Satire, surrealism, fairy tale, allegory, black comedy, and tragicomedy: many genres could describe Frauke Finsterwalder’s first film, Finsterworld. One genre can be ruled out for sure though: vérité.
When the Women in Film Festival committee decided to invite Finsterwalder’s film, our festival judges and volunteers struggled with how to summarize this incredibly complex debut film – you’ll have to see it for yourself to understand.
While a group of independent high school students conducts a field trip to a former concentration camp, “furries”- people dressed up in costumes portraying anthropomorphic characters – gather together looking for acceptance. A well-to-do couple clinging to their youthful ideals speeds toward Paris in a rented, “no Nazi-autos, please” car, and an esthetician who despises German folk songs develops a peculiar taste for his elderly female clients. Meanwhile, a hermit lives in what seems to be an idyllic forest.
We caught up with Finsterwalder via Skype from her part-time home on an island off the coast of Kenya where she lives with her young daughter and husband Christian Kracht, who co-wrote the film.
What’s in a name?
The title Finsterworld (“dark world”) is obviously a pun with her legal last name, Finsterwalder, but also shows how the film is written entirely from her point of view as an auteur.
“I’ve had this word in my mind since I was a child,” says Finsterwalder. “When naming the film, we couldn’t think of a more appropriate, fairytale-esque word to capture this screenplay we wrote about Germany and darkness. It is realistic yet over-the-top and abstract.”
Under your skin
Of the many themes in the film, the issue of social isolation might resonate with Vancouverites the most. In the film, not only the hermit but also the history teacher, students, the esthetician, and a police officer in bear suit long for human contact.
“We see these kinds of problems in all modern societies,” says Finsterwalder. She felt that the audience at the 2013 Montreal World Film Festival, where the film premiered, easily picked up the theme. The response was different in Argentina, however, where Finsterwalder used to live.
“In Buenos Aires, they couldn’t understand why someone would have to put on a bear costume to be hugged,” she says. Though the film focuses on Germany, the overarching discussion on the human condition is quite global.
Without giving away too much, it’s fair to say that some characters get away with their cruel behaviors, which may upset some viewers, says Finsterwalder.
She actually picked up the idea of the ‘bad guy’ escaping consequences while shooting a documentary about kids’ summer camps.
“I didn’t want the audience to just leave with a happy ending, but to keep people thinking,” she says. “I’m sure mob mentalities happen everywhere, but people in Germany are taught since childhood that this is wrong. I’m always especially shocked to see this kind of thinking happen with educated people-generally in the world, such people are considered leaders, but this is not always the case.”
Deutschland nicht über alles
(Germany is not above all)
Though she does not live in Germany anymore, Finsterwalder seems to have a score to settle with her home country.
The film was shot in Bavaria, a federate state in Germany known for its identity as “Freistaat” (free state). Though funding regulations mandated the shoot take place here, she didn’t want to draw attention to the specific identity of this region.
One way to distort the audience’s expectation of Germany, and Bavaria in particular, was to avoid showing mountains in the landscape. The film also makes use of empty highways and constant sunshine, evoking Italian landscapes, where Finsterwalder lives when she’s not in Kenya.
Another tool was to use exact, almost belletristic dialogue, not necessarily old-fashioned, but definitely too eloquent to be colloquial.
While the older actors were at ease with the dialogue, the younger ones had to study the lines, which were different from colloquial speech.
“It was important for me they learn to speak a sophisticated language to tell the story of fascism, because also educated people bowed down to fascism,” says Finsterwalder.
Moreover, the two young protagonists Natalie and Maximilian are not Germans and had to be coached.
“Carla Juri, who plays Natalie, is Swiss-Italian,” she says. And Jakub Gierszal [Maximilian] is a well-known Polish actor . . . but the actors really wanted to take the screenplay as it was.”
Screaming on the floor
Finsterwalder says that while there are only four women in a cast of twelve, they are all strong characters.
“It’s interesting, at one point or another all of the women except for Inga [Corinna Harfouch], are found lying on the floor, screaming. They all go through certain shocks and changes, and in the end all of them change very differently from how the male figures of the film do.”
“In a film we want to see heroes. In a proper fairy tale, you would see the villain punished. That is a twist that I wanted to have: a German fairy tale that doesn’t end like we want it to end, or how we are used to these tales ending.”
Fascism alive and well?
Without revealing spoilers, it’s fair to say some scenes will be hard to swallow for politically correct audiences in Canada.
When Finsterwalder and her husband visited Auschwitz, they were abhorred by sights of German high school students bullying each other at the memorial site of the most horrific reminder of violence the Third Reich left behind.
“Young people are not in touch with our history anymore. Because their grandparents weren’t part of the Nazi era, they are too young to remember that period in time,” says Finsterwalder. She is further concerned about what she feels is a German trend to talk about the war crimes of other countries, as if the Germans were trying to distract themselves from the responsibilities they still have.
The film was shot in 28 days in the Munich area with a few shots in Tanzania, near the Kilimanjaro. Producer Philipp Worm said it took him a while to raise the € 1.1 million (CAD 1.6m) budget, which was financed through Bavarian and federal German funding institutes as well as Bavaria’s public broadcaster BR.
Worm says he is delighted with the success at international film festivals, which started by winning a Bronze Zenith for First Fiction Feature Film in Montreal.
“We were quite surprised, because the reaction of the overseas audience and the reception abroad was positive,” says Worm, who had previously produced Finsterwalder’s documentaries. “We value her outstanding phantasy and visual power which allows her to describe our society in a refreshing way.”
Finsterworld will be shown on Saturday, March 8th at 7:00 pm. The film is preceded by Karen Lam’s local serial killer comedy The Meeting.
Find ticket and location information here.
Don’t forget to #Daretotell us what attracts you about this film, to win one of our prizes in the social media contest.
By Katja De Bock and Emily Yakashiro