At a sold-out screening of Leander’s new film Hotel Lux in Melbourne, he turned to me at the start of the film and said: “if they laugh now then I have them, if not, it will be difficult”. The scene was the first appearance of Jűrgen Vogel dressed up as Hitler, awaiting his performance in a 1933 Cabaret style show satirizing Hitler and Stalin. The audience was silent; Leander was concerned. “Comedy is the riskiest thing to pull off in cinema, drama is much easier. Making fun of difficult historic situations can be hard for the audience, but it is the best way of ensuring it never happens again.” He then stated: “Dictators hate comedians, and artists are the first ones to be eliminated by these totalitarian regimes; dictators do not have a sense of humour”.
Leander Haussmann was born in East Germany and lived for 30 years under the communist/Stasi regime until the fall of the wall in 1989. That sense of liberation was overwhelming for him, but life in the former DDR (German Democratic Republic) was not all bad, with Western music, television and culture surreptitiously available and forming his view of the world and his cinematic career. Previously he had been an actor as well as a theatre director of many productions, and indeed his theatre work continues. Recently he directed a production of Die Fledermaus in Munich which created a great deal of controversy. The move into filmmaking was a natural progression for him, and allowed him to develop his comedic approach to various topics and themes, as a way of laughing at various situations to make a point.
He has made over 12 films, with varying budgets and producers, but the important thing for him is making films his own way without interference. His breakthrough film that won a number of awards including the German Film Awards best screenplay was Sun Alley, which being his first major film, suffered originally from some production interference. It was only when Leander wrested control of the film back from the producers that he was able to complete and edit the film his way. That the film turned out to be successful, especially for his amusing look at teenagers on the Eastern side of Berlin in the 70s, an unusual approach to what has usually been dealt with as drama, vindicated his comedic style to serious topics. The film also utlized plenty of Western music, demonstrating his abiding interest in a wide range of music in all his films to underline story elements. He commented to me after a screening and Q & A of the film that he likes Sun Alley very much and that it stands up very well, 13 years after its first release.
Leander’s other films include the FIPRESCI award winning Herr Lehmann, the amusing take on East German soldiers’ experiences NVA, a romantic comedy based on two Australian authors’ book (Alan & Barbara Pease) on the differences between the sexes Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps, and the other film playing at this year’s festival Robert Zimmerman is Tangled Up in Love, a younger man and older woman romantic comedy with some amusing set pieces and witty dialogue. His comments about James Garfunkel (Art’s son, who has a small role as himself in the film), demonstrated Leander’s keen observation of people and his essential humanity and concern for others. The lead actress in the film was also going through some personal crises/issues which he helped her with during the shoot.
It is apparent that Leander will always make comedy films, which he reiterates is so hard to get right, and indeed he mentioned that prestigious film awards rarely go to comedies. His influences include Chaplin, Lubitsch, Tarantino, and surprisingly, David Lean (Dr. Zhivago), but the latter is perhaps not so surprising given the lush use of music and the sweeping production design/cinematography.
Back to Hotel Lux, Leander’s biggest film, with an 11 million Euro budget and a veteran producer on board (Schtonk) who was happy with Leander’s script (eventually, after a few drafts). Apart from other private investors, the biggest coup for Leander was getting Michael ‘Bully” Herbig a very well regarded German comedian who loved the story and assisted with producing the film. A fair bit of the money was spent on special effects and recreating the hotel on German locations. Leander was also keen to get Jűrgen Vogel on board to assist with audience response, and casting Thekla Reuten, the major Dutch actress (Twin Sisters), took a while as he needed the right actress to play such a complex role. Surprisingly, the film received a lukewarm response in Germany, and as yet has not made back its budget. Leander commented that virtually no German films did well in Germany over the last year, despite 20% of German audiences supporting German films. “Only Til Schweiger makes money” he amusingly remarked. Hotel Lux has been nominated for 3 German Film Awards, to be presented on April 27, in the categories of: production design, cinematography and costume design. He is not enamoured by these awards: “they only go to serious films and comedies always miss out”. He is also quite disdainful about the Film Academy which according to him, comprises few filmmakers, and mostly people who only like dramas and sneer at comedies. His formula of melding tragedy with humour is not favoured by the majority of the membership.
His next film, which he has already started working on with a good filmmaking friend, will be a comedy about a shark alert that turns into a huge disaster. For him, it is mocking the process of initiating an event that forms the kernel of this comedy. However with Leander you are never quite sure when he is serious, as he mentioned that you can google his website and watch them writing the screenplay in real time. He also says that there is so much interest in this “silly” idea that he has the money for the film already sewn up and actors beating a path to his door. Oddly he said nothing about the film he is supposedly scheduled to complete this year: Der Kleine Bruder. It was a real pleasure meeting Leander, and having a number of discussions with him, an example of a key filmmaker from the burgeoning German film industry.