Jana Matthes and Andrea Schramm work as directors and producers for arte, 3sat, ARD, and ZDF. After studying journalism in Leipzig and directing in Potsdam-Babelsberg, they founded Schramm Matthes Film. Many of their films have been screened on international festivals and won prizes, such as the German Television Award and the Discovery Channel Award.
“Tacheles – The Heart of the Matter” is screening at the New York edition of the 2021 Human Rights Watch Film Festival. This year’s fest is digital due to COVID-19, and runs May 19-27.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
JM: Yaar is a rebellious young Jew who doesn’t even know whether he wants to be Jewish: he associates being Jewish with being a victim.
As a game developer-to-be, he wants to recount the history of the Holocaust for his generation with a computer game with Jewish characters who successfully defend themselves. Yaar’s grandmother Rina is the role model for the main character of the game, a young Jewish girl in Kraków. This artistic approach gives him the strength to reveal a hidden part of his family’s story and to find his own identity.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
AS: Yaar was our intern, and we worked with him on other projects. Only gradually did he start sharing his family story. He felt as though he had to go through life carrying the heavy burden of his ancestors without really knowing what it entailed or why he was suffering. This deep-seated pain — barely discernible at first — caught our interest and of course our own history played a role.
Our grandparents belonged to the generation of perpetrators. My grandfather was stationed as a Wehrmacht soldier in the Dachau concentration camp at the same time that Yaar’s grandfather was imprisoned there. They were on different sides of the fence. Seventy-five years later, we meet and throw ourselves into this project with enthusiasm.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?
JM: There are people in Germany, and probably elsewhere too, who think the Holocaust is over — let’s come to an end to this myth. At the beginning of the documentary, Yaar also shares this belief: what does it all have to do with me? I’m a new child in this world!
The film takes the viewer on a journey with Yaar through the three generations: what is this dark, heavy cloak that he feels on his shoulders? Why does his father suffer from the Holocaust, even though he hadn’t even been born then? What does it all have to do with his grandmother Rina’s experiences during World War II? And how will we sustain a culture of remembrance once all the witnesses have passed away?
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
AS: It was clear to us from the beginning that each of the protagonists had their own trauma which could surface at any time during the shoot. There were many moments when Yaar was emotionally overwhelmed by what he had taken upon himself: creating the Holocaust game and being in the film. His father also reached his limits when he cancelled a long-planned trip to Israel the night before because he could no longer stand the confrontation with the past.
Meanwhile, the entire film team was packed and ready to go. The greatest challenge for us as directors was holding together this complicated psychological construct. A friend of Yaar’s family, a Christian priest and counselor, also helped us with this.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
JM: At the beginning it was difficult. The relationship between Germans and Jews is still tense because of the burden of history, and from the German side there is a permanent fear of making a mistake. Some editors and decision-makers in the film funding system had a problem with Yaar’s provocative approach — it didn’t fit their cliché of a Jewish person. Wouldn’t this be offensive to the victims? When we pitched the story in Israel, it was quite different: the idea of a computer game about the Holocaust didn’t shock anyone.
It really helped that the Jewish Claims Conference in NY liked and supported the project. Our co-producer Gunter Hanfgarn also contributed his large knowledge and experience with historical topics, especially the Holocaust. Later, we got funding from the Ministry of Culture, the public TV channel 3sat, and three smaller foundations. We also launched a crowdfunding campaign for the film, but the production was still made with low budget.
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
AS: As a child, I was curious about people and used to quiz them with a toy microphone. As I grew older, I wanted to tell stories and explore the world myself. Each of these stories has changed me a little. Sometimes, during very positive moments, I think my films can change the world in some tiny way, or at least — with a film like “Tacheles – Heart of the matter” —encourage social discourse and make certain political issues visible.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
JM: I was a journalist before I became a filmmaker and when I started my first film project, I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to make a documentary. An editor told me, “If you really feel like you have to make this film, then you should make it.” And I did.
I don’t remember a specific piece of bad advice, but sometimes people expect us filmmakers to do many things just for karma points, which is not a good idea if filmmaking is your profession, and you have to make a living of it.
W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?
AS: Be true to yourself and stand up for what you want. At the beginning of my career, I wanted to please others and be seen as a nice girl. I don’t think like that anymore.
Today, some men still don’t like assertiveness in female directors. We need the courage and desire to sometimes be troublesome and disagree — and the same applies to women producers and commissioning editors. If Jana and I had always done as we were told, we wouldn’t be making these films today.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
JM: I love “Toni Erdmann” by Maren Ade because of the intricately drawn characters and its bizarre sense of humor, which is rare in German films.
W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?
AS: My personal life was impacted strongly at the beginning of the first lockdown when my father died after a long illness. The contact ban meant that my mother and I were completely alone. Nobody could come around to offer their condolences. I made an artistic short film about grieving in isolation, which is currently being shown at various festivals.
Filmmaking helped me get through this personal and social crisis: if I’d not been able to process this very difficult time artistically, I might have gone crazy.
W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?
JM: People of color should be represented equally in film productions in front of the camera and behind. As filmmakers, we constantly ask ourselves if the topics and protagonists of our films reflect the diversity of society and ask ourselves if they manifest old stereotypes. To make sure that the number of POCs in film productions represents the average percentage in the population, a quota can guarantee a fair proportion.