A strong nature with a witty answer to everything, Astrid now feels lost, on her own, impossible to continue her comedy routine. Ultimately only she who is bearing the child can take this weighty decision. What will she do? Who decides whether the child will have a life worth living?
In 24 WEEKS I describe the conflict of a woman confronted with an extreme situation: she must choose between life and death for her unborn child. The film is neither for nor against abortion, but portrays a situation where taking a strong stand is the only option. In the film I permit reality and fiction to merge with one another. Cabaret performer Astrid, played by Julia Jentsch, is a fictional personality. But her fate, and the system she has to work her way through, are not.
In Germany it is possible to abort a sick or handicapped child shortly before childbirth. I read this about three years ago in a magazine article and then started researching.
When their child has been diagnosed with an abnormality, over 90% of German women abort after the 12th week. Is it right that parents are able to decide against a life that they aren’t up to facing – out of lack of time, money, or energy – or does this amount to legal murder? Our continually advancing technical progress makes it possible to monitor the foetus before birth with ever greater precision. The moment prenatal diagnosis reveals an abnormality in the unborn child, a medical indication can be given for abortion – provided the mother feels she is physically and mentally unable to carry the pregnancy to term. Practically speaking, it looks like this: a prenatal diagnostician asks the mother whether she can picture herself having the child or not. The parents must decide whether their embryo’s life is worth living. “Fate” becomes a legal, ethical, and philosophical question. They have the choice – between life and death. What they don’t have is the choice to escape from this decision. Starting around the 24th week of pregnancy, the child is capable of surviving outside the womb. In order to not have the child at this late stage of pregnancy, it has to be killed before it is born with a potassium chloride shot.
The woman carries the child in her womb. This means that legally speaking, she is the only one who can decide in favor of an abortion, but it also means that the “guilt” that comes along with this decision is clearly her affair as well. She is the only one who can answer this moral question for herself. Many generations of women before us fought hard to obtain the right to abortion, to self-determination with regard to their own bodies. It is an integral part of our definition of women as independent, enjoying equal rights, and able to freely shape their own lives. However, equal rights do not help us in a moral dilemma. I am interested in moral conflict as the consequence of our modern medical world. We need to assure ourselves again and again and continually defend what we have attained. We need to insist that what is happening is not just what is technically possible, but what we actually want. 24 WEEKS confronts viewers with a question that each one of us can only answer for ourselves.
After I spent several hours interviewing a couple that made the decision to abort in the 26th week, it seemed to me that working on a purely fictional basis would be too trivial. I set out with a tape recorder and visited doctors, midwives, and various establishments. Astrid’s and Markus’ story was then created together with author Carl Gerber out of the recorded interviews. Dialogues and even entire scenes reported to me were transferred from the reality of the tape recordings to the fiction of my interpretation while writing the script.
Things were going to be difficult for Astrid – as difficult as they had been for the women I spoke to. My protagonist has a job she loves, a husband who really wants the child, and a ’68 generation mother who wants to protect her daughter. And their first child, nine-year-old daughter Nele, is always in sight – a symbol for what the unborn baby could become. With such a controversial subject, it seemed to me extremely important – more than in other dramas – for the viewers to identify with the protagonist, even if they might choose differently from her, and for them to feel strong empathy and go along with her story. Thanks to her emotional intensity, Julia Jentsch is perfect for this role. I combined her acting with the reality of my investigations. The doctors giving her advice in the film are real medical specialists. After I spent over six months searching with my assistants, we managed to find an obstetrician who actually performs late terminations and was also willing to do one in 24 WEEKS. Fearing discrimination, he appeared on the condition that his face is not filmed. Julia Jentsch participates in the German cabaret scene with its actual programs (“Ladies Night”, “3satfestival”, and “Nuhr im Ersten”) and protagonists (like Dieter Nuhr, Gerburg Jahnke, and Sebastian Pufpaff), and does radio interviews with Thomas Koschwitz on 89.0 RTL.
It was important to me to portray the powerful bond between mother and child using real footage. A foetal surgeon, whose daily life is operating on unborn children in their mothers’ womb, provided us with HD endoscopic images of the foetus in a mother’s womb. According to our research, these unique images from the operations have never before been shown on a movie screen in HD quality.
While filming, my main goal was to allow the professional and amateur acting to become invisible, real, and authentic. For me and my crew, everything else was subordinated to this goal. I didn’t do any rehearsing with either the actors or amateurs directly prior to the shooting, since the freshness of the initial moment is often what interests me most. Preparation was a key component in order to allow the actor this kind of freedom. We had preliminary meetings where we discussed and practiced their character’s profile, inner processes, views, and mind-set. We “tested out” their attitude, demeanour, and physical appearance in scenes outside the film (for example in everyday family situations). During the shooting we followed the script, but also every impulse and every spontaneous idea for improvisation that came to us. It was important to me that the actors never speak the dialogue the way it is written in the script. My idea was for them to talk in their own language, to be themselves. This way of working has an impact on every department. In order to allow the people to move around freely in space, cameraman Friede Clausz and chief lighting technician Annegret Luitjens did 360 degree lighting for the filming locations. Set designers Janina Schimmelbauer and Fabian Reber created a furnished home that the actors could settle into before shooting began. Places they didn’t enter before the scenes took place were not entered beforehand. People they never met before were not met prior to the filming. Everything was permitted; resulting in a huge collection of material; Editor Denys Darahan and I puzzled all this together during the editing phase to make something new.
The intention was for 24 WEEKS, with all its intensity and severity, to allow itself to speak openly. I try to tell a story directly, with momentum and meticulous precision, since in the final analysis; this is also part of reality. I saw the script as a sketch, as the starting point for everything, the empty shell that the actors and I would fill during the production. I am interested in those moments that are real and true, where something starts happening with the amateurs and actors, where they become electrified, instinctive, and even primitive. I feed them with surprises the moment things start getting comfortable for them, or when I feel something is bland and unusable for our film.
Finally, our film portrays the field of tension where not just families, but also lawmakers need to take a stand. It confronts the woman’s right to self-determination with the unborn child’s right to life. Astrid is a strong woman who has an answer for everything. Just like the women I got to know during my investigations, I throw her into a situation where there is no longer any clear answer. I hope that the viewers in the movie theatre who are against abortion will also follow this woman emotionally, who does exactly the thing they perhaps vilify. It is an extreme situation that leads to an extreme decision. In my experience, most women decide differently from the way they predicted in advance, before being in the actual situation. This fact interests me because, as midwife Yvonne says to Astrid before the abortion, “We can only make this decision when we have to make it.” Astrid and Markus go from one doctor to the next, from one exam to the next, are caught up in a kind of machinery, a system. They make their way through this apparatus built by the state, and are still alone, since no one can make this difficult decision for them. Astrid sometimes looks us, the audience, in the eyes – she looks at us and asks: What would you do? 24 WEEKS: a collage.
2013 - TWO MOTHERS
2012 - SAINT & WHORE, short
Cast & Crew
Directed by: Anne Zohra Berrached
Written by: Carl Gerber, Anne Zohra Berrached
Produced by: Tobias Büchner, Thomas Kufus, Melanie Berke
Cinematography: Friede Clausz
Editing: Denys Darahan
Production Design: Janina Schimmelbauer, Fabian Reber
Costume Design: Bettina Werner
Make-Up & Hair: Annette Kamont
Original Score: Jasmin Reuter
Main Cast: Julia Jentsch (Astrid), Bjarne Mädel (Markus), Johanna Gastdorf (Beate), Emilia Pieske (Nele), Maria Dragus (Kati)
Nominations and Awards
- EFA Feature Film Selection 2016