'Stopped on Track' Director Andreas Dresen Has Death on His Mind (Cannes 2011)

His latest film is one of the most talked-about titles screening at this year's Festival de Cannes.

Andreas Dresen is in Cannes talking about death.

The German director’s new film, Stopped on Track, is one of the most talked-about titles screening this year in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar. This despite a subject matter – a man dying of a brain tumor – that seems designed to scare away both audiences and buyers.

But Dresen has proven adept at crafting box office friendly films out of the most depressing-sounding material. His last title in Cannes, Cloud 9, featured explicit sex among senior citizens. Critics loved it — it won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize — and it went on to gross some $5 million worldwide.

“I long ago stopped trying to predict which films will work at the box office and which won’t,” Dresen told The Hollywood Reporter. “I thought my last film (the mainstream comedy Whiskey With Vodka) was going to be very successful and it ended up selling fewer tickets than Cloud 9. In the end you have to make a film about something that interests you and hope you can do it honestly enough that it interests the audiences as well.” 

Dresen’s interest in death and the process of dying came from conversations with friends and family who had seen loved ones die from cancer. He researched the subject, spending time with terminal care nurses and in hospices, talking to the sick and their family. Together with co-writer Cooky Zeische, Dresen complied scenes and situations.

“We had an outline but we didn’t have any dialogue. That all came from improvisation on the set. And all the extras – the doctors, the care givers, were amateurs playing themselves, which also adds another dimension,” Dresen said.

“Cinema is filled with death but there are very few films that take death seriously. It’s mainly used as a cinematic device. Few movies show the real process of dying, even though it’s something everyone of us will eventually go through.”

Stopped on Track, which The Match Factory is selling worldwide, takes dying seriously. The film follows Frank, a man in his late 40s whose cancer diagnosis is a death sentence. The movie tracks both his physical deterioration and the psychological damage wrought on Frank’s relationships with his wife, friends and family.

“We don’t pull any punches, we wanted to show everything, even the ugly bits, and not have any taboos,” Dresen said.

Despite this, Stopped on Track is no downer. With his trademark humor and delicate humanity, Dresen tries to take the fear out of death.

“In our modern world, death has become so clinical, so mechanical,” he said. “People are taken away to hospital and kept alive, sometimes against their will, by drugs and machines. In our film, Frank dies surrounded by his loved ones, the way it used to be. I tried to show how death doesn’t have to be terrible. In the end, it is as much a part of life as birth itself.”