Foreign-Language Oscar Spotlight: Confronting the Past in Germany's 'Labyrinth of Lies' (Q&A)
First-time feature director Giulio Ricciarelli talks about writing, casting and making a film about a mostly-forgotten period of German history and its reception.
Germany's submission for the 2016 foreign-language Oscar race is period drama Labyrinth of Lies.
It stars Alexander Fehling (Inglourious Basterds, Homeland) as a public prosecutor in 1950s Germany who defied government pressure and public opinion to bring Nazi war criminals to justice.
The drama, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year where Sony Pictures Classics acquired the North American rights, is from first-time feature director Giulio Ricciarelli.
The 50-year-old with an acting background is based in Munich. He talked to THR about writing, casting and making a film about a mostly-forgotten period of German history, its reception and what may be next for him.
How did you find out that your film was selected as Germany's submission for the foreign-language Oscar race?
In Germany, there are representatives of different professional organizations. And there are applications with a package of international press coverage, deals we have and you try to present your case. I knew that the committee was going to decide, and I turned off my cell phone and was in Italy with my family. Then I turned my phone back on, and I had a message from my producer saying give me a call back. By the tone of his voice, I realized it was good news.
How does it feel to have your film selected as Germany's submission for the foreign-language Oscar race, especially given that this is your feature film directing debut?
You are happy on a very basic level. It's special in that Germany says this film represents us in a way. So, it was a great feeling.
We never thought about anything apart from trying to finish it and trying to make it a good experience for the audience.
How important is it for the film and you that your movie was chosen as the country's Oscar submission?
It is a big honor at this point. A lot of films are chosen, but it is nice, you can talk about it. I think it's very good for the film, it helps the film. Germany definitely has had strong cinema in the last few years. So, it's definitely a good thing. It's thrilling and it's great. I'm very happy for the film actually.
Do you see the film as just a German film or is there more of a multi-national or global project, especially given your Italian family background?
I have an Italian father. I was born in Italy. When I was 4, the family moved to Germany. So, I was raised in Germany. I feel kind of both — Italian and German.
Probably what all the films chosen have in a way: if you really trust your story, suddenly it becomes the universal story. I can still look at movies that are old and be moved by them. I can look at a Taiwanese or Chinese or Japanese movie that are from a totally different culture, and it touches me deeply. Movies transcend nations and ages and cultures.
I had great screenings of the film in Hong Kong and in Buenos Aires, and film is just a universal language. That is a great experience and one of the great joys of making films.
We have an actual cinema release in many, many countries. I'm incredibly grateful for that.
What's the back story of the film? When did you start thinking about it and how did it come together?
There's writing the script, the actual production and then there's post-production. I wrote the script with Elisabeth Bartel, and she came to me via my producer Sabine Lamby. She had read an article about this time, and when she told me the story, I couldn't believe it at first.
I had gone through the German school system, and I went to camps with school. I thought Germany had started [coming to terms with the past] pretty much immediately after the second World War. The whole period from 1945-1968 was kind of grey actually. When I realized this was a true story, I was shocked and also excited because it's a story with the central German theme where over a couple of decades an immensely important aspect is not known. I have talked to many people who are very knowledgeable about the Holocaust, and they did not know about the Auschwitz trial.
It has such immense historical importance for Germany, but also for the whole world, because it is the first of its kind — a country putting its own soldiers on trial for mass war crime. It was unthinkable at the time. It was actually a handful of individuals who pushed it through and changed German society forever. And I think it was a great step for democracy.
Did you feel it was easier or more challenging to make a film about a true story and historical events?
In a way it's both. It is a very big challenge, especially with the theme, because you have to be accurate. Historians read every draft, they saw a couple of rough cuts. We knew we had a very great responsibility historically about the kind of picture we show. It's really hard to make a cinematic experience out of a historical film, because a lot of times history is not dramatic. I mean it doesn't follow a classical dramatic structure.
So you have to kind of find that and get this dramatic arc. At the same time you don't want to go against history. You don't want to lie. You don't want to stretch the truth. We solved that by deciding to be really truthful about history and taking liberties in the emotional journey of the main character.
Did you watch a lot of films about the Holocaust and Germany after WWII and did you feel a need to make your film different or fit in with past movies?
As a filmmaker, you have to deal with the fact that there have been a great amount of Holocaust films. And it's also a question of at what time do you tell which story. Our film came out in 2014. There had been a great number of documentaries and feature films about this specific moment in time. We made a movie about Germany in the late '50s/early '60s, but to understand the trial you had to have the horrors of the Holocaust in the film emotionally.
We made a very early conceptual decision to actually not go back and do flashbacks, to not have people re-live the experience, but to have these moments in the film.
The film almost gives a canvas of emotion. What people feel is they imagine the stories that these people are telling. They don't hear the stories they are telling. If you had done this film in the early '70s, you would probably have to use documentary material, show a flashback or something.
Today, everybody [knows] these almost iconic images. So, we felt this was the right approach. It basically invites the audience to come into the world of the film.
The film's star, Alexander Fehling, was in Inglourious Basterds (in a cameo as a German solider in a beer cellar who is killed by Diane Kruger) and is now in Homeland. How did you find him and how important was it not to pick the biggest star?
When we cast him, Alexander was definitely a known actor. We felt the casting should really serve the story.
If an actor is too well known and does a historical film, there is almost a second reality that is created. So we wanted the audience to really experience these characters anew by choosing faces they hadn't seen. The journalist is Andre Szymanski — I think he had never done a feature film before. He is a very good theater actor.
Alexander, I really respect as an actor. He is in every scene. The audience sees him through the whole film, and you have to be really in tune with yourself as an actor to find the right amount of intensity and relaxation and to draw the audience in. Because if you don't draw the audience in, nobody else is going to do it. This is all about this young guy.
And I wanted to have somebody who was kind of a classical leading man type, because it turned out to be a very classical film.
The age was also important. It's a historical fact that Fritz Bauer, the general prosecutor, actually chose his young prosecutors by age basically. With somebody who was 40, he could never be sure about what he had done during the war. So he had very young prosecutors.
I was very happy with the process of working together with Alexander. He is a very intense actor, also very demanding. It was a great collaboration.
What kind of reception and reaction did the film get in Germany?
Today, Germany is really ready to make and receive these films. There was a very positive reaction in the press and it did very good box office for this kind of film. There was no backlash in the sense of, "Oh, you shouldn't do a movie about that time." There were so many stories.
Where in China will the film screen?
In November, they have screenings in six cities and at the moment they are waiting to see if they pass censorship. You have to show it to the censors, and they decide. As far as I know, it is planned to have regular cinema screenings. They did that in Hong Kong, but that's not [mainland] China. It's running in Japan right now, so the East is also very interested in it. In Hong Kong, people immediately talked about Japan after seeing the film. You have a specific story, and you try to tell that specific story, but the fact that it has universal resonance, that's a great gift.
When did you first heard about the story and how long did it take you to develop and film it?
I started reading in 2010 and then the actual writing started in 2010, '11, '12, '13. But of course when you write a script, you don't write it continuously. ... It was a long process. We started shooting in November 2013. We shot in Frankfurt and Munich. The post-production ended in the middle of August 2014, and then at the beginning of September, we were in Toronto with it. That's when the journey started. It was a very intense experience.
How did you finance the film?
For a project like this, you won't have private investors. It's a German-language film and a historic one. Once we had the script where we wanted it to be, the funding actually fell into place. I am a first-time [director], so for them to back me was really on the project was really on the strength of the script.
And then in Germany, Universal picked up not only German distribution, but also the German television rights. That helped us a lot. Normally, in Europe a lot of cinema financing has a big part of television money. The television money is great, but also difficult to obtain and a long process. So we were very happy that Universal stepped up. So funding and a pre-sale to Universal was what financed the film.
What's next for you?
I'm writing a German project, but I'm also looking at a lot of stuff that is now being brought to me, also English-language scripts. There's nothing definitive that is shooting. I would love to also work in the English language. As soon as a project is in English, it has a much broader audience. That is, of course, tempting.
Do you see yourself working on a Hollywood project or more British or other English-language projects?
To me, the important thing is really the story. I would love to work eventually in the English language. If that is a European co-production in English or a British film or American. Labels are just labels. What's important is that it's a strong story.
What's the German project that you're writing about?
It's the story of two young people, a politician and a lobbyist in Berlin of today, their struggles and their past. I think it's a good interesting time in Germany right now, and Berlin as the capital has really changed things from when it was in a small town like Bonn. The political atmosphere and culture has changed a lot. It has become much more professionalized. There are now career politicians. A couple of generations ago, there were a lot of politicians who used to have careers as a teacher or scientist. The project is a drama, but it also has thriller aspects.
How did you end up becoming a director?
I'm a very late director. I was trained as a classical actor. I went to drama school, like a drama academy, and then did a lot of stage work. And I started shooting and producing a bit. I always felt drawn to directing. It took me quite a while to make the jump. I have a lot of respect for the job, so I did a couple of short films to try out. You never know. You think you can, but you don't know. It was always something I wished for. When I found this story, I realized this is the chance to do that, because it is such a strong story, and then I went for it.
Ever been to the Oscars? How cool would it be to be nominated and go?
No, I have not been. You have to be invited, and I was never invited. We'll see. I'm really very happy about the way the film travels and the way people react to it, and I don't try not to think about it too much. I think the best is always to appreciate what's going on and give it your best whatever it is. It's very much beyond your control. To actually make the film and see how it turned out is a great reward.