Robert Schwenkte: “What I always look for when I watch other people’s films, is to be exposed to their brain”

Whenever a German filmmaker crosses the Atlantic to work with the most talented actors or screenwriters in the U.S., I always have to think about the stories legendary film director Fred Zinnemann told me many years ago when he reminisced about his friendship with Berthold and Salka Viertel, émigrés who sort of founded the so-called German colony in Hollywood. On Sunday afternoons, they’d all gather at the Viertels’ Mabery Road house in Santa Monica, which became an important beacon of intelligentsia, high culture and open-heartedness in Hollywood history during the 1930s and 1940s. Berthold Viertel was a filmmaker, Salka a screenwriter and Greta Garbo’s closest friend who also wrote five Garbo pictures at MGM; at one point, during the Irving G. Thalberg era, Salka Viertel was the highest-paid writer on the Metro lot.

So, what’s my point? Film director Robert Schwentke (b. 1968), a German academic who started his Hollywood career with “Flightplan” (2005) with Jodie Foster – only to move up the ladder of the Hollywood hierarchy, to multi-million dollar budget movies such as “Insurgent” (2015) and “Allegiant” (2016), two films in the “Divergent” series that grossed worldwide more than $ 450 million – still found a way to bring him back to Europe and do what he also really cares for: to make a small-budget drama such as “Der Hauptmann” [“The Captain”]. It is a black-and-white film, set during the last days of the Third Reich, telling how one ill-defined individual instantly opts to join his country’s lowest form of life, making “The Captain” one of the more controversial films in recent years.

A perfect example of his drive to use the incredibly powerful language of cinema, he follows into the footsteps of his fellow countrymen so many decades ago, and along the way, in “The Captain,” he doesn’t hesitate to raise a very uncomfortable and troubling question about World War II.

Mr. Schwentke was a guest of honor only recently at the Rotterdam International Film Festival where he, during a masterclass, talked about his latest film and working in America as a full-fledged Hollywood film director.

Mr. Schwentke, what is “The Captain” [“Der Hauptmann”] about?

It is a story that takes place in the last two weeks of World War II, a time that has not been the subject of very many narratives – not in cinema and not in literature. It’s the attempt to make a film from the perspective of the perpetrators. I have been with this project for a long time; it has taken me about ten years to get it mounted. I wrote the first draft of the script during the Christmas break before I shot my third film in America, “RED” [2010]. I made three more films after that before I was able to make this film. It was not easy to figure out for me how I would tell this story, or how it can be told. It deals with a very dark subject, and I needed to figure out for myself what I could show, what I could not show, what I had to show and what I wasn’t allowed to show. So when I started to figure out the approach of how to tell the story, I also realized I didn’t know enough. I had to educate myself. I did a lot of research, I read a lot of historical books, diaries of the time, newspapers and such. I wanted to get a feel for what it must have been like in these last two weeks. It was also a clear statement of Germany in how they were going to deal with their past.

Max Hubacher in the role of Herold in Robert Schwentke’s “The Captain”

When did you zero in on the leading character of Herold? Did you also ever think of creating your own fictional character, maybe also for yourself, to have some distance to the subject?

For me it was necessary to have an authentic case which I could treat as an opponent. I don’t think I would have been able to make this movie, or create this story and these characters out of myself. I don’t have that muscle. I needed to have an opponent who I could engage with. Having a true story, having a true character, having evidence and facts allowed me to feel that I had to figure it out. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but I couldn’t have done this film without the distance of it being the other, as opposed to me. Nothing is further from my mind than what is depicted in this film. I never could figure out how people could do these things. It lead me on this trail, asking myself, ‘How could this happen?’ Being German, it is natural to look back in German history. As we like to say, this is the land of the great thinkers and writers, and if a cultural construct such as Germany can descend into this kind of a cultural catastrophe, how did it happen? That’s what lead me on a search that yielded a lot of stories and a lot of occurrences that in my opinion were even worse than the story that I ended up depicting where I couldn’t find a way to make it into a film that I could responsibly make, where I felt as a human being I could stand there and say, ‘Yes, I made this film with good conscience.’ If I did not have an authentic case, the only way for me that I could have approached this, would have been more going deeper into farce, deeper into the grotesque. So if I hadn’t had this other ‘thing’ that I could turn and investigate, I think as a self-defence I would have needed to turn it into a very farcical affair.

How did you actually get into this story, particularly since there are almost no films about the end of the war and the final phase of crimes

I’m a cinephile, I watch a lot of movies and I’m also very interested in the German national cinema, because it was a German film that made me want to make films, that was “Alice in den Städten” [1974, a.k.a. “Alice in the Cities”] by Wim Wenders. That was a movie when, for the first time, I didn’t feel films came from very distant places like Hollywood, Spain or Italy. Watching that film, I thought maybe I could make movies too, because I understood the language, I understood these people, and I kind of recognized the environment where the story was taking place. I was very close to it, and I thought, ‘If that’s possible, then maybe I can be a filmmaker too.’ So I have a great love for German cinema, but I was surprised that there are only two films told from the perspective from the perpetrators: “Aus einen deutschen Leben” [1977, a.k.a. “About a German Life”], a fictionalized biography of Rudolph Hess who ran Auschwitz, based on a French novel [“La mort est mon métier,” 1952, by Robert Merle], and the TV movie “Die Wannseekonferenz” [1984] about the final solution. Those films are really about first rank perpetrators, these are the architects of the system. I was astonished that other cinema cultures have stories that deal with opportunism during fascism, such as “Lacombe Lucien” [1974] by Louis Malle, told from the point of view of the fifth or sixth row of perpetrators. I also studied literature, and in German literature I found no evidence of that particular point of view. So why even tell a story from that point of view? Well, I think it confronts an audience with a different set of propositions and a different set of questions, because it does not allow you to sort of connect to a character and identify with him. We have a pile of films in Germany about the victims and about the heroes who fought against the system – and please, this is not a judgment, I’m merely stating a fact. I’m just saying there’s so many of this, and there are none of that. And I felt that it was necessary to make a film that dealt with certain national myths. Telling the story from the point of view from perpetrators, I felt, allowed me to approach this national myth from a new perspective. It’s not intended to be a polemic, but it is definitely intended to start a conversation. The film is not trying to comfort you into believing that problems and issues have been solved, it’s sort of an invitation to a discussion.

We have now more than seventy years of films about Word War II from countries all over the world. How do you find your way through it? Do you first watch a lot of films, or do you start with your screenplay from scratch?

What I usually do, is trying to come up with a thesis that I wanna talk about, a reason why I want to make a film for myself. It might take a while for me to figure that out. But once I‘ve done that, I’m very open to any other treatment of the same subject, and see what else is out there. I’m a big fan of Eastern European and Japanese cinema, and I found a number of films that were very helpful to me, including a few great Japanese anti-war movies. I consider “The Captain” also an ant-war movie; there are not too many, because most of them fall victim to the fetishism of war. If you look at “Apocalypse, Now” [197] which presents itself as an anti-war film, it really isn’t. You can’t play the Valkyries and have helicopters fly in slow-motion into the sun and then pretend you’re making an anti-war movie.

Hollywood film director Robert Schwentke in Rotterdam. Photograph: Leo Verswijver

How exactly do you look at films? What attracts you?

What I always look for when I watch other people’s films, is to be exposed to their brain. By that I mean, how do other people see the world? We’re surrounded by fiction on a daily basis. Every billboard that tells you, ‘If you purchase this car, you will feel free,’ that’s fiction. All these things we’ve accumulated over the years and we don’t even recognize them as fiction anymore, we think they’re true. The job of a storyteller is not to create more fiction, but to create reality, an honest reality, cutting to the bottom of humanity. There’s a very good essay by Jacques Rivette about a couple, and what he said was, ‘Where you put the camera, is a moral decision.’ And I think he was right. So I look for a certain approach. But there’s also one shot in “The Captain” when he runs, that comes from a film called “Démanty noci“ [1964, a.k.a. “Diamonds in the Night”] that I love very, very much. That’s a film by Jan Němec, one of the greats, an absolute master. Sometimes, as an homage, I will do things like that: I don’t exactly copy something, but I allow myself to import something. But generally, I have the script that hopefully reflects the idea that I want to express, and then I find what I feel is the proper way to express it visually. So I don’t approach a film with a fixed idea of the aesthetic. I stay away from things I don’t know how to do, and I focus on the things I know how to do. It’s a very dynamic process for me to find the form. I start by excluding things, the things I don’t want to do. I knew I didn’t want to dramatize violence, I didn’t want the audience to identify with any character based on their moral position, and I wanted to make sure that the film was sort of deliberate without a moral manual. Once I found a coordinate that I knew I wanted to keep, I could go to the next coordinate.

How do you work with your actors when you are shooting a violent scene? What do you tell them, how do you prepare them for this?

We approached every character as just that: a character – a character with ideas, a characters with a past. A lot of the characters in “The Captain” were based on real people, and we knew what some of the people in the camp did in their civilian lives before the war. I always encouraged everyone to not go for the easy moral judgment with the characters, but to look at their deeds as something that made complete sense to the character, and invite them as well to feel the human fallout of the action of the character. I couldn’t argue morally with my actors, I didn’t engage in any moral, ethical judgment about the characters. On top of that, it was very hard for the actors. Once we got to the camp, we all reached a breaking point and it turned us upside down. In a weird way, we were all part of this artificial creation of what was depicted on the screen, but the distance broke down for us.

Can you protect your actors and yourself from this?

I create a very loving environment on my set and I do everything I possibly can to protect my actors and to make them feel safe and secure. I don’t provoke them, I don’t push them, but I invite them to go further and further. On my set, an actor can’t do anything wrong, and there are different ways of doing things right. By and large, my work with the actors is very process-oriented and I try to move them in many directions. One day an actor really broke down on the set, and the first person he came to was me. We took a little walk, and we talked about the whole thing. So I don’t believe in hurting people, or manipulating them into something. Before shooting began, we had a period of rehearsals, and that was a joyful period of exploration – despite the context. In the movie, the performances are bigger than life, they’re heightened, there’s also a tonality that is absurd, and it was very important that everybody understood exactly what tone I was aiming for. In film schools, you talk a lot about plot, about theme, but one of the biggest challenges for any director is tonality. Nobody else can help you with it. In terms of characters, you work with the actors. In terms of plot, you work with the script. In terms of atmosphere, you work with your director of photography. But tonality, that’s only the director. Nobody can help you with it and you have to be the one who defines it for everybody else. So during this rehearsal process I always create a kind of a box, it has walls – there is a limit – and there are very clear agendas on my part, but the box still allows the actors to roam. And that roaming I try to encourage, I try to inspire the actors, and I think most of them have a kind of a creative engine in their head. Just like every engine, it needs fuel, it needs to be started. So I try to feed that imagination, rather than give them results or super specific things to do.

Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard and Robert Schwentke, without beard, on the airplane set of “Flightplan” (2005). Photograph: Touchstone Pictures

Was there any specific reason for you to go to Hollywood?

Yes. In Germany, the films are very homogenous, they’re either funny or they’re dramas, and it’s quite different in America. It’s very stifling to me to be told, ‘You can’t crack a joke in the midst of this drama.’ That doesn’t reflect my idea of cinema. I had cancer when I was twenty-seven, and I did a film about it [“Eierdiebe,” 2003, a.k.a. “The Family Jewels”], a black comedy, it was basically my autobiography about going through cancer. During one screening, somebody once came up to me and said, ‘You can’t make a film about cancer, but if you do, you can’t make this film about cancer.’ There was this pervasive sense of being stifled that I encountered. I sort of stubbornly wanted to keep going and bang my head against it, and it resulted into not being able to make films in Germany anymore. I was living on credit cards with my then girlfriend – my now wife – we had no income, so when the offer came from America to make a film there [“Flightplan”], I accepted it, although I had turned the offer down four times before I took it. After a certain point, I was unable to not make the film for economic reasons. “Flightplan” is very expressionistic, it’s very heightened, very stylized, and that’s one of the reasons why I started to like working in America. I felt I could push the envelope.

Was your German film “Tattoo” [2002] possibly the film that showed that you could make an American film as well?

That assumes a kind of intelligence that I don’t have. I made the film the way I wanted a German film to look. The idea that I wanted to create some kind of calling card for Hollywood, that would involve me looking deeply into the future and then do it in the now… I’m too dumb for that. But to my surprise, the film turned into a festival film, which it was never meant to be. We thought we were making a mainstream film, and then it turned out that most people, including the German audience, didn’t think it was a mainstream film. And so it was shown at a lot of festivals, also in America, and that’s where it was seen by my manager – who’s still my manager now. She thought, ‘If this guy can speak English, we can do something with him.’ I did speak English, because I had studied in the States, but she didn’t know that at that point. In the late 1980s, when I decided to study film, it was a very bad time for German cinema. There was really nothing at all, to the degree that I thought German filmmakers had lost the joy of storytelling. So I thought, ‘Maybe in America they know something that we have forgotten, so I’ll go there, I study there and I come back.’ That was always my intention. And that’s what happened, I studied film there for seven years, then I came back and I did two features. And only reluctantly, when I had no choice, I went back.

Robert Schwentke, Helen Mirren and Bruce Willis on the set of “RED” (2010). Photograph: Summit Entertainment

Where did you study in the America?

I studied at Columbia for my BA and then I studied at the American Film Institute for directing, that’s where I got my MFA. The AFI had a very interesting approach, because in our first year, we were twenty-eight directors chosen out of probably eight hundred applicants. The first year you’d make three films, and based on those three films, you’re either invited to the second and third year, or not. At the end of the first year, twenty people go home, and eight continue. So it was highly competitive, and maybe not necessarily a healthy environment, but it did mimic Hollywood, because that’s sort of what it is. The approach was always, ‘If you want to make a film about a fly, that’s fine, you can make whatever film you want here, we give you everything you need, but it’d better be a good film about a fly.’ And when you had finished the film, they would show it to the entire school. You were then not allowed to say anything then, but everybody else was allowed to speak. That was always a bloodbath. So if you went into filmmaking because you wanted to be liked, that took care of that. But it was a very good approach, because the first question they would always ask – the opening question, every time – was, ‘So, what is this film about?’ You can’t go to every cinema and explain to people what you meant it to be, you have to listen to people who have nothing else to go on but what you showed them. It’s a very interesting exercise if you do it over and over: it forces you into a discipline to think about your story in terms of ‘what is it about, what is this scene about, do I want to break the pattern…’ It forces you into a very disciplined approach to storytelling. The films I made there were incredibly loud and colorful, mean-spirited, very dark but also very bright. In other words, the themes were always devastating, but they were done in almost a musical way. In fact, I had musical numbers in some of them. I don’t know if they were specifically something I wanted to do, and coming from Germany, that was all the more crushing because there I wasn’t allowed to do musical numbers.

At that time, you also wrote for German television, didn’t you?

Yes. First of all, there was an economic necessity for it: a film school in America costs money, my parents were not rich, they were even rather sad that I would pursue this career. I had studied philosophy and they would have liked me to pursue an academic career. So they were very unhappy, and they said that if I wanted to pursue a career in film, I had to do it by myself. So writing for German television was a way for me to support myself. And I met a German TV director who was hired to direct the pilot and some episodes of an early evening TV series on German television. After the first season, they ran into great difficulty, and at that time I was in America writing screenplays as well to support myself, and he asked me if I could write fourteen treatments, hand them to the screenwriter, get the screenplay back, and then either rewrite it or engage with the screenwriter. So that was a kind of a paid film school for me, because the turnaround on these was so fast, that I can still remember it very well. That show was called “Partners” and lead to my first “Tatort” episode [“Tatort” is a German crime / drama TV series which debuted in 1970], a great gig at the time, because you didn’t get a lot of money upfront, but every time it was shown again on TV, you got the full amount. To this day, I still get checks from the three “Tatort” shows I wrote. In these episodes, you always had a team who have a case and it needs to be wrapped up at the end. The idea of “Tatort” is that the disruption at the beginning is cleared up by the end and the status quo has returned. There are very closed systems of narrative that are there to comfort you. Within that closed system, I tried to do things a little differently, but it wasn’t always easy. But the first one that I wrote, was the third highest ranking in terms of audience viewing, so that made my life a little easier with the subsequent two, because I could always say, ‘Well, obviously we did something right for people to watch this.’ But “Tatort” put me through school.

Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts and Robert Schwentke on the set of “Allegiant” (2016)

When you made “Flightplan,” your budget was approximately $ 50 million and since then, made big budget extravaganza movies such as “Insurgent” [2015] and “Allegiant” [2016]. The budget of “The Captain” was only € 5 million. As a director, do you actually feel that difference in terms of filmmaking?

I never made a film where I felt that I had enough money, even if you have $ 150 million for your film. The bar is so different, and what you have to deliver is so different that you constantly have to cut corners that people hopefully won’t detect, while you still have to deliver a spectacle that can compete with all the other stuff that’s out there in the market. By having a little bit of dust cover something in a frame, you can save $ 50,000 or by moving a cut five frames earlier, you can sometimes save half a million dollars. But basically it all comes down to: there’s always a camera, some people are behind the camera and some people are in front of the camera. That’s the work. I mean, I am not impressed by a big budget, I will not do things differently just because I might have more money. So I will bend the film down to my needs, rather than bending my needs to the film. That is a way of working that is much better for me. You always need strongly to question the conventions of how films are made and how to find what works best for you. Whatever works best for you, you have to try and turn into a practice. And over the years you’ll find that out. One of the things I learned, is to edit while I shoot. It’s very important for me to go into the editing room, because I know exactly what we have and know exactly how the movie is developing, so I want to give the movie its due. I don’t want to squash it with preconceived things, I want it to live, I want it to talk to me, and the only way I can have that happen, is to go in the editing room and look at the stuff. Another thing I learned is that I hate breaking for lunch, because I’ve lost so many great performances due to a lunch break. You have a scene with two people, you shoot in this direction, and all of a sudden, ‘Ah, lunch break!’ And then, after lunch, you turn around, you light the other side, you shoot the other person, but she just had a big bowl of pasta, and you’re not going to get the same kind of intensity you had before. So I don’t break for lunch anymore, I say that from the beginning, and it’s actually in my contract. Producers don’t always like it, because it forces them to make a different kind of contract with the crew. But it doesn’t cost them anything extra. So I shoot for ten hours, and I really shoot for ten hours, ten hours of hardcore always on work. And then everybody gets to go home, they can see their kids, and I go in the editing room.

So when do they eat?

There’s a walk-in lunch on the set, so basically the kitchen opens at eleven, and it closes at three. Not every one of the cast and crew is working the whole time. The light guys are not working when we’re shooting for example, so they can go eat. There’s always a part of the cast and the crew that is standing around and looking at their phones anyway.

Can you name one film that you would always recommend?

I’m kind of all over the place with films – Asian films, American films, European films, films from Hollywood émigrés, as you can imagine, like Otto Preminger or Fritz Lang. I don’t make any difference between high-brow and low-brow in films: I look for ecstasy in films, and when films have ecstasy, I like them. If you’d force me to pick out one particular masterpiece, I would say that one of my all-time favourite films is “Kagemusha” [1980] which I try to watch as much as I can, because everything that we do is basically fly crap compared to that movie. It just won’t get any better than that.

International Film Festival Rotterdam (Netherlands)
January 30, 2018

The original German-language trailer of “The Captain” with French subtitles


HEAVEN! (1993) DIR – SCR Robert Schwentke PROD Tom Hammond CAM Amit Bhattacharya ED Hugo Rynders MUS Jim Norman CAST Al Alvarez, Mitch Brian, Luis Contreras, Hannes Jaenicke, Philip Lester, Myron Natwick, Phil Rubinstein

TATTOO (2002) DIR – SCR Robert Schwentke PROD Jan Hinter, Roman Kuhn CAM Jan Fehse ED Peter Przygodda MUS Martin Todsharow CAST August Diehl, Christian Redl, Nadeshda Brennicke, Johan Leysen, Fatih Cevikkollu, Monica Bleibtreu

EIERDIEBE, a.k.a. THE FAMILY JEWELS (2003) DIR – SCR Robert Schwentke PROD Oliver Huzly CAM Florian Ballhaus ED Hans Funck MUS Martin Todsharow CAST Wotan Wilke Möhring, Julia Hummer, Antoine Monot Jr., Alexander Beyer, Janek Rieke, Doris Schretzmayer

FLIGHTPLAN (2005) DIR Robert Schwentke PROD Brian Gazer SCR Peter A. Dowling, Billy Ray CAM Florian Ballhaus ED Thom Noble MUS James Horner CAST Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sean Bean, Kate Beahan, Michael Irby, Assaf Cohen, Erika Christensen, Greta Scacchi

THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE (2009) DIR Robert Schwentke PROD Dede Gardner, Nick Wechsler SCR Bruce Joel Rubin (novel by Audrey Niffenegger) CAM Florian Ballhaus ED Thom Noble MUS Mychael Danna CAST Eric Bana, Rachel McAdams, Ron Livingston, Michelle Nolden, Alex Ferris, Arliss Howard, Brooklynn Proulx

RED (2010) DIR Robert Schwentke PROD Mark Vahradian, Lorenzo di Bonaventura SCR Jan Hoeber, Erich Hoeber CAM Florian Ballhaus ED Thom Noble MUS Christophe Beck CAST Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Richard Dreyfuss, Mary-Louise Parker, Karl Urban, Chris Owens, Rebecca Pidgeon, Jaqueline Fleming, Ernest Borgnine

R.I.P.D. (2013) DIR Robert Schwentke PROD Mike Richardson, Neal H. Moritz, Michael Fottrell SCR Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi (story by Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi, David Dobkin; comic book by Lucas Marangon, Peter M. Lenkov) CAM Alwin H. Küchler ED Mark Helfrich MUS Christophe Beck CAST Jeff Bridges, Ryan Reynolds, Kevin Bacon, Mary-Louise Parker, Stephanie Szotak, James Hong, Marisa Miller

INSURGENT (2015) DIR Robert Schwentke PROD Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Pouya Shahbazian SCR Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Bomback (novel by Veronica Roth) CAM Florian Ballhaus ED Nancy Richardson, Stuart Levy MUS Joseph Trapanese CAST Kate Winslet, Naomi Watts, Tony Goldwyn, Octavia Spencer, Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jai Courtney, Mekhi Phifer, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller

ALLEGIANT (2016) DIR Robert Schwentke PROD Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher, Pouya Shahbazian SCR Noah Oppenheim, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage (novel by Veronica Roth) CAM Florian Ballhaus ED Stuart Levy MUS Joseph Trapanese CAST Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Jeff Daniels, Zoë Kravitz, Ashley Judd, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller

DER HAUPTMANN, a.k.a. THE CAPTAIN (2017) DIR – SCR Robert Schwentke PROD Frieder Schlaich CAM Florian Ballhaus ED Michal Czarnecki MUS Martin Todsharow CAST Max Hubacher, Frederick Lau, Milan Peschel, Alexander Fehling, Bernd Hölscher, Waldemar Kobus