Johannes Hammel about FOLLOW ME


«I was interested in the question of how to show the other side of the idyllic family life that could be found on Super 8 film in almost every home in the seventies». Johannes Hammel on his first feature film FOLLOW ME.

The film contains footage from Super-8 films in which someone who knows you can recognize you and your mother. To what degree did your childhood inspire you to make this film?
I was interested in how one can show the other side of the coin of the harmonious family idyll that existed in Super-8 films, from nearly every household in the 1960s and ’70s. Since I like to work with my own material, I took films from my childhood that my father and I had shot and tried to show a dismal, oppressive world existing in parallel as contrast to them. I show the Super-8 world as the fantasy of the Blumenthal family, as a projection of a better life, and the black-and-white world as ostensible reality. Both levels of narration claim to be the true reality. But ultimately they are both merely cinematic realities.

How did you find this material?
It’s material that I had stored; I last saw it as a child. They are memories that remain almost clearer in my head than the real memories, because I’ve already seen them on film. In my short films, I’ve often worked with my own material; but completely different stories can develop from it, moving far from the original material. These films are concerned with the dissolution of memories, with transience. The world I show in Folge mir certainly has a lot to do with my childhood; in a certain way, I am showing my family ? although in contrast to the film’s plot, I had a very happy childhood. The black-and-white world in Folge mir is a kind of fictitious autobiography. For the script, I composed scenes with an autobiographical starting point that then became something all their own in the course of writing. All of my works, including the abstract ones, have a certain autobiographical background, even if that’s no longer visible in the end.

The beginning with the masked procession leads into a world of fantasy and unreality. The start is high-spirited and then suddenly tips over into something gruesome and uncanny. Throughout the entire film, you keep the viewer suspended between a dream world and film reality. Was it your intention to straddle this thin line?
Yes, because I’m trying to depict the protagonist’s phobia. But I didn’t want to view her from the outside and soberly note that she has these or those worsening symptoms. I didn’t want to name anything, because I had the feeling the protagonist doesn’t know herself what she’s suffering from and what is happening to her. I wanted to stand at her side and try from there to make something comprehensible about her condition. That’s why I chose this fragmentary narrative form that doesn’t try to tell a story chronologically from beginning to end. I wanted the viewers to be able to imagine themselves in the protagonist’s state and to enter into her world of perception. I try to tell something between the lines, something one can more easily feel than see. The viewer’s difficulties in distinguishing dream from reality are just as great as those of the character. The film has a very great deal to do with perception.

You begin the film with a quotation from Paul Auster: “As long as you’re dreaming, there’s always a way out.” What led you to do this?
I spent about two years cutting the film, because in the end I had a great deal of material available and I spent a long time thinking about which pictures I should finally choose
to make this world come to life. During that time, I was also reading a lot of Paul Auster and I simply marked this sentence, with no further intent, because I liked it. At some point I stuck a note with this quotation on my editing computer. Originally it was just a note to myself, but in time I started feeling that it also had a lot to do with the film. When the editing was finished, it seemed right to start the film with this quotation – on the one hand, because it had accompanied the work, but also because, from the beginning, it underscores the dream aspect of the film. The woman doesn’t give up, even if she only tries to find a solution in her dreams. Folge mir is not a pessimistic film; it may be a sad film, but hope is always palpable in it, and the quotation underscores this aspect.

You have two actresses play your main character, Mrs. Blumenthal. Why?
For several reasons. One explanation could be that the film takes place at different times: we see Mrs. Blumenthal at a time when she is already older, perhaps living alone, and when basically everything has remained the same for her. I wanted to build these two time levels into the film so I could show that this woman lost her way at some point and cannot solve her problems at a later time, either. She lives from her memories and dreams. Another explanation is that this character is like an image that Mrs. Blumenthal has of herself at certain moments. The figure is an expression of how she feels at times, and it shows how strange she seems to herself. While shooting I tried to proceed in such a way that both explanations can work. I shot all the scenes with the other Mrs. Blumenthal in isolation from her film family. The only relation to the other protagonists I established was through glances, and it wasn’t until editing that I brought them into relationship with each other. Besides, I definitely didn’t want to underscore the passage of time with the aid of cosmetics or mask. I wanted to create a bit of consternation: the viewer should notice that this is someone else. While writing, I often followed approaches that contradicted each other. At first I couldn’t decide how old the protagonist should be. I wrote scenes in which she was younger and others in which she is older. Finally I decided to connect the two. I do a lot of things out of indecision.

I experienced the protagonist as a woman who is always unsuccessful in her attempts at emancipation.
The attempts at emancipation that she undertakes in relation to her disease as well as to her surroundings have a lot to do with the time in which the film takes is set. If it were set in the present, I wouldn’t show this form of emancipation. Folge mir does not take place explicitly in the 1970s, but it is set up so that those years are very palpable; and the Super-8 images are easy to place chronologically. The themes of disease and society have to do with each other, of course. The film ends somewhere where one recognizes that she has not managed to free herself and that, until the end of her life, she will continue trying to escape her situation. Seen this way, the harbor is an emblem of a place one wants to escape. The hope for this remains to the end.

What role do the children play?
In part, the film shows the viewpoint of the children, especially that of Pius. Both in the family and at school, he encounters a peculiar, surrealistic world that he can’t relate to but that he must protect himself from by means of a certain indifference. In part, the passages that deal with the children - for example, religious instruction ? also stand for something in Mrs. Blumenthal’s childhood that I didn’t want to show directly: as if something had been passed on. The film contains many hints at possible causes for Mrs. Blumenthal’s phobia ? for example, her second son Roman’s accident or the lack of love in the relationship with her husband; but for me it ultimately seems that the causes of her disease are more likely to be found in her childhood.

Why did you choose religion or the conveying of religion as the theme for the film?
It’s no longer so easy for me to answer that retrospectively, because I didn’t select specific themes for my film; rather, when writing the script, I already moved more intuitively from one point to the next, to finally get an overall picture. I was interested in the discrepancy between an adult world and a children’s world, which can be depicted very well in terms of how religion is conveyed. I show religion as a rather sad af- fair; a religion that doesn’t function for the adults and that wants to coerce children into their happiness. I show bewildered children and a sadistic religion teacher who wants to give the children an absurd logic to live their lives by. This is certainly a very autobiographical part of the film. Pius rebels against this abuse in his own way. When he burns his religion class folder and all its images of saints on the picnic grill, the joy in his eyes is plain. But when Mr. Blumenthal later chops up the decorated Christmas tree, we sense a repressed anger, but also resignation. Yet fundamentally this film is not about religion; it’s more about a way of dealing with religion.

Why did you choose black-and-white for the main narrative?
It was clear to me from the beginning that it had to be black- and-white. That had a lot to do with the cheery colorfulness of the Super-8 footage; I wanted to show the other side of the coin. Normally one would use the Super-8 material for flashbacks, but in my film these images function as Ms. Blumenthal’s fantasies and wishes. I didn’t want one kind of material to stand for “before” and the other for “after.” It was all to be simultaneous, so that you don’t know which was there first, the Super-8 images or the black-and-white world I built up around them.

You are in demand as a cameraman. What do you like about doing only the images in a film, and what do you like about directing?
What I like about working as a cameraman always shifts a little. Recently I’ve worked mostly on documentaries. At some point I no longer had the patience to implement and reconstruct images that had already been worked out in advance, as they are in feature films. Everything is faster in documentary film: if something fascinating happens, the cameraman can respond and merely needs to find his picture at the right moment. It’s all much more improvised and intuitive, and at the moment that suits me much better. In time I developed a desire to create something of my own once again, to balance out my camera work. In the past, in order to free myself and implement my own accumulation of ideas, I made several short films. In recent years, my desire to work this way has grown.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
December 2010