Wolfgang Murnberger about MY BEST ENEMY


The point of MY BEST ENEMY is that here’s finally a Jew who manages to make fools of the Nazis. That made me want to do this film even though this approach is a delicate matter. Wolfgang Murnberger on his new film My Best Enemy premiering at the Berlinale competition 2011.

In a statement on MY BEST ENEMY you mentioned your surprise upon learning that some Jews dislike films like Schindler’s List. What’s the reason for that?
Wolfgang Murnberger: It really surprised me, but these people consider a film like that to be a baroque treatment of their suffering. While examining how the Holocaust has been dealt with in film I read, for example, an interview with Imre Kertész in which he claimed that Schindler’s List is the worst of all because its point of departure is completely wrong.

How did you decide upon your approach?
Wolfgang Murnberger: With regard to this project I have to point out the fact that, in the beginning, a Jewish director was supposed to adapt material written by a Jewish screenwriter, Paul Hengge. The two men intended to take a different kind of look at the Holocaust, one without emaciated extras playing concentration camp inmates and suffering Jews, one that instead portrays a Jew as a hero in the context of National Socialism. It was always discussed as a comedy, but I preferred the label tragicomedy. The adaptation was originally intended to be funnier, along the lines of To Be or Not to Be. The approach was the subject of intense discussion with the production company, and I wouldn’t have dared making it a straight comedy. My view was that I would be able to tell the story only if I went for more realism. I realized that the Jews were victims in the Second World War, and every fiction film about this period has portrayed them as victims.

Paul Hengge’s novel was published in 2009, how was this nearly simultaneous adaptation possible?
Wolfgang Murnberger: It’s rarely the case that the material exists in the form of a script first. It just took a long time before the film was finished. In any case, Paul Hengge got tired of waiting for the film adaptation, and for that reason he wrote a novel that came out almost at the same time shooting started. I spoke with some people I trust and then wrote an adaptation with Rupert Henning in which we made the characters a little more realistic, as I didn’t want a kind of grotesque like Dani Levi’s Mein Führer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler. Paul Hengge has already seen MY BEST ENEMY, and he congratulated me, saying he considered my work as a director excellent, though I think he had something funnier in mind.

This story could be understood as a parable, as Victor’s trick is in fact neither seriously conceivable, nor would it have ended well. At the same time, it clearly illustrates how quickly power structures can be turned on their head, and how paradoxical it is that this system survived as long as it did.
Wolfgang Murnberger: That’s a good way of looking at it. It couldn’t have become an entirely realistic film either, because it has too many comic elements. A lot happening is vital to a comedy. The story’s unrealistic in light of the large number of events alone. Adding a realistic level as I did unavoidably leads to something between a comedy and drama. In the first week of shooting, we even started to make two different versions. One we called the “realistic version,” in which we examined the question of how someone would act in this situation realistically. The second version was called the «Chaplin version». We shot the two different variants primarily for the scenes with Moritz Bleibtreu and Georg Friedrich. I had 90% decided on the realistic version, and did only a little bit with the lighter, more playful one. After a week we realized that the realistic version was better because there wasn’t enough meat for a real To Be or Not to Be comedy.

Rudi betrays the family that gave him a home when he was a child, why don’t you portray him as being more torn, someone who suffers from his decision?
Wolfgang Murnberger: I wanted to portray Rudi in an extremely realistic way, and I have the impression that if you weren’t confronted with the atrocities directly, it was very Austrian to suppress knowledge of them. Rudi’s thinking was: «I’m working class, I didn’t learn a trade, my family isn’t wealthy». At one point he says to Victor: «I’d like to be a showoff like you just once.” I think that it was the same for lots of people». The National Socialists offered people an opportunity to make something of themselves. Wholly primitive ideas came to the forefront, overshadowing principles. That’s how I imagined Rudi, who was forced to ask himself what he could achieve in life. Of course, his childhood memories in the Kaufmanns’ home got in the way. It could be that Rudi’s inner conflict isn’t portrayed clearly enough in the film. So much had to go into the exposition so that the story was resolved in the end. I had to deal with a mountain of information in the narrative, and it’s possible that there wasn’t enough room left for important emotional elements. Entering the story at a later point in time wouldn’t have been possible. Victor and Rudi’s friendship is a little implicit. The novel goes much deeper into their childhood.

The film is carried to a great degree by the two male leads, Moritz Bleibtreu and Georg Friedrich. How difficult was finding two suitable actors?
Wolfgang Murnberger: Moritz Bleibtreu had already been cast when I joined the project. The thing was to find an actor to play the Austrian Nazi. Georg Friedrich was chosen because he can convey the social milieu he comes from in an extremely believable way. That was made even more important by the fact that we weren’t able to tell more about their pasts. They’re two very different actors with different methods. Moritz Bleibtreu prepares what he’s going to do with himself and the part in an extremely precise way. Georg Friedrich, on the other hand, is very intuitive, and he takes a great deal from the situation and tries to be authentic and truthful in the situation.

If two variants of a situation were acted out, that would mean a relatively large amount of joint preparation took place.
Wolfgang Murnberger: These variants were made during shooting. I’ve never done rehearsals, I hate rehearsals. When I see that everything goes well during a rehearsal, there’s no tension during shooting, to be honest. Everybody who comes onto the set is prepared, and they all know what’s what. I like it best when everybody’s in costume the first time they come onto the set and act out a scene for the very first time (of course, after we’ve read through and discussed everything). I think that’s extremely exciting. There’s something like a fine pollen that could be lost after too many rehearsals.

Of course, that works with a strong cast, such as with MY BEST ENEMY.
Wolfgang Murnberger: I always have casts like this, they don’t have the time to rehearse. I don’t want to deny the value of rehearsals, but according to my gut feeling I’d rather not do them. Other directors feel they need to lock themselves up with their actors for a month and rehearse, or they wouldn’t be able to make the film. In my opinion, both methods can produce good and bad films. There’s no single formula. Sometimes I do a «technical rehearsal» so that everyone knows where they can move and still stay in the picture and the timing’s set. That’s a kind of light version where «there’s no art involved,» and the actors say their lines as dispassionately as possible. And when that’s taken care of, I want to be able to say «roll camera» and we can start. In my case the first take’s often the best. There are actors who have problems with that, when they don’t have a chance to rehearse, while others love not having to. An actor who gets better when they rehearse isn’t going to have an easy time with me, of course. If somebody insists on rehearsing a scene beforehand with others, I’d do it, but not many people have so far.

MY BEST ENEMY has been invited to compete in Berlin. What do you feel about presenting your film at the Berlinale?
Wolfgang Murnberger: I’m extremely happy to be in competition, but I’m glad that there are no direct competitors. I’m anxious to see the reactions. Whether there are Jews there who say, «Finally, a film with a Jewish hero,» or if there negative reactions because somebody thinks it’s unacceptable to make a film about the Holocaust without portraying the Jews’ suffering. Considered from that point of view, I think the film’s interesting. Of course, I know that it’s told in a conventional way, because it was meant to address a broad audience. This film gets by without the agitation I usually like to include, because I enjoy misleading the audience. Otherwise I like to be more radical, but in this case I put myself in the service of the story with regard to the film grammar. Telling a film narrative in a conventional way «meaning well, so that it’s interesting, understandable and credible» is at least as difficult as developing a personal film grammar for a so-called arthouse film.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
February, 2011