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‘Herr Herrmann Mann’ Director Lars Smekal on the drama, comedy and public order breaches of indy filmmaking

In my review of Herr Herrmann Mann, I referred to its writer-director-star as an “international man of mystery,” due to the relatively sparse information available about his work online. As he embarks on his new project, a short named Memories of a Forgotten Childhood, the enigmatic artist agreed to an interview, answering some of the burning questions I had about the films and methods of Lars Smekal.

As I said in my review of Herr Herrmann Mann, the film came across as an “offbeat, aloof morality tale.” I had to wonder if you took any inspiration from Germany’s history of notoriously dark children’s stories?

That’s an interesting approach, but I would say not intentionally. While the children’s stories are often very brutal, shocking and sad, I would like to think that my Herrmann has a lighter approach, although it has a dramatic ending. I consider Herrmann to be a funny and bizarre message about mortality. At first you may laugh, but in the end, you may question yourself and your existence as a human being.

A few years ago, I read a lot of Kafka, also some biographies, and I liked that Kafka considered his own stories as quite funny. He had to laugh while reading to an audience. I always thought that The Metamorphosis was depressing, a downward vortex to death – but after this key moment of learning that the author had fun telling this overdrawn dramatic story, it may have changed my way of storytelling.

In terms of your other influences, what are your earliest memories of a film or filmmaker whose style really impacted you? Did you take anything from them for Herr Herrmann Mann?

In my childhood there were many cartoons I really was afraid of. For example, The Simpsons. Why? I guess the first episode that I ever saw was one of the scary Halloween episodes and I thought that the show only was about these horrifying stories. Every time the theme music and the animation started, I would get the chills and I quickly switched the channel. A lot of friends were telling me how funny the Simpsons were, but I awkwardly said that the show haunts me. Later on, I found out what the real tone of the series was and I lost my fear. The beginning and end of Herrmann was heavily influenced by The Simpsons’ opening shot.

What has your early life as a filmmaker been like? What were the most important milestones on your journey so far?

When I was young, I wanted to be a painter and I drew comics. When I was 16, I discovered theatre; I acted and directed my first plays. I started writing, poems and short stories. I think my first film experiences were funny sketches I filmed with my brother and self-written poems I recorded. After that I did my first short movies and somehow it all started. Things got more professional and I wanted to build a career as a director and author.

Every movie is an intensive lesson in life. I learn so much about the world, about human beings and about myself. I absolutely love creating stories and working as a director. Making other people feel while watching your movies is one of the most beautiful things in life you can experience. Having so many film festival invitations across the globe also is an amazing thing and getting a film funded by the Hessenfilm und Medien GmbH is amazing.

Sometimes, less is definitely more – but in just five minutes you manage to present two three-dimensional characters, and a quirky, amusing, but ultimately sad, life-story. What is the secret to telling a story so well in such a tiny timeframe?

Many people think that a short movie is, from a dramatic structure perspective, like a full-length movie – but that’s untrue. In short movies you jump into a story and after the end you jump out of the story and you only see the tip of the iceberg. You do not have the same tools to develop arcs.

How would you portray a three-dimensional character? Give them hope, give them thoughts. How do they see the world, other people and themselves? I do not know any secret about telling stories and I think mystifying storytelling or filmmaking is not a good thing, because young filmmakers following some guru will always lead to benefits for only one person. Narrative rules are old and can be learned and trained in a very straightforward way. Tell stories you are passionate about, put a part of your soul in it, be true to the characters and to the audience.

Student filmmaking is a little different from the broader industry, and comes with a unique set of benefits and hurdles. What advantages and challenges were there with the project?

Herrmann was a short story I wrote a few years ago. I would say there is no financial interest from anybody at all to finance a movie like that. Young filmmakers always struggle to make movies in a financial way. Finding people to work with you, especially on a structural way like a university is, most of the time, never a problem. But paying your rent, spending your last money for some costumes, what will you eat next week – really existential questions about living in general – that is a problem.

In Germany, for many years, there has been a problem that no budget and low budget productions would not get any funding at all. A few hundred euros for a student short movie is a good foundation, but there were (and maybe in some regions there still are) no programmes or institutes for this kind of low film funding money.

You mentioned before that there were a few “amusing stories” from the shoot if IFL was interested in hearing. Please, do enlighten us!

The production team of Herr Herrmann Mann was very small, it was a spontaneous project, with no money, little preparation time and because of that no shooting permission for the locations. The shooting at the Railroad Crossing was… a challenge. Every 15 minutes a train would pass and we only had a few seconds to record our material.

We had several shots from different perspectives, the falling of Herrmann had to be on time, so many factors that were quite complicated. We had to block the road for other people passing by, so that they would not be in the shot. So, every time a train came, two people of our team were blocking and telling bicyclists and runners to wait. They told them that we are shooting a scene and that I would act as if I would have a heart attack, there is no need to worry.

Somebody called the Office of Public Order; they came on location and I had to explain to the officials what we were doing. They were pretty severe and told us that we have to wrap up and end the shooting. We did not have all the scenes yet, so we decided to come back again the next day.

And somebody called the Office of Public Order again. It was the same situation, but with other officials and yeah, I kind of acted my way out of the conversation. The officer asked me, “Where will this short film be shown?” I answered, “I do not know yet, probably a few film festivals.” Until now, Herr Herrmann Mann ran to 23 festivals in 9 different countries [including Indy Film Library’s Student Short Showcase], so I would say I was right.

I am always curious what it is like to direct yourself. While it is a very short film, and the only dialogue you deliver is as the disembodied Narrator, did you feel any particular pressures regarding your performance as the film’s lead?

I already did that many times before, acting and directing in the same movie. It can work, but you need a good assistant director, whom you really trust and who knows what you want. After takes you need more playback time than normally. I am convinced that for some projects it can work really, really well.

I did a short movie called Waldsterben (2018); it is 28 minutes long and I did play the lead, with full dialogue etc. – that was a big challenge and a very complicated project in general. After that experience I would say that right now, I do not have the urge to direct and act in a dimension that big at the moment. But hey, the next project is always around the corner.

Lea Alina arguably steals the show – because with so little screen-time, she embodies completely different aspects of the same character. What was the method she and the team used to get such authentic anger, and then sweetness, from her performance?

Yeah, Lea is a great actress. For the scene of the beginning of the movie – we had so many props that she was allowed to destroy. She should throw everything on the ground and shout and rage, her dialogue was improvised. I loved working with Lea, it was a great experience.

There was a shot for the credit roll, where she would sit at the door and call Herrmann, but I decided that it’s not working as a credit shot. So, we took some material from the drone and I invited Lea again to the sound studio to record the phone call. It was a very intimate atmosphere in the studio, we did some variations, but we wanted to show that her character really, really feels sorry and her words are full of love. Without explaining the movie, our couple struggles after they lost a child and Frauke (Lea) and Herrmann (me) are dealing with it very differently.

I cast her after I saw her in a theatre play [seeing she was a great actress], but also because of our opposite bodies. She is very tall and slim and I wanted to portray a visual contrast between the characters too.

Do you have any advice for first-time filmmakers who take inspiration from your work?

Keep creating. Make one movie after another. Never stop planning, producing the next idea, because as I already stated, with every movie you learn so much about everything. The learning curve is always exorbitantly high, much higher than you would expect it, higher as you can ever imagine it. Only in retrospect can you truly understand how that project evolved you. Mistakes you make bring you forward, they make you better.

Finally, do you know what your next project will be, and how it will be different from Herr Herrmann Mann?

Right now, I am very interested in social topics, how society and injustice work. My next project will be a short called Memories of a forgotten Childhood, before I undertake my first feature film. I do not want to say much about it right now, because it is in a pretty early stage, but it will be a drama, just like my last two movies.

The film recently completed a successful crowdfunding campaign, along with receiving film funding from Hessenfilm und Medien GmbH. This is a very big milestone for me as a filmmaker. We were funded with a middle range five-figure sum. More information about the project can be found here.

[Besides that] I have these two genres implemented in my creative work: drama and comedy. Sometimes I mix them, sometimes I lean more into one or the other. Herr Herrmann Mann will be much lighter and funnier, than the new project. Actually, Herrmann is from a series of short stories I wrote, I already produced Theobald Topferson, which is from the same series.

I would love to do a third one in the future called Gottlieb Schönbrunn, it is about a man who barks at a baker, while he wants to buy a “Rosinenschnecke”, a delicious, sweet desert with raisins. In the end, it ends the same way as Herrmann and Theobald ended: he dies.

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