Kai Wessel • Director
The destiny of an icon
- Hilde Release in Germany on March 12
The German director reveals how Hilde [+see also:
film profile] came to be. The film, which premiered at the Berlinale, traces the stellar arc of a true icon: singer and actress Hildegarde Knef.
At 47 years of age, Hamburg-born Kai Wessel started working in film as a driver before becoming a stills photographer and later an assistant director (for Ottokar Runze). He made his directorial feature debut with Martha Jellneck (one German Film Award in 1989) and has since then built a solid career as an award-winning television director (his recent works include Nazi comedy Goebbels und Geduldig, starring the late Ulrich Mühe) with occasional ventures onto the silver screen, such as children's movie The Trace of the Red Barrels and the more recent The Year of the First Kiss.
His latest film, Hilde [+see also:
film profile], a Egoli & Tossell production, is a biopic on the iconic actress and singer Hildegarde Knef, starring an equally charismatic Heike Makatsch. The film put him very much in the spotlight at the Berlinale, where it had its world premiere as a Special Screening. At the press conference, Wessel confessed he was "very happy to have the film premiere in Berlin because Knef is closely linked to this city. The film is also the story of Berlin. Knef was born during the Weimar Republic, then came the Nazi regime... She would be pleased about this premiere at the Friedrichstadtpalast".
Although the original idea to make a biopic on Knef came from producer Judy Tossell (whose mind was set on Makatsch from the beginning), Wessel enthusiastically jumped on board. "My interest in the subject came sort of late. Some people had been working on the project longer than I had, such as Judy, but to have Heike play Hilde was just a brilliant idea. I knew from the beginning that it would be perfect casting”, he said.
As for the movie’s premise – the stage fright that paralyses Knef into remembering her life so far – the director assures that "being smart, sensitive, and intelligent of course might go along with other things. You don't fit into a box and therefore are afraid that people will not like you. Hildegarde Knef performed very often in her life and yet every time she was afraid of going on stage, of failure".
Covering the amazing life of an icon from age 16 to her forties required a lot of research and tough decisions as to what to include and what to leave out. Wessel said: "We talked about the script for a year and a half and there were many ideas about what story to tell. Talking about an artist's life in an hour and twenty minutes is a complicated task, especially when it is someone with Knef's personality. There were fluctuations in her life, different sites and locations we had to include, so we had to constantly work on the script – Maria [the scriptwriter], Heike and I. It is a special task and a major responsibility to develop this type of character. We had to fill in the blanks, so to speak. It was a whole process and a collaboration. Altogether, there were seventeen versions of the script!"
To those who may find that the film lacks a critical approach of its main character, especially of her seemingly opportunistic choices, the director responds adamantly: "Amongst Knef's many talents there is one I find particularly fascinating, the fact that she never obliged other people and always remained independent. She encountered problems with the audience, with society at large, but she never gave up her own line, life, and stance. She never took on a mission, never said, 'I am the new prophet, now you must do things as I see fit'. But she sings about all this – the difficulties, the challenges, etc. – and I think her songs are very personal".
Thus, Wessel's film is not only the story of an icon but also the expression of an unswerving fascination.
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