Berlin Q&A: Director Thomas Arslan

Thomas Arslan P

The German filmmaker discusses his Berlinale entry "Gold," directing his first period piece and the allure of films about fortune seekers.

Set in the 1890′s, Thomas Arslan’s German Western, Gold follows a young woman (Nina Hoss) in a group of seven Germans who make a strenuous journey in the times of the Klondike Gold Rush. Full of confidence, they set off from Ashcroft, Canada’s northernmost rail terminus, with little idea of the hardships that await them, their exhibition leading deep into the Canadian hinterland. When maps turn out to be unreliable, so do the group members, and the conflicts hit full force, with uncertainty and exhaustion permanently threatening everyone.

Arslan, one of the German filmmakers associated with the “Berlin School“, and a regular at the Berlin festival (his Im Schatten screened in the Berlinale’s Forum section in 2010 and Der schöne Tag was shown in the Forum in 2001), sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about the dreams and desperation of people seeking happiness.

The Hollywood Reporter: How did you get the idea of making a German Western?

Thomas Arslan: I had come across a book of photography in a store one day, a mainly visual chronicle of the Klondike Goldrush, including diary entries of people that went on that trail. That intrigued me right away -- especially the pictures made a big impression on me -- and so I started research on the topic. At the end of the 19th century, the Germans were the largest group of immigrants in America. Between 1830 and 1900 about six million Germans emigrated to America mainly because they found Germany too limiting. But abroad they did not encounter paradise, so many of them undertook a second trail.

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THR: German emigration in history is not a topic that has been dealt with a lot in German films.

Arslan: Exactly, I especially sensed a certain access here also because I grew up in Germany, but my father was an immigrant as well, and Germans are usually considering themselves living in a country that’s being “invaded” by foreigners. They tend to forget that back in history, a lot of Germans emigrated to other countries. So I thought this could provide for a nice shift of perspective for once, as one of the undercurrent themes in the film.

And I simply found it moving how for so many people the Gold Rush was a shimmer of hope on the horizon. Those people risked leaving everything behind a second time with the hope that this gamble might finally bring the change in their lives that they so yearned for. On the other hand, an early form of industry evolved then; people started earning money on other people’s dreams.

THR: Your central character is a strong woman, a female version of the lonesome Lucky Luke. What intrigued you about that?

Arslan: I thought that would be a nice alteration to the male hero we usually get. But, of course, other Westerns have already dealt with strong female characters at their center, so I did not intend to invent anything new. However, a female character always appears more complex to me because I am less acquainted with it than I think I am with a male character, so that’s more of a challenge.

THR: What makes Nina Hoss so attractive as an actress?

Arslan: I had her in mind for that part very early on, so I was happy when she said yes right away. I think she acts very well within restraints, but understands how to exceed them almost invisibly.

THR: It is your third film with Uwe Bohm -- what do you appreciate in him?

Arslan: He has something very distinct about him, a peculiar personality, and I always look for that in actors. Also, I like the fact that we can build on common ground after several collaborations.


THR: This is the first film you shot outside Berlin or Brandenburg. Did you encounter any difficulties.

Arslan: The horses made for quite a logistical effort, as we always had to do our math on how many horses would be left and choose them according to which is a lead horse and which is not, as, apparently, you can’t just let five horses walk along a trail one after the other without establishing a hierarchy between them.

The trails were long, we had to go to cut-off areas with no cell reception of course -- we lived like in a time capsule. Our base camp was on a ranch about six hours from Vancouver, and we used the environment there.

THR: It is also your first period piece – but without excessive costume design.

Arslan: Luckily, the story is mainly set in nature, so we did not have to come up with a lot of costume or interior design, which I always try to keep low-key anyway, and especially did not want to let the picturesque elements rule in a period piece either. We had a budget of only 2 million euros, so we used what was there. The steam locomotive Nina Hoss gets off from at the beginning of the film usually sits there in the museum.

THR: How did you go about transferring the Western genre rules to a group of German immigrants traveling the woods?

Arslan: Basically, by taking them from the center of the film from time to time. I did not intend to ironize or deconstruct the genre conventions here but did take them seriously. The classical Western is about settling space, and organizing societies, agreeing on rules and conventions. I like, how, in a Western the apparently natural has to be negotiated anew because of certain circumstances. The question of how do laws come about, for example.

THR: The story of a group following an untrustworthy leader across unknown territory was latest dealt with in Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek Cutoff” – what did you want to make different?

Arslan: Well, I was re-watching a lot of Westerns in preparation for the film, also “Meek’s Cutoff”, of course, but which is set 50 years earlier. The setting in “Gold” is on the brink of modern times, there are already urban structures and a gap between rural and city-areas. So, films like “Deliverance”, for example, or other works about groups traveling together, films about nature vanishing, leaving people thrown back on themselves -- it all aided the inspiration for “Gold”.

THR: In all of your films, your characters are in a process of physical movement, why is that? ?

Arslan: I love showing people searching for something and the physical process resulting from that, without knowing where it might lead. I would wish for the viewer to get a feeling for the space that the travelers in “Gold” are overcoming before they run out of energy. At the beginning there is this big promise, and at the end there is a feeling of being lost in a vast landscape. To show people in movement, trying to conquer a trail of some sort, and to find a way to covey it in rhythm and form, that’s cinema for me.