Philosophy workshops in a prison? Local filmmakers Silvia Kaiser and Alexandra Kumorek recorded this highly perplexing experiment at Berlin’s maximum-security Tegel Penitentiary, which started in 2000 and continues to this day: a kind of 'group therapy' of Socratic-inspired dialogues led by two philosophy professors.
Researched for over six months, filmed over the course of a year and cut from 200 hours of footage, the resulting documentary (currently playing, in German, at Hackesche Höfe Kino) provides an intimate, aesthetically beautiful look at nine inmates and their personal development over the course of the workshops.
How did the professors [Horst Gronke and Jens Peter Brune] react to the idea of you filming their work with the prisoners?
Alexandra Kumorek: The professors told us right away: this is not a research project. This is a dialogue. You’re not in a zoo. You can’t just come in and film and record. You have to take part in the dialogues as well… So for the first half year, we basically went into these discussions, without a camera, and actually took part in the discussions. And then later, when we started filming, it was a bit uncomfortable to come in with the camera.
Silvia Kaiser: But I think that by filming the entire discussions, we indicated our interest in everything the prisoners had to say, and by doing that, we also gained trust.
Did the fact that you are both women affect your interactions with the prisoners? Prison’s a men’s world…
AK: It’s funny. We began shooting with a male and a female camera operator. And we noticed that with the man, it was always a bit more difficult, because there was this manly challenge or competition. And so over time, our team became more and more women-dominated… I think what was an even greater advantage was the fact that we came from outside of the prison system. I mean, it’s an advantage for the philosophers – but for us, too.
To be outsiders – not part of the prison system?
AK: Yes. Inside of this prison system, truly open discussion is basically impossible. The prisoners are completely observed: everything is filmed. And in discussions, with guards, with social workers and psychologists, they’re always being evaluated. In regards to truly free communication with others, the Socratic discussions were really unique. And that freedom also carried into our interviews. In the interviews, the prisoners could really say anything. In the end, we had to say, “Don’t say that, saying that could damage yourself, you’ve said too much. We’ll cut that out of the film.”
Did you notice definite developments in the prisoners while you were filming?
AK: Definitely in regards to the two main protagonists. We didn’t focus so intensely on all of the participants: we started off following everyone intensively and then we realized that it would be far too much for the film.
SK: The prisoners learned, in difficult situations, to take a step back and think about what is happening. And that’s what “inner freedom” is about. Not to react automatically, but to distance yourself from the situation.
On screen, the prison and the prisoners really looked beautiful. Did you film with natural light?
SK: Exactly. We didn’t bring in lights: that was the concept. We wanted to show this calmness. The prison is very calm, like a monastery, nothing happens… and the light was beautiful. It was especially important that we capture the true atmosphere of the prison. We didn’t want to bring in something that wasn’t normally there.
Is that why you brought in still shots of the prison grounds – to record the movement of time through the change of seasons?
SK: The spring-winter-summer progression made a really strong impression on us because the film takes place entirely in the prison and that was really was the only change that took place there… It was much more intense of an experience there than in a city, where there’s much more to observe.
What was it like to make a documentary about prisoners? They are, after all, real criminals… What were the challenges in portraying them?
AK: Characterizing the prisoners was challenging. Yes, they were really criminals, so that one can’t completely empathize with them… It was about finding a good balance, so that they remain humane, that you experience life through their eyes – and really, there was no easy approach to finding this balance. But I want to say that identification is something that comes along anyways, because the prisoners are really very nice, and you really do forget what they’ve done.
Have people at the prison seen the film?
AK: We showed the film in the prison in October, 2009. About 120 prisoners came to see it, the hall was really full. The guards watched the film, too. And for them – the people who always lock the cell doors – it was really shocking to see the inmates from that perspective.
DIE EROBERUNG DER INNEREN FREIHEIT (THE ATTAINMENT OF INNER FREEDOM) | Directed by Silvia Kaiser, Aleksandra Kumorek (Germany 2010). Documentary.