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Michael Koch • Director

“I prefer portraying the daily lives of my characters through the actors’ bodies”


- LOCARNO 2016: Swiss director Michael Koch talks to us with passion about his intense first feature, Marija, which had its world premiere in the running for the Golden Leopard

Michael Koch • Director
(© Festival de cine de Locarno / Massimo Pedrazzini)

Born in Switzerland but resident in Berlin, Swiss director Michael Koch talks to us with passion about his intense first feature, Marija [+see also:
film review
interview: Michael Koch
film profile
, which had its world premiere in competition at the Locarno Film Festival. An aesthetically elegant and powerful film that broaches the subject of immigration: a highly current topic.

Cineuropa: How did the idea for the film come about?
Michael Koch: After I’d finished studying I travelled to the Ukraine several times. It was a very interesting and moving experience to meet young people who wanted to leave their country, their families and their friends to go and live in a country where they have nothing. I wondered why, and then happened to bump into a young woman who was living in Dortmund and working as a maid in a hotel; she was so strong and proud to be doing this job, which was nothing special, whilst in the Ukraine she had studied and had a more normal job. There’s no future for people in the Ukraine, and for her, Germany represented a unique opportunity to improve her social situation. She fascinated me and this was the point of departure for my research. Immigrants are an integral part of our world, although it’s easy to avoid them. I think it’s something that’s very common, even in the macrocosm of Dortmund where 130 different nationalities live side by side. This, for me, is an example of what happens in many European cities. People travel and leave their own country, as if borders didn’t exist. We’re surrounded by constant movement. I think it’s important to confront audiences with this subject and encourage them to reflect on their fears. If you know people and their stories, you stop being afraid. It’s a big problem but I think it’s important to tell the stories of these people without cliché or prejudice. If you show the clichés of a wretched life built on waste and sadness, it’s easy to think, “it’s another world that doesn’t concern me”. My objective is to bring the audience face to face with the everyday reality of immigrants to give them the opportunity to see and understand how they live, and the serious problems they face.

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Marija is a strong and moving portrayal of a Ukrainian woman who lives in Germany. What made you choose this angle of approach for your film?
I noticed immediately that in the Ukraine, it is women who have all the power, who dominate. My encounter with the woman I mentioned earlier in Dortmund was crucial. She is an incredibly powerful and proud lady. I wanted to tell the story of a woman who isn’t a victim of society but, on the contrary, takes what she wants and is prepared to fight for it. Ultimately, I thought it was interesting that it was a woman here who was willing to give up an ‘easy’ life and fight to reach her goals, with perseverance and self-determination.

How did you work with the actors, with reference first and foremost to the majestic performance by Margarita Breitkreiz.
I tried to integrate the personalities of the actors into their characters, as I didn’t want them to simply do what I’d written in the script. I wanted the opposite. I was more interested in their personalities than their performance techniques. As a result, I tried to mould the characters according to their personalities, which was especially true for the actress who plays Marija, Margarita Breitkreiz. The film focuses on the actors and follows them very closely, with successions of sequence shots. I wanted the actors to feel completely free in their movements. We would prepare the set and then give them free rein to move around the space. We put the scenes together with the actors themselves. I was interested in seeing how they physically interacted with one another. The way in which people move around each other speaks volumes on their relationship. Marija, for example, tries to escape like a little mouse from her landlord, who is huge and intrusive in comparison. I don’t like explaining things through dialogue: I prefer portraying the daily lives of my characters through the actors’ bodies. I like it when professional actors work with amateur actors, because it makes them act on the spur of the moment, instinctively. It brings the scene to life. Actors absorb the ‘real’ atmosphere of the places and people that inhabit them, making the screenplay a reality.

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(Translated from Italian)

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