Film & TV

Interview with Film Director and German Film Festival Special Guest, Franziska Stünkel

Film director, writer and German Film Festival special guest, Franziska Stünkel talks to Glam about her latest feature, and all things German cinema

Writer and director Franziska Stünkel is in Australia as special guest of the German Film Festival. Her own film, The Last Execution (Nahschuss) is one of the highlights of this year’s program. She spoke to Glam last week about this extraordinary film, the Festival, and the current state of the German film industry.

The Last Execution is based on the true story of the last person executed in Germany (specifically in the GDR). The story of her choice of topic is a fascinating one.

“About twelve years ago I read this article about the death penalty in the GDR and I was really shocked about that because I didn’t know. And later I realised that nearly everyone in Germany didn’t know about this. It was top secret in the GDR as well: nobody there knew about it. In 1987 the government of the GDR told the people that now the death penalty will stop and everyone was really shocked because nobody knew that there was the death penalty!”

Horrified and fascinated, Stünkel dug deeper.

“I started my research and I found a photo of Dr Werner Teske the last person executed in the GDR, in 1981. The photo was taken the day he was sent to prison when he was 39 years old and I couldn’t forget. Because for me he seemed like a sensitive person and I was asking myself ‘what happened to this person’. So I went deeper into my research and asked for his trials from the Stasi-Unterlagen-Behörde, the institution where all the Stasi files are kept in Germany. I read his files, talked to a lot of historians, former prisoners from this time, and many people who grew up in the GDR. It was a ten-year-long process of research and writing the script.”

Although based on Teske’s case, the protagonist of Stünkel ’s film is named Franz Walter. This was a very deliberate choice to fictionalize, whilst remained true to the original story.

“I wanted to make clear that it’s not a documentary. I think it’s very important that people are not watching the movie and searching for the exactly true story. For me it was important to tell [Teske’s] life story, and in the main aspects it is definitely close to reality – that the Ministry of Intelligence asked them to work for him, that he worked in the foreign intelligence service and that they offered him a professorship, the way he took papers home with him, and they sent him to prison – that is all close to reality. Also his time in prison and his trial, are taken directly from the records. The way they executed him is exactly the way they did it in reality. But then there are other parts of the movie that I took from other cases, or other people’s lives, or which could have happened in the GDR. I used these to make his inner life more concrete.”

There are several films in this year’s Festival which delve into Germany’s past, whether wartime, or post-war, West Germany, or GDR.

“It is interesting that Nahschuss is not the only historical movie. Yesterday was the opening, and it was wonderful because people like to talk a lot about the movies and about the festival, and you can feel the energy. I know this energy from Germany because it is so wonderful to talk to each other again directly. I think the cinema is not only a place for discussing important topics but is also a place where you connect emotionally. The movie screened at the opening was A Stasi Comedy which is totally different to my movie! We had a lot of comedies about the Stasi right after [the fall of the GDR], Goodbye, Lenin! [which is also screening as part of the Festival] and movies like that, but this is the first one in a very long time.”

 Stünkel believes is it vitally important to keep telling these stories.

“I have a clear opinion about that. We are living in this country together and we have totally different pasts, East and West Germany. We have to understand each other. And we can learn from those pasts. Nahschuss is a movie about the past, about one specific historical case from the past but it also looks at the methods of the Stasi and the way in which people have to deal with the rigid political system where there is no freedom of speech. How do you behave in such a political system? And another elementary theme [of the film] is the topic of decisions. Can we decide freely and how can we be manipulated by others and can we create awareness of the causes of our own decisions. People in some political systems have to deal with a lot of pressure. I didn’t only want to make a movie about the past, but also a movie that you can look on from the current times as well.”

The German film industry has suffered due to COVID like most film industries, and is only really getting back on its feet now. Stünkel had to work in and around the pandemic and the concomitant shutdowns.

“It was a very hard situation that the cinemas were closed for such a long period of time: 10 months in Germany. Last summer they opened up again and we were one of the first movies which had a theatrical release but a lot of movies are still waiting and many will never see the big screen: they went directly to streaming or TV. And that’s harmful because if you are directing a movie for the big screen it’s very different if, from the beginning you are directing it for TV or streaming. So I was very thankful that we had a theatrical release in Germany. Some films when they got into theatres lasted there only for two or three days before another movie came in. Our shooting finished just before the pandemic, for which I’m very grateful. I then finished the movie during the pandemic. So I had to do a lot via zoom which is harmful as well, because it’s not the same creative energy.”

As well as making an historical movie Stünkel has also made good cinematic use of our fascination with espionage. In one scene, Walter has to work out how to leave a secret note in an apartment. The ingenious solution was straight from Stünkel’s own imagination.

“I was thinking what would I do? Where would I put a secret note?”

Clearly if Stünkel never makes another movie (a sad day for everyone!) she at least has a second career in espionage anytime she wants!

Interviewed by Tracey Korsten

The German Film Festival opens this Thursday at Palace Nova cinemas.

Click here to see the full program

Click here to read our review of The Last Execution

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