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Theresa von Eltz • Director

"It is hard to get a new film financed, even for established filmmakers like Stephen Frears"


- German director Theresa von Eltz’s feature debut, 4Kings, had its international premiere at the Rome Film Fest

Theresa von Eltz  • Director

Debut feature 4Kings [+see also:
interview: Jella Haase
interview: Theresa von Eltz
film profile
by German director Theresa von Eltz was presented as an international premiere in the Alice nella città section of the tenth Rome Film Fest. Cineuropa chatted to her at the gathering to find out more about the title and about her career as a whole.

Cineuropa: Your feature 4Kings is about troubled teenagers who are sent to a psychiatric clinic over Christmas. What inspired you to tell this story?
Theresa von Eltz: The author Esther Bernstorff had the idea for 4Kings. She met the head of a youth psychiatric clinic, who told her that many families leave their "difficult" children in psychiatry over Christmas so that they can spend some conflict-free time. The thought of this kept her so busy that she ultimately wanted to write about it. This developed into the story of four young people who end up in a psychiatric ward over Christmas. It is the fabulous contrast of psychiatry and Christmas that captured my interest, since first of all the event and the place seem to be diametrically opposed to each other - Christmas Eve as the day of the year where everything should be harmonious and good, and youth psychiatry as a perfect example of the crisis. The place where one ends up when nothing seems to function any more, the family has failed and the world has gone crazy. And nevertheless, it made sense to me immediately that especially at this place a Christmas can take place which brings our four main characters together and lets them have a Christmas of real hope. Esther and I worked together on it from the second draft and developed the story together over four years. Esther has a great talent and sensitivity to create characters and a very special way to use language in a defined and humorous way. We complemented each other very well. 4Kings was nominated for the German Script Award, and I think that the development work we put in was honoured, especially the writing talent of Esther.

You presented your first short film, Gecko, in the Berlinale short film competition in 2007. How did you learn your craft?
I had wanted to be a filmmaker since I was a child. I grew up in a family of five children in the countryside. We were not allowed to watch any television. Whenever our parents went out in the evening, we would look for the key to the cabinet where my father kept all his favourite films. I watched films such as Don't Look Now by Nicolas Roeg at a very young age. When a movie got too scary, we turned some music on.

At the age of 17, I applied to the Munich Film School but was sent away because I was too young. They told me that I would be fine but that I didn’t yet have any life experience. I studied Political Science and History at university, and worked as a video operator on The Lives of Others [+see also:
film review
film focus
interview: Florian Henckel von Donners…
interview: Ulrich Muehe
film profile
 by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who suggested I should study film abroad. 

Did you follow his advice?
I sent applications to almost all the film schools in Germany and one to the NFTS. I was accepted by two German film schools and the National Film & Television School (NFTS) in Beaconsfield, UK. Since they all accepted me, I thought that I was on the right track. I decided to study at the NFTS in the UK because I had the impression that they wanted to support my talent and my vision, and they had huge trust in me to find my own film language instead of influencing me too much. I had brilliant teachers including film directors such as Stephen Frears and Ken Loach, but also great tutors like Ian Sellar and Lynda Myles.

What was it like working with them?
When I edited my first short film, Stephen Frears was sitting with me in the editing room but he fell asleep. After I finished, he woke up and told me that my film was too long. I asked him how he could say that, as he had not even watched it. He said that he didn’t have to watch, because filmmakers always make this mistake. When Gecko was invited to the Berlinale, he told me that it didn’t mean anything, because it is always very difficult to get a new film financed, even for established filmmakers like him. 

How difficult was the casting for 4Kings?
Paula Beer was my first choice after I had seen her in The Poll Diaries [+see also:
film review
film focus
interview: Chris Kraus
film profile
by Chris Kraus. When I cast Jella Haase, she did not convince me initially, because she needed to get rid of the attitude of her character Chantal in Suck Me Shakespeer [+see also:
making of
interview: Jella Haase
film profile
. I explained to her that she had to play a very different part here, and it worked out well.

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