Good comedies are always based on serious subjects
Interview with Simon Verhoeven on his Comedy nominee WELCOME TO GERMANY
|Can you briefly describe what WELCOME TO GERMANY is about?|
WELCOME TO GERMANY tells the story of a dysfunctional, bourgeois family that decides to take an African refugee named Diallo into their home.
Some family members are against this, some are for it. The family then is portrayed mostly through the eyes of that African refugee which, of course, leads to funny and truthful situations.
Eventually, by dealing with Diallo - who has much more dramatic problems than his hosts -the family is forced to face their own truths more honestly, to make compromises and find unity again.
My film was meant to be a small, human comedy about the encounter of a German family with an African refugee. But it somehow became a bigger metaphor and satire about the confusions of German society, the whole country, and even a mirror about an estranged Europe and the refugee crisis, I guess.
What was the initial idea and how did you develop it?
I had worked on a comedy about this suburban, estranged family. The characters were well developed, but when I was thinking about the story, there was always something missing. I can`t tell you when exactly I had the idea that the mother could have this wish of taking in a refugee. It came out of her character and just instantly made sense to me.
Every character suddenly became clearer and more truthful, through the eyes of that refugee.
And, of course, I also wanted to tell a story about a lonely guy from Africa, who had lost his family and now finds himself completely lost in this strange country and just hopes for a new life.
When I started writing this, the whole issue was not very big in the media. Then suddenly, while I was writing the script, the whole crisis exploded, thousands of people started coming into Germany every day.
The biggest challenge then was to keep the script truthful and up to date - with foresight, so that the film would appear current and relevant nine months later in the theatres.
The situation of refugees in Europe is a serious subject. How did you find the right tone?
Of course I did a lot of research. I met dozens of refugees and listened to their stories and experiences. I talked to teachers, supervisors of asylum homes, politicians, lawyers, families.
But generally my view is: just because something can be funny never means it can`t be serious at the same time. Good comedies are always based on serious dramas and subjects.
Think of films like LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL by Roberto Benigni, a comedy about life in a concentration camp. And there are many other examples.
I think comedies can help audiences to deal with subjects more openly and emotionally. A lot is happening in our hearts when we laugh.
My tone was definitely politically incorrect, but warm and never ever sarcastic or cynical. I tried to always remain honest and truthful about the subject. I believe that each joke in the film has a truth to it.
I am happy that the story of my family and the backstory of Diallo touched millions of people and also made them feel for this refugee, but also ask critical questions about the future and debate the subject vividly.
How did you find your main cast? And how do you work with your actors?
I wrote specifically for some of the actors and was lucky enough to get them for the film. The biggest challenge was to find Diallo, the African refugee. We finally found Eric Kabongo, who beat out dozens of other great actors, even though he wasn`t really a professional actor at the time, but a musician. Eric did not speak a word of German. But this added to the authenticity, to the process on set. He is amazing.
Generally, I try to establish an atmosphere on set that is very playful, warm and loose - but at the same time highly focussed, motivated and concentrated. Making a film should be the most important and exciting thing in the universe for everybody on set. I personally am convinced of that and want to feel and see that with my team, too.
Comedy is not always easy to translate to other languages and cultures. Why does your film resonate so well?
Well, it is a comedy about a family. With classic family problems. It is about getting old. Getting distanced from another. Getting lost in life. Being disappointed from life. These are truths everybody knows.
Also, the many aspects of the refugee crisis, the questions, contradictions, challenges were translated into very simple, understandable scenes in real life, I think. This hit a nerve with people. I think the audiences in Germany appreciated that the film was not completely one-dimensional, that it didn`t have a single, one-dimensional message. That it asked the right questions.
I am also happy that we portrayed the story of one refugee in a truthful human way. In the end, the film shows classic family characters in a moment of crisis – and it deals with a political theme that touches everybody.
What did you hope to achieve? And how were the reactions in Germany where it was the most successful film last year? Is humour a means to reach people and change their perspective?
The reactions are still overwhelming. Of course, we are hated by certain right extremists who think we are a refugee-propaganda film – which, of course, is rather dumb. They haven`t seen the film of course. They just hate us and created shitstorms over the trailer. We are also hated by Islamists because we definitely formulate some critical questions in the movie about the conservative aspects of Islam.
This was important to me and it was important to a lot of refugees and liberal Muslims that I talked to. If we don`t talk about these fundamentalist aspects of Islam in a rational way, extremists will own the discussion.
But if you ask me what I wanted to achieve with the film, first of all, I just wanted to make a good film. That`s hard enough.
But more specifically I tried making an entertaining film for a wider audience that shows important humane aspects and asks relevant questions about one of the most important political subjects of our time.