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Katrin Rothe • Director

"Animation is a wonderful means of expression"


- Katrin Rothe spoke to us at the Arras Film Festival about her remarkable animated documentary 1917 – The Real October

Katrin Rothe  • Director
(© Bertrand Noël / Arras Film Festival)

Accustomed to undertaking quirky televisual experiments that blend documentary and animation, German director Katrin Rothe has made the leap to the big screen for the first time with the stunning 1917 – The Real October [+see also:
film review
interview: Katrin Rothe
film profile
, which delves to the heart of the Russian Revolution in Saint Petersburg. We met up with her at the 18th Arras Film Festival.

Cineuropa: What was the starting point for 1917 – The Real October?
Katrin Rothe: There were lots of stages, but essentially, I felt the desire to address this great chapter of history through a number of testimonies and true stories, and at the same time, I wanted to do it with cut-out animation. The two ideas mingled, like when you read a book and the images pop up out of nowhere in your mind. It’s a modern way of artistically transposing a period of history, and it’s also a kind of "do it yourself" style, just like the revolutionaries themselves used when they revolted.

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What research did you undertake to build up the screenplay?
I worked on the screenplay for two years, but the key was to focus on the point of view of the artists in 1917, because there is plenty of literature about what happened before and after, and there are also a lot of second-hand accounts that don’t really distinguish between the two revolutions in February and October 1917. Yet I was specifically interested in this period of time, during which no one knows exactly who had seized power or what the artists were doing at that point. Furthermore, at that time, very few people knew how to read and write, and it was a very chaotic period. There was therefore not a huge amount of possible sources to use.

What led you to choose the film’s five characters/narrators?
Zinaida Gippius kept a record of the events and was very close to the interim government. Vladimir Mayakovsky was a very provocative revolutionary poet who slipped between the privileged classes and the man in the street, and above all, he was young, at that age when you are more prone to thinking that the changes in society can make the world a better place, with an intensity like I experienced at the age of 18, when the Berlin Wall came down. Meanwhile, Maxim Gorky had the necessary distance to reflect on the meaning of what was happening, to distinguish between seizing power and assuming responsibilities to society, and to be at the crossroads of several movements at a time when everything was wide open. Alexandre Benois was an art critic who had a very visual feeling for description, which served as a great inspiration for the film. Lastly, Kazimir Malevich, who is probably the best known out of all of them in the art world right now, was a young soldier at that time, and he produced writings that offered a broader view of what Mayakovsky was quite content to describe. Finally, I discovered that they all crossed paths as the events unfolded.

What about the type of animation, which is based on cut-outs and puppets that develop over time, set among silk-screens, drawings and paintings?
I began to incorporate animation in my work as a documentarian in 2003. It’s a style that I’m trying to delve deeper into and is quite a spontaneous technique. Stop-motion animation takes a lot of time and everything has to be very precise, but it’s fairly simple, and this time I wanted to experiment with cut-outs as part of a more cinematic approach. It’s therefore a mix that we dubbed “2.5D animation”. This was my first historical film, and animation is a wonderful means of expression because you can convey a huge amount of things in a single image.

You also produced the movie. Was it easy to fund?
I have two co-producers, one Swiss and one German. At the start, everything was quite easy, but then the Crimea crisis made matters more complicated: making a film about Russia no longer seemed like such a good idea. But in the end, the prospect of the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution sped the process up, creating a kind of deadline for us to finish the film. And now I’m working on a project in the same vein as this movie, with the same animation technique. It’s historical again, this time homing in on the 1920s and 1930s in Europe.

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