Andreas Prochaska on his new film THE DARK VALLEY

.. that could incorporate local authenticity that could incorporate local authenticity.» Andreas Prochaska on his new film THE DARK VALLEY  hosted by the 64th Berlinale for its world Premiere on Feburary 10 at the Zoo Palast.

In the afterword to his novel The Dark Valley, Thomas Willmann mentions two spiritual fathers. One of them is Sergio Leone. How do you go about adapting a novel which has already been written like a film?
Andreas Prochaska: It's true that in the novel relatively little takes place in terms of action during the first 100 pages. And then, in the core of the plot, there are over 50 pages with flashbacks to various time levels. So there are two issues we had to resolve. Firstly, how to find a structure that transports the soul of the novel, and secondly, how to keep the exposition as short as possible, so you can move into the actual plot as quickly as possible. Our solution was to give Luzi a more important role and a voice-over function. That made it easier for us to create links to other time levels. In fact, apart from the flashbacks, the novel is written in a very linear fashion. It begins in the fall, when Lukas and Luzi meet secretly and fall in love, while the film steps in just before the wedding. When I read the novel I had the idea that the showdown could be adapted for the film on a 1:1 basis, but this turned out not to be the case. In the novel Greider is constantly in the superior position, which would be too boring in a film. At some point the hero has to face obstacles. So we threw everything away and rewrote the showdown. Interestingly enough, Thomas Willmann approved of all these changes.

Was he involved in the process of writing the screenplay?
Andreas Prochaska: No, not at all. It took me a year to organize the rights, which were held by him, not the publisher. Right from the start I made it clear that I would make my own film from the material, without involving him in the adaptation, and the point came when he placed his novel in my hands.

How did this novel first come to your attention?
Andreas Prochaska: While we were making the second part of Dead in 3 Days I spent a great deal of time in Tyrol, and the time came when I started to wonder what it would have been like 100 years ago if a stranger entered one of those tight-knit village communities. I imagined it a bit like in the Wild West, so I started to look around for material for a Western. One weekend when I was having breakfast I spotted a mention of this novel in the review section of the Kurier – "archaic revenge story… a stranger comes into the mountains… mixture of a Western and a homeland novel". It sounded like exactly what I was looking for. I was the first one to get in touch with Willmann; afterwards half the German film industry lined up to see him. Willmann is a film critic himself, and he‘s certainly very critical as far as German films are concerned. He wanted to choose in person the individual who would adapt the novel for a film. As an Austrian I was more of an unknown quantity. He very much liked Dead in 3 Days, because a great deal of that is narrated on an atmospheric level as well. That, in combination with my honesty and obstinacy, proved to be the deciding factor.

When you were reading the novel did it strike you as a pure Western, or did you also perceive it as a mixture of Western and homeland novel, as the review mentioned?
Andreas Prochaska: It was exactly that mixture that appealed to me. I definitely didn't want to do what the Italians did with their spaghetti westerns, which was to stick Italian actors in cowboy costumes, pretend that the Dolomites were the Rocky Mountains and then dub everything in English. I wanted to take the opportunity to make a genre film that could incorporate local authenticity. In terms of language as well. I wanted the villagers to speak in their own dialect, and the stranger to speak in his broken German.

You wrote the screenplay together with Martin Ambrosch. How did you divide up the work?
Andreas Prochaska: The first thing I did was send him the novel and ask whether he could imagine developing it into a screenplay with me. I wanted to be involved as co-author, because it had to be written in a very visual way. There are two key points here. One, as I already mentioned, was Luzi‘s voice-over, which made it possible to handle that mass of text. And then Martin had the idea of making Greider a photographer instead of a painter. Painting is a problem in film, because painting is associated with style and content, which isn't important for the story. Once those two basic questions were cleared up, Martin wrote the first version, I wrote the second, and the next version was the one we used when we applied for a film subsidy. Actually, the screenplay was written in five weeks. It released such a lot of energy. Thomas Willmann told me on 21 December 2011 that I could have the film rights: we started writing the screenplay in February, we submitted the screenplay for subsidies in April, and in October we started building the set. It was like a home run in baseball.

The focus of the film is very strongly on one person: Greider. In the development of the story special attention must have been paid to him. You've devised a Greider who is somber, introvert and taciturn. Why?
Andreas Prochaska: I wouldn't necessarily describe him as somber. He has a burden on his shoulders. When you discover his background story, the reason he came to this valley, it's obvious that he's not going to be a happy-go-lucky character. And I found that melancholy element in Sam Riley. He had to be young, and he also had to be somebody who would be underestimated by the villagers. They would never have accepted a person who was visibly dangerous. The sadness in his being was an important point, and one thing for me that underpins the whole story as a subtext is a search for identity. After all, there’s a lot connecting Greider with this valley, as we discover later on. I talked to Sam much more about films like Drive, Shame and The Samurai than about classic Westerns.

There wouldn't be much conversation in a gloomy mountain valley in the late 19th / early 20th century – and probably there would be even less in a village community that was being oppressed by one big farmer. Which places all the more emphasis on the words that are spoken. Was writing the dialogue a particular challenge?
Andreas Prochaska: There are two linguistic levels: the dialogue, and the voice-overs, which also required their own language. Smalltalk definitely wasn't part of the communication, which meant for the dialogue that every word had to be weighed up. On top of that, we had a leading actor who didn't have German as his first language; he found some of the words difficult to pronounce. That meant there were small adjustments made during the read-throughs. In order to find a common language for the village community, Carmen Gratl and Martin Leutgeb - who are both from Tyrol – recorded the dialogue and made it available to everybody. All the dialogue combined comprises no more than 25 minutes of the film, while the whole film is 115 minutes long.

For the part of Greider did you always have in mind an actor whose first language is English, who would speak German with an accent? How did you come to choose Sam Riley?
Andreas Prochaska: It was obvious, and at some point it became urgent. The decision to use an English-speaking actor also brought an element of the Wild West and the big wide world into the valley. I stumbled across Sam Riley in a really banal way: I was sitting at my computer, window-shopping through English agencies, and I came across a photo of Sam looking like Alain Delon in The Samurai. Then I also remembered having seen him in Control, and after that I didn't consider any alternatives. We sent him the screenplay, and six weeks later we got a short e-mail from the agency saying: "Sam is not interested". It emerged later that he never got the screenplay to read. And then, when X-Filme came on board, we got the screenplay to him by some private channels, thanks to Tom Tykwer. He read it in a week, and we met in Berlin. It was a great meeting. I was nervous, hoping he'd be prepared to play the part, and then I realized he was also nervous, because he really wanted the part. He said it had been a dream ever since boyhood to play the hero in a Western, but as a Brit he'd never allowed himself to think he really could play a character like that – let alone in German. Luck is always a huge factor when it comes to making films.

In the novel Greider comes to the village so he can paint pictures of the landscape and of village life. Here you made a conscious decision to have him working in a different medium: photography, or to be more precise, daguerreotypes. They're both techniques, like the cinema, that create an image in order to expose something that is hidden. Was that choice also your homage to the cinema?
Andreas Prochaska: I'd really like to say yes at this point. But to be perfectly honest, for me it was partly a very strong Western aspect, and aside from that, the "magic box" element provided Greider with the means of securing his entrance to the village. Brenner describes it as a "mirror with a memory". For me, in terms of the farmer Brenner and his awareness that his time will soon be over, the daguerreotypes provided an opportunity to record his life's work. Of course, to a certain extent it is also a homage to everything that’s capable of translating reality into images. The particular strength of photographs is their ability to capture emotions and transport them.

When Greider comes to stand at the bedside of old Brenner, suddenly there’s a break from the ruthless murders the avenger has been committing. It's a very long, crucial scene between the two men. Why do you provide some much space for this scene?
Andreas Prochaska: The film has three showdowns: the gunfight in the forest, the hand-to-hand combat with the blacksmith, and the confrontation between old Brenner and Greider. It seems to me that one of the reasons why Greider has come to this valley is his search for an identity. The questions of who he is and where he comes from are resolved in this scene. I said as a sort of joke that it's like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader confronting each other here. It was important for me to make it clear that we have two people here who are confronted with their actions and have to live with them. In all likelihood there are no more than 10 words spoken in the scene, but each one of them is absolutely crucial. What goes on here really provides the reason why the whole story takes place. It was fantastic to be able to experience that day's shooting with two such great actors, and they reacted to each other in an incredible way: one of them who carries so much history around with him despite his youth, and the other an older actor, Hans-Michael Rehberg. For me, the crucial point is that Greider comes to realize how much he too is part of this valley, and why he was capable of doing the things he did. Certainly not on the basis of the upbringing provided by his mother. That becomes apparent to Greider in this scene.

Is Greider an avenger or a liberator?
Andreas Prochaska: Everyone can answer that question for themselves. One decisive aspect of the novel, which I was determined to carry over into the film, was that the act of vengeance doesn't bring about any feeling of liberation, at least in the village. And that throws up some gripping questions. It's also one of the strengths of the story that it leaves you with questions you may find yourself mulling over the following day.


Interview: Karin Schiefer

January 2014