SHADOW MAN : an interview with Thomas Arslan

An interview with Thomas Arslan, writer-director of new German thriller In the Shadows (Im Schatten) – reviewed here.

From the Berlinale Forum catalogue (by Anke Leweke):
Trojan is released from jail and goes straight back to his profession as a criminal. He gets hold of a weapon and looks out for new jobs. In just a few takes, Thomas Arslan sets up the anonymous world of his gangster protagonist by falling back on motifs and characters from the genre. The backroom of a car workshop, parking lots, furnished apartments. One meets men and women who distrust each other because they are all out to line their own pockets. The setting changes constantly, with surveillance and chase scenes providing a dynamic narrative rhythm. Since crime makes up Trojan’s daily existence, the film concentrates entirely on the technical nature of a life outside the law. The reduced and clear-cut images – shot with a Red camera 
– highlight the exact sequence of events. In the Shadows (Im Schatten) is a genre film that focuses consistently on the mechanics and external process of a crime. It develops a sense of great suspense, without burdening its figures with personal stories. Each hand movement has to be right. All of a sudden, the question of whether Trojan will manage to start the getaway car on time becomes a great movie moment. 


NEIL YOUNG : I believe the budget was €500,000. Was this an easy project to get funded? Did it change much from your original idea until the finished shooting script?
THOMAS ARSLAN : As with all my films, In the Shadows wasn’t easy to fund. I ended up, once again, with a very small budget. But of course by now I’m used to shooting with very little money. The journey from the initial idea to the shooting-script was, in the end, a pretty long way. Originally I’d planned a story about an undercover cop who’s investigating the the drug scene. During the working-process, however, I increasingly lost interest in that story, because it was nearly impossible to avoid the theme of identity – which I found boring.

I had to face the fact that I’m much more interested in describing the criminal life than I am in dealing with police-work – so the focus shifted completly. Police-work now appears only in what we might call a “perverted” form. However, I wasn’t  interested in the gangster as a social phenomenon or as a glamorous figure. To me it was more a matter of showing what the everyday working life of such a person might look like.

NY: At what point did Mišel Matičević come on board as the lead actor? To what extent did his Croatian-German background influence the characterisation of Trojan?
TA : I already had Mišel Matičević in mind when I was writing the screenplay. I’d seen him in several films and was impressed by his physical presence. When the script was finished I sent it to him and he agreed to be in the film, even before financing was secured. Mišel’s Croatian-German background doesn’t matter in terms of Trojan’s characterisation. I didn´t wanted to make the character particularly “ethnic” in any way – he’s a man who has almost no biography. The origin of the name Trojan is unclear, and that’s deliberate – I chose the name because it sounds good to me, that’s all. Nearly everything we know about this individual is conveys solely through his actions.

NY : How did you select the locations you used – both in Berlin and also in the latter scenes in the forest? Why did you choose Dahnsdorf for the ending?
TA : We spent a long time looking for the locations. A few of them were already fixed during the writing. During this period, I walked through the city again and again and made photographs of some places. I needed this to stimulate my imagination. The other locations were determined in pre-production. This was a far more complex process than, for example, finding the actors – I’d pretty much “cast” the film in my mind. We searched for places that are correct for each scene, and which also give a picture of today’s Berlin. The focus was on public spaces and areas of transit, because the characters in the film tend to interact in anonymous, non-private spaces.

Regarding the locations in the forest and countryside – they had to be located in the vicinity of Berlin, because they had to be places for Trojan to escape into after finishing a job, and from which can quickly get back into the city. The exact locations weren’t as important as the general geographical area in the Berlin outskirts. It was important to me that the locations of the cabin and the surrounding forest – through which Trojan escapes – really should have been in the same area. I take the geography and topography in which the film is embedded very seriously – it certainly shouldn’t be arbitrary. The relationship between locations is more important to me than their value as picturesque spots. I’m a bit obsessed about this – maybe that’s the reason why journeys (car journeys, journeys on foot, and so on) appear in my films.


NY : German-speakers have told me that the performances and line delivery seems unusually “neutral”, as if the actors “aren’t acting” but simply “saying” the lines. I didn’t notice this myself — was it part of your intention?
TA : I just asked the actors not to play too expressively, because that ends up with stereotypes. I sometimes did retakes in which I asked the actors to play things more simply and straightforwardly. But most of the time we didn’t even need to talk about it, because it came from the way those scenes were written in the script. The practices of Bresson and Straub/Huillet (whose films I admire very much) had nothing to do with this. It might strike some viewers as “neutral,” because audiences these days are more accustomed to a different type of acting – the realism of Method acting has now prevailed almost everywhere. Even if it works in some American films, it doesn’t interest me for my own work – I prefer that laconic kind of acting that one finds in 1930s Hollywood movies, and the later work of directors like Don Siegel.

NY : How do you think the film fits in with your previous work? It seems like a considerable departure after the domestic dramas of Vacation (Ferien.)
TA : I don´t know. Sure, In the Shadows is different from Vacation. I’m not really aware of trying to create a coherent “body of work” as such – I try to do something new with each film.

NY : As a writer-director, what is the appeal of working within “genre” film-making – and is there something in particular about the crime/gangster genre that appeals to you?
TA : In a genre film, you mustn’t create the world from scratch – there is a range of existing elements, which you can and must work with. In this case, I found such restrictions liberating. On the other hand one must be aware that especially the genre of the crime film has developed over the years, and one can’t pretend that there have been no films before one’s own. But that, of course, is the same with films that are not specifically “genre” films.

I have also tried to make a film which isn’t merely a genre work that is self-referential, or full of references to other movies – I tried to place it in the present time and open it up to the reality of the concrete city in which the story takes place. What I like about crime films is that they show specific kinds of work – the work of criminals and the police – it’s work which is loaded with tension, rather like the work of professional footballers.

NY : The moody opening shot (of a Berlin street, through windows) is an audacious one, in that it is held for quite a long time without much “happening” — what was your intention with this particular shot?
TA : We had only very few days of shooting – 21 in total. So the shooting had to be prepared as precisely as possible. Working with the director of photography, Reinhold Vorschneider, I had to determine most of the shots before the shooting . That was unusual for me. In my other films usually the shots were fixed at the very last moment, just before we started shooting.  the first shot of In the Shadows was one of the few shots that wasn’t planned out beforehand. It had just begun to rain and there was a special kind of evening light outside on the streets. We shot this scene without knowing exactly where it would fit into the finished film – or even if it would fit anywhere at all. The decision to use it as the opening shot emerged later, in the editing-room. I enjoyed the idea of starting the film with a vague, atmospheric scene – it’s a moment where things are still as open as possible, and it shows something of the city where the story will play out.

NY : What was your experience of using the Red One digital camera for this film? Did its specifications alter the rooms and settings you were able to use?
TA : In general the difference between using the Red One digital camera and a shooting in 35mm wasn’t very significant. We needed only one additional technician to do things like data-transfer – he replaced the material-loader that we’d have needed if using 35mm. Using digital allowed me to shoot more footage, of course – this was very helpful, especially for the scenes involving car-driving, because we had to shoot those scenes in documentary style. Before shooting we made several tests with the Red One – we learned that you have to expose the light more precisely with the digital than with the 35mm, because the Red One responds more sensitively to every under-exposure or over-exposure. The focus-area of the picture appears more “technically” than with film-stock – with film, the focus area is combined in a smoother and more organic way with the more out-of-focus parts of the frame. Even the colour palette, especially reds and greens, is more reduced compared with using film. However, overall I’m satisfied with the results.

8th/10th May, 2010

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