Gerrit Kuge Illambra Interview

Happy to share with you our conversation with German director Gerrit Kuge, who’s two short films MORAN and NORTHERN MALADY you can watch HERE in our online library.

ILLAMBRA: Why film? Could you tell us a bit about your beginnings and reasons behind the decision to become a film director?

GK: When I was about eleven I got to see the first Lord of the Rings movie in the theater. It about blew me away. I’d never seen anything like it before. I loved everything about it, especially the green nature and feeling of the adventure. And I wished I could also create something, that made people feel such intense feelings. But film was far far away for me, there was no camera around, no people who could teach me anything (not even windows movie maker!).

Only in the time around when I graduated from school I got my hands on a DC tape-camera and shot a video in an abandoned industrial plant, where I and a few friends crept around half-naked. That sounds ridiculous, but it’s the first thing I made, I’m still proud of! That video got me into art-school, where I studied media-art for a few years, doing 3D stuff, installation, drawings, sound, music-videos – art-school stuff.

Although I still thought doing film would be awesome, I didn’t dare to make films myself, mostly because it involves a lot of planning ahead, organization. Basically you have to know what you want and have to know how to communicate that to the people you work with. Also making up good stories is hard and I felt that everything I wrote was kind of pathetic crap.

Then this script writer Razvan Radulescu became a professor at my university and we immediately had a great connection. He wrote on a lot of awesome films, my favourite is maybe The death of Mr. Lazarescu. He was basically a kind of bullshit detector. When I had an idea, he would ask obvious questions, that I didn’t dare to ask myself, sniffing out all the stuff that didn’t make any sense. That was the “common sense treatment” so to speak. From there on I made my first short films.

ILLAMBRA: How do you work on your scripts? Do you draw inspiration from the literature?

GK: Yes I do! The obvious bunch, Kafka, Beckett, Borges.. The way I work on a script is changing pretty much with every project so far. The only real constant is that I get most ideas when I’m laying half-awake in my bed.

photo from film ”MORAN”

ILLAMBRA: A human condition is a central aspect of your films, expressed through relationships between the protagonists: between couples, between parents and their grown up children. Deep suppressed emotions paint these relationships, feelings of remorse, shame, obedience… How do you develop your characters and their situations?

GK: I don’t know exactly. I think it begins with a feeling. Other writers, like Razvan for example, start from a specific situation, that exists in a specific context already. I start off with a feeling and I try to catch ideas on how to express that feeling. For example when I wrote “The death of my Mother” I often thought about a neighbour I once had. I lived in Berlin for a year, it was a very bad year for me. And above me lived this woman, about 10 years older than me.

She was called Tatjana and had two daughters. Every morning she would struggle to bring them to kindergarten/school in time. And often, once the kids were gone she put on Goa/Trance incredibly loud and danced. At eight in the morning. I tried to talk to her but soon she didn’t answer the door anymore. That was in spring.

Sometime in summer her kids were gone. The word was they were taken by the child services. Tatjana would begin to yell at other kids that lived in the house. I could hear her crying sometimes. On the 24th of December her apartment burned down. I heard that, because her kids had been taken away the government granted her less money and she had been forced to move into a smaller apartment in January. Just think about it, your apartment burns down on the Christmas you have to spend alone, a few days before being forced to move out. Maybe she even started the fire. I don’t know. She must have been completely hopeless.

I’ve never seen her after the fire. But whenever I saw her before, she was so alone and angry and lost and scared. There was an atmosphere of dread surrounding her. There was this helplessness freezing everything. I wanted to help her, but somehow I didn’t. Seeing her that way was really intense.

That was a big part of the feeling for the film, but there were other parts that kind of fused together with it. I then tried to “translate” this whole bundle of feelings. That’s when slowly characters in certain situations emerge. It’s a bit like dreaming, when you have a certain strong sensation in your body and your head makes up a scenario for it – but controlled.

photo from film ”The death of my mother”

ILLAMBRA: These dramatic constellations have been expressed using minimalist means: the dialogue is scarce, the overall rhythm lacks intense dramatic peaks or twists, yet a lot of tension is being accumulated beneath the surface by careful and skilled nuancing the way how the characters communicate with each other and through overall atmosphere of the scenes. How did you choose this narrative style?

GK: Thank you, that is a nice compliment! It’s not a style many like. My parents always say “your films are so tense, but nothing is happening!” which I find funny. This slow, brooding style is nothing I intentionally do. Back when I did music videos I had problems with some of the musicians because I was cutting “to slow”. Maybe it’s just that I like dreaminess and images need time to become dreamy.

Dialogue is a strange thing. I think Zizek summarized it in greatly in what he said about the speech at the end of The great dictator. He basically claims that there is a violence in language, and Chaplin was aware of that. The – up to this point – silent protagonist gives this heartwarming speech about humanity, empathy and the crowd cheers uncontrollably, violently almost. The protagonist also transforms during this speech, gets carried away and he is terrified of himself for a moment in the end. He realizes, it’s power he has, to say what is and what isn’t.

I often feel that way about speaking. So much is just pointing out “this is wrong, this is right” and it’s tiring. In silence there is something mystical. And images are inherently ambiguous, like silence. (And jumping ahead to the next question, nature is also like silence, mystical, ambiguous, without meaning.)

ILLAMBRA: Nature is important motif in your films, not as a symbol, but more as a projection plain of the inner world of the protagonists: the wilderness of Northern Malady and the forest in Moran, both reflections of the main character’s condition…

GK: That is of course a valid interpretation as a viewer, but on the creating end of it, I try to make myself free from any thinking in symbols. If I think in symbols while writing, directing or cutting, it’s a shortcut to some sort of diminished meaning. I once saw the installation Fever Room by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. And there was a shot in the video-piece of a plastic dinosaur at the entrance of an amusement park.

And the narrator said, “I remember the plastic dinosaur in front of the amusement park”. It’s just a thing she remembered. No symbol, no meaning. Of course, this shot becomes meaningful in context of the narrative and so on… and one could then argue the image becomes symbolically charged, and I will agree to that claim. Still reality is not organized in symbolical structures, so I try to see things as they appear before me – without meaning (if that doesn’t sound too pretentious).

And besides all that theoretical stuff, I just like to be outside. Doing what you like, where you like to be is just awesome. I love the Hebrides where we shot Northern Malady, and I went visiting the pond that Moran finds in the forest several times during pandemic-walks.

nature where Northern Malady was filmed

ILLAMBRA: Slow, dream-like sequences, surreal and meditative atmosphere make the tone of your films. They allow you to capture all of these emotions and inner turmoil of the characters in a very naturalistic and also disturbing way. Which authors do you find inspiring, who are your role models?

GK: Oh, I think who inspires me is so obvious! Lynch, Bresson, Tarkowski, Sokurow, Ramsay, Puiu, Weerasethakul, The Quay Brothers…

ILLAMBRA: How do you work with actors in order to extract these subtle, yet very expressive performances?

GK: That’s the strangest thing, I don’t know. But I am happy that you think it works out fine! I try to give the actors very specific instructions. Psychologically as well as physically. And we do a lot of takes. Honestly I often doubt that this is the right way to go, as it leaves the actors and me often more confused than anything else.

But maybe it also chips away from their pre-learned expression catalogue. Also I try to avoid doubling of information, for example, often actors will nod when they say something affirming. (“We will do that!” (and nods)) That’s doubled information, doubled reaffirmation. Maybe people do it in real life, but in fiction it just looks like the actor has to convince her/himself to say the line in an affirmative way.

ILLAMBRA: When talking about the visual language, you once mentioned that it took some time for you to get the results that fit your vision. This included tryouts with different film crews and also a lot of personal engagement and experiment when it comes to the camera language and aesthetics, and also light setting. Could you tell us a bit more about this process?

GK: After doing two short-films with teams I wasn’t satisfied with the results. There’s so much heavy light/camera/sound-stuff that needs lifting/fixing/whatever. So I made MORAN all by myself behind the camera, with a small rig.

Once I started filming I threw most of my shooting plans overboard and just tried to feel what should happen next. It was just to see how ideas can flow, when you don’t have ten people waiting for you to make the next decision. Maybe that was also therapeutic, to feel that I can be free to film whatever I want, when I want it.

Since then all the projects have become more and controlled. Again more people on set, a script that is more and more refined. But I don’t mind the narrowness of planning ahead so much anymore. If I can get myself the space to find out what is required, it works out fine.

ILLAMBRA: Can you see yourself expressing through other media? If yes, what would it be? Painting, photography… maybe even literature or music?

GK: I take some photos here and there, some of them I even think are nice. And I write. Maybe some day something will come of this. If there’s time to polish things properly. We’ll see.

ILLAMBRA: Could you tell us a bit about your upcoming film? Is it still a draft, or you’ve already started with production?

GK: Gladly! We’ve just received full production funding. That’s really great, because now me and my small team can work on it full-time the whole year. Production will officially start when we see the first rate of the money, but in reality it’s already starting now. The shooting-script is complete and everyone involved is ready.

It’s going to be a 25~ minutes animation film. Something quite different in some aspects. It’s going to be a wild mix of 3D, 2D, AI-image-generation and AI image-alteration. Maybe I’ll even try to put in some black humor here and there. We’ll see.

It’s a film about love and heartbreak and the inevitable end of everybody’s life, 8 minutes before earth gets destroyed and humanity will cease to exist for ever.

Here’s some early concept art:

Thank you for the interview!

The films of Gerrit Kuge are available for streaming on Illambra – click HERE to watch