CIFF's "New Director's Competition" entry Wolfskinder is a spare-dialogue observance of psychological extremes forgotten by time, as captured with Terrence Malick-like visuals of nature. With a small film crew between twenty and twenty-five people and a small handful of non-professional child actors, writer/director Rick Ostermann used his research on real lost German children of post-WWII, "wolf children," to film a striking narrative that captures the atmosphere of a struggle for survival experienced by thousands. I sat down with Ostermann in an exclusive interview before yesterday's Q&A to discuss his film, how to direct children in a brutal story, Wolfskinder's homages to Malick, the difficulty of making a film about Germany's victims of World War II, and more.
Wolfskinder is playing once more at CIFF on Friday, October 18. Ostermann has been nominated for the CIFF's "New Director's Competition."
In this film you worked with young non-actors, and were able to get some pretty raw moments of emotion from them. In particular, there is a striking moment involving one of the girls, where she is cutting her hair, and a single tear rolls down her cheek. Is there a tactic to get emotions from non-actors and kids?
When you make movies, you always want to find the magic moment, and to get it on camera. This was one of those moments, where everything was perfect. We could only do it once, because she was cutting her real hair off. It was like, "Okay, stop cutting," and then we changed the camera, and I talked to her and said, "I want you to cry a little bit. Not shivering, just crying a little bit for yourself. It's like you are now starting to be a woman, you are no longer a girl." And then I had a kid's coach with me for the whole movie, and he talked to her, and then like we do with big actors, we used music. And then she started to think of something very sad.
You said in the press notes that considering the pain and extreme emotions in this experience, there is no reason for historical glorification of the victims of World War II.
It was quite hard to finance this movie, because it is about Germans as victims of World War II. It is really a sensitive topic in Germany. Always I have said, I know that the Germans, and we, and my grandparents, they caused this terrible war. I know this. I feel guilty for it, and I am third generation after the war. But we start to look at it from different angles now. So this is what I meant, to have a look and see what happened. We don't have to forget what happened. It is our nations that did it. We have to keep it in our minds.
Your accounts of this story are brutal, but psychologically more than visually. Was there no question to you that the film would have such unforgiving heaviness? Or were there reservations about doing so?
It could be be more brutal than it is now, and I tried to do so. But with these kid actors, I only had 25 days of shooting, and we had an extremely low budget and I had no money, so I couldn't go for any risks in losing any of the kids after three days in case they were like, "This crazy director is getting mad." And I think it is quite brutal in the end. And all the brutality that happens in the movie, I hope it happens in the head of the audience. We all know this. We watch the news and horror movies. I am a little bit fed up of seeing all of it - I am more interested in having it in your head.
I made a short movie, called Still. I made it in the process of financing this project, just to show how [Wolfskinder] could be, and it is without dialogue as well. When we were shooting that scene, there were a lot of pre-rehearsals to the scene. It was interesting that the Russian boy from the film was actually from Lithuania, and the family didn't want him to play it. They said they didn't want their boy to be killed just for a movie, but I appealed to them. The whole scene was shot in one hour. Our camera was in the water, just as it was getting dark.
With such brutality, it seems like you were avoiding a type of depiction that would be readily associated with Hollywood. What films did you specifically watch while making 'Wolfskinder'?
Don't get me wrong, I would love to make Hollywood movies! When making this one, I was watching Go and See, which is a really hard film. And Lord of the Flies, the black-and-white one. And I also looked to Stand By Me as well. And I admire Terrence Malick, and films like The Tree of Life, and how he handles those kids in that film.
I thought I saw some Malick in your film ...
The interesting thing is that my director of photography is half-American, and she worked a lot with a German Steadicam operator, who does that work for Terrence Malick. When we were shooting this film, they were shooting To the Wonder, and they were talking on the telephone. And we always said we wanted to do it like Lubezki and Terrence Malick. And we all shot everything without electricity lights, and we always shot against the sun, like Lubezki, so it's a little bit of an homage. When the kids are in the water and they are swimming over the camera, we borrowed that from The Thin Red Line.
Did your research into the stories of real wolf children influence your ending?
I was thinking for half a year of doing a big scene when the characters are older. And then I thought, that's not the right stuff for this story. I wanted it to be the audience's focus on what happened to these kids, and what [the kids are] fighting. This is what happened to these kids. They are living a lot of open ends. They just disappear. They just found other kids. These stories get connected for a little time, and then they disappear again.
Quick Questions with Rick Ostermann
Favorite fruit? I'm German, it's potato [laughs].
What did you have for breakfast this morning? Coffee, tea, and croissant. That's it.
If you could be somebody else for 24 hours, who would you be? Any kind of flying animal ... a bird. In the country.
Age of first kiss? 15.