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SAN SEBASTIÁN 2017 Competition

Robert Schwentke • Director

"Naturalism restricts a director's toolbox too much"


- German director Robert Schwentke talks about his new film, The Captain, screening at Les Arcs European Film Festival

Robert Schwentke • Director
(© Antoine Monié / Les Arcs European Film Festival)

The Captain [+see also:
film review
interview: Robert Schwentke
film profile
marks the return of the director Robert Schwentke to his native country - where hasn’t filmed in since 2003 – a well-known face in Hollywood, where he directed Red and the second and third Divergent films. A French-Polish-German co-production, his latest film was unveiled at Toronto before winning the Jury Prize for Best Photography (going to Florian Ballhaus) at San Sebastian. Cineuropa met up with the director at the9th Les Arcs European Film Festival, where his excellent feature film was presented in competition.

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Cineuropa : Why did you want to immerse yourself in the troubled times of the end of the Second World War in Germany, with a deserter soldier who wears an officer's uniform?
Robert Schwentke: I wanted to make a film about the structural dynamics of national socialism. Unlike other countries and their respective cinematographic styles, German cinema has never really approached the subject from the angle of the people actually participating in the system. So I went in search of a story. When I wrote the first version of the script at the end of 2009, I realised how little I knew about it, so I started doing some in-depth research on the time period. I read so many historical books, psychology books, diaries, novels, and so on. I knew that in order to remain true to the story I would have to shoot the film in Germany, and not in English.

What attracted you to the character of Willi Herold?
Beyond the fact that he was the protagonist of events that really took place, I found it interesting to make a film about that period of time with a character who was not motivated by ideology, or even by ambition, but simply by the desire to survive, a desire that of course evolves as he gained power. I wanted to make a film about people who are rushed into a situation and how they manage. 

The film is not naturalistic, but introduces different degrees of abstraction in its tone, using black and white, and so on.
As a filmmaker, I’m not particularly attracted to naturalism. I find it to be just as artificial as expressionism, it's just a question of the amount of artificiality. I think that naturalism restricts a director's toolbox too much. It’s always been very clear to me that the film would have a farcical tone to it. That it would not be a realistic dramatic film and would not be simplistic in terms of its storytelling. It might have also been to protect myself a little, because without the distance, without the laughter and the tone of the film, I probably would not have been able to immerse myself in it as much I did. The subject matter would have made me go crazy. As for the use of black and white, there’s a great anecdote about the colour shooting tests that Scorsese did for Raging Bull with boxers’ blood squirting all over the place. Michael Powell, who he showed these tests to, advised him to use black and white footage as otherwise people wouldn’t be able to watch the film and see beyond the blood, essentially he would lose his audience. A piece of advice that seems totally relevant to the way in which viewers perceive violence, and something that I definitely took on board, thus also allowing the director to increase the level of abstraction evoked as well. 

How do you position yourself between the Hollywood industry, with its blockbusters, like the ones you’ve previously made, and European productions, such as a film as personal as The Captain?
It’s not always possible to make the films I want to make, and sometimes I take on films that I am offered, but I never make films that I don’t like. All these experiences have helped me with The Captain, and I don’t think I would have been able to create this film any earlier on in my career. There is a desire to entertain in the film, even if the subject is dark, because I didn’t want to make a film that aggravates the audience, and I think that has an obvious link with my experiences on big films.

Although it’s not always easy, I would like to continue working in Europe and the United States. The spectrum of films produced by American studios is constantly shrinking, with a general tendency to just remake the same films. But the narrower their horizon, the greater the opportunities are for European cinema. The emptiness they create by reducing their spectrum opens up opportunities for European films, and I am convinced that there will be a growing demand for European cinema, not just art-and-essay style films, but also "mainstream" films.

(Translated from French)

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