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Past Article

Veit Helmer's European Declaration of Independence
By Jonathan Marlow
December 18, 2005 - 12:25 PM PST

"I adapted Wim's style of being really independent."

Having co-written the screenplay with Gordan Mihic, Veit Helmer has been working on Azerbaijan Dream, a love story set in a remote village, for over four years now. That work could well reap prestigious reward now that Veit and his project have been named one of twelve finalists for the International Filmmakers Awards sponsored by Sundance and NHK, the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation. His is one of three from Europe in the running (the other trios of finalists come from Latin America, the US and Japan).

Azerbaijan Dream has already won backing from two European organizations and, "At the moment, I'm casting in 22 countries," says Veit. "The Sundance nomination is quite an honor I'm very pleased about."

Back during the 2004 San Francisco International Film Festival, Jonathan Marlow spoke with Veit about his work with Wim Wenders and about his own films, Tuvalu and Gate to Heaven.

Of the dozens and dozens of screenplays I've translated over the years, Tuvalu remains one of the most fun and unusual. Except for a few clipped yelps in that peculiarly raw and limited English that has become the global lingua franca, there is no dialogue, yet the screenplay is as long as most. Shot by shot, every last detail of the strange yet strangely familiar world conjured in Veit's imagination is spelled out with verve and passion, a testament to the consistency and wholeness of his vision. Many critics saw traces of Jeunet in that world, which is fine, but I'd advise anyone to take a second look with Kusturica in mind.

At various intervals, months apart, I'd keep track of Gate to Heaven's evolution, which, as opposed to Tuvalu's, seemed long and arduous, ranging from surgical strikes that'd take out specific characters or sequences to massive nuclear attacks that would radically alter the entire structure of the film. From the beginning, though, I've always loved the idea: workers from every forgotten niche of the globe toil away at one of the largest international airports in the world, watching millions come and go via the skies, dreaming of joining them some day and scheming to make it happen.

Tor zum Himmel is a fine title, but I once joked to Veit that giving a film a title with both "Heaven" and "Gate" in it was simply asking for trouble. Perhaps one shouldn't even joke about these things. Talking with Jonathan, Veit hints at a problematic shoot, but we can be sure that's a tip-of-the-iceberg sort of hint. Visiting the set one weekend in Frankfurt, I never even made it to the airport, the film's sole location. Instead, I spent much of the time chatting with the cast while Veit finagled and negotiated and wrangled and pleaded with the authorities for a few more hours of access. It wasn't even a full year after 9/11, so those authorities were naturally (and probably justifiably) very jittery about security.

When Veit says, "You need to be willing to die for this profession," many will take it as a sort of romanticized, self-heroicizing rhetorical flair, but I can vouch for him: he's not kidding. Veit lives and breathes his work. His apartment in Berlin, which is also his office, is, on the one hand, stripped of anything but the absolute necessities for living, while on the other, lined with notes, treatments, awards, correspondence, PR material, tapes, discs and cans of film, and at times crammed with the paraphernalia of his current project. Still, he's a gracious host, always ready to offer whatever he's got in the kitchen. Which is usually little more than tea and the crackers, snacks and cookies he's collected from his countless Lufthansa flights connecting him from one festival or shoot to the next. - David Hudson

A Trick of the Light

I remember Wim Wenders telling me that the The Brothers Skladanowsky (aka A Trick of the Light) project came about because he was teaching a class. I presume you were involved in that class in some capacity?

Yes, I was a student. Actually, we planned to do a short film. Wenders said that the story, which I adapted, could not really be used to teach film in a classroom. He said, "Let's just make a movie." He was invited to teach at the Munich Film Academy where he, a few years earlier, was a student. "Why don't we make a film about how cinema was invented?" It was 1994, and in one year everyone would be celebrating the birth of cinema. Everybody always celebrates the Lumičre brothers, but Wenders heard a rumor that there was a public film screening six weeks earlier. Before the Lumičre brothers showed something [in Paris], the Skandanowsky brothers showed something [in Berlin], so he asked us to investigate and write something about it. Everybody wrote a script from our class. I wasn't too interested in the facts. I just wanted to give the whole thing a more human touch. I saw a picture of the two brothers and their stepdaughter, a girl that they were raising. Their background was the amusement fairs; that was their business. They were inventing machines all the time. One of the reasons they weren't successful is that they didn't understand that they created something amazing. One of them worked in the circus and he had the daughter and the two other brothers had taken care of her. So I was thinking that they made this machine for her because her father was always away on business. They always invented machines which create images. First, with candles and photos popping up, rotating...

Like the magic lantern.

Yes, all this stuff they were doing. So I thought maybe they would try to give the girl the image of her father. She was never happy because it wasn't good enough, until they came up with the film projector and she was happy. That was the reason which I invented, which was a beautiful short film. So we created the film and it was really successful because it was there when everybody wanted to celebrate the 100th anniversary. We had this film made with a hand-cranked camera in black-and-white with this beautiful girl, eight years old. So it was really Udo Kier and another big actor contributing to this film. We found the granddaughter, we found the actual girl...

Of course, Udo Kier is in your latest film, Gate to Heaven.


A Trick of the Light's a fascinating mixture of narrative and documentary...

That was not yet there. First it was that short and everybody asked us, "Please do another one." So we did another one. We showed their first program, how they went to Paris, how they failed. The Munich Film School had a big problem because they wanted us to make movies. At that time, I had a lot of awards for making short films. Prize money which I had to invest in short films. I didn't want to make short films anymore. I gave the money to the school because I really believed in that project and I really wanted to make this film happen, so I became co-producer on that.

And you were also assistant director?

Yeah, I was writer, co-producer, assistant director, even some of the shots I directed. The principle of the program is that the students each direct a couple of shots and Wenders supervises. Actually, that's what I'm doing now. I'm going to Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan and I'm teaching using the same method because it's fabulous. It's amazing. Anyway, when we made the third part and we edited it, he understood that it couldn't be edited as a third part. Everything had to be mixed together. The long film was born; parts one, two and three don't exist anymore. We intercut and completely created the whole material. That went off and was invited to Venice, Rotterdam and is still shown in some countries, mostly on DVD. It's more successful now as a DVD. It was only released in Italy, France and Japan theatrically.

It was only because we [the team at Scarecrow Video, due in large part to the efforts of Norm Hill and the late George Latsios] presented a program with Wenders in Seattle. We were able to screen essentially everything. Fortunately, the Goethe Institute assisted us with several of the prints.

Even the long version of Until the End of the World?

Yeah, we played that as well.


It hadn't been seen...

That's something I was really eager to show to people.

You mentioned that you were done making shorts. This followed the international success of Surprise! [which won ten prizes at festivals around the world], shortly before A Trick of the Light.

Surprise! was made in 1994 and premiered in 1995. The first part of A Trick of Light was finished in 1995, part two was finished in 1996 and the whole film appeared in 1997.


Were you able to use your experience on Surprise! and A Trick of the Light to aid in your financing of Tuvalu, your first feature?

Financing a movie is never easy. On every film that I do, I learn something about filmmaking and I learn something about financing. Let me say it like this - Wim Wenders encouraged me, not by telling me something but just the way he worked. He encouraged me to make my way as a director/producer. You need to be a producer to make decisions. In Germany at that time it was very difficult for directors to also be producers. That's connected to German film history; the new wave of directors, like in the 1970s, Fassbinder and all these people, there weren't any more of them except Wenders, who is actually the only person who really continues to make film [and Werner Herzog and, to a lesser extent, Werner Schroeter]. This principle is not good, directing and producing. They blame the failure of German cinema on the principle of the auteur. One person doing everything. And they wanted to introduce the American system in Germany. It doesn't work because there's no money. You cannot give producers money. If you do not have money, what do you do? I adapted Wim's style of being really independent, being an independent director/producer trying to maintain your artistic point of view.

next >>>

"I adapted Wim's style of being really independent."
"Be open for the story to happen."

back to past articles


Jonathan Marlow
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.

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view past articles

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