Friendship during the reign of the Stasi: One on One with ‘Zu Den Sternen’ Director Nicolai Tegeler
By: Hooman Razavi
Zu Den Sternen (2020) is a German short film about the ongoing troubles of individuals who still suffer from the German Democratic Republic’s authoritarian regime even though the wall of Berlin has fallen. The film speaks volumes about authoritarian reign and how civil intelligence co-operation leads to the downfall of relationships, and the eminent psychological diminishment of subjects who survive such an era. The film is a psychological thriller, focusing on old scores being settled in a new era. For the film’s review on our platform, check out Here.
Director Nicolai Tegeler expands on his process and answers some of our questions in the interview below.
Hooman Razavi, Phoenix Journal (PJ): Absolute riveting film. Can you please take us through the process? What made you tackle such a story? And how long did it take to complete from its inception?
Nicolai Tegeler (NT): Günter Barton, who plays the role of Marco Hoffmann, introduced me to the author Dirk Josczok over 6 years ago. So this is where I came into contact with the script for the first time. Right from the start I was fascinated by the fact that it is about two best friends who have a common past, but have nothing to do in the future. And that it was a political regime that tests and tested their friendship. And of course also the question of what such a regime does to someone. With all the eavesdropping mechanisms, the fear of being betrayed and of not being really free. I wanted to show what a regime like this can do with people without just looking to the government to blame, but rather to discover how two people like you and me can still be traumatized today with such a past. My stepfather fled the GDR and was very active in the church there because it was sometimes the only place where you could speak freely.
I think many were under a lot of pressure. And sadly you can still find that today, just like then, such governments in the world. The film is (unfortunately) timeless and more topical than ever and should show how important it is to protect democracy, always and everywhere!
But it took me over 5 years and several versions before I had the chance to finally make the film. I was very lucky, an iron will, a great CAST and a mega crew and great partners (I LIKE STORIES, CELLOPHANE FILMS and others) without whom I would not have made the film!
(PJ): What message did you want to get across with this film?
(NT): As I just said, I didn't want to make a typical Stasi GDR film again, but rather focus on the characters that the author (Dirk Josczok) describes so well and show how important it is to defend democracy - it is certainly not the best system, but I don't know of any better!
(PJ): The film is political without being political. Politics looms over the characters’ past like a dark shadow looms over an alleyway on a foggy night. Can you please expand on this friendship and politics motif? How does it make meaning for you?
(NT): The film is political without being political. That was and is important to me. First and foremost, it's about friendship, love and betrayal. And what such a regime can do to people decades later.
Friendship and here in the film even blood friendship has its limits - just like in politics.
Marco and Volker are both right and wrong at the same time. Sometimes the viewer is more for one, then again for the other. Both are right and wrong. Just like in real life. But what can a friendship endure? What is allowed and what is not? To what extent does everyone bear responsibility for himself and his actions. These are the questions I am dealing with here, among other things.
(PJ): As a North American viewer may not be familiar with the musical choices, can you tell us a bit about how they might play into the narrative?
(NT): Music was and is very important to me in this film. I didn't want too much music either. Since it is almost a chamber play, I wanted to create additional accents and atmosphere with the music, so that the audience is taken even more emotionally.
The title song should be a German pop song, which could have been a hit in reality.
In addition, the title song runs like a red thread through the entire film.
That makes the story even more compact.
(PJ): The facts revealed at the end of the film regarding the Stasi and the disclosure of informants’ documents are an interesting and widely covered topic. Did you do any research on what happens when people find out who spied on them?
(NT): Yes, I actually have. And I found that most of them either didn't want to know, fearful of losing someone and breaking up with friends or even parts of their own family. but there have also been cases where they forgave themselves and where good relationships are still maintained today.
But in the end it was definitely, in most cases, a very drastic negative experience.
(PJ): The music shop is run-down and dim, but the instruments in it are beautiful and well-lit. What would you say is the significance of such a portrayal? Could it be a mirror of Volker himself? Or the friendship at large where music is the golden thread that binds the two together and ultimately rips them apart?
(NT): Exactly! Music was and has been everything for Volker, besides the friendship with Marco. Music belongs to switching off, traveling and a freedom. And the music heard and connected the two of them - to this day.
With all the demons that are in Volker, as soon as he picks up a guitar, these are gone for a moment.
(PJ): We never truly know if Hoffman is IM Sänger, but then again, evidence does seem to point out such judgement. Can you please elaborate on this ambiguity a bit for us?
(NT): In this version of the script, the writer and I never wanted to tell the audience exactly whether Marco was guilty or not.
It was important for me to show that both are right and also to be guilty.
Marco did not betray Volker. He may not have been entirely fair, but he didn't hand him over.
For me it was Johanna, Marco's friend and manager. And there is only one small sign - in the hotel - during the conversation between Marco and Johanna.
But as I said, that was only secondary to me.
(PJ): It’s interesting because even though the documents are there, the names of informants are vague. This seems to put added psychological pressure on Volker? Would you say this is a fair analysis?
(NT): Volker does not only refer to the documents, but has increasingly withdrawn into his world, especially over the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and is looking for someone to blame for his past and ultimately for his failure in the future - for him it can only be that Giving guilty Marco - his best friend and blood brother at the time.
Volker noticed the fall of the Wall physically, but the GDR (Stasi) never let go of him mentally.
he never got back on his feet with the fall of the wall and nobody can remember his successes from back then.
Marco instead grabbed the chance and was certainly lucky and does everything that Volker only dreams of.