“I am very intrigued by the motivations behind people’s actions, the reasons for people’s behaviour. I wish to take a step back, away from the obvious reality and search for what truly drives us. That’s what moves me – to get a little closer to what is true”, says documentary maker Mechthild Gassner, who divides her time between Berlin and Copenhagen, in search of what we are after. “But one thing is clear – a documentary is my subjective interpretation of reality.”
I recently watched “Einer fehlt”, your documentary about the life of an old man, who used to be your neighbour. What’s unusual, is that you knew very little about him when he was alive and started researching his story after his death. What prompted your interest in that man?
His name was Herr Buchholz and we had only exchanged a few words. You see, I have been living in the same Berlin street for three years now, and during my time there I would very often see a man standing in front of the entrance of the apartment building next to my house. He would simply smile or say “Hello, how do you do” to anyone passing by. Once, on a very cold winter day, I saw him standing outside without a coat and thought that maybe nobody takes care of him. So I expressed my concern, but he made it very clear that he did not wish to talk about it. Looking back, it was probably a bit intrusive on my behalf, but I merely felt worried about him. In any case, I never again asked him anything of the sort.
And yet, even though I had never had a proper conversation with him, I somehow felt at home with him. Probably because he was always there when I came back in my street. Everything could change, but on his presence I could always count. He was like a rock in a changing world. Then one day, coming back after three months, I noticed that he was not around. But I didn’t give this more thought until, suddenly, I spotted his picture on the windows of the neighbourhood shops. It was a note saying that he had died, he had been a man of no means, he had no relatives and there was a call for donations for the service and his funeral – so as to save him from the anonymity of a social services funeral.
Were you well acquainted with the people in your neighbourhood?
No, not really. I was not truly familiar with everyday life on my street, as I was away for long streches of time and I had been using it as a place to live and make my appointments in Berlin. Actually I was not connected to this street, except for my acquaintance with that man whom I would always see every time I was there. So I thought that the initiative of a woman, who had lived in the same house like him, to gather donations for his service was a truly beautiful gesture. I was touched.
So I gather you attended the funeral.
Yes, I did. When the day came, on a bitterly cold February Monday morning, at 9:00, I thought to myself that probably not many people would show up. But no, it was not so. Almost eighty people turned up that morning. It was then that I realized that here is a story I wish to tell. How come that so many people show up at this lonely man’s funeral? Who was he and who are these people? This was how it all started. Because until then I thought that in Prenzlauer Berg, which got very trendy after the Fall of the Wall, nobody really cares for those who live next door. But this is not right. And I found it so beautiful that this is not right. And I wanted to take a closer look on the old man and also on the neighbours and their motivations. What had this old man meant to them? Why did some people take care of him, engage with him? Why didn’t other people?
How did your neighbours feel about the idea? Did they express reservations or were they willing to be part of the documentary?
At first they definitely were not willing to go along with the project. But I took time and explained to them why I wished to do it. I very well understand the reservations that people have about publicity, so I am always very careful about what I film and what I show. Thank God, I managed to convince them that it would be important for me to do this documentary and to learn this man’s story. They knew him a little better, so they could speak to me about him. And when they spoke about him, what they saw in him, what he meant to them – of course they spoke at the same time also about themselves. Their own character appeared, their ideas about life showed up in the way they talked about him.
And so you drew a portrait of the man through the stories that people told you. Would you describe the picture you ended up with?
The man had always lived in Prenzlauer Berg since more than 60 years at the exact same place. Here he experienced the post-war life of the GDR, later the fall of the Wall, then the reunification of Germany – quite a lot of change for a man with a narrow intelligent quotient. But the people around him did not know that he was slightly retarded; especially the people that happened to live close to him after the absolution of the GDR. You see, many of his old neighbours had left this area, as they couldn’t afford the increased rent prices anymore, as Prenzlauer Berg was getting more and more trendy. The one who knew about his situation was a young woman, from West Germany, who moved into the same apartment building where Herr Buchholz lived. She and an older woman from the former GDR –the owner of a night-kiosk (Spätkauf) in the street- both realised that he needed help, because he could not read or write and he had some difficulty in understanding things.
But he kept to himself, he was very private and had never let others in on what was going on behind the facade he kept up. He had only opened up to those very close to him in a very general way. For example “You know I have some difficult in reading” or “I forgot my classes!”…So he had lived alone and had very little money. Earlier he had managed to make ends meet, but during the last two years of his life things had become very difficult. And without them actually knowing this, residents of the street would always offer a little help. The baker would treat him to a coffee or something to eat, and when he had his birthday another neighbour would invite him for a cake. A small agency for renting apartments made all the calls to the social services on his behalf, the woman from the cleaning company left sweaters and shirts for him…There was a small network of people who cared for him, without ever asking questions. But he was also offering people something important. He was a little like the neighbourhood’s reference point, always there when we came and went. And I believe that many people were truly happy to see him, because he gave one the feeling of being at home.
What did your neighbours think of the documentary?
I organised a special viewing just for the people who were in it and I was very nervous, wondering what they would think of the end result. Luckily, they felt it was good, they all liked it. I was so relieved…
How did working on the documentary affect the relations between neighbours?
It brought people closer together. At the funeral service of Herr Buchholz people were more or less strangers to each other; what connected them was that they all knew the deceased. And already the service brought them together and they began to know one another. With the filming they came even closer and this is something that gave me a lot of joy. So Herr Buchholz, having passed away, became the reason for his neighbours to come closer.
When considering making a new film, what kind of stories are you usually drawn to?
I can only, very generally speaking, say that it is people who interest me. People and how we relate to one another; and why we are they way we are. Why we react in certain ways. It could be that I am mostly interested in seeing a little under the surface, of scratching it so as to dig a little deeper. I am very intrigued by the motivations behind people’s actions, the reasons for people’s behaviour. I wish to take a step back, away from the obvious reality and search for what truly drives us. That’s what moves me – to get a little closer to what is true.
What led you to documentaries? Did you always want to become a film-maker?
I came to documentary as a virgin does to a child. Allow me to elaborate. Documentary is not what I initially set out to do; it was fiction films that I wished to do. That’s what I studied near Kieslowski. And right after, I received a scholarship to study Actors’ Guidance in Zurich, and it was wonderful; Very intense, but very exciting and rewarding too. And right after I had finished it, I came upon my first documentary. Naturally, as it always is the case, there was something personal involved. I had been going through a very difficult time. I was feeling very tiny and extremely weak. On some days I could hardly find the will to utter a word.
And then I happened to meet a woman, a young woman, who had cancer. And she was a very strong person that would not ever let herself be defined by her illness. I was suddenly very interested in this woman, I wanted to know more about her. That was the turning point when I recognised in me the urge to tell the story of a real person, instead of a fictitious character. Because I wanted to know how this woman manages to be so strong in the face of her critical condition. This is how my first documentary “Einen Grund zu leben finde ich immer wieder” was born. Since then all I want to do is to tell stories about people, about the way they face up to life. I was gripped by real life, by real people…I realised, we all share life; we fight for ourselves, we fight for a better society, for self determination, we long for love, for acceptance, we suffer…..This fascination brought me to documentary film. That’s why I am saying I came to it as a virgin comes to a child; because I had not at all planned this.
Researching personal stories and filming documentaries requires your personal involvement, so I was wondering what the toll can be. For example, what has been the most demanding documentary you have worked on so far?
The one that has been very hard, but also very intense, was a series I made for ARTE, about people who know that they have a limited amount of time to live, “Die letzte Reise”. I wished to know what it is like for a person, in our society, when he or she knows they will die soon. And what is it like for the relatives and the people who are near them to the end. I did the filming in people’s homes, as well as in a hospice, where people go when there is nothing more anyone can do, other than to relieve pain. When we started filming we were in contact with ten people, all of whom had passed away by the end of the series. I realise this sounds now extremely sad, but let me tell you it was not about dying; it was about living. Living to the very end. How a person with such a diagnosis goes on living life to the full until the very last moment.
Didn’t you in any way prepare yourself for the meetings with people who knew they were soon going to die?
When I decided to do the series I went to a hospice and asked to be allowed to meet and talk with patients whom I would also eventually film. And I was told that I could go on with my project, on the condition that I would do a traineeship. At first it soundd odd, but I now know that it was extremely important and it was the right thing to do. I had to go through a week of training, where I helped a nurse – From feeding and washing patients, to simply being there and holding a person’s hand. This proved helpful, as it meant that I was then considered part of the hospice team and was accepted since I now knew a little about how people behave and how life there unfolds.
What about preparing yourself for asking the hard questions. You didn’t shy away from them?
I believe that the only thing one can do is to be honest and sincere. I am neither a psychologist, nor a social worker, but I have always tried to take the person I am filming seriously. I am convinced we all wish to be taken seriously, and that is also true also when someone has only a month to live. By this I mean that I was very clear about my intentions and most of the people went along. I think it all comes down to trust. And trust is what we may win when we also share a piece of ourselves. Some people asked questions, others did not. Some wanted to understand why I was so interested in this subject. And I would explain. It goes without saying that I would never show anything a person did not want to make public. It’s very important to me that people know they are safe with me. And only then do they open up. But I was not always asking. Sometimes I was simply there.
Were the people you filmed hesitant as to what they would say, in order maybe to protect their loved ones?
This is interesting, because what happened is that for some people the documentary was an opportunity to talk with their loved ones about things they had not dared to touch upon. You know how it is exactly with the closest relatives that one avoids to talk about certain things. But as I was coming from outside and posing specific questions, I was somehow granting them a sort of permission, or better challenging them, to talk openly. It turned out that people did open up about things they had until then been keeping to themselves.
There was this couple to whom I had been introduced and whom I wished to interview. The woman never liked the idea, but her husband, who had a limited time to live, wanted to do it. So she went along and let me come into their home. But I was always a little uncomfortable, because I knew that she had only agreed out of her love for him. One year later, at a meeting with all the people who had been in the series and had in the meantime lost their loved ones, this woman told me that she was glad they had been part of it. Through the questions they were confronted with during the filming, they were able to articulate feelings and thoughts that until then had remained unspoken. This is what a documentary is about, really.
Is this something that you have witnessed more than once? I am refering to the effect that the filming of a documentary may have on your protagonists’ relationship.
Let me tell you about a documentary I did about a married couple of high-wire circus artists. I was interested in researching how things unfold when two people live and work together. What does it mean for their relationship when they have to depend on each other on a personal as well as a professional level? I searched for this specific couple, not only because they are the best at their line of work, but because I wanted to find out how it is when you have to trust your spouse with nothing less than your life; every single night. So no matter what goes on between them, no matter if they feel disappointed, angry or bitter, they still have to perform, together, these high risk acrobatics where a small movement can mean the difference between life and death. So I watched them, living and travelling with the circus for some time.
What had come first in their case: work or love? Was this dangerous art that they both perform what brought them together in the first place? Or did they decide to perform together only after they had first fallen in love?
The point is that it had never truly been the choise of the woman. They got married while still very young. Rules in the society of circus troupes are remarkably strict and conservative. The man came from Colombia, from a family with a very long tradition in high-wire walking. Imagine that his mother had gone on performing until she was seven months pregnant to him. He practically dances on the high-wire. The woman, on the other hand, comes from a Portuguese family of circus artists who had always remained firmly on the ground; they were working as clowns. So one night she had stayed out very late… and she had to marry the young man. And now those two had to make a living as a couple. Naturally, it was going to be high-wire. So he taught her.
Since then, she had been carrying him, on her shoulders, on a high-wire ten metres above the earth, for twenty-five years. And she had not once told him that she hated this job. She admitted it for the first time during one of our conversations, while I was filming her. On that same night she climbed again on the high-wire, with the 25 kilos heavy balancing pole in her hands to keep her steady, and her husband standing on her shoulders. Reaching the middle of the wire, the man was going to jump from her shoulders and on the wire. At ten metres above the air, the wire tends to fluctuate, while it is critical that it remains still and steady. So at that exact point she would have to counterbalance his weight, in order for him to land safely on the wire. And on that night, after she had said out loud how she had always hated this job, the woman could not make it. Luckily, the man managed to grab the wire. I was very frightened. I was now very hesitant as to how deep I should attempt to dig with my questions.
So a documentary is not merely about observing and chronicling what your protagonists say and do.
No, not all. It’s about asking questions, searching, going deep, learning. It was clear that my questions had helped throw light into something that had remained hidden. Of course the two of them had to sit down and talk this out. Because the man posed his wife the question as to whether he could go on trusting her with his life every night. But for my part, that night I was alerted to the nerve that my questions had hit. So I was frightened. I felt I bore some responsibility as to what would happen next. How far am I allowed to get into the personal life of a protagonist? The edge is always very near, what you need to aks and where you have to stop, to realise the limit. I was so relieved when the filming was over and everything was still OK.
Let me attempt to take you a little farther back in time: How did you find yourself studying near Krzysztof Kieslowski?
Kieslowski would come to Berlin quite often and do workshops with a small group of people, at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien. It was people who were starting out in film or working on their first projects and were interested in certain aspects of film-making. And the members of the goup were chosen on the basis of some work sample they first sent in. I sent him a story I had written; one I wanted to eventually film. And he accepted me into the group. I was living in Munich at the time but every time Kieslowski was in town for the workshops, I would travel to Berlin. That went on for two – three years. I feel I have been very lucky and very privileged to have been part of that group of only seven people.
Would you describe what he was like as a teacher? What did he feel was important that you learn from him?
Our group was called the “Wall inside the head”. The assumption is that we all have a wall inside our head, different for each of us, and it is crucial to recognise it, discover what it is made of, and try to see what lies behind it. Kieslowski gave each of us assignments that aimed at our discovering the difficult, hard material that each of our walls was made of. And then to write a fictional story based on that material. So that the story would stem from something deeply personal. Kieslowski insisted that a film maker only stands a chance, when his or her work touches upon something personal. He was strict but very just and a wonderful teacher. The time with him was the best thing that could ever happen to me.
Was it during those years that you moved from Munich to Berlin?
No, that was much later. In 2004 I was asked to do a series on the Chancellery. It was going to be a five parts series, so I needed to be here a lot. I had to do filming at the Chancellery practically every day. So I moved. I also found that Berlin was so much more exciting and lively than Munich.
At that time Gerhard Schröder was the Chancellor. Was the series based on him and his work?
I filmed him too, of course, but he was not the protagonist. The subject were the people who work in the Chancellery but of which one never gets to know about. They are close to 500 people. Among those I was to choose my protagonists and throw a glance in the wings, so to speak.
Were you given enough freedom to roam around and follow whoever attracted your interest?
I had my pass and was granted access to everybody and everything. I could move around freely and with a special permission I could even visit the 5th floor where the Chancellor’s office is located. And I could talk with absolutely anybody I wished, from the doorman to the Schröder’s political advisors. The filming lasted around six months during which I got to know some wonderful, very exciting people.
What makes a good documentary?
It’s difficult to say what makes a good documentary. Flaherty said that a documentary has to show how alike humans are, not how different. I do agree. In my work I want to concentrate more on what connects us, than what separates us. In my opinion the search for truth in the story, in the subject, is what is important. Important for me is also to have a precise look on that, what you want to tell. Also important is, to be able to put that, what you see in your story, in a bigger context. But one thing is clear – a documentary is my subjective interpretation of reality.
If a friend of yours was visiting you in Berlin and asked you to recommend a book or a film that would tell him an interesting story about the city, which would it be?
I would recommend the “Wings of Desire”, of course. And “Berlin, Symphony of a Metropolis”. Or a documentary, like “24h Berlin – Ein Tag im Leben“. And a book I recently read and refers to the story of a street that’s around the corner from my place, „Meine Winsstrasse”, by Knut Elstermann.