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The forgotten people

Interview: Melanie SevcenkoNovember 14, 2013

Filmmakers Leopold Grün and Dirk Uhlig spent three years documenting a one-street village in rural East Germany, an area marked by the political changes of the past decade and long forgotten by the rest of society.

Still from "Am Ende der Milchstrasse," Copyright: Neue Visionen Filmverleih
Image: Börres Weiffenbach/Neue Visionen Filmverleih

Currently screening in German cinemas, "Far End of the Milky Way" is a trip to the periphery of society. In the far reaches of Mecklenburg, wealth and jobs are scarce, but the 50-strong community wants to stay. With stubbornness and a sense of humor, they make the best of their situation, living on the margins of subsistence and dependent on the surrounding nature. Their daily life is dominated by work and memories of loss. With infectious curiosity, directors Leopold Green and Dirk Uhlig look for a gap in the system and from inside explore what the community holds to heart. Between grazing ponies, flowering trees and gentle rain, "Far End of the Milky Way" gives a touching image that is both soothing and bittersweet. DW's Melanie Sevcenko sat down with Leopold Grün to talk about making an observational film while becoming an honorary local.

DW: How did you first encounter the people of this one-street village?

Leopold Grün: A friend of mine wrote an ethnological paper about the question of what happens to a region without any jobs at all. This paper is looking into what sort of work is needed and has to be shared in order to survive in those regions. When we read this scientific work we found those biographies so interesting that we decided to go exactly to this place she wrote about. One street, 50 people, 20 houses, that's it.

So we look at this biotope, this village, to show what happens to a region that falls out of time. A region with nothing left, where nobody cares about you, what's happening there for real? That was the first idea. So we went and talked to the people with the camera for one year. Then we stayed until 2011, for three years.

Your camera follows the villagers everywhere. How did you gain such intimate access into the lives of your characters while earning their trust?

This intimacy we're showing can only be achieved by talking to the people over a period of time. When they feel that you won't betray them, things can get more intimate. It was all about finding out how these people live. So we started filming early in the morning and stopped in the evening. Not everybody lets you in his bedroom or takes you to the physical therapist, but Max, the man you see getting up in the morning and who shows his body during the massage, doesn't talk about his feelings - but he shows his body. That's his way of letting you get closer.

Still from "Am Ende der Milchstrasse," Copyright: Neue Visionen Filmverleih
Gabi talks in the film about losing her husbandImage: Börres Weiffenbach/Neue Visionen Filmverleih

Others, like Gaby, the woman with the horses, also talks about her feelings and tragic moments in her life like her husband dying, but she would never let you film her in her bedroom. You can't have this sort of intimacy when you have this constant pressure: Hurry up, we need results fast, come on, go, go, go. No, we had all the time in the world. It wasn't always easy. Sometimes people said stop and we accepted it. I guess that's the secret.

The entire film is straight-forward observation. How do you find the structure for the film after three years of filming?

The structure comes as you slowly get closer through observing. The faces, the people become more complex by the minute. And suddenly they talk. They don't talk at the beginning. You only watch the situation. But at some point they talk and they even have their own point of view. They have something to say. It's not us talking to them. They are talking to us.

I think that's why the structure and the script work. It's not a classic script with a climax. There is no conflict except for the one that has always been there.

The other thing is that we are not protagonists. Dirk and me, you don't hear us talk in the movie. You only hear the protagonists talking to us. This had been decided early on. In today's documentaries you often see the director clowning around on camera. We didn't want to have the director in the foreground because then his relationship with the people becomes more important and we take that for granted.

We know this village is in East Germany, but there are no titles telling us exactly where we are. Why did you make that decision?

This place represents many other places, little towns and villages. It was important for us that you can tell it's Germany - Northern Germany, the former East. We also felt that it was important to feel the characters. That's why a lot of stuff did not have to be spoken out loud. You look at their faces and wonder what their story is, whether they feel good or not. You don't get all the information, but you feel something about the individual characters, or at least we hope that's what the audience does.

Film poster for "Am Ende der Milchstrasse," Copyright: Neue Visionen Filmverleih
The film is now playing in select German theaters

What is your relationship to the villagers now?

This friend of mine lived there, so I often go there. We didn't want to make a film about friendship. That's not the issue. Art is also about radicalism. So, what do you do? You show what's going on in a radical way, which can also be hard for these people. But, nonetheless, I believe they keep their dignity. It's a process between those two sides, but it's necessary to have a radical approach to make the film. So we still have a good relationship.

This film has two directors - Dirk Uhlig and yourself. What form did your collaboration take?

First we just wrote down our impressions and later compared them. What did the other see and find important? During filming I did the interviews while he concentrated on the images with the cameraman. But sometimes we switched. Then we were in the editing room for 106 hours. Terrible! But we had three years of filming, which was great.