Robert Kirchhoff • Director
by Martin Kudláč
- Slovak independent documentarist Robert Kirchhoff has made a film addressing the largely overlooked topic of the Roma Holocaust. He spoke to Cineuropa about the process of making the film
Robert Kirchhoff, director, screenwriter and cinematographer, continues to explore difficult topics in his latest feature documentary, A Hole in the Head [+see also:
interview: Robert Kirchhoff
film profile] (released today, 30 March in Slovakia), just as he did with Normalization. Kirchhoff is also a producer, working through his company atelier.doc — which co-produced, for example, Iveta Grófová's debut Made in Ash [+see also:
interview: Iveta Grófóva
interview: Jiří Konečný
film profile] and Zuzana Piussi's Disease of the Third Power.
Cineuropa: In your previous documentary, Normalization, you investigated a sensitive issue, and you are now pursuing another difficult theme, the Roma Holocaust, in A Hole in the Head. Why do you choose such difficult subjects?
Robert Kirchhoff: Every subject that I have chosen to make a film about or to think about is an opportunity to approach that topic differently. It's a challenge. And this is the way I feel about it. Neither of those subjects came to me by chance; it was always some particular story that brought them to my attention. With Normalization, I attempted to shoot a genre film, an investigative crime film, but there is a difference between the two films. Normalization depends on facts, literally — you have to follow the continuity in terms of the story, the past and the present, and you are working with people you do not necessarily like. In the case of A Hole in the Head, I got to pick the characters myself and I came up with the form of the film. I was facing a dilemma in terms of genre between a classic historic documentary or a documentary essay; I picked the latter. I intentionally resisted pathos — that's why you can encounter humour in a film revolving around the Holocaust and the Roma genocide — and I resisted any kind of pathos that might have resulted from tying different meanings to a particular character. Those characters lived with their memories and the holes in their heads and I approached them not through the past but the present. That may be one of the reasons why I did not use any of the archive footage, period photos or illustrations.
The Holocaust is the main theme, a very complex and difficult one. What was your angle for approaching it?
The Holocaust is perceived as a very heavy theme, and it is. However, at the same time, I kept wondering why society keeps forgetting the past, despite the fact that loads of films have been made and heaps of books written on this topic. Since the film is based on my perception of the world and the subject, I tried to bring a different approach to the film to what we are used to seeing. Every Holocaust film that I can remember is full of suffering, gas chambers and death. They are basically reconstructions of killing. I do not talk about the mechanisms of death in A Hole in the Head. I was intrigued by what people remember, what they are able to remember and what society is capable of remembering, by which I mean witnesses and our historic conscience. Every person you see in the film is still alive today. Many of them were telling their stories for the very first time. They were convinced that nobody would believe them. And the fact that the Roma Holocaust is generally overlooked is also the result of the way those people burrowed further into their communities and isolated themselves even more from mainstream society.
What was the process of working on such a project like?
It was quite complicated. I travelled thousands of kilometers throughout Europe. We started shooting in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. I then had to stop work because my producer, Boris Hochel, died and the project stalled. Then, with my new producer Barbara Janišová Féglová, we decided to extend the geographical scope of the film. I did some more research; I met at least hundred people, and I was surprised by how many survivors are still alive. It is difficult to prove that a member of the Roma community was in a concentration camp and suffered, partly because there were no elites to back them up and open up that conversation. In my opinion, this is one of the main reasons why survivors became resigned and refused to talk about it. Another dimension of the situation is the fact that many Roma and Sinti I met are so free, and they live for the present, so they suppressed the past because they refused to live in that world.
The first title of the project was Through the Forest. Why did you change it?
Originally, the film was supposed to follow Czech and Slovak Roma from the past to the present. The people I met repeatedly stated that, when they were trying to save themselves from Nazis, they had to hide in a forest. And it stems also from the current social and political status of Roma in my country — it's like a maze of proposals, poor solutions and isolation. So, I understood it as a metaphor. Later, when I changed the theme and almost dropped the Czech and Slovak element, I started using the current title. But it always arose from the material and the people I met. A hole in the head can be physical but also mental. Every scar has its story.
Do you have another project in the works?
I would like to make a film about how big ideas, ideals and utopias are vanishing from society, through a documentary about the leader of the Prague Spring, Alexander Dubček. And the second project I am working on is called A Conspiracy of Silence and investigates the fate of the report by the two Auschwitz escapees, Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler. I would like to find out what happened to their account, through an investigative historical drama.