Christopher Roth • Director of Servus Papa, See You in Hell
“I didn't want to make a documentary; I wanted the film to have its own sense of autonomy"
by Teresa Vena
- The director discussed his interest in utopias and his wish to depict the power that comes with standing still
German director Christopher Roth presented his drama with tragicomic undertones Servus Papa, See You in Hell [+see also:
interview: Christopher Roth
film profile] earlier this year at Filmfest München. The film is inspired by real events in a commune which was active in Austria in the 1970s and was funded by performing artist and self-appointed guru Otto Muehl. After screening in this year's Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, the movie is now being released in German cinemas by Port-au-Prince. We talked to the director about his adaptation of the story and the visual concept for the film.
Cineuropa: How did you come across this story?
Christopher Roth: The Otto Muehl commune was the basis for the film. I knew about it as a child because my sister had a friend who lived there, so members of the commune visited us regularly. As a 6-year-old, I was fascinated by their appearance, with their bald heads and dungarees. I was irritated by their highly aggressive and offensive manner and the fact they were always standing naked in our garden. At the time, nobody was able to explain to me why they behaved like that. I’ve always been interested in utopias, and that's why I went back to the commune later on. I met Jeanne Tremsal, who lived in the commune as a teenager and is the model for my main character. Jeanne is also the co-author of the script. Her stories were fascinating. She said that in the beginning it was like paradise, spending her childhood and adolescence surrounded by nature. But then came the moment when she fell in love, but love was not allowed, only sex. All the young men were sent away because of it.
Did you have contact with anyone else involved in the commune?
CR: They’re all still there. I met Jeanne's parents, friends of her parents, her half-brother and a cousin. I also talked to other people in the first phase of my research, I took an interest in everything, until I’d gathered enough material and developed my own story from it. I didn't want to make a documentary; I wanted the film to have its own sense of autonomy.
Which particular aspects of the story were you looking to highlight?
CR: It was important for me to pick up on the way a utopia is experienced and tried out. You should never live it out behind closed doors, but openly, as part of a society. What I also found fascinating was the role played by young people in this commune. These youngsters would have been the future of the commune, but they didn’t want to be dictated to on how to live, and they wanted to challenge the ideas of their avant-garde parents’ generation, so they rebelled.
You wanted to depict their rebellion.
CR: It's not your classic rebellion. In the film, Jeanne stops, and by stopping she creates a space for others to react and act. A rebellion doesn’t always mean being against something. Jeanne doesn’t join in, she refuses to join in. And within the community, this results in an insane power; simply stopping provokes aggression.
How did you work with the young people in the film, and introduce them to the subject?
CR: The decisive scenes in the film are the ones performed in a big group where they each something personal, known as self-portrayals. There were children and teenagers there. It was important that we told them what we were doing. We told them that we were re-enacting something that might have been worse in reality, but we were condensing it. Clemens Schick, who plays the head of the commune, also played an important role in this. He prepared really well, then took the lead in the corresponding scenes. We shot with two cameras and without cuts. Clemens guided the children and young people in his role as the guru. That's how this long dance came about, without it being in the script.
How did you decide on Jana McKinnon for the lead role? What did she bring to the role?
CR: All the actors bring something to their role. Jana has a strong presence. There are a couple of scenes where she's there and she stops. It's great how she manages to hold her own as a young girl against the dominant figure of Otto, who does so much and moves around constantly. I love actors who don't have to be given many lines, but who already have such a presence. I saw that with Jana back in the casting process.
The use of a video camera seems important. Did you find inspiration in archive footage and its aesthetics?
CR: There’s a huge archive available. Like a lot of bad people, Otto Muehl and the commune filmed everything and archived everything. Muehl released the material to the public because he wasn’t aware of any ambiguity in it. It was descendants of the commune who blocked it later on. Parts of it are also available to view on YouTube. So this video camera genuinely existed in the commune, and we wanted to use it too. It records scenes of self-expression, like a camera at a boxing match; there’s a documentarian side to it. By contrast, we then have the counter-world, the rest of it, which is filmed classically in a more precise and thought-out way. This part should be more beautiful, more closely resembling a fairy-tale.
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