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Hans-Christian Schmid • Director of We Are Next of Kin

“Handheld cameras are often intuitive – when characters start moving, they do too”


- The German director discusses his adaptation of the novel based on a real-life kidnapping

Hans-Christian Schmid • Director of We Are Next of Kin
(© Gerald von Foris)

Hans-Christian Schmid's feature film premieres at this year's Filmfest Hamburg. We Are Next of Kin [+see also:
interview: Hans-Christian Schmid
film profile
is set to open the festival. It’s based on Johann Scheerer’s novel which explores the kidnapping of Scheerer’s own father Jan Philipp Reetsma in Hamburg in 1996. We talked to the director about his own perspective on the story, his cast and his research into police work.

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Cineuropa: What made you want to make this film and what fascinated you about the novel?
Hans-Christian Schmid: The kidnapping took place in 1996, so quite a long time ago. I remember it well from when it was being discussed in the press. But I only got real access to the story later, through Johann Scheerer's book. I was interested in the unique perspective of that 13-year-old boy. The state of emergency in which the family found itself was fascinating. I see it more as a family story and less of a true crime case or a thriller.

How did you find your own perspective?
My screenwriter Michael Gutmanns and I decided that the focus should be on Johann's fear. We also wanted to show how the members of the family are traumatized and that, after everything is over, they can't immediately go back to the family life they knew before. Unlike the novel, we put the narrative focus on Johann and his mother, not just on Johann. This seemed more interesting dramaturgically, because Johann wasn’t involved in many decisions. We start from his perspective, then expand it. Finally, and this isn’t part of Johann's book, we also wanted to take a look at the work of the police and show why there was this discrepancy between their perception and the relatives’.

Did you do your own research in this respect?
In Johann's book, you get the feeling that there are a lot of mishaps within the police. Working out how to judge that was important, in my mind. We talked to the people who were actually involved at the time. We talked to the two police supervisors in charge of the relatives and the police psychologist. Research showed that it wasn’t so much to do with mishaps, but more about the police’s principle of having everything under control when the ransom is handed over, of observing as much as possible. It’s the moment when they are the closest to the perpetrators, and so it requires as much meticulous preparation as possible. But this also means the perpetrators might notice the effort that has been made and call off the handover. The problem is that the police don’t discuss this with the relatives. The difficulty for the police is following their own agenda whilst also trying to build trust with the relatives.

How did you find the young actor who plays the main role?
Claude Heinrich, who plays Johann, wasn’t unknown when we started auditioning. But that wasn't so important. Often, with teenage performers, they try to be something that they're not. It's important for me that they bring something from within themselves to the role. Claude is a quiet observer who was able to deal with improvised situations because he can always relate to them and can find references from within his own life. 

How about the actress who plays the mother?
We found Adina Vetter for Johann's mother through the normal casting process. Similarities to real-life people in the story weren’t important. Adina was ideal because she has a certain vulnerability and great strength at the same time. She and Claude were also compatible. 

What were the most important factors for the visual concept?
We knew we were making a film where many scenes would be taking place in a dining room with the characters sitting at the table, so we’d have a pretty static, basic image. The camera needed to adapt to the events and submit to them. The goal wasn’t to tell the story in a particularly spectacular form. Handheld cameras are often intuitive. When characters start moving, they do too. The focus should be on faces; everything should feel as organic as possible.

The family home is very important for the film’s form and dramaturgy. How did you choose the house? What was most important to you?
I knew the house where the actual kidnapping had taken place, so I had an idea of how the rooms were laid out. We wanted to recreate that, but it was also clear that we wouldn't be shooting in that actual house. It was important that we didn't exhibit the wealth of the people involved, and that it felt natural.

Did you involve the people who had experienced these events in your film?
For everything outside of the book, we wanted to match our ideas with the real experiences of the people involved. We met them, they read the scripts. Some very interesting conversations ensued, and what was particularly fascinating was that, inevitably, they all had different memories of what had happened.

For everything beyond the book, we wanted to match our ideas with the experiences of the real people. We met them, they read the scripts. Very interesting conversations ensued, and what was particularly fascinating was that they all of course had different memories of what happened.

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