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BIF&ST 2019

Veit Helmer • Director of The Bra

“Each of the women have their own strange obsessions and their own, individual reasons for trying the bra on”


- We sat down with director Veit Helmer at the Bari Bif&st to talk about his film, The Bra, set in an extraordinary district of Baku which no longer exists

Veit Helmer • Director of The Bra

A freight train travels through a small district of Baku, in Azerbaijan, every day, dragging along with it anything it finds. One day, a bra gets mysteriously caught up in the convoy. Whose could it be? So begins the story of The Bra [+see also:
interview: Veit Helmer
film profile
, the delightful film without dialogue but full of poetry by the German director Veit Helmer, starring Miki Manojlović, Denis Lavant, Paz Vega and Maia Morgenstern. We chatted with the filmmaker about his latest work at the 10th Bari Bif&st, where the film has been selected for the International Panorama competition. 

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Cineuropa: How did you find this particular location for your film?
Veit Helmer:
I’d already filmed Absurdistan [+see also:
film profile
in Azerbaijan in 2008, and I had happy memories of the country and its people. Then, while doing some research online, I came across a couple of photos of this area in Baku called Shanghai, where people live just a few steps away from a railway carrying huge freight trains, and I couldn’t believe it. I went there in person. It wasn’t easy to find; there are no streets or pavements, and when the train comes you have to run away, otherwise you get run over. It was 2014 and I was told that this district would soon be demolished. It took three years to prepare for the film and luckily the area was still there. Today, only the railway tracks remain; the houses have all been relocated.

How could such a settlement exist?
A lot of houses were built after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many refugees arrived from Karabakh, and each and every patch of land in Baku was used to accommodate these people, under challenging conditions. Then, they got access to gas, light and water, but it wasn’t a safe place. It was important to demolish it because many people died there. There was even an incident during the filmshoot; luckily it wasn’t fatal.

And the idea to place a bra at the centre of the story – where did that come from?
When you’re exploring strange and unknown locations, the most obvious choice is to use the story of an outsider who arrives in a particular place and tries to make a connection with it. I chose a railway engineer - the only stranger who passes through this district, each and every day. Every so often, the train picks up various bits and pieces en route and the idea was that on his last day before retirement, this engineer would find a bra. All the other bits that he’d found throughout his long working life had been easy to return to their owners: a table cloth, a ball…  But a bra is a slightly more delicate issue: finding its owner would prove a more interesting task.

A very delicate issue, because every so often these women have to try on the bra…
I wrote the film together with Leonie Geisinger. The idea was to come up with six main scenes in which he goes into people’s homes and asks the women to try on the bra, along the lines of Broken Flowers by Jim Jarmush, where Bill Murray goes into various universes, one after the other. We wanted the women to be the driving force: he’s the engineer who wants to return the bra to its owner, but each of the women have their own strange obsession and their own, individual reasons for trying it on. They’re all a bit mad, but they’re credible.

Many people are likening your film to a fairytale. Do you share this opinion?
I don’t share it because I do like to tell stories about unusual situations, but here anything is possible. There is something supernatural about fairytales, but for this film I’d say it’s more along the lines of poetry or magical realism. Of course, if someone asks me to describe the film in a few words, I say it’s like Cinderalla, but with a bra instead of a glass shoe. But in this case, I didn’t want the man to find the owner of the item.

This is a film with no dialogue, just like your first feature film, Tuvalu. What is it that draws you towards this narrative style?
There aren’t many stories which can be told in this way, but when you succeed it’s very gratifying, especially when you see audiences connecting with this magical experience. I feel connected to this type of storytelling because it’s universal: there’s no dubbing or subtitles; none of the original meaning or sentiment is lost. You present the film exactly as it was intended. The audience can connect with it on another level - I wanted it to be a spiritual experience. Just don’t tell my sound designer that it’s a silent film! Developing the sound was an intense process: what isn’t said using words is expressed via images and sounds.

(Translated from Italian)

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