An Interview With Director Astrid Menzel

The Berlin-Bremen filmmaker Astrid Menzel sat down with me so I could ask her some questions about her award-winning short film and her way of filmmaking. Menzel won the grand prize of the Minister of Fine Arts with her short film Unlike Today at the International Filmfestival Dresden this year, and was just recently mentioned by Raindance Film Festival as “One of the top 10 Berlin Filmmakers to keep an eye on.” Unlike Today is a 21 minute short that tells the story of an elderly couple that fights for dignity while balancing on the edge of the existence of their former lives. Both resist saying goodbye to the reality they once knew and accept a new life, now dominated by illness and nursing.

What was the spark that made you start working on this story?

I visited my grandparents in order to interview them for my documentary class during my film studies in Lisbon, Portugal–and it ended up becoming a very intense summer. A summer full of memories and goodbyes. It became the last summer that they would spend in their own house and their last one together. While waiting to interview my grandfather while he recovered from another hospital visit, I learned of everything he had achieved, and was so proud of. I also learned about his recurring fear of not waking up the next morning, his sleeping pills, and nightmares, and soon started to write it all down.

Did you film your grandfather during that period?

Yes, besides the interview I had in mind, I started switching on the camera here and there, but didn’t have a precise focus back then. I covered my grandparents’ daily routine and tried to preserve little memories in order to hold on to my childhood memories, though they had already vanished. I was overwhelmed by the events. Today I cherish everything I taped or recorded back then. Those little bits even came in handy later, like the audio-recording of my grandfather dictating his own obituary to me for the local press during one of his weaker moments.

I know you are currently working on your first feature documentary about your grandmother and plan to include some of the filmed material. How come that you seem to come back to this topic? Especially focusing on elder people?

I guess it all started back in film school. The moment when one of our teachers told us, that the only way of becoming good filmmakers would be to really know what we are talking about. So, what would be more obvious then digging deeper into my personal family issues. After finishing my film studies I left Portugal and moved back to Germany. My own helplessness regarding such big questions as “what will happen in the end” and “who is going to take care of us”, while staying with my grandparents became my primary topic. I longed for answers in order to prepare for the great loss that was soon about to happen. And, just as my grandfather had predicted, the moment he passed away, I had to learn that really nothing we do or thrive for in life lasts. It is us who decide on the value of our belongings and life achievements. Once we leave the world, those objects, impacts and tracks–at least for the majority of us–just vanish with us. I guess that was the turning point for me and the birth of all this serious stuff I am focusing on now in my projects. I don’t see myself particularly focusing on elder people, but really appreciate their life experience and wisdom.

Did it come easily to you, or did you struggle with those fundamental stories and questions?

Every time I start a new project I start with a funny initial point and I would love to create a comedy, but I am already used to somehow managing to instinctively turn it into a drama. You can still find some minor humourous elements in Unlike Today. I am very optimistic to use a lighter mood with my current project, the documentary feature, but that is probably a lot due to my grandmother who is my main-protagonist this time and who isn’t very full of life but also very funny to watch while she and us (the family around her) learn to deal with her dementia.

And why did you choose this aesthetic of empty spaces, still camera and long pauses?

I was always a fan of classical films, so using stills of the empty house, a fixed camera and longer shots are all influenced by classical filmmakers that I really appreciate. Plus, the tempo fits the speed of my main-characters, the quietness of the place turns the house into a witness of former times, almost as if becoming a character itself and the absence of life is reflected in the limitation of the camera’s activity. The house we filmed in is the actual home of my grandparents, so the props and the set design are basically all created out of their real life home where they used to live in. This is why it seems so alive and unique; the set was real.

And the way it was edited? The reaction shots and long shots? Was it all planned in advance?

Originally I wanted long takes. But the hassle of not only being the director but also the one and only producer during production time made it much more difficult. I remember how I had to juggle around with three actors, all with total different needs on the first day of shooting. Things on set became quite problematic for me. I was frustrated, so I called up an old friend of mine. Since I it was too late to postpone the shooting, he told me right away to drop the long takes and instead of having to work on all three performances simultaneously, to focus on them one by one. That is when I decided to use the classical shot/reverse shot technique–especially for the dialogue parts–and tried to keep the longer shots for the total shot. After the first day we used to start with the total shot and by the time we reached the shot/reverse shot situation of every scene, everyone was already aware of the dramatic arch.

Tell me about the editing process.

Having shot the classical establisher, shot and reverse shot of every scene, it multiplied our options on modulating the film in the editing room. Like many other filmmakers, I had to distance myself from the original idea that I had in mind, as well as I had to overcome being angry at myself and all the things that I didn’t achieve on set; I had to be flexible about the options given by the actual material. By no means would I have expected the film to win such an award, and I am very grateful to everyone who along the way, who helped me turn the film into what it became in the end. It is surprisingly close to what I witnessed in that very same house, many years ago together with my grandparents during that last summer.

Why do you choose every aspect of the film to be so personal?

I believe that the more personal you tell a story, the easier it becomes for the audience to identify with it. By that I mean, breaking down every action and reaction to our most human basic needs broadens the topic to a point of a general understanding of how everything in life comes together. My, sometimes even brutal, honesty and highly realistic approach adds some kind of rough edginess to my projects that is touching and disturbing at the same time. I am really happy that I seem to have nailed it with my current short film touring quite successfully.

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