Philipp Kadelbach • Director of We Children From Bahnhof Zoo
“I want to see what my team offers - if it’s better than my idea, we leave it”
- German director Philipp Kadelbach talked to German Films after having finished his Amazon series We Children From Bahnhof Zoo
Taking a very short time out from finishing his series version of We Children From Bahnhof Zoo, publicity shy Philipp Kadelbach came into film via a route seldom travelled in Germany, commercials – and some help from his father.
“It was his dream,“ Philipp Kadelbach explains, “to be a filmmaker, so he sat us in front of the TV and showed me the classics, explaining them ... Before I even started school! After I left high school I went to Pittsburgh for a year, joined the local TV station and attended film school.” Back in Frankfurt, Germany’s advertising ‘capital’, he ... went into advertising! Via the film academy in Ludwigsburg, first. “Yes, I went the wrong way!” he laughs.
“I started as an intern, taught myself editing and for many years I was an editor. Then, one day, the guys asked me if I’d like to direct, so I did. For ten years, 400 commercials around the world, photographing everything. It was exciting and I learned as I went,” he continues. “I developed a feeling for the aesthetics of advertising, the importance of screen images, handling sets and big crews, and film is about making images."
His first ‘real’ film project was four episodes of the 2008 series Innocent followed in 2011 by the two-part historical drama Hindenburg: The Last Flight. But “it was only with Generation War that I realised just how a complex film is made!” (It also just happened to win numerous awards, including the Prix Europa for Best Mini-Series, the German Television Award for Best Multi-Parter, the Golden Camera, the Golden Magnolia in Shanghai, the Seoul International Drama Award for Best Director and Best MiniSeries, and an International Emmy for Best MiniSeries). Kadelbach admits freely that, “it was different coming from a non-script background, so it took me time to learn how to work with actors because there is more to drama than just the image onscreen. It sounds obvious, and it is: they both go hand in hand.”
Having discovered the joys of working with actors, Kadelbach brings a democratic approach to his art: “First of all, don’t reveal all your ideas! There are so many parameters and departments involved,” he continues. “I see what people have to offer and don’t overwhelm them with just what I have in my head. I listen. To the actors, too! How do they see the role? We talk about the character, how I see them, how they do. The same for the heads of department (costume, makeup, production design): you have to find a character you want to narrate.” Once filming starts: “I know what I want but I don’t say it directly,” he explains. “I want to see what they offer. If it’s better than my idea, we leave it.”
So casting is key here? “Absolutely,” Kadelbach agrees. “I cast long-term. I’m always meeting with the actors, working together, so much is sorted in advance and then on set you have the space to play. I’m character-driven but if and when you can break out on set then there are so many possibilities.”
We Children From Bahnhof Zoo, an 8-parter for Amazon, is his “longest, hardest job so far, 136 shooting days! It’s a very large ensemble with young actors and also older ones. It had just about every director’s difficulty possible! I had to keep story arcs, there were lots of roles and not all actors were experienced. It was a very strenuous, long project.”
Not that he is any stranger to longform drama. His Perfume, for Netflix, shot for 90 days. And then there is his SS-GB, the first time a German got to direct a BBC series, for which he spent two years in London.
With these kinds of time-heavy projects, Kadelbach looks for “something that clicks. There needs to be something that holds me as well as the audience. Personally, I like the dark side; thrillers, dark stuff, emotional depths, film or series.”
And after We Children From Bahnhof Zoo? “Hard to say,” he replies. “I’m being sent so much good stuff. Do I go for a serial? Longform with a big arc or something theatrical for two hours? But it’s still too early. Right now I’m saying I’ll never direct again! But ask me in six weeks’ time!”
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