Berlin Film Journal spoke to Edward Berger about his latest film Jack. The film follows Jack who, although only ten years old, is responsible for himself and his little brother Manuel. After he is put in a children’s home by social services, he escapes and takes his brother on a city-wide search for their mother.
What was your experience of Berlin when you were growing up in the West?
Berlin was always like an alien planet a little bit. I never went to East Berlin, there was only really a transit road and, for me, Berlin was a foreign territory almost; a weird, dark jungle of promise, somehow. I first went to Berlin when I was about 16 or 17, in 1987.
How important was it for your film to be set in Berlin?
Well, actually, in Germany it could only really take place here. But as a city, Berlin per se was not important, it could have taken place somewhere else. It needed to be a vast city, a big city, because in the story two children look for their mother, and basically they get lost in the city, but no one really notices. So the story couldn’t take place in a midsize or small city – it needed the anonymity of a big, vast city.
What was the inspiration behind the story?
At the end of our street there’s a children’s home and I saw a boy with a school bag on his back and he had such a confident, energetic stride that I said I wanted to make a film about a kid who walks into his future, even though in my head it might be a drab one. I wanted to make a film about a kid who walks with such positive energy through life, who expects something good to come out of the future. This image of the boy with the backpack on his back is behind every scene in the film.
Was it important which area of Berlin you used?
The home is in Wansee- we didn’t want to marginalize or stigmatize the mother or the family by putting them in a high-rise far in the East or North of the city; we wanted regular, middle-class areas, to show that this could take place anywhere. His mother works in Cookies and at the O2 World, so she sort of has this rock‘n’roll, roadie life too.
How did you cast the main character?
We looked for six months in schools and after school programmes, on the streets, everywhere. But then two months before shooting we had a last casting, and suddenly this kid stumbles in, he was late and clumsily coming in from the rain. We did an improvisation and his task was to say that he didn’t want to do his homework, but that he wanted to play football outside. His improvisation was so strong, so powerful, shouting with veins in his neck. The confidence in this ten year old boy was so impressive.
What were the challenges of working with such young actors?
The challenge is that you only have five hours acting time, as the laws are really strict. So the challenge is to get it done in time. With a grown-up actor, if you don’t get it done you just do overtime until you get it eventually, but with a kid you really have to work within that timeframe. We also had fairly long takes that focused only on him, and he sometimes needed up to twenty takes to get it right.
‘Jack’ was screened as part of the COMPETITION strand at Berlinale.