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The making of Nebenan (Neighbours)

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At BIAFF 2009 Nebenan (Next Door) by Wolfgang Bauer got a Diamond award and its star Elisabeth Heckel won the Best Acting Award sponsored by StarNow.

An Incredible Feeling of Unease

The neighbour on a balcony in 'Next Door'.A child is crying next door. Since the new neighbours moved in, it has been crying almost continuously. It was unbearable for Silke, a single parent. What if the child was being abused? The neighbour is brawny, tattooed, shaven headed so she prefers not to say anything. It's probably nothing. Children cry after all. It is normal.

The short story The Wicherts Next Door by the Weimar author Stefan Petermann sparked in me an incredible feeling of unease. Not knowing what happens next door, and above all, not being sure that whatever we - as neighbours - do about it, is the right thing … and realising that upon our action the life of a young child might depend; these make it all very uncomfortable. And it is cruel, because ultimately the banality of everyday life overrides our concerns. Life is easier if we close our eyes and ears to what happens next door.

When I am confronted in the media by cases of child murder, it first sends a shiver down my spine. Immediately after that I picture my own children (I have 2). Then I wonder how anyone could kill his own child. That is truly chilling. It's wrong. It's inhuman. I don't think there is any other way to respond to such stories.

And then I recognise within myself, that when my youngest child is crying and screaming for hours, when it struggles and fights just because I want to put a nappy on it, then there is a feeling of desperation and helplessness. There is a temptation to be aggressive. I have never struck my child, but at such moments I understand to some extent, what can happen if one is driven into absolute impotence.

Thinking about this subject filled me with mixed feelings, which I could not resolve. But I noticed in conversation, that for me and other people just talking about it was very uncomfortable. It is not a topic anyone wants to discuss. But I wanted to talk about it. I wanted to do a movie about it, not just wagging my finger and denouncing perpetrators, but a film, which presents the topic with all its contradictions and separates the audience from their clear convictions and morally superior stance. And so I expanded the short story in which a young woman, lacking courage, would rather look away than act, into a real child killing, which is in the young woman's past. At the end of the film, I reveal to the viewers, that she is a child murderer, who suffocated a twin, not from deliberate malice, but in a moment of absolute helplessness, abandoned by her man and living at subsistence level, with no hope for the future.

Wolfgang Bauer director of 'Next Door'. Still from 'Next Door'. Elisabeth Heckel outside the prefab blocks of flats in 'Next Door'.

I was clear from the outset that this film could not work in an aesthetic manner, with beautiful compositions and pleasing lighting. It had to be as cold and raw as the subject itself. That is why I decided to use a digital HDV camera, hand-held and with no artificial lighting, except existing room lights. For the same reason it was crucial to have a small crew to allow for an intimacy on the set. Despite the seriousness of the issue, I wanted to create an informal atmosphere in which people could still laugh, which I think is indispensable on a set to allow artistic freedom. And so the team was limited to five to six people plus the actor. You could not squeeze any more into the tiny spaces of our two-room apartment in a prefab estate.

By keeping to a minimum all the technical apparatus that a film set sometimes, unfortunately, brings with it, we had a lot of scope for working with the actors. We also tried to make the camera follow the actor, rather than restricting the players to performing within certain limits set by the camera position. The camera in Next Door is not a narrator but an observer. Any traditional narrative techniques, such as "over shoulder", "low angle" and so on, were forbidden. The camera became something which responded, followed, panned to whatever seemed most important at each moment. In order to be able to react, the camera was always on the operator's shoulder. It quietly followed the action when there was walking, ran behind when there was running, and waited, very quietly when people sat still. It was all done without swinging wildly about, but travelling calmly and with the natural movement of the cameraman's breathing. The camera was like a human observer, like someone looking through his own eyes and feeling his own breath.

Almost without exception, we shot complete scenes, playing without pauses. We shot once at short focal length and then at longer focal length, so that we could tighten up action in the editing stage if necessary.

The crew of 'Next Door' relax for a moment. The sound tea, at work on 'Next Door'. Director and cameraman working on 'Next Door'.
Wolfgang Bauer - director

Urs Zimmermann - camera

Stefan Petermann - sound

Peggy Ebert - make-up

Yvonne Andrä - sets & costumes

Wolfgang Bauer - editor

Thoman Heilmann - production manager

Yvonne Andrä - producer

So for me the strongest moments in the film are where the camera follows the protagonists for a long time without cutting and thus sucks us more deeply into the events and suffering. This helps to give the audience the feeling of an immediate, first-hand experience. That was particularly important for the moment at the end, when the viewers are placed in front of the door as observers and left alone in the corridor, so that they themselves are the neighbour who stands in front of next door's locked door.

In the film it was not just the main character who had to overcome great obstacles, but the film crew had to do so too. In our case, we had to work with low production costs, using a budget of €3,000 from the Thuringian Film Foundation to finance 20 minutes of film and seven days of shooting. What we needed was not just an unpaid crew and free performances from professional actors, but also two homes (one for the balcony scene) and complete home furnishings! With great difficulty we finally managed to persuade someone to move out and make his apartment available to us for nothing. And so our small team and some willing helpers hauled up to the 5th floor all the interior equipment and fittings which friends and the "Weimarer Tafel" put at our disposal. [The Weimarer Tafel is a charitable organisation which helps socially vulnerable people, who have no means of support and cannot cope.]

Contrary to what the film says, this house had no elevator. As a bit of fun at the conclusion of filming the team was allowed to smash up the huge, six-piece wall cupboard. (In addition to all the other work for the film, that had to be removed from the wall so that the main character could place it against the party wall to muffle the yelling.) After the shoot it had to be taken to the rubbish dump, and the disposal charge like the rent of the apartments was taken care of by the city of Weimar.

Sorry I cannot report the sort of squabbling, argument and bitterness that often occurs in the professional sector. Instead there was great harmony, which I find is very important to allow freedom for the performance of the actors.

- Wolfgang Bauer

Visit the film's website: www.nebenan-film.de it is in German but Google's translation tool handles it well.

Wolfgang Bauer, was born in 1976 in Berlin, shot many short films and documentaries before and during his studies of media design at the Bauhaus University in Weimar. He was an assistant to German director Andreas Dresen and a pupil of director Günther Reisch. Currently, he is developing this short film ,"Next Door", into a play and with his wife is making a documentary about 14 musicians. He has two children and lives with his family in Weimar. Film is his life!

The Cast

In 2006, together with the producer of Next Door, Yvonne Andrä, and the author of the short story which was the source of the film, Stefan Petermann, he founded the authors' and artists' collective called "1meter60 film". Website: www.1meter60-film.de. [1.6 metres is 5 foot 3 inches - the height of an average person's eyes - through which we see the world.]

Elisabeth Heckel playing Silke in 'Next Door'.Elisabeth Heckel

Elizabeth Heckel, who plays Silke in the film was born in 1980 in Weimar. She studied drama at the University of the Arts, Berlin.

So far, she has played several guest appearances in many German theatres. Since the beginning of the 2005/06 season she has been a member of the ensemble in the "Theater of Parkaue", Berlin. This is her first major film role.

She is reported as saying: "My most bizarre job? Funeral speaker."

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Page updated on 06 October 2011
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