Matti Geschonneck: “‘The Wannsee Conference’ was once the present and it isn’t even that long ago”

The Wannsee Conference, held in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee on January 20, 1942, was attended by fifteen senior government bureaucrats of Nazi Germany who prepared a comprehensive plan for the ‘final solution” (Endlösung) to the so-called ‘Jewish question’ (Judenfrage). The conference was a turning point in Nazi policy toward the Jews; the ‘final solution’ was to be the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews—which had begun several years earlier—known as the Holocaust.

German filmmaker Matti Geschonneck (b. 1952), who directed “Die Wannsee Konferenz” (2022, a.k.a. “The Wannsee Conference”), said in a written statement, ‘The whole purpose of the Wannsee Conference was to plan the efficient mass murder of eleven million people. The most shocking thing for me about this one and a half-hour meeting of high-ranking Nazi functionaries, for the most part well-educated lawyers, was how it almost felt like a production meeting—cooperation and coordination between the offices involved, the stipulation of the time frame, delimitation of the victim groups, the search for more tolerable methods of murder—more tolerable for the murderers that is. There were no moral scruples on the part of the participants. The main concern of the host, Reinhard Heydrich, was to secure his claim to the leadership of the overall organization of the ‘final solution to the Jewish question.’ We want to show what people are capable of; for instance, that they are capable of arranging the organized deportation and annihilation of the entire Jewish population of Europe in a matter-of-fact, business-like conversation.’

The Wannsee Conference has been filmed twice before—both were TV movies—first in 1984 as “Die Wannseekonferenz,” and in 2001 with HBO-BBC’s “Conspiracy,” starring Kenneth Branagh, Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci. Mr. Geschonneck’s screen version was broadcast on the German television channel ZDF in January 2022; the film is based on a screenplay written by Magnus Vattrodt and Paul Mommertz, and Austrian-born actor Philipp Hochmair plays Richard Heydrich. He won Austria’s Romy Award for his performance (category, ‘Beliebtester Schauspieler’).

Philipp Hochmair as Richard Heydrich in “The Wannsee Conference” | Arti Film

The film will be released theatrically in Belgium and the Netherlands on May 25, 2022, and will be distributed by Arti Film.

This interview with Mr. Geschonneck was included in the press kit of “Die Wannsee Konferenz”; it was conducted by Hermann Orgeldinger.

Mr. Geschonneck, eighty years ago, a conference took place in a villa on the Wannsee during which the most monstrous thing was discussed: the systematic murder of all Jews in Germany. The participants at this conference discussed how these people should be killed and how it had to be organized. Why is this film so important?

For me it is about sharing this unimaginable and egregious event. It is about a conference where they planned and set in motion an efficient and organized mass murder, the mass murder of eleven million people, eleven million Jews. It is about a genocide. Certainly, this is by its very nature a singular event in history. But it was once the present and it isn’t even that long ago. And we should all be aware of this. That was once a today.

You have directed countless films. Was “Die Wannsee Konferenz” your toughest one?

Finding the right tone for this unimaginable undertaking—because for me, the tone is what decides the character of a film—that was complicated. Of course, the responsibility of taking on this topic was a particular challenge. That is why I took such a long time to decide whether I would take it on. Does that mean this was my most difficult film? It was a special film for me, of course.

Before you agreed to make this film, you set a non-negotiable stipulation. There is no music in the film. Why was that?

Music is seductive. Music seduces. With music, you can critically influence the perception of the viewer. That is why music is also very dangerous and, at the same time, very favorable. There is great film music. There is film music that we all know. We don’t exactly know what film the music is from, but we know that it is film music. To persevere this entire film without music was very important for me. However, I know I am taking a big risk. But I also wanted to avoid an even greater risk of manipulating the audience; I wanted to exclude that entirely.

You shot the film in a studio and on location at the original villa where the 1942 meeting took place, and which is now a memorial center. Is it harder for actors to film at such a location as opposed to in the studio?

Most of the film was shot at Berliner Union Film; the advantages of a studio are obvious. We were undisturbed, we weren’t impacted by the weather and so forth. We were also filming during the pandemic, which means that the studio offered another advantage; it was much easier to organize all the tests while working in the studio than it was when we filmed on location. I think we spent about four or five days on location at the villa, I don’t remember precisely. Most knew the location; they knew where they were going. We only filmed the arrivals, the departures and two or three scenes of dialogue there. But it was very important to include the building, the lake, the entire area. For the actors, it was no problem compared to working at the studio.

Scene shot at the villa Am Großen Wannsee; since 1992, it is a Holocaust memorial and museum | Arti Film

What criteria did you use during the casting process?

The original protagonists were relatively young; their average age was 42. Heydrich was 38, Adolf Eichmann was 35, Rudolph Lange 32, I believe. The oldest was, if I remember correctly, Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger, at age 51. It was astonishing to see how young they all were, how quickly they all had made a career in this relatively short period of nine years since taking power in 1933. But for me, making this film was about telling the story of this appalling and unimaginable event. It was less about recreating the physiognomy or the naturalistic depiction of the characters of the people presented. It remains a fiction. And when casting, I considered the current level of knowledge and the material we had seen. In cooperation with casting director Simone Bär and consulting the producers, it ultimately came down to intuition as to who we should cast. There were 16 people: 15 men and one young woman. The bottom line was there is a leading role, and yet there is no leading role. The leading role is this conference. And the interaction is very important, so it is an ensemble performance. This ensemble must work. It has nothing to do with magic. Or maybe it does.

The minutes of “Die Wannsee Konferenz” were recorded 80 years ago. In the film, chairman SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich says, ‘Everyone must be able to read what they have worked on. Lest anyone should say afterward that they didn’t know what it was.’ How close to the original minutes is the script? 

These minutes are a process log or resolution minutes. There are tape recordings of other meetings in relation to the conference. But even if we had been handed a verbatim record of the meeting, a film of this meeting remains a fiction. The selection of actors, their gestures, facial expression, and intonation, these are all decisions by the director. They are dramaturgical decisions. A fictional film cannot lay claim to being the truth. And for me, it is about telling the story of this egregious event with my methods and my tools.

The plan set out at the Wannsee Conference was to murder eleven million Jews. At the end of the film, there is a long sequence where we only see the villa and then we see on the screen the words, ‘Six million Jews were murdered under the Nazi regime.’ What’s your message with this ending?

Yes, that was of course well thought-through and done not to interrupt the style of the film—this sober, matter-of-fact film. Simply to report on this unprecedented event in the same dry, business-like manner and on this unimaginable process of organizing a mass murder, a genocide.

“Die Wannsee Konferenz” (2022, trailer)

DIE WANNSEE KONFERENZ, a.k.a. THE WANNSEE CONFERENCE (2022) DIR Matti Geschonneck PROD Reinhold Elschot, Friederich Oetker SCR Magnus Vattrodt, Paul Mommertz CAM Theo Bierkens ED Dirk Grau CAST Philipp Hochmair, Johannes Allmayer, Maximilian Brückner, Matthias Bundschuh, Fabian Busch, Jakob Diehl, Lilli Fitchner, Godehard Giese