Masterclass with Andreas Dresen

SEMENYIH: On the 27th of February, staff and students joined a masterclass on film directing conducted by Andreas Dresen, an award-winning German director. He was in Malaysia to serve as a jury member of the Malaysian International Film Festival (MIFFEST). Organised by the School of Modern Languages and Cultures in association with the Goethe Institute,this masterclass was the second part of the Andreas Dresen programme. On the 24th of February, a screening of two of his feature films, ‘Grill Point’ (Halbe Treppe, 2002) and ‘As We Were Dreaming’ (Als wir träumten,2015) was held as the first part of this programme.

Dresen was born in 1963 in East Germany. He studied at the Film and Television College in Potsdam-Babelsberg until 1991. After some years in television in the 90s, he returned to cinema in 1999 with ‘Nightshapes’ (Nachtgestalten). It was eventually entered into the 49th Berlin International Film Festival.

 

A Talk with Dresen.

Moderated by Dr. Thomas Barker, the masterclass was structured as an informal talk with Dresen. He encouraged questions from the audience. He began by introducing himself, speaking of his varied experience in working with films, television, and even theater for over 30 years.

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Dr Thomas Barker was the moderator at the Andreas Dresen event.

Dresen spoke briefly about the two films screened, noting differences between the filmmaking process.  With an improvised script and a small cast, crew, and budget; the filming of ‘Grill Point’ was more experimental. On the other hand, ‘As We Were Dreaming’ was an adaptation of a book by German writer Clemens Meyer. Dresen offered the audience two options. The first was to speak about traditional filmmaking, in which case a focus on ‘As We Were Dreaming’ would be apt. The second, was to discuss the documentary approach, which he noted might be useful as a way of breaking into the industry due to its lower budget.

 

Behind the Scenes of ‘Grill Point’.

Dr Barker started off with a question about how Dresen came up with the storyline of ‘Grill Point’, which revolves around two couples having affairs with one another. Dresen observed that the story itself wasn’t unusual. But the way it was filmed was different. It was less constrained by time and budget. At that time, Dresen realized that many works were becoming predictable. Subsequently, inspiration struck when working with actors in theatre. So, he decided to work with the cast to develop the story. This allowed them to have more creative input, as opposed to traditional filmmaking where actors are like ‘marionettes’. He told them:

“Figure out how the scene works, and then we will follow your intention, not vice versa.”

Of course, a fully improvised script was not his intention. But as filming went on, he realized there was a need for more freedom for the actors to find their own words.

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A fully improvised script was not Dresen’s intention.

There was also curiosity regarding Dresen’s crew members. He said that there were seven: a director, an operator, a sound engineer, a costume designer, a set designer, an editor, and a production manager. He didn’t want to shoot the film in Berlin but opted to locate it in Frankfurt (Oder). This is so that the cast and crew could hang out even after work hours. Consequently, it brought up opportunities to develop the story line through their relationship with each other.

Moreover, Dresen placed frequent emphasis on the realistic aspects of the film. Even selecting the characters’ professions; it was inspired by a trip around the area, according to Dresen. The actors had to work or volunteer at these venues, under documentation. He explained, thus, “the starting [of the movie] was not fictional storytelling; the starting point was a step together with the actors into the reality of the city.”

 

Questions and Answers.

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Attendees of the Andreas Dresent Programme.

A question from the audience prompted him to explain the presence of the bird and the musicians (played by the band 17 Hippies) in the ‘Grill Point’. In fact, they served as comedic elements and character development. It turns out, Dresen’s personal experiences with his parents inspired the birds. On the other hand, the music provided a background score different from typical film music.

Dresen also fielded a few questions which were more technical. For instance, the time it took to complete the filming, which turned out to be two and a half months. The challenges faced when using digital technology as opposed to the 35mm format was also brought to question. However, he repeatedly asserted that obstacles such as lower picture quality, and having to rely on natural lighting, didn’t matter as much for this type of storytelling. The relative lack of restraints financially, technically, and schedule-wise  allowed for more creativity and better acting.

In response to a question about general advice for filmmakers, Dresen cautioned that improvisation requires a lot of preparation and control. It might be best for beginners to start with a more classical approach. For example, learning the rules before breaking them. Furthermore, openness to creative input from the cast and crew was his advice for aspiring directors was to be. In fact, this applies to life as well – people shouldn’t be too egocentric or afraid to take risks. As he quoted Beckett:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Dresen also spoke about his recommendations of directors, which include some neorealistic filmmakers. When asked if he would film outside Germany, he replied; not at the moment, but maybe if there’s a story to be found. To the question of whether he had watched any Malaysian films, he admitted that yes, as part of MIFFEST, but the jury is still out.

 

Discovering One’s Artistry.

The discussion then took a more reflective turn as audience members asked about the basics of a good film and the process of discovering one’s own style as an artist. He noted the subjectivity of the first question, but stated that a good film is reflective, immersive, and contributes to cinema as a social experience which brings people together. To the second question, Dresen professed that such a thing is something that comes about by being open to your own interests. It cannot be actively searched for or learnt from others.

The session ended with his discussion of current projects. These include ‘The Legend of Timm Thaler or the Boy who sold his Laughter’, which will be screening at the opening of MIFFEST. Then there is also a screenplay concerning an East German rock singer whom worked as a miner.

Participants left with a better understanding of the filmmaking process, the creative struggle, and Dresen’s reflective approach to life.

Written by Yee Heng Yeh.

Photographs provided by FASS.

I have two sides; one which is overly-passionate and far too inclined to start debates, and the other that just wants to curl up with a book forever. Writing is and will always be my true love.

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