Interview with Katrin Gebbe

Sophie Charlotte Rieger
Sophie Charlotte Rieger

Katrin Gebbe examines the forces of evil in the human nature in Pelican Blood

After her first feature, Nothing Bad Can Happen, premiered at Cannes in 2013, Katrin Gebbe’s second film Pelican Blood opened the Orizzonti section of this year’s Venice Film Festival. Again, the German director examines the forces of evil in the human nature, this time telling the story of a mother trying to cope with her extremely aggressive, maybe even demonic adoptive child. After having watched Pelican Blood at Filmfest Hamburg EWA blogger Sophie Charlotte Rieger reached out to Katrin Gebbe for a phone interview to talk with her about how this unusual German film came into being.

Even though the child is an impressive character, your film is more about the mother. Why?

The kid is a victim to its circumstances. You cannot blame it, it does not actively make decisions on a certain kind of life. But the mother does make decisions, like the one on providing or not providing for this child.

So it’s a film about motherhood?

The topic got broader and broader. I wanted to step away from the social drama, away from this particular case to ask bigger questions. How do we feel about someone crashing our boundaries and challenging us mentally as well as physically? This does not refer to children only, but also to people at the margin of society for example with mental disabilities.

You just mentioned the term "social drama". Pelican blood is not only a drama, but a genre mix of psychological thriller and horror even.

The film stays realistic. I didn’t cross genre lines, but I’m bending them. I think those who prefer to watch a horror film can perfectly do that. But you can just as well watch my movie as a psychological drama.

Wiebke (Nina Hoss), Raya (Katerina Lipovska)  in Pelican Blood by Katrin Gebbe. 
© SWR/Moritz Schultheiß, honorarfrei.

But in respect to sound, music and editing you definitely use elements from the horror genre to create feelings of terror.

When I started to read about mothers of psychopathic children, I immediately realized that this was about fear – fear of failing as a mother, not being able to cope with this kid, but also mortal terror, being afraid of the kid actually hurting siblings, parents or itself. To me that’s a truly nightmarish vision.

As a mix of psychological drama and horror elements, Pelican Blood is a rather unusual German film. Was it difficult to get funding?

It was a lot easier than with Nothing Bad Can Happen. The Filmförderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein has been supporting us since the early development of the script. And with Katharina Dufner from SWR and Isabel Amann from Arte we had two TV stations on board. In terms of production funds, we were a German-Bulgarian co-production and as such we could apply for Eurimages as well as Bulgarian funding. In the end we had a bout 1.7 million, which is quite good but not enough to produce the film in Germany the way the script calls for. That’s why we shot the whole thing in Bulgaria.

What about German funding?

We got funding from the Commissioner for Cultural and Media Affairs because our project was considered artistic. The German Film Fund thought - in spite of lead actress Nina Hoss – that it was not commercial enough. That’s the thing: If you do something artistic and have proven yourself as an artist before, you have the chance to get artistic funding. But at the same time, it will be difficult to access mainstream funding.

So the horror elements of the film do not count as mainstream-appeal?

Actually I did a horror short film recently, a segment of The Field Guide to Evil, and I didn’t manage to get funding for that. Because they said: This is horror, this is not art. Which I think is absurd: It’s neither considered art nor mainstream. And actually German film history is at the roots of the horror genre with movies like Doctor Mabuse. But today it is incredibly difficult for directors to do horror movies.

Your first feature was screened in Cannes, the second one in Venice – two festivals who are being critized for having very few female directors in their programs. What’s’ your take on that?

That’s an important topic for me. You cannot ask for festivals to choose mediocre films just for a quota. But the important question is: Who is the one choosing? But even before: Who is producing, who is getting the scripts on the way? Which critic is commenting on the films at a festival? Women are important in all these positions to make change possible. In the end of the day, there is no doubt that festivals should screen an equal number of female and male directed movies. But it’s not only the festivals’ job to change the status quo.

What’s your advice for young female filmmakers?

I think it’s worth it to focus on your strengths and your own intuition. In the beginning, I made the mistake of trying to please or to do things the “right” way. But I think that’s the wrong way. It’s not easy, but you have to look for people who want to be a part of what you do, who want to support you. Making movies is difficult enough and takes a long time. You have to try finding the right partners.