Alan Von Kalckreuth is a documentary filmmaker whose work includes Europa: In the Shadow of the Reich; here is a link to his YouTube page:
Q: What made you interested in making documentaries?
A: Chance. I studied film with the intention of writing and producing “Hollywood” films. I am first and foremost a writer, I met one of the professors on the film program while at the gym at A.U. and after a brief conversation he said, “now I tell you, don’t be a writer, make movies!” I reflected on the wisdom of this and realized that film is the most powerful medium of influence ever.
I studied film, developed a few film and television projects, and while looking for a source to give me historical background on World War II from the German perspective I came across a double whammy –a man who had been a frontline officer during the entire war (and typed the surrender document of Berlin to the Russian) AND he had been a photographer. He recorded his experiences and offered the archive to me as source material.
And so I took what I knew, storytelling, and told a narrative of the experience of WWII from three personal perspectives.
Q: You studied clinical psychology at American University, how does it influence your work?
A: I studied psychology because I wanted to know human potential, to understand what can facilitate the expression of remarkable human accomplishments, and what can retard or extinguish that potential. I was interested in this primarily from a philosophical perspective, but was aware that psycho-physiological, social and cultural factors could be looked at scientifically and so I studied psychology as an undergraduate and then clinical psychology as a graduate student.
Q: How is your Holocaust movie different from others?
A: I didn’t make a holocaust movie, I made a movie that attempts to understand the element in mankind that allows horrific things to happen to others. One of the brutal expressions of this ability was the systematic extermination of nine million people –I reflected as I worked on this project the words over the doors of a Jewish temple I visited in Washington D.C., “Least We Forget”. I was certain the dying did not think to themselves “I hope you don’t forget this happened to me and to all those who are dying here with me.” I imagine they asked a terrible, sad, and huge question… “WHY?” “Why am I dying?” “Why has it come to this?” For me this questions if truthfully answered will allow mankind to move a little higher than the condition of a cultured beast. Perhaps we can collectively attain what has seldom been achieved in the past, and always for a portion only of mankind, an elevated civilization. A civilization where, empathy, compassion and understanding stop individuals and institutions from overwhelming the masses with ideologies and elitism that sets people against people.
Q: What made you so interested in Nazi Germany?
A: I am interested in mankind, not National Socialism. The accomplishments of Germany under the leadership of the National Socialist German Workers Party were significant. They were a result of a cohesive and concerted set of policies executed with a canny understanding of human behavior, both individually and collective. I have often said Hitler could not have come to power in Scotland, or Ireland, or Texas… The Celtic nature and the Texans are just not able to allow anyone to tell them what to do –even if it is for their own good. There are many things that can be learned –and have been learned- from this period of history. Indeed some of the students of this time use their insights against our collective freedom and unalienable rights as they swirl the masses into anxious, worried citizens.
Q: What has been your biggest challenge in making your documentaries?
A: Documentary film is a poor commercial proposition. Funding is the problem. When I am working on a documentary project magic happens and I find doors fly open mysteriously –it is as if the truth demands we reveal it. But, unfortunately it is hard to find the funds to cover costs, overheads, source material etc.
Q: Your film “Europa: In the Shadow of the Reich” centers around three main people, a German officer, a Jewish teenager, and Stalin’s interpreter, what surprising thing did they have in common?
A: They each told me their life story starting with their earliest memories. Siegfried said he remembered falling asleep in his crib in a port in northern Germany where his father was employed by the port authority –as he drifted off to sleep he heard the solemn drone of the fog horns and saw the cyclic beam of the lighthouse. These images stayed with him as comforting memories all his life. Valentine said as a child his family fled to the country and he remembered the chickens and vegetables they had there which they had not been able to get in St. Petersburg. Arnost told me about how he played under the kitchen table with his little sister Hanna. Hanna told me that when she was in Auschwitz she often dreamt that she and Arnost were children again, playing under the kitchen table as their mother prepared their dinner and the sun shone through the open windows. As the film shows all three traveled different paths that took them from where they were as children to where they were as men overwhelmed by a world torn apart by war.
Q: How did you become involved in BAFTA?
A: I used a British actress to speak the quotes from Hitler –a choice I made in order to present Hitler’s perspective as disembodied thought and not the “words of the Fuhrer”. Gillian was a talented performer and we got along very well. She nominated me for the British Academy here in Los Angeles and I have been an active member ever since.
Q: What do you think is the key to making a documentary engaging?
A:I am not a fan of the history channel –I find their documentary filmmakers’ stringing-you-along style to be irritating and restrictive. If the filmmaker is truly engaged in the material he or she is dealing with, and they have asked themselves why this material impacts them, then they are probably going to share that experience with the viewer and the film will be engaging. I believe we are hot-wired to draw a moral from a well told story –I could explain why I believe this, but it would take a couple of pages, so I will share with you the conclusion I have drawn form this hypothesis. I believe man is a moral creature and draws morals from stories much like an active person works out at a gym to maximize their strength, energy and vitality to be later used in the non-gym world. I believe that a well-structured story allows the listener, or viewer, to absorb a truth in a way that is effortless and engaging and will let them integrate that moral into their psyche.
Q: What do you like about Hollywood?
A: Simple, Hollywood draws dreamers. And we are such stuff as dreams are made of. This place, Hollywood, is like a sea of luminous jellyfish drawn to the surface of mankind, and casting a wonderful energy that should be a part of everyone’s daily life.
Q: What would you change about it?
A: I would provide magic wands that aspiring writers and filmmakers and actors and set designers and musicians could wave and be who they struggle to be without the worry of finding the rent, or paying their parking tickets.
On a more serious note there is good reason why Hollywood operates on the “survival of the fittest” principle, you just need to look at Youtube to see that “brilliant” is not everyone’s middle name. One serious downside though of the executive side of Hollywood film making is the greed element that leads to the production of some trite and on occasion offensive films –but these are exceptions not the norm.
On a note somewhere between the two, I would finish a project my business partner Bill Miles and I got involved with in the nineties –“Light Hollywood”. We were trying to get the Hollywood sign lit at night by soft, reflective lighting that did not disturb the neighbors, but kept the symbol ever present day and night.
Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects:)