Friday, October 17, 2008

KRABATThe Evening Class Interview With Marco Kreuzpaintner and Daniel Brühl

Krabat, Marco Kreuzpaintner's film adaptation of Otfried Preußler's beloved bestselling novel Krabat (The Satanic Mill)—which sold over 2.1 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 30 languages—has come highly anticipated. Starring Daniel Brühl (Goodbye, Lenin!, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Edukators), Christian Redl (Downfall) and David Kross (Tough Enough, The Reader) in the lead role of Krabat, Kreuzpaintner's film is a soul-stirring adventure for all ages that seizes the viewer with its atmospheric power, emotional truthfulness, and discreet SFX rather than CGI overload and arcane storylines. I had the good fortune of touching base with Kreuzpaintner and Brühl during the film's international premiere at the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival. They startled me for arriving clean-cut to our scheduled interview without a trace of mud or grime. My thanks to Stephen Lan and Bavaria Film International (whose website provides a subtitled trailer) for arranging the interview and to movieScope for publishing our conversation in an abbreviated edit.

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Michael Guillén: Though an accomplished film, I'm concerned whether Krabat will sell in North America? Its dark Christianity might prove problematic. You're probably aware that the Harry Potter franchise came under fire, and The Golden Compass franchise suffered greatly from American predispositions? Do you feel Krabat will be able to surmount these cultural obstacles?

Marco Kreuzpaintner: I would have to ask you what you mean by "dark Christianity"? Is that an American point of view?

Guillén: Yes, definitely. I'm a student of the mythologist Joseph Campbell and am well-steeped in folklore and mythology. What I mean by "dark Christianity" is a Christianity that has an acknowledged root in Eastern European traditions of pantheism. From my perspective, this only enrichens Christianity; but, Campbell was the first to criticize that American Christianity—fearful of this root—has chosen instead to whitewash the religion and divorce themselves from that root.

Kreuzpaintner: Though I cannot really share this point of view, I can understand your concern. But Krabat's story is universal. First, it's an obvious fascism parable. Otfried Preußler, on whose novel Krabat is based, is like the Dr. Seuss of Germany. Certainly he worked out his experience of WWII through his novel. I don't believe he was a member of the Nazi party but he was a soldier who became imprisoned in Russia. So, though perhaps the Christianity in Krabat goes back to Germanic roots, writing Krabat was more a healing process for Preußler; his recognition of how tempted he and the German populace were by a "black sorcerer"—it's obvious who he meant by that—and the question of the freedom and humanity Germans were forced to relinquish. The answer, of course, is obvious. It was never worth it. That's also why I think the book was so successful in Europe and why it won so many awards in youth literature when it came out. Young people can connect to the fact that they are always tempted to be part of certain groups, nowadays even more than before. Everybody talks about individualism but does individualism truly exist anymore? Advertisements boast: "Be individual and choose your own cellphone color" and then they offer four colors. So individualism is reined in by commercial choice. For me it was interesting to tell this story in such a way that young people can ask themselves, "Is it really worth it to just become part of a group and give up my self?" That is the universal language of Krabat. I want to believe that all over the world people will focus on that aspect, not on a particular interpretation of Christianity.

Guillén: You've drawn the fascism parallel, which intrigues me because Hitler himself was into mythology and was—in his own perverse way—updating the mythology.

Kreuzpaintner: There's something specifically Old European about the dark forest, already present in the Grimms fairy tales for example.

Guillén: I'm intrigued, Marco, because you're such a young director and, Daniel, you're such a young actor. Obviously, Krabat—which Preußler adapted from a folktale—spoke to you as young Germans. What was it that you heard when you read this novel?

Daniel Brühl: I was extremely young when I read Krabat; I was only 13. I was a child. At that time, I didn't understand or see the whole depth of the story. I first read it as an entertaining, dark, gloomy fairy tale. Along with my generation, I just enjoyed it. Almost everybody at school read it.

Kreuzpaintner: We were attracted to its magic because—at that time—we didn't yet have the Harry Potter novels. That's why when I'm asked if Krabat is an answer to Harry Potter, I have to stress that generations of producers have tried to finance Krabat but the German film industry was not in a position back then to finance such an epic film. In terms of precedent, this movie could have been done way before the Harry Potter movies but it wasn't. Fortunately, I have to say, because I got to make it. When I read Krabat as a child, it was certainly its descriptions of magic that attracted me. Plus, I had never read a children's book that dealt with death. The Disney-fication of children's stories with bright, happy set-ups ignores that children aren't really like that. The novel steered into a world of darkness and children know darkness is out there so when we discovered Krabat, we found a story we could connect with. Maybe parents fear that their children will come across something they shouldn't in a story like Krabat, but—on the other hand—for me this book was at a moment when I was at the edge of childhood becoming a young adult with the awareness that I would die someday. Maybe parents can argue about exposing their children to such a truth; but, this truth didn't kill me. I'm sitting here. I became a film director. It didn't mess me up to read Krabat. It's a powerful book for young adults.

Guillén: My understanding of fairy tales in general is that they're structured to speak on multiple levels. As a child, you can take these stories as entertaining and exciting battles between light and darkness; but, as you grow older, the same story acquires ethical depth whose themes mature over time and through experience. Truthfully, fairy tales aren't for children; they're more for adults.

Kreuzpaintner: That's how they're written actually. If you think about the Brothers Grimm, they never told their stories to children. They traveled from village to village making a living by telling their stories to adults who paid for entertainment and that entertainment was frequently dark. People like to hear not only love stories but dark stories and—to return to your earlier question about Christianity—the guilt and fear in some of these stories might be predicated on Christian concerns.

Guillén: Hopefully, Krabat will pass Christian censors Stateside because it's structured so that the Christianity is set aside as the darkness is explored and then returned to the story as resolution, as salvation. Its magic doesn't replace Christianity as in the Harry Potter books. You mentioned that generations of German filmmakers have tried to adapt Krabat into a film. How did it come to you?

Kreuzpaintner: I believe the rights to the novel first went to Dieter Geissler, who produced Die Unendliche Geschichte (The Neverending Story). He wanted to produce it as an American production under the name The Satanic Mill. Interestingly, that's the title under which Krabat was actually published in the United States; but, that was in the '70s and '80s when people were, perhaps, a little bit more open-minded. He wasn't able to finance it so the rights fell back. Then Claussen Wöbke, our producers, bought the rights in the '80s, I think, so it has also taken them a long time to pull the money together. Another German director was attached, Hans-Christian Schmid, but—as Christian developed himself into another kind of filmmaker more concerned with realism only—he wanted to do the film without the shapeshifting into ravens, and without the magic, and suddenly it wasn't Krabat anymore. The producers made the creative choice that they didn't think the project was right for Schmid. I was in the middle of directing Trade with the same producers of Summer Storm, and felt that—after Trade—I had to do something that was a little lighter. Otherwise I was getting too caught up in darkness. I'm actually a positive thinker and a fun-loving person and—granted—there's not a lot of humor in Krabat; but, at least it has an element of fantasy. The producers knew I was interested in fantasy because I had already done a short fantasy film Der Atemkünstler, with August Diehl—who you might know from The Counterfeiters—with whom I co-wrote the film. So I was already into fantasy and Krabat was a chance to rediscover the genre on a bigger scale.

Guillén: Do you feel that your youth and the fact that it was filmed in Europe were essential for Krabat to be finally filmed?

Kreuzpaintner: It's such a European story. It's a German story. Believe me, there were many discussions about whether we should shoot it in English.

Brühl: It's also set in a very precise time, during the Thirty Years War, and the story again is too European, too German, to have been shot anywhere else.

Guillén: How did you get pulled into the project, Daniel?

Brühl: I heard that Marco was preparing to film Krabat. It's the first time that—without reading a script—I accepted a role rightaway.

Kreuzpaintner: You never told me that!

Brühl: When I heard the movie was being made, I knew I had to be a part of it no matter what. Then I found out Claussen+Wöbke+Putz was producing it, I read the script—which I really liked—and I also liked my character Tonda. When I read Krabat at 13, I loved Tonda and already identified with him.

Guillén: As a character, Tonda is the most mature of the apprentices and he immediately comes across as the conscience of the group. Is that what appealed to you?

Brühl: Yes. And also because I would finally get to play a mature role. In all my other roles, I have been the young, innocent, naïve guy so to get to play someone responsible for the other guys, someone mature and wiser, appealed to me. I could easily identify with this character and the relationship I had to David Kross, the actor who plays Krabat, was pretty much like the relationship in the movie, which was helpful to both of us. I see myself in David because he's beginning to have an incredible career but he's also quite modest, shy and curious. He wants to learn from more experienced actors. I felt like his big brother during the shoot and we have become friends. I think you can see in the film that we genuinely liked and cared about each other.

Guillén: Not having read Preußler's novel Krabat, nor the folktale on which it's based, how closely does your filmic adaptation follow the folktale and the novel? Are there any major divergences?

Kreuzpaintner: Not really. The main difference is that the novel is structured over the period of three years and in the film we cut it down to two years. In the novel there's another cycle inbetween where another guy dies. We structured the film so that it tells the audience about the guy in love with a girl who was killed by a falling tree, whereas the novel went into that full year. In the novel it took Krabat two years to figure out what was happening at the mill but in the film we—as the audience—grasp it more quickly because we see all the images. I suspect the audience would have become impatient with a third cycle. We wanted to make Krabat more of a hero and a bit more smart. That was the biggest change. There was another episode left out where the Master tries to seduce Krabat before the confrontational scene we left intact in the movie. The Master takes Krabat by carriage to a masked ball in Dresden. That scene was actually scripted but we had to remove it for budgetary reasons.

Guillén: Also, it would have pulled the audience out of the locale of the mill and distracted them, I think.

Kreuzpaintner: Yes, that's what I see now. What I like is that the film is so dense and enclosed at the mill that it's almost claustrophobic. If the movie had opened up with a trip to Dresden, it might have expanded the film production-wise, but story-wise it would not have worked out too well.

Guillén: As a student of mythology, there were three mythic elements that stood out for me in your film and I'd love for you to comment on them. The first is the idea of the "true name." Also, as someone born in the month of October, a Libran, my Native American totem is the raven, and the shapeshifting of the boys into ravens was one of the first things that drew me into your film. Likewise, my main training has been in Mesoamerica, where there is a linguistic homonym between seeds and bones. To this day in Mexico the seed of an avocado is called a hueso. I appreciated that you had the year-end sequence where bones were ground into meal.

Kreuzpaintner: Some people have expressed that they were bothered that we didn't explain what was going on; but, I wanted to retain the ambiguity. Any explanation would have been too obvious. Of course life and death are so close to each other. Out of that death mill where bones / seeds are ground comes new life. I'm stunned when people want me to explain everything. It's more beautiful as a metaphor than an explanation.

Guillén: Although I can understand why you chose not to explain it, I did want to see the bread made from the bone meal. Let's discuss the premise of the "true name" by which the Master can obtain control over someone? In the film the boys at the mill have the chance to be released from their servitude if a young woman they love comes to the mill and asks the Master directly for their release. However, if the Master secures the name of the girl, that chance is forfeited. In Krabat's case, Kantorka is the young girl he is in love with.

Kreuzpaintner: Kantorka, the name of the girl, has a meaning by the way. It means she's a pre-singer or a fore-singer. She sings first and then the chorus responds.

Guillén: But that's not her real name?

Kreuzpaintner: No, you're never told her real name. That's just what Krabat names her because she was singing so beautifully and because he didn't want the Master to ever know her real name.

Guillén: When Tonda warns Krabat—in their invisible spectral state—that he's never supposed to touch one of the girls, and Kantorka stumbles backward and Krabat catches her—inducing that beautiful golden liquid moment—was Tonda trying to adhere to the Master's principles by warning Krabat away from love? Was he sincere? Because, obviously, Tonda had already defied that rule.

Brühl: Yeah. That moment is ambivalent, I suppose. I see that Krabat is special. I see that I can dare to tell him what happens outside the Mill. I try to introduce him to my secret life. But, on the other hand, I want to protect him of course because I know such secrecy is dangerous. The danger of his secret eventually catches up to Tonda. But Tonda is also sowing seeds in Krabat, hoping to fulfill his own destiny through Krabat.

Guillén: That's the sense I got. As an elder brother—instead of becoming angry when this golden moment occurs between Krabat and Kantorka—Tonda watches at a respectful distance, almost happy. His ambivalency was purely intriguing. He had just warned Krabat that this was a bad thing; but, obviously, it wasn't. By film's end you realize it's love that is the counterforce to sorcery. Is the shapeshifting of the boys into ravens in the original story?

Kreuzpaintner: Yes, but it's described differently. They shapeshift in the Black Chamber; they don't do it outside. But, technically, we didn't know how to show the shapeshifting within the Black Chamber in a spectacular way so we chose to dramatize it off the edge of the cliff.

Guillén: What fascinates me about the shapeshifting into ravens is that it leans into a longstanding tradition of the Arthurian legend of Merlin, who is associated with the month of October, and who is likewise associated with ravens. Also the premise of the older person becoming younger through magic is a Merlinesque touch.

Kreuzpaintner: [Laughs.] You know more about this than we do!

Guillén: I've studied mythology my entire life. Which is actually one of the reasons I love film so much. I consider films to be the modern mythology of world culture and the reason why audiences love film, even if they're unaware of this aspect.

Kreuzpaintner: I agree; but, you are probably the only person left in the press who sees it like that!

Guillén: I don't know about that. I won't be that egotistical. How difficult was it to achieve those effects? Or more pertinently, with the large budget you were given, you struck an admirable balance in not going overboard with the special effects.

Kreuzpaintner: We wanted to do special effects that felt real and were not seen as effects. We wanted them to be believable at every moment, just part of the story. You might not realize it but there are 400 CGI shots in Krabat.

Guillén: Some of them having to do with landscape, I understand, as seen through open windows and that sort of thing?

Kreuzpaintner: Also, set extensions. For example, we didn't have one day of snow during the shoot.

Guillén: It was all fake snow?!

Kreuzpaintner: It was all fake snow.

Guillén: How do you simulate fake snow? Cornflakes?

Kreuzpaintner: No, it's paper. The good news about that is that it decomposes organically.

Guillén: But the mud was real?

Kreuzpaintner: [Laughs.] The mud was real. The reason we shot in the Carpathians was because the Romanian Film Commission promised us a 99% assurance of snow! The fact that there was none was a horrible problem. Wherever the actors went, we had to place the artificial snow in the background. Though we photographed the landscape, we still had to place a bluescreen inbetween, digitially fill it with snow, and put the filmed image with snow back onto the bluescreen. That reliance on CGI slowed down the production and made it much more expensive.

Guillén: I look forward to the DVD with all those production extras. Final question: What's coming up for both of you?

Brühl: I've had a very good year. I shot The Countess with Julie Delpy. I shot the film John Rabe in China based on a great true-story account of a German businessman who saves more than 200,000 Chinese during the Nanjing massacre in 1937-38. It has a great cast, including Steve Buscemi. I did a German comedy Lila, Lila that's an adaptation of a bestselling book. [Though Brühl was not allowed to say at the time of our interview, he has also been attached to Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Bastards, due to begin filming in mid-October. As well as Jon Amiel's Angel Makers.]

Kreuzpaintner: I have two projects that I'm working on. One is another adaptation of a novel by Frank Schatzing—who wrote The Swarm—called Death and the Devil. It's also based in the Middle Ages, but much earlier than Krabat, around 1260. It's a mystery-thriller based in Cologne during the building of the Cologne Cathedral and is about a young guy who brings light into the darkness of the Middle Ages by advocating that the devil doesn't exist. And the other project I'm working on—which was just announced yesterday—is a biopic about the life of Fassbinder.

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Through their Filmcatcher series, Filmmaker offers videotaped interviews with both Marco Kreuzpaintner and Daniel Brühl.

Cross-published on Twitch.