CARL SCHMITT & MARK CAIRNS

October 20, 2010 | By

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MAKING DAS LEBEN GEHT WEITER

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The DVD format has enabled documentary producers and indie labels to get their work distributed to the masses through more formal corporate channels, like traditional video merchants and online sellers, and via basic websites from where anyone can order a copy of a specific film. But there are occasions when a real gem slips through the cracks because a film’s language isn’t English, specific film footage rights restrict distribution to certain territories, or broadcasters, including specialty cable channels, show a strange apathy to a work that’s genuinely outstanding.

The story of the making of the documentary Das Leben geht weiter / Life Goes On is just as fascinating as its eponymous subject: UFA ‘s earnest attempt to create a realist-styled propaganda epic, so citizens would believe the war could still be won, when victory was pretty much impossible by 1945.

The behind-the-scenes saga of the unfinished epic would have remained an apocryphal little curio outside the scope of German film historians had German producer Carl Schmitt and British director Mark Cairns not collaborated on a non-fiction adaptation of Hans Christoph Blumenberg’s book, and realized a viciously ironic tale of ego, self-preservation, and heightened lunacy.

Winner of multiple awards (including an International Emmy), the Schmitt-Cairns documentary is available in a German Region 0 PAL DVD from Polar Film, which includes English subtitles for the film proper, plus some unique German-only extras.

For this two-part profile of the filmmakers and their 2002 documentary, we’ve grouped and edited together material from separately conducted interviews with producer Schmitt and director Cairns into a more fluid narrative. Before proceeding, readers should check out our DVD review [Main site only] , and familiarize themselves with the doc’s subject and style.

We should also warn you that the following transcript does contain a few major spoilers.

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FIRST CAME THE BOOK

Mark R. Hasan : Do you know what led Hans Christoph Blumenberg to start what obviously was for him a very unique and detailed quest about a movie that many people, including film fans, hadn’t even heard of?

Carl Schmitt : I came across the book in 1993 when I was in my last year at film college, and I was reading it because Blumenberg wasn’t just a filmmaker and journalist; he’s also a film historian. In 1992, there was the 75 th anniversary of UFA, which was founded in 1917, during the First World War. At the 75 th anniversary, he talked to a couple of technicians and actors, and they had a big party in Babelsberg, and the old people started talking about a film he’d never heard of. That’s when he started looking into the Life Goes On story.

He dug up that [UFA] was planning a huge propaganda film just six months before the end of the war, and I found it quite interesting. The film was never finished, and nobody knows whether any clips survived, but I was always interested in the story behind the actual filmmaking – the backstage thing – because making a film of that size, and just six months before the end of the war, is just ridiculous.

I talked to Blumenberg after I had read the book, and I asked him if he was planning a documentary or something like that, and he said, ‘No. It’s impossible, because the film doesn’t exist, and there’s no material left. Nothing.’ The only thing which was found were about five brush still [drawings].

He said that, because of the lack of materials, you can’t make a documentary. And I said, ‘Well,. That’s not the point. The documentary is not about a film which is lost; the documentary is about the things behind the scenes,’ and I think he didn’t get this. Whenever I talked to German people, they always want to know ‘Oh, what happened to the film? Is there stuff available? Are there clips around?’ And that’s not the point.

The film is not important; it’s the actual story that shortly before the end of the war, people tried to make a film that was impossible. You didn’t have the money; you didn’t have the people; you didn’t have the materials. The American people and the English people realized this and immediately got the point that, on the one hand, people lost their sense of reality; and on the other hand, there were a lot of people who used the film to survive… Because it was a propaganda film, they could say, ‘I’m absolutely necessary to work on this film, so you can’t send me to the Eastern front.’

MRH : I take it that Blumenberg did a great deal of research. Was there additional research you had to do, in order to get the project to a state where you could actually start a script?

Carl Schmitt : The only thing we had was the book. He didn’t give us any materials because that was the deal he had with the people: the material they gave him in interviews and all that was just for his book; he wasn’t allowed to give them to anybody else for a documentary or whatever.

Basically, we had to start from scratch… He started his book in 1992, and we started our research about seven years later, so a lot of people who were available for him to interview had already died, because they were eighty and older. We had to look into the archives again; we didn’t have a lot of useable on-camera interviews; and most of our stuff came from looking through the archives in search of additional material.

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THEN CAME THE BRITISH

MRH : How did a British director become involved with a German-language documentary on a very specific period during WWII?

Mark Cairns : I met [Carl Schmitt], who is a German, at Britain’s Royal College of Art, and he’d read the Blumenberg book that the film is based on. I’d known him for about ten years when we began the film, and over those years he’d been talking to me about trying to get something off the ground. He was fascinated by the story, and his fascination was infectious.

MRH : Had you read the book prior to beginning work on the film?

Mark Cairns : I hadn’t read the book. It wasn’t translated. I just listened to Carl talking animatedly about it, and we sort of discussed making a drama about it. Our intention was always to make a more dramatic version, but we were kind of breaking into the industry, and there was no way that we could afford to get that kind of funding to make a film like that; so when the documentary presented itself, we leapt on it.

MRH : Had you already started work on a fictional version of the film?

Mark Cairns : It had been discussed, but it hadn’t really gotten as far as the script stage; we were always talking about it.

MRH : So I take there is no English translation of Blumenberg’s book right now?

Mark Cairns : No, there isn’t.

MRH : That’s a shame, because the story is both fascinating and crazy.

Mark Cairns : It is, and tragic, and absurd.

MRH : It’s completely absurd. One can imagine Stanley Kubrick would have made a film of the story, because it’s just bizarre.

Mark Cairns : When I was talking to Carl about it, I had something like M*A*S*H in mind; that kind of humour out of adversity.

MRH : When you started work on the project, in terms of focusing on the documentary aspect, how did you tackle the whole structure, because you had the non-fiction book, plus a tremendous amount of research to do?

Mark Cairns : I think it was Carl’s idea to structure it around a sort of diary of the war, so we would be chronicling main events in the war as they affected Germany, and as they affected the filmmakers.

MRH: Was there a lot of extant information, or did you have to go beyond the book?

Mark Cairns : Carl did an awful lot of research, and became an expert on it. He did all the interviews, and he and his wife tracked down the surviving members of the crew, and even one of the cast, and the composer [Norbert Schultze] who was very unwilling to talk about the work. He wouldn’t go on camera, and he wouldn’t give interviews.

MRH : I guess that’s one of the problems Carl must have encountered when he tried to track down some of the survivors: how many of them were actually willing to talk about it, and if so, did they look back on the experience as a part of history that they’d managed to survive, or was it something that they just didn’t want to discuss at all?

Mark Cairns : We had an archival interview with [Das Leben director and UFA production executive Wolfgang Liebeneiner] from 1979, whom I think was the kind of guy who put a spin on everything (he was proud of everything he’d done, and of course he wasn’t a Nazi); there’s a period interview with [cameraman Gunther Anders] that we got from a TV station; and a producer, Hans Abich, who’d known Liebeneiner… and took over UFA after the war.

MRH : You interviewed one particular actor, Gunnar Moller, who says one of the funniest things in your film, in which the actors had actually had hoped the Allies would break into Germany, so they could blissfully work again in total creative freedom.

Mark Cairns : I think he was quite happy to be making that film, because the alternative would have been fighting on the front. I think Liebeneiner sort of helped him stay on and work in films rather than actually get drafted into the army.

MRH : For the film’s structure, I guess one of the biggest challenges is that you made a documentary on a film of which there is no footage.

Mark Cairns : Yes, it was a documentary with nothing to document. That was out major problem.

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PROBLEM SOLVED

MRH : One way that you succeeded in telling the story without any footage was to create an onscreen narrator, and have him go through key moments in history, and at the same time, act as a guide for the audience. It’s a very clever device that works extremely well.

Carl Schmitt : The making of [Life Goes On ] is so unique because all the other films I know about from the Third Reich were completed before 1945, but this has a message which goes right into our time.

The UFA was built or setup for doing propaganda films; that was the studio’s original purpose. And between WWI and WWII, they had a bit of breathing space to become really cultural during the Weimar Republic, where all these famous German films come from.

Then in 1933, the Nazis transformed it again into a propaganda machine; so what people did there was propaganda. The purpose was to lie, to change reality, to change facts; but in the end, reality came quicker than expected. They had one car for the whole production. They had no building materials. The people lived in the sets, because the sets, which are artificial, were in better shape than the bombed-out houses in Berlin [just five miles away]… That’s the kind of weird world we wanted to capture.

If you see the normal National Geographic documentaries, you have eyewitnesses, you have archival materials, and then you have a recreation. We tried to do it in a different way, and all of our recreations are shown as recreations.

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WHAT’S OLD IS STILL NEW

Mark Cairns : I don’t know if you get them in Canada as much as you get them in Britain, but there still are documentaries about the war [in which] the recreations were done in a certain rather po-faced way, and I was always rather worried about recreating something being mistaken for the real footage.

For instance, whenever a piece of news about WWI is shown, they show footage of fighting in the trenches, and it’s a pick to bear in mind that there was never any footage shot of the actual fighting in the First World War, but no one ever tells you that’s a recreation you’re looking at. They show this kind of creaky silent movie footage and people believe it is real, and it’s not; it couldn’t be, because no one was standing up with a hand-cranked camera while soldiers were going over the top at the front.

I wanted the recreations to have a certain style; I wanted the film to be about filmmaking, and essentially about the people who made musicals and comedies during the war who weren’t serious people; they weren’t in a serious situation, but they were sort of flippant people living in their own world.

I think Carl came up with the idea of having an onscreen narrator, and I came up with the idea of having him experience moments of the war: he would be lead us through it, and experience it for us in lieu of what we didn’t have, which was footage and documentary evidence of the actual filmmakers, and the actual subject of the documentary.

MRH : I guess the digital technology at this point has progressed so that you could literally recreate that, because some of your ideas are very clever. There’s one moment where Dieter Moor is standing on a street, and there’s a camera and tripod towards the front, and he gradually walks forward, and you realize the tripod is a real practical prop, but the transitions between effects layers are very graceful as he moves from what’s essentially a green screen photo to a practical set with a few nearby actors.

Mark Cairns : We worked closely with a postproduction company, Magna Mana Production in Frankfurt , who became co-producers of the film. They were just fantastic. I wanted to create this world where film was being manipulated; it was a visual metaphor for what propaganda does, which is manipulate the truth.

There’s a scene where Dieter Moor is standing in a ruined street, talking at the very beginning of the film after he’s picked up a newspaper, and the camera moves back, and the whole scene breaks up as a model effect. It has some CGI effects on top of it, but that’s practically done live. It was an old UFA technique, and I was using some of the old 1920s and 1930s techniques pioneered by the UFA studios… to create this hyper-reality.

MRH : One of the strangest moments within the film’s WWII time-frame is when you highlight Goebbels’ frustration with the dissent that was going on in live theatre; so the only theatre permitted by the Ministry of Propaganda was puppet theatre, which is crazy.

Mark Cairns : Yes. I actually wanted to visualize that a bit more, but our budget wouldn’t run to it, but it was a very apt comment of the control of filmmaking: you can control the puppet, and of course he was the puppetmaster of propaganda. Theatre was dangerous because the actors could change what they were saying, but a film was controllable.

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FORBIDDEN REFERENCES

Mark R. Hasan : You managed to include extracts of vintage propaganda films – Hitlerjunge Quex / Hitler Youth Quex (1933), Stukas (1941), Pour le Mérite (1938) and Kolberg (1945) – which is rare for a German production.

Mark Cairns : I think within a documentary, showing clips of the films is probably permissible because you’re showing them within a context of talking about those films. We didn’t show it, but I know that with Triumph of the Will, it has to be preceded by a talk or some kind of introduction, and I think quite rightly, because these are quite unfortunate films… Because we were telling the story of UFA, we had a legitimate use of those things… We went to theBundesarchiv, and had a great few days digging through cans of film.

Carl Schmitt : We have clips from Kolberg, but you’re limited to two minutes. You can’t show more that that. I don’t know why. I mean, there are other films which are much worse thanKolberg in terms of propaganda, but with Kolberg, I think it’s still the last finished film of the Third Reich that made it to the cinema. The shooting was parallel to when they were shootingLife Goes On.

MRH : Some of the films your excerpted have appeared on VHS outside of Germany.

Carl Schmitt: I know. We got a lot of stuff from America because there was no other way of getting it; not for cutting into our film, but for research reasons.

MRH: There must have been a tremendous amount of propaganda that was produced at that time. It seems even name directors were trapped in the propaganda machine, and some never re-established their filmmaking careers in postwar Germany .

Mark Cairns : Yes, and this is one of the reasons we think that parts of Life Goes On might still be in existence, because a lot of these films were then taken by the Russians when they took over the UFA studios, and chopped up and used in their own propaganda films. There was an awful lot of propaganda produced.

MRH: There’s one film that I’ve seen called Wunschkonzert / Wish Concert. Essentially, the premise is that two people meet while attending the Berlin Olympics, and over several years, keep up their relationship while the war goes on in some vague European battle front.

Carl Schmitt: It’s very rare when you see uniforms or flags in the films from the 1940s. In a lot of these films, the Nazis don’t exist, which is very interesting. A couple of films are propaganda films, but the majority were just musicals, comedies, dramas, and love stories, where you never saw a Nazi in the whole film. This was a clever idea from Goebbels who wanted a clear line between the harsh reality in Germany, and what people would see in the cinema for entertainment.

MRH : There’s no references to Jews or concentration camps in Wunschkonzert, and it’s not dissimilar from a standard war drama: you have romance, tragedy, soldier camaraderie, and some combat sequences, except it gets a bit chilling when a visiting soldier on leave gets a Seig Heil from the local kids; and when he goes to his superior’s office, there’s a picture of Hitler on the wall.

Mark Cairns : I think they were conscious of the fact that their propaganda had to be of a kind of subtle variety. I mean, the UFA were making an awful lot of musicals and comedies during the war, and Life Goes On was going to be one of the first films that showed some degree of reality.

I think it was supposed to be set in 1943, and it was showing the bombing. One of the main characters was a scientist developing something to help night-fighters shoot down British bombers. One of the other characters was a [female air raid warden] who worked on the German railways and died during an air raid. There was also a pilot who was obviously trying to shoot down the British bombers.

Those were the characters, and Carl often described it to me as a kind of Coronation Street – lots of different characters living in a tenement block – and you’d see the wife living in the same block as all the characters, and there would be a big multi-strand storytelling going on with all these different characters, and how they experienced the war and lived through it… There were several endings talked about, but the ending was going to be people sort of carrying on through the ruins after a particularly heavy bombing raid.

Carl Schmitt : At that point, the damage from the bombing was so extreme, Goebbels said, ‘Okay, we’ll go another way now. Life Goes On will be the first film where we will show the reality where Germany is at war, and we show the destruction, but if we stick together, we will make it, we will overcome that, we will win, we will rebuilt the whole thing.’ That was his message.

MRH : And I take it this was going to be even more expensive than Kolberg?

Mark Cairns : They were spending an awful lot of money on it, but you have to remember that Liebeneiner wanted this film to last as long as possible to avoid getting sent to the front, because he knew that as soon as that film closed, a lot of his cast and crew would be given guns and sent to fight the Russians, so it was in their interest to keep inventing more expensive set-pieces that would take a long time to do, especially under the wartime circumstances, hence the crazy idea of trying to rebuild the Stetina Railway Station in a studio – a massive undertaking in any film, but they were going to do it in wartime.

MRH: Did they manage to actually construct any of the sets, or did the plans remain on paper?

Mark Cairns : No, I think the Stetina set was built, and the extras were brought in. The extras were from labor camps – what were euphemistically called ‘guest workers’ / gastarbeiter from countries that the Germans had invaded – and I think there were a lot of Poles. They built ruined streets while there were real ruins outside, which seems rather ridiculous.

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PRODUCTION WINDS DOWN

Carl Schmitt: We know that the war was over six months earlier; it finished probably in June of 1944 when the Allies landed at Omaha Beach . This was the final countdown to the end, but still, they were keeping it to the very last moment. I mean, there are stories that Goebbels was still looking for uniforms for the victory parade after the war in April or March, but everybody knew the war was over; it was just a question of time.

MRH: For the creative technicians that worked on the film, I noticed that Norbert Schulze was the composer that was supposed to write a score for Life Goes On . He had already worked onKolberg, but because Life Goes On remained unfinished, did he managed to write anything close to a complete score?

Carl Schmitt: No. He died recently, but I talked to him once before, because he was still around in 2001. Firstly, he didn’t want to talk about anything; he’d done so many interviews and was fed up, but he said he was to start work on Life Goes On, but he never actually wrote anything for the film.

MRH: He may have had some rough ideas sketched out, but nothing was recorded.

Carl Schmitt: Exactly, because they approached him, and he knew that was the next film afterKolberg , but apart from some rough ideas, he didn’t write anything.

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SURVIVING FOOTAGE

MRH : My last question deals with the end of the documentary where you lead up to a search at the DEFA archives. They weren’t able to find anything, but it’s interesting that among German film historians, Life Goes On is a key film on their list of lost films. Can you elaborate on why it’s so vital they find any vestiges?

Carl Schmitt : [It’s because] there are no materials. What exists is the script, which is at the Deutsches Kinemathek in Berlin (which I read, but isn’t really interesting), and the five production stills; they’ve never been able to find anything deeper.

But I think the problem is with the DEFA archives… I spoke to one guy, and he said it will take years [to find any footage] – maybe ten or twenty years – because there’s so many rows of film lying around which have not been looked at; in East Germany, they were just locked away… Nobody looked at them, so it might be that clips and parts of Life Goes On will turn up one day. It might be possible.

The other idea is that there’s a letter which I found in the archives which read, ‘Please send the unfinished materials as soon as possible to the DEFA studios because we want to recut Life Goes On,’ which means we want to use the bits and pieces which are there, and cut it into other films. If this is the truth, then it would be much more difficult to find, because you probably have ten other films where you might find clips from Life Goes On, but you have to know what you’re looking for; otherwise, you won’t find it.

MRH : Near the end of the documentary, you interviewed two adults who admitted they found some of the footage in Lüneburg as kids. Was that something that was in the book itself, or was that a discovery that you came across in your research?

Mark Cairns : The two people hadn’t been found. There were rumors that the film had been burned by children, and I think the newspaper article came out after the book. People in that area had read the article, and had come forward subsequently. I don’t think they were in the book.

MRH: You see the footage being taken out of the cans, the strands being set alight, and then these two embarrassed grownups standing before your cameras saying, ‘Yeah, we did that.’ It’s one of the funniest and saddest moments in the film.

Mark Cairns : Yes. I was just thinking of the music we used for that sequence. It was an actual piece of UFA music, a period piece; it just suited what we were playing during the editing, and I realized I had to use it for that sequence because it was so sad.

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FINDING AN AUDIENCE

MRH : Has the success of the documentary and its Emmy Award led to any subsequent projects?

Carl Schmitt : No, that’s the big problem! Television looks for a format which repeats itself. Number 1: this is a single 90 min. documentary [done in a] very unusual style, so we had a hard fight to do it. Number 2: it didn’t get any recognition in Germany. Not at all. It was completely ignored.

MRH : That’s rather tragic, because I think it’s one of the best documentaries made about he making of a film because it also deals with historical and social aspects.

Carl Schmitt: But it was completely ignored. It wasn’t even shown during prime time. [The network] had the rights to it because they funded it, but they showed it as a minor regional program; never on a bigger scale.

MRH : But it did manage to make it to the American Television Academy where they voted on the film and give it an award, so it did have some life afterwards.

Carl Schmitt : Yes. We also won at the Chicago Television Festival, but it’s a bit sad for me that the film’s recognition came from outside Germany.

MRH : And your current project is to produce a dramatic version of the story?

Carl Schmitt : This was always out intention, but we were too small of a company. We’re not documentary filmmakers, but the documentary was the only way to approach these complex themes, but it was always our idea to do it as a dramatic film.

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DAS LEBEN GEHT NOCH WEITER

MRH : I take it you’re now working on a dramatization of the film’s production. I just wondered what stage it’s at?

Mark Cairns : It’s in an early stage, I would say. It’s a difficult project to work on to get the tone right. My problem with the film is finding characters to sympathize with; after all, they’re all making Nazi propaganda, so it’s rather hard to try and find someone you would actually like to follow. It’s been quite interesting, trying to turn it into a drama.

Once you’re in a fiction film, it’s quite different from documentary. I had Dieter Moor leading you through the film, and Dieter was your anchor and the person you trusted; you knew he was kind of ironic and on your side. Without him, you have a different kind of film and a different kind of story, and you have to tell it in a different kind of way. It’s an interesting exercise, and it’s still ongoing.

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KQEK.com would like to thank Carl Schmitt and Mark Cairns for candidly & exhaustively discussing their film.

Das Leben geht weiter / Life Goes On is available on DVD from Polar Film and Amazon.de

More information is available at the official film site in Deutsch & English, and at StarCrest Media GmbH

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This interview © 2006 by Mark R. Hasan

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Related external links (MAIN SITE):

DVD/Film:  Das Leben geht weiter / Life Goes On (2002) — Kolberg (1945) — Wunschkonzert / Wish Concert (1940)

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