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ARRAS 2023

Kilian Riedhof • Director of Stella. A Life

"We had to get viewers out of their comfort zone"


- The director discusses his new film, inspired by the true story of a Jewish girl in Berlin who was ready to do anything to survive, including betraying her loved ones, during WWII

Kilian Riedhof  • Director of Stella. A Life
(© Léa Rener/Arras Film Festival)

Appreciated for You Will Not Have My Hate [+see also:
film review
interview: Kilian Riedhof
film profile
(discovered in 2022 on the Piazza Grande in Locarno) among other titles, Kilian Riedhof returns with Stella. A Life [+see also:
film review
interview: Kilian Riedhof
film profile
(with Paula Beer in the main role) which played in competition at the 24th Arras Film Festival where Cineuropa met up with the German director.

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Cineuropa: How did you discover the true story of Stella Goldschlag?
Kilian Riedhof: Around twenty years ago, I saw a picture of her in a newspaper. The title of the article was "the blond ghost" and there was this image of a young woman who seemed very lively, very contemporary in a way. I read the article and discovered that she had betrayed hundreds of people, some of them her friends, in order to survive. But on the other hand, she had also been persecuted and tortured. It was therefore an inherently very ambivalent story. I immediately asked myself what I would have done in her place, how far I would have gone to survive, and that is a very troubling question.

Why did you finally decide to make a film from it?
20 years ago, it would have been harder to make a film like that. This remains a very ambiguous story, particularly in Germany, but we found an angle to tackle it: that of a young woman who is perverted by a criminal system. The film addresses History as an experience and doesn’t only make a moral judgement.

Was it difficult, at the writing stage, to find the right balance between a minimum of empathy for Stella and the fact that she does horrible things? 
It really was a huge challenge. At first, with my co-writers, we thought about making the main character a friend of Stella’s, but we changed our minds and decided to focus entirely on her. But it wasn’t easy, the edge was slim and we had to find a balance between the dark and the light. Every time we found excuses for her behaviour — because she was persecuted, threatened with deportation, tortured — as many reasons to find her guilty would emerge. We didn’t want to give the audience an obvious verdict: each viewer must make up their own opinion. And it was also important to show that her decision to betray does not come out of nowhere: no one suddenly becomes evil, it’s a gradual process that her environment plays a huge part in, even before her arrest. All of this is shaped by her desire to survive, but also by her desire for a kind of existence that the Nazis had forbidden for her. She saw herself as a second class citizen because the Nazis would push the Jews out of public life step by step. But she was only 20 years old and desired an intense life. 

Was the film difficult to finance due to the delicate character of its topic?
There were of course some worries, not because of the story itself, but rather about whether it was possible to show such a film in the current German political context. It was therefore very important to make contact, as early as during the writing stage, with the Jewish community in Germany, which we did with my producer Michael Lehmann. Consultants from the community gave us their opinions, rabbis such as the professor Andreas Nachama ( Topography of Terror Foundation in Berlin), etc. Beyond doing historical research, we needed the legitimacy to tell this story. We respected all the questions that the project could raise, but we used them to refine our own thinking in order to tell this story in the most responsible way possible.

What were your main intentions in terms of visuals?
Filming this story with a historical distance and a certain classism wouldn’t have fit the situation of Stella, who was thrown without warning in that situation and had only six weeks to decide whether she would betray or not. To put the viewers in her shoes, we had to get them out of their comfort zone, and the editing and cinematography are such that the viewer does not really have the time to take in the entirety of the situation. Regarding the costumes, the lighting, the sets, the through line was Stella’s desire to belong to this so-called Aryan world, which is therefore attractive, luminous, the cafes are almost seductive and not frightening at all. Everything was thought through in order not to judge nor give easy answers. 

You are pitching the project Salvation at the Arras Days (read our report).
First, I will be filming in late 2023 the film Tresor, a story set during one night in a nightclub where young people have found refuge because there’s a rumour of an imminent nuclear Russian attack on Berlin. Here, in Arras, I am pitching Salvation which is set in 2048 in a world on the edge of collapse due to the climate crisis and a 17-year-old girl arrives, ready to save the world, calling herself the daughter of Mother Earth, which she truly is...

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(Translated from French)

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