" As soon as more women are writing and directing movies, there will be different female characters."
Kerstin Polte on Cloud Whispers
At the recent Achtung Berlin Film Festival, featuring films produced in the Berlin area, Kerstin Polte was awarded the prize of the German Critic's Association (VdFK) for her movie Cloud Whispers. In this film, Polte tells the story of a grandmother, who engages her family in a tumultuous road trip leading to an enchanted island where a queer God lives in a lighthouse and makes dreams come true. A fairy tale like concept that is quite unusual in German cinema.
On a sunny afternoon, EWA editor Sophie Charlotte Rieger sat down with Polte in a small café in Berlin Kreuzberg to talk about how this unlikely movie came into being, and why cinema needs new female characters.
What have you been doing between your graduation feature 510 Meters Above Sea Level and your new film Cloud Whispers?
I did another short film entitled Last Round that was screened in Locarno. I also did a feature-length documentary, Everything But Oom-Pa-Pa, about the biggest female brass band in Germany. Additionally I founded a company called the „Serienwerk“. After the Netflix-boom I've been asking myself: Why is this not happening in Germany? Why is there no teamwork here? In Germany, it seems to be so important that it is just one person doing everything: script, directing, and ideally even acting. But I don't like this idea of the all-round genius. I am a big fan of teamwork. So I sat down and founded a network of storytellers and now we are 50 people developing TV-shows together.
But you decided to do a feature film anyways.
The project had been there all the time on the side. I wrote the first script six years ago, and my actress Corinna Harfouch has been on board for 4 ½ years already. But the thing is: In Germany, you cannot get funding without a co-producing TV station. When you send your scripts to these stations, you receive answers like: "It's not funny enough" or "It's too funny". Meanwhile a lot of time passes while they are reading the script to make a decision. But surprisingly, as soon as I decided that I will do it just the way that I want to and not how they want me to do it, it suddenly worked. Within three months we had the funding for the whole project.
So you didn't have to change anything for the TV station to co-produce?
They trusted me entirely. It was a great collaboration. They had my back and said: “Live your dream, be just as brave behind the camera as your protagonists are in front of the camera”. So this is actually possible - even though you mostly hear horror stories about TV co-productions in Germany.
Your movie is quite unconventional in many ways. For example you tell a gay love story in a movie that is obviously aimed at a family audience. However God is a white man—as usual. How come?
Initially God was set to look queerer. Maybe I should have been more explicit in how I chose to portray him. Then again, the actor, Bruno Cathomas, is archaic and tender at the same time. His character has painted fingernails and their color changes in the course of the film. His eye color also changes and he always wears eye makeup. These are small details that you probably don't notice when you see the film for the first time. If there is a God, I want him to be like that.
The topic of dreams seem to be important to you.
It's important to dream big. Like the cat in the beginning of the film: How do we know that a cat is not able to fly if it never tried? And that's true about all of us. We are changing all the time and we always have to test ourselves. See if we can take that jump out of the window – not literally of course.
But it doesn't end well for the cat in your film…
True. If we think of our lives as a flight, though, then we all touch the ground in the end. We will all die some day. But at least we have been flying!
Maybe Germany doesn't have a lot of fantasy and genre cinema because we don't dream big?
We all have this Wagnerian tragedy-gen. In Germany it's all about realism, naturalism, dark, minimalistic. Maybe I should just have followed Corinna Harfouch through Berlin for 90 minutes—with gloomy blue lighting. But yeah, my movie is a leap of faith. It tries to capture a certain attitude towards life in a humorous and lighthearted way.
On your website you say that you want to create female characters which are “brave, edgy, weird, yearning, and stubborn”. Why is that interesting to you?
As a kid, I never had role models on TV or in the cinema. Boys were the only ones to go on adventures. Even at a later stage in my life, I wondered what female characters there are beyond the young and beautiful type. The term “strong woman” really pisses me off. Women can just as well be ambiguous, weird anti-heroines like the driving instructor Alex in my movie. I also truly believe that there is more than just the binory concept of male and female—that we have to reinvent ourselves every day. Like God in my movie, who is queer.
German films mainly feature female characters under 40, grandmothers, or women who work as gifts to male protagonists. At the same time, stories about women usually have to be stories about love, without talking about anything else really. I want to create new stories, because our children deserve to grow up with movies reflecting the colorful, diverse, curious, and funny female characters that we meet in real life.
What needs to be changed for this dream to become reality?
These are complex structures that have been growing for some time and therefore are only changing very, very slowly. One idea is to compose all committees on the basis of parity: funding institutions and all the other doorkeepers in the business. As soon as more women are writing scripts and directing movies, there will be different female characters.
So you are in favor of the quota for directing?
You have to come up with something that forces people to open the door. And if one day we don't need it anymore, then even better! I strongly believe that as soon as women participate more in film productions, the system will change from within.