Natalia Sinelnikova • Director of We Might as Well Be Dead
“The camera acted as an aquarium: it was static, but still dynamic and always ever so slightly distorted”
by Teresa Vena
- We spoke to the Berlin-based director about her tragicomedy, revolving around a community of people consumed by fear
After its premiere at this year's Berlinale, the tragicomedy We Might as Well Be Dead [+see also:
interview: Natalia Sinelnikova
film profile] by German director with Russian roots Natalia Sinelnikova first screened at the Jewish Film Festival in Berlin, and subsequently at Tribeca. We met the director, who told us more about the development of the story and the production conditions that the film was made under.
Cineuropa: What inspired you to tell this story?
Natalia Sinelnikova: It all started with the high-rise building that we picked for our location. I grew up in a high-rise myself, and those kinds of buildings really fascinate me. People live in close quarters but in total anonymity. It’s quite exciting to observe how they behave and how they interact with each other in the lift or the staircase. So we had our location, and when we were developing the script with my co-writer, Viktor Gallandi, a story slowly emerged around the question of fear: fear of the unfamiliar, but also fear of others.
What was most important to you when developing the characters?
To us, what mattered the most was that each character should stay true to themselves. We didn't want the community to become a caricature; we wanted to treat each character equally. Some characters just appeared: they’re quite charismatic and just imposed themselves, like Wolfram Mantel's or Gerti Posner's, for example. That's the most beautiful thing – when the characters just impose themselves without much effort.
The title of the film is a sentence that crops up several times with slight variations, uttered by different characters. It's one of those supreme arguments that makes any reasonable discussion impossible. Have you been influenced by the recent public discourse?
Of course, the political events and situation in Germany have heavily influenced us: both our art and our everyday life. The shift to the right and how discussions are conducted have influenced us. These issues have been on our minds for a long time. We hope that viewers can dive in and freely take away what they want from the film, as we don't want to give any guidelines for interpretation.
Where exactly did you shoot?
It was a big challenge to find the right place. We shot in different locations. Thanks to the amazing work of our production designer, Elisabeth Kozerski, our producer, Julia Wagner, and the whole production team – Charlene Gürntke, Lina Mareike Zopfs and Magdalena Wolff – we found the right place. Mainly, we shot in a governmental office in Berlin-Marzahn. This office only consists of four floors, and we then expanded it to ten. The apartment, the golf course and the swimming pool are elsewhere, spread out in and around Berlin. The golf course, for example, is in a forest in Brandenburg, north of Berlin. Evelyn Rack, our editor, cut the film so that everything would look like it’s been shot in one place.
How did you find the actress for the lead role?
It took us quite a long time to find the lead, and we went in quite a few different directions. Casting, for me, is like writing again. Depending on which actress gets the role, the character becomes something different. At the very last minute, Karl Schirnhofer, my casting director, suggested Ioana Jacob. We met for the first time via Zoom, and I immediately fell in love with her. It wasn't clear at the time if she would be able to make it, because she's employed at the theatre in Romania, but then luckily it worked out.
You mostly use a fixed camera, and the image is often cropped. How did you develop your visual concept?
Together with my cinematographer, Jan Mayntz, and production designer, Elizabeth Kozerski, we watched a lot of films. During the writing process, we had many conversations about the world we wanted to create, also with our hair and make-up designer, Franziska Mayntz, and our costume designer, Marylin Rammert. Through our visuals, we wanted to portray a shifted reality. The camera acted as an aquarium: it was static but still dynamic and always ever so slightly distorted. It was important for us to play with the elements of a thriller – that’s the perfect genre because it instils fear. That's what we wanted to work with in our film, which is also about fear and how fear shapes people.
There's a piece of music that you use as a common thread throughout. Can you tell us more about it?
It’s called “Carol of the Bells”; it’s a famous Christmas carol. It’s based on a very old composition by a Ukrainian composer (Mykola Leontovych). It’s in the public domain, so we were able to use it freely. We wrote our own lyrics and re-recorded the piece a cappella with a choir.
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