A timeless question

Matthias Luthardt on adapting DH Lawrence’s The Fox, Pingpong and Autumn 1929 - Shadows Above Babylon

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Matthias Luthardt with Anne-Katrin Titze on his cello musicianship inspiring Clemens Berg’s role in Pingpong: “I used to play a lot when I was a teenager. I was playing intensely.”
Matthias Luthardt with Anne-Katrin Titze on his cello musicianship inspiring Clemens Berg’s role in Pingpong: “I used to play a lot when I was a teenager. I was playing intensely.”

My first interaction with Matthias Luthardt, the director of the upcoming DH Lawrence adaptation of The Fox (Der Fuchs), written by Sebastian Bleyl, starring Luise Aschenbrenner (Dominik Graf’s Erich Kästner adaptation of Fabian: Going to the Dogs) and Christa Théret (Olivier Assayas’s Non-Fiction) was when I sent in a question during the Face to Face with German Films in 2022 filmmakers' panel in Berlin: “Which film you saw did you particularly like in 2021?” His response was Joachim Trier’s Oscar nominated The Worst Person In The World, starring Cannes Best Actress winner Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie.

Sebastian Urzendowsky and Clemens Berg in Pingpong
Sebastian Urzendowsky and Clemens Berg in Pingpong

Autumn 1929 - Shadows above Babylon (Herbst 1929 - Schatten über Babylon, a documentary with Benno Fürmann, Fritzi Haberlandt, Nina Gummich, Godehard Giese, Sebastian Urzendowsky on the Netflix series Babylon Berlin, created by Tom Tykwer, Henk Handloegten, Achim von Borries) and Pingpong, co-written with Meike Hauck (starring Sebastian Urzendowsky, Marion Mitterhammer, Clemens Berg, Falk Rockstroh) are two of Matthias’s earlier films.

He with Katrin Küchler and Christian Bräuer are the jury members for the 12th edition of Next Generation Short Tiger program of German short films, a joint initiative between German Films and the FFA.

From Berlin on February 28, Matthias Luthardt joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on his films.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi Mathias! Your new film, The Fox, takes place in 1918. What can you tell me about this DH Lawrence project? The war background has reached brand-new relevance now.

Matthias Luthardt: I was in Strasbourg on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, when this all happened [the war in Ukraine starting] and we followed the news. I was there to record ADR in the studio with two of my actors. Our film is about an Alsatian farmer hiding two sort of refugees in her house. There’s one soldier, a deserter, and a French woman.

Christa Théret and Luise Aschenbrenner in The Fox (Der Fuchs)
Christa Théret and Luise Aschenbrenner in The Fox (Der Fuchs)

The war is somewhere in the background very present. It’s a film about, let’s say, the gender war in a nutshell. It was bizarre to see that there’s a real war starting. There are filmmakers I know who are asking for weapons to defend themselves in Ukraine, there’s others who want to join them or help them as much as they can.

When it began, I was trapped in the studio with my actors and we were recording some sounds and we were back in our shooting which was last October, which was still quite peaceful there. We were shooting the film in the forest nearby, in Alsace in the Vosges Mountains, a very peaceful place.

AKT: Yes it is.

ML: The war is shaping our characters. At this very moment you can see, also in the discussions I had with friends, who could cope with this pressure. Who reacts the way he reacts and why? All these questions we ask ourselves. What if Ukraine is just the first country they drop bombs in? It’s part of Europe, the eastern part, it’s not that far away. What would you do if your chancellor would tell you that your girlfriend can leave the country, but you as a man between 18 and 60 you have to fight and defend your country?

AKT: It’s suddenly close and not something of history. For decades this was a part of history and we could fantasise about how we would have reacted and suddenly it’s right there.

ML: Exactly. And it shows us that nothing is safe or sure. Nothing is guaranteed. The so-called freedom of the western world and the security is not for free.

AKT: I’ve watched your documentary about 1929, connected to Babylon Berlin. I had no idea that Willy Fritsch had the first line, the first audio in German film. “Ich spare nämlich auf ein Pferd.” Meaning: I’m saving money for a horse! There is so much history in this one sentence. I liked very much what you did in the documentary and your focus on precise details. From the hat fashion of the Twenties requiring a long neck, to the horse sentence.

Matthias Luthardt on Rutger Bregman’s Im Grunde Gut: “It’s looking at the history of mankind from a different angle, which is that humans are basically good.”
Matthias Luthardt on Rutger Bregman’s Im Grunde Gut: “It’s looking at the history of mankind from a different angle, which is that humans are basically good.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

ML: The research you need to do in archives can be very inspiring because you discover things that you haven’t expected. Also footage that seems so modern and so timeless and you see connections to our modern society and the debates we have in Germany today. That was surprising to me also to discover these little pearls.

AKT: Kurt Tucholsky complaining about the traffic lights is a beautiful detail!

ML: Yeah!

AKT: Or Erich Kästner commenting on the fact that a play about abortion rights could change society.

ML: For instance Erich Kästner, of course, that is a timeless question that is always connected with what you do when you are an artist or a creative, you always ask yourself: Is there any political dimension? Or can I do something, change something, influence something in society? Is there any impact with what I do or is it just, you know, die schöne Kunst, l’art pour l’art? Which is not something I’m interested in, although, I also say that if I want to do a political film, the best thing you can do is just make a documentary. If you want to make a film now, for instance, about what’s going on in Ukraine, you go there, although it’s dangerous, you need to go there.

AKT: Do you think about it?

ML: Not really. If I would go there, I would try to help people with a car to help them travel from the border to Berlin, but there’s a lot of people doing that already, which is very good. No, I need to finish my film first and I’m not somebody who would go to a war zone to be at the frontline. I know people who are looking for that, but I’m not that guy. You can show solidarity and give support, there’ll be a lot of people coming to Berlin and you have to show support here.

Herbst 1929 - Schatten über Babylon documentary (Autumn 1929 - Shadows Above Babylon)
Herbst 1929 - Schatten über Babylon documentary (Autumn 1929 - Shadows Above Babylon)

AKT: Absolutely, we can all help in different ways. Did you see the documentary that was at Cannes last year, called Babi Yar. Context about what happened in Kyiv in 1941?

ML: No.

AKT: It’s very strong and terribly timely. In your film Pingpong you were very much exposing human evil. It begins and there is a woman with a beautiful headscarf and you could think of Swimming Pool and Romy Schneider and then it turns very much into domestic horror. Evil is not far from your creative mind. Is this kind of evil present in The Fox as well?

ML: Well, I wouldn’t call it evil. Maybe in German we say “Abgründe.”

AKT: The abyss.

ML: Evil, I try not to think too much in that category of good and evil. Although it’s tempting sometimes if you look at Putin now and what he’s doing now; it’s so unpredictable. You could say this guy, he’s evil and he’s doing everything to destroy lives.

AKT: Probably if we had this conversation before the war in Ukraine started, I might not have asked you about evil. Times are changing and our relationship to ideas is changing.

ML: The Fox - I must say it’s a working title, we’re still looking for a different title - t’s also a Kammerspiel [chamber piece], and very intense. We have a traumatized soldier trying to hide there and two women, pretty different from each other.

Der Fuchs (The Fox) poster
Der Fuchs (The Fox) poster

And we have the tensions between these three characters who somehow need to co-exist, although they really cannot co-exist and try to find out if they can co-exist. It’s hard for me to compare this film with Pingpong. I’ve done it quite some years ago and it was my first film also, which is always something different. The first is always particular. It’s a completely different setting, set in 1918 [The Fox], but I’m trying to tell a universal story. So if you ask me about evil or the tension in it …

AKT: … or the abyss!

ML: Or the abyss, I’m sure there will be. It tells us about the difficulty of human co-existence, the beauty and the difficulties of it. It’s both. I’m not a pessimist. I’m even reading a book right now - let me get it from the other room, it’s encouraging!

AKT: Please, go get it!

ML: It’s called Im Grunde Gut by Rutger Bregman [subtitle Eine Neue Geschichte der Menschheit] and it’s looking at the history of mankind from a different angle, which is that humans are basically good. But if you look at the way the history of humanity has been described in other books, it’s always about the brutality, survival of the fittest, Darwinism.

And he gives very specific examples of cases and events that prove that humans are not always tempted to be selfish or egocentric or warriors trying to destroy the enemy. There’s more to that. It’s a question of perspective also. And to come back to my experiences in Berlin [during the peaceful demonstration against the war, which I had asked Mathias about earlier], that was very encouraging in terms of this [he points at the book].

AKT: Humanity coming together in the context of Ukraine and saying this is not who we are is encouraging. While you were getting the book I tried to find a poem by D. H. Lawrence I was thinking about, concerning change of perspective. It’s called Snake. Do you know it?

ML: No!

AKT: [For the screenshot, Mathias moves to show me his cello] Do you play the cello?

ML: Yes I do. I used to play a lot when I was a teenager. I was playing intensely.

2022 Next Generation Short Tiger
2022 Next Generation Short Tiger

AKT: Did the cello inspire the pianist in Pingpong?

ML: Yes my years as a musician, a young musician, inspired me a lot. It’s great that you could watch some of my films.

AKT: I liked very much how you included the actors from Babylon Berlin and how you were dividing historical characters among them. How Benno Fürmann was Goebbels and Alfred Hugenberg. Fritzi Haberlandt is particularly good.

ML: I also enjoyed that a lot. It was an experiment I haven’t done before, to find these theatrical moments without being too theatrical. And with these great actors it was really fun to discover. It’s always difficult when you are making a film about a year like ’29. A lot of things happened there to .., “comprimer” in French?

AKT: To compress.

ML: To compress, voilà!

AKT: Voilà, we seem to be in a year like that right now, already hard to compress. You can almost think about a future, that will hopefully still exist that reflects back on 2022 - as in remember when these things were happening? We are always switching back and forth in time.

Babylon Berlin poster
Babylon Berlin poster

ML: And we are living in a global world, so it’s hard to just ignore what’s happening. Just a last point coming back to your question if I intend to go there and film there. As I said I wouldn’t do it, I would rather - and that’s what I did - support. There’s an initiative of a Ukrainian filmmaker living in Munich. She raised money for filmmakers in Ukraine to allow them to buy equipment and things to document what they are going through now. That’s the better way. I feel like I would be like a tourist with a camera trying to get the best pictures.

AKT: What is her name?

ML: Mila Zhluktenko - Support filmmakers at war! and stand with Ukraine. She already raised like 22,500€ [Now up to 36,169€].

AKT: Great, I’ll make sure to include this. Do stay in touch about The Fox or whatever The Fox is going to be called.

ML: Yes, sure, we’re about to finish.

AKT: Thank you, talk to you soon about your new film.

ML: Yes, thank you, bye bye.

The Next Generation Short Tiger program of German short films will premiere at the 34th Filmfest Dresden inside the Schauburg cinema on Saturday, April 9 at 4:00pm and will be screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Filmfest Dresden runs from April 6 through April 10.

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