German director Katrin Gebbe daringly splices genres for her second film after 2013’s Nothing Bad Can Happen, choosing to make an unpredictable psychological drama as opposed to a full-tilt horror re-tread of The Bad Seed. It could be one of the best homegrown films of 2020.
Pelikanblut shares certain similar themes with your debut feature Nothing Bad Can Happen, namely how free will can be threatened when faced with the possibility of evil.
I was very excited to tackle the theme of the origin of evil in my previous film – Is it a trauma? Are you born like this? Can you change it? I then came across some stories about mothers of adoptive children were confronted with very evil behaviour, and they had to choose to either believe in a cure or give up on the child because they felt they couldn’t cope and wanted to protect their family. Then I thought it was interesting to dig into the mother figure who questions the entire ideal of motherhood, specifically being an adoptive mother.
You focus on the complex concept of motherhood, a beloved touchstone of the horror genre, but never fully commit to the “evil kiddie” routine, instead blending other genres like social drama and supernatural thriller – was it a tough balancing act to get right?
I started it as a straight up social drama but then I discovered I wanted to use other genre elements. The horror elements helped to form another layer for the film’s themes. It is a nightmarish scenario for the central protagonist. I watched a lot of horror films about evil children, and I felt that most of the time, the beginnings of the films kind of always start off as social dramas but then they lose me when it becomes a question of if and how the characters put down the child antagonist. I didn’t want to do that. Even though several audience members have told me that they honestly found themselves wanting to get rid of the child, and this led to questioning themselves about how they could reach such a dark place. It’s a joy to use these various genre elements, because it offers up a lot of possibilities and addresses our capacity for empathy, how we treat outsiders, and how much we’re willing to give.
At no point do you outright comment on the pros and cons of adoption. Was it tricky to avoid any judgement?
I think it’s the job of the filmmaker and scriptwriter to be truthful to this really important topic. Weibke is a polarizing figure for some audiences, but I wanted to give opportunities for the audience to make up their own minds, even if I think it’s wonderful that people adopt children.
The adage goes that you shouldn’t work with animals or children, and you do both quite brilliantly here. How was the casting process and how did you go about avoiding the “evil kiddie” cliché?
It was a trial and error thing, and finding Katerina (Lipovska, playing adoptive child Raya) was like winning the lottery. I really wanted to find a child who was young and had the capacity to maintain her childishness while dipping into darker territory. Katerina was one of the first kids we saw for the role. She was not yet enrolled in school and she was very self-confident. It was exciting to see this young Bulgarian girl who didn’t have the need to please you and get the job, but someone who had a wonderful energy.
How did you get Nina Hoss on board and how was it working with her?
I wanted to present a script in great shape and felt that Nina could be perfect for the role. I sent it to her agent, preparing to wait several months for a reply. And then one day later, Nina wrote back, saying she immediately could connect to the protagonist. It was as easy as that! (Laughs) It was great working with an actress who’s so fair, so empathetic and so full of power, all the things a character like Weibke needed to be.
The film raises certain moral and social questions. Would you consider it an engaged film?
I think it goes beyond that, in a way. But when I’ve had the opportunity to talk to audience members and journalists about the film, what strikes me is how people have picked up on this aspect of the film as being engaged and how it is rooted in the problems of today’s society. I think it’s an important topic to talk about, but people have caught on to how it’s not only about adoption but also can be elaborated on as being about the refugee crisis or, beyond that, how far we’re willing to give when it comes to family members, people with illnesses or disabilities.
You started out in art school, studying graphic design and painting. Are there any specific artists that have had an influence on your filmmaking and on Pelikanblut?
Actually, I have artists that directly inspire me for my films! For Pelikanblut, it was Berlinde De Bruyckere’s sculptures. It’s very much about the emotion I have when I see these sculptures – for example, she made huge horses whose faces aren’t always visible. There are also sculptures of women who look like trees or monsters. I see visible trauma in these pieces – she was a great inspiration and it gave me a great amount of energy.
Both your films have premiered in major festivals – Cannes and Venice – that have faced criticism for its lack of female representation in their Competition selections. Have you noticed any shift or change with regards to opportunities for female filmmakers on a bigger stage, or within German cinema?
It is changing. Slowly. Of course, when there are projects with a big profile and a lot of money involved, there’s still mostly men attached to these films and women have more difficulties to get the trust. A lot of the selection process is about politics and who’s friends with who, but I’m meeting a lot of people who really want to change this. Some festivals, like the recent Göteborg Film Festival, are gradually approaching or have fifty-fifty parity. The choices for film selection have to made by men and women and ideally, the film critics would have to also be fifty-fifty. It’s not just about directors – diversity means that the whole system needs to be reworked and that will make filmmaking a richer place.