
Christoph worked closely with the composers. The musicians recorded the music in analog. It wasn't digital music; it was a genuine string quintet. Christoph, of course, worked with the computer a lot. But then we all went to the studio to mix all the tracks together and that was where we decided to let go of certain tracks because they made the sound too full or, for example, we wanted to add wind for another moment. Music and sound design should always go hand-in-hand. They're 50% of the movie. Often the picture alone can be healthy but—when you put sound on top of it—it enrichens the image and propels it to a new level. I like the contrast between sound and image. You can have a golden wheat field, which in itself can be a positive image, but—when you add a dark sound design to it—all of a sudden you start to interpret the image differently. Michel Gondry says something I find very interesting: creativity always needs at least two things. A chair by itself, for example, is not creative. A chair and a bunny, however, is more interesting because your mind starts to wonder what a chair and a bunny can be? I think it's the same with picture and sound. You always need two things. Even if it's a picture with no sound where leaving out the sound has been a decision of sound design, that's more interesting. David Lynch, of course, does a lot of work with that in sound design. It's become annoying to me after a while because he's always using the same trick; but, I like a lot of ambient sound. The sound of a city in the background contains so many stories.
Guillén: The value of that partnership in this particular narrative is precisely because the characters cannot voice their grief. The grief and the dread and the fear end up being expressed through the sound design and the music or—as it was expressed in the Palm Springs program capsule—"the quiet but steadily building internal trauma of the victims' families transforms their silence into a deafening roar." The Silence negotiates an exquisite balance between the inability of the characters to speak and allows the film itself to speak for them.