Young German director Thomas Sieben tackled the most challenging of topics in his recent film: school shootings. While he provides a deep, nuanced look at the motivations behind violence, the film offers no easy answers.
How does violence arise, and what makes a young person commit an act of violence? Thomas Sieben dealt with these questions a few years ago when he introduced his film debut, "Distanz" (Distance), at the Berlin International Film Festival. His movie is about a young man who shoots at strangers, seemingly at random.
With his second film, Sieben has returned to the topic, but given it a new twist. "Staudamm" (Dam) deals with a school shooting - a horror lodged in collective memory due to recent gun rampages in the US and in Germany.
No simple answers
Last year, "Staudamm" debuted at the Max Ophüls film prize and this week it's been released across Germany. The director has no simple answers for what his aim was with the film or why he chose just an emotionally distant approach. "I'm wondering myself why such things happen," Sieben told DW.
"You have to pay close attention," the young director said. "You do have a big responsibility with this topic." And if he hadn't taken on that responsibility, it would have been negligent, Sieben added. He and co-author Christian Lyra had a kind of kaleidoscope in mind, a film collage that introduces different fragments of the issue and aims to open viewers' eyes to various perspectives.
The film doesn't show the actual shooting, but starts a year after it happened. Roman (Friedrich Mücke) works for the public prospector that is collecting files to open the case, and he travels to the village where the shooting took place. Roman picks up papers from the local police office and tries to get in touch with the victims' families. During his research, he also meets Laura (Liv Lisa Fries), a student who survived the shooting. Laura and Roman slowly grow closer to each other.
The film uses this relationship to approach the issue in a careful, distanced and gentle manner. It does not make an attempt at an easy explanation for what happened. One reason behind irrational, violent behavior among adolescents could be rejected love, Sieben says: "Everyone who's experienced that knows how much it hurts - worse than failing a math test." But unrequited love can't be the only motivation for such a crime, adds the filmmaker.
"Staudamm" hints at more motives: feeling stuck in a small town, provincial life, the small-mindedness of other people. The director explicitly says that a scene where Roman plays computer games is not to be taken as a clue to human behavior. Sieben himself develops games and works as a journalist on the topic. "Ninety-nine percent of all male teens like gaming and 90 percent of those also play ego-shooters;" he said. "We have all grown up with them. That's definitely not the reason."
The movie highlights moods and provides nothing more than hints. For co-author and producer Christian Lyra, a film offering overly simple solutions is dangerous and irresponsible. "Roman approaches this unimaginable act of violence just like the audiences: he comes from the outside and slowly journeys to the heart of darkness," the producer said.
Difficult role for Fries
For young actress Liv Lisa Fries, the movie was a big challenge. "The role is really far away from me," Fries said. "I have never experienced something like that myself. It has been a journey for me, just like it was for my character in the film. At the beginning, I didn't know where I was headed."
"Staudamm" was popular with audiences at the festival last year - perhaps also because it takes on a topic outside of the usual first-film-stories typically tackled by young directors, such as coming of age or life in the big city. "Staudamm" exposes the dark sides of modern society, but without taking the moral high road or pointing fingers.
The film was also shown to high school classes before it hit the cinemas. Afterward, the teens reflected on the complicated motives presented in the film. One of the students even said, "Each of us could be driven to become a school shooter."