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BERLIN 2018 Berlinale Special

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Martin Šulík • Director

“If we forget our past, we are easy victims for demagogues”


- BERLIN 2018: Cineuropa sat down with Slovakian director Martin Šulík to talk about his latest film, The Interpreter, the need to understand the past and his two star leads

Martin Šulík  • Director
(© Titanic/František Kolar)

After the social drama Gypsy [+see also:
film review
film profile
, Slovakian director Martin Šulík returns with the road movie The Interpreter [+see also:
film review
interview: Martin Šulík
film profile
, which revolves around understanding the past, and stars Toni Erdmann [+see also:
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film focus
Q&A: Maren Ade
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 lead Peter Simonischek and Oscar-winning Czech director Jiří Menzel. Cineuropa talked to the filmmaker about his inspiration for the movie (screening in Berlinale Special at the Berlin Film Festival), its stars and remembering history.

Cineuropa: You said the book The Dead Man in the Bunker by Martin Pollack served as the inspiration for The Interpreter. What else contributed to shaping the story?
Martin Šulík:
 When we started to think about our film with scriptwriter Marek Leščák, we realised that historical facts we took as indubitable are once again being relativised in Europe. The Holocaust is being denied, fascism is presented as an effective economic programme, historical facts are being ignored, and reality is twisted. We were wondering what somebody who lost his relatives in a war would think about this situation. And one day, the character of a Jewish interpreter, Ali Ungár, who decides to find out the truth about the death of his parents, popped up. The journey he embarks on through Slovakia is an opportunity for him to look back on his life. 

The role of Ali Ungár was tailor-written for director Juraj Herz. How did Jiří Menzel come on board?
Juraj Herz got sick two weeks before the shoot, and I was afraid we would have to abandon everything. I did not know where we would be able to find an 80-year-old actor who speaks Slovak and German, and who would be brave enough to travel through Slovakia for 32 days. Eventually, producer Rudolf Biermann came up with the idea of calling Jiří Menzel. He starred in my film Everything I Like 25 years ago. Jiří read our script, mulled it over for two days, and then accepted our offer. It was quite brave of him. We did not have to change a thing thanks to him. Now I realise that our movie would probably not have come into existence without him. 

How did Peter Simonischek end up in the film?
We saw Peter in Toni Erdmann, and we very much liked his sense of humour and the kindness that emanated from him. We sent him a script, and he accepted. We could not offer him any special or exceptional comfort. I was afraid how he would cope with all the travelling and the full shooting schedule. Everything changed after our first meeting. Peter sat behind a table, took out a notepad and asked me about my idea of his character. That was a weight off my shoulders. Working with him was inspirational. Peter is a man with a rich life experience that he can utilise in creating a character. He has a great sense of language and helped us to find the precise form of his and Jiří’s lines. 

Other important topics in the film include history and forgetting; why did you broach the subject of memory in the film?
I believe Orwell wrote that control of the past enables control of the future. By manipulating history, we set up the conditions for seizing power in the world of tomorrow. If we do not know our past, if we forget it, we are easy victims for demagogues of various different kinds.

An authentic eyewitness account by Anna Nováková, who was the last witness to the January 1945 massacre, appears in the film. Why did you decide to include it?
I heard the eyewitness account by Anna Nováková on the radio as a child. She described how her whole family was shot and how she survived by chance by remaining under her sister’s dead body. I wanted this to be heard in the film because it is proof of monstrous war crimes that cannot be discredited. The excerpt is from a documentary by Dušan Hudec.

Your films are notorious for their magical realism. Why did you opt for the road-movie genre this time around?
The motif of the journey is always linked to discovery, the uncovering of a secret. With scriptwriter Marek Leščák, we found it interesting to build the story up in a way in which the protagonists would discover not only the country and its inhabitants, but also the history of their parents and, mostly, themselves while wandering through Slovakia. Besides, we loved the idea of having two old-timers as the heroes of a road movie.

The Interpreter is not only about the past, but also about ageing. Why?
I guess because I am also getting older, and I feel the need to look back from time to time. While summarising one’s life, one can find all sorts of interesting things. You can end up shattering many illusions, but you can also understand the truth at the same time, a truth that had been elusive before.

The film had already been sold to the Benelux, Greece and China even before the world premiere. How do you interpret this widespread interest?
Maybe the idea of two protagonists trying to understand each other, to overcome the barrier separating them, spoke to them. The desire for forgiveness and understanding is universal.

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