Reframing Diversity for German Screens: Sheri Hagen in Conversation
Sheri Hagen was born in Lagos, Nigeria and raised in Hamburg. She studied at the Stage School of Dance and Drama in Hamburg, as well as the Studio Theater an der Wien in Vienna. Although her acting career has been pursued primarily in film and television, more recent stage engagements in 2010-12 include Berlin’s Vaganten Bühne, where Hagen appeared in Folke Braband’s Doubts/Zweifel, a play about rumours circulating among nuns about a priest’s alleged abuse of students in their Catholic school. In the season of 2013-14 season, she also performed at Ballhaus Naunynstrasse, a cultural centre in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg with a de-colonial emphasis. There, Hagen performed under the theatrical direction of Branwen Okpako in Elizabeth Blonzen’s Wearing Black/Schwarz Tragen; this play about precarious community among Berlin flatmates prompted her to work through the ways they wear their identities following the death of one roommate.
Hagen’s extensive experience in lead and secondary roles in German film and television began in 1995 and has included several episodes of the long-standing popular German crime series Crime Scene/Tatort and The Old Fox/Der Alte as well as theatrically-released films, such as The Lives of Others/Das Leben der Anderen (2006) and Branwen Okpako’s The Curse of Medea (2014), among others.
Hagen launched her directing career with the children’s short Stella and the Stork (2007), followed by her debut feature film, At Second Glance/Auf den Zweiten Blick (2012), another short titled Simply Different (2015) and most recently, an adaptation of Sasha Marianna Salzmann’s play Muttermale Fenster Blau, entitled Blue Window/Fenster Blau (2016). Hagen has scripted all of her films and financed them through her production company, Equality Films.
The following conversation between Sheri Hagen and Angelica Fenner was initiated in February 2018 at the 68th Berlinale and was continued in May the same year in Toronto, where Hagen showed At Second Glance/Auf den Zweiten Blick to a Canadian audience at TIFF Bell Lightbox. That screening took place in the context of the international conference ‘Transnational Perspectives on Black Germany’, a collaboration between the University of Toronto and the Black German Heritage and Research Association.
MAI (Angelica Fenner): Your feature-length film At Second Glance/Auf den Zweiten Blick seems defined by a keen humanist attention to medical and psychological issues, in tandem with an eye towards the fragility of social relations. A facet of this film that particularly spoke to me was your engagement with the topic of visual impairment, understood literally but also bearing figurative significance. It’s an issue that effects more people than we often realise or acknowledge, and has social implications as well. The depictions of these disparate characters and their challenges are so convincingly portrayed—you seem to grasp the psychical anxieties accompanying vision loss from an interior perspective. I assume you researched this topic extensively in advance?
Sheri Hagen: I feel compelled to thoroughly research the background of all my chosen topics, because anyone who has experienced what is portrayed on screen and identifies with it has to also find it plausible and convincing. I’m not interested in generating fairytales, I want to dignify the types of challenges people confront; every figure in my films has to be true to life, not stereotypes or caricatures. I want to tell stories about individuals grappling with complex challenges that people have to confront in everyday life.
MAI: It strikes me that the phenomenon of blindness or visual impairment really poses a very specific a dilemma for visual storytelling: namely, how to depict visually the subjective experience of a character’s impairment when, in the end, it’s really about an interior state and alternate ways of apprehending their surroundings, rather than something necessarily visible to others? How can a spectator who doesn’t struggle with impeded vision manage to identify with this phenomenon?
SH: I conducted conversations with people that are blind and also those struggling with deteriorating vision. Visual impairment is a really complex phenomenon and encompasses many types and gradations of impairment. I started out with the character Kay, who goes blind as a result of an accident, and in the process of trying to understand her situation, began to realise how complex this phenomenon really is. People who are impaired don’t necessarily look impaired. I wanted to sensitise people to a phenomenon that many people have or will still confront at some point in the course of their lifetime.
MAI: So I guess it involves coming to terms with what it means to depict a person’s complex and interior experience of impairment, and then exploring what kind of a visual language could convey that. You open the film with what we come to recognise as a subjective shot from Kay’s point of view: the field of vision is opaque and murky. So the first shot, or in German ‘die Einstellung’, also conveys the mental frame of mind and viewpoint of the protagonist.
SH: People often assume that the blind see ‘black,’ but that’s nonsense, actually! Their view on the world is milky rather than a dark hole, and I wanted to convey that. But while this film may use vision and visual impairment as a building block for the story, it’s really about human loneliness and isolation as something we all grapple with and which binds all the figures in my story, whether or not they are vision-impaired. All of them live in this large city and are lonely. Some may convey this through anger, or irony, or by retreating into themselves. People can live at such close quarters but still live in anonymity; they’re often no longer capable of engaging with one another or communicating authentically. So, one could, for example, have a partner (Zweisamkeit), but still be lonely (Einsamkeit).
MAI: And there is also loneliness that stems from trauma, as in Kay’s case.
SH: Yes, Kay was disappointed by her relationship, but following the car accident, she also experiences panic, fear and helplessness that she has to come to terms with as a newly blind person.
MAI: And she was also rejected by her fiancé, because of her new handicap …
SH: No. It did not come to an argument because the fiancé simply disappeared from the scene. Kay did not have the possibility to try to understand and comprehend what had happened. What remained instead were feelings of emptiness, pain and loneliness.
MAI: Is there any correlation between this and the colour design of the film? The palette encompasses a very subdued range of hues….
SH: That probably has to do with the fact that it was shot in Berlin in winter. I find Berlin to be very muted and austere in winter. People hibernate, disappear into their homes, turn the lights on inside. Berlin in winter is devoid of colour. So I find the film’s colour scheme to be a nice metaphor for how people experience winter.
MAI: I thought maybe it was intended to depict how washed out colours might be from the point of view of the visually-impaired…
SH: Oh, no. I know several people with visual impairment that see in vivid colours. There are blind painters who nevertheless can work with colours and one, in particular, who received descriptions of the colours and selected his palette according to their energies, which made me think we have a lot in common.
MAI: So Elena’s strikingly olive green sweater and various green tones in her room décor might signal ‘new life’, for example.
SH: Well, the wonderful thing about storytelling is that not everything is pre-determined. People can read the significance of aesthetic elements quite subjectively and differently from one another.
MAI: The plot line seems to be constructed like a ‘Reigen’ (a circular dance form that entails ongoing change of dance partners), which also mimics the structure of a network narrative, in which different subplots become interwoven, and couples in one plot break up and pair up with someone in another subplot. Similarly, the relationship between Kay and her partner dissolves and is gradually replaced as one with Falk emerges. In another constellation, the relationship between Till and Antje dissolves, and Till pairs up with Pan. There are also these different constellations of couples, two black German, or mixed couples—one black, one white; these racial pairings mirror each other within the network, and then invert when they meet new partners, meaning the constellations change from black/black to black/white or vice-versa. Was this intentional, or just coincidental?
SH: When I wrote the screenplay and began developing the characters and their various circumstances and relationships, I intentionally did not take skin colour into account. My casting agent then suggested a line-up of white actors, but I said, ‘No, actually, I see the characters this way and this way’, namely, the way they are now cast in the film. I very consciously wanted to play around with the roles in order to throw out old stereotypes and break down some boundaries. There are these borders we draw in our minds, which are based on judgments we make when we are first getting to know someone and ask each other questions. These judgments, which are often based on superficial external appearances, really originate in societal views and biases that we have internalised. These are barriers I wanted to break down through these various story subplots. In the end, this all really has nothing to do with sexual orientation, it’s ultimately about love, and love takes many forms and moves along different channels. Women with women, men with men, men and women. It could happen to anyone—alling in love with a new person of a different gender, a different country, different culture. There’s no life insurance and no corset, if you will, that guarantees or dictates that we will live and love a certain way until we die. Everything is possible—that’s something I wanted to convey through this film. Anyone could lose their eyesight from one day to the next, fall in love and/or find themselves in a totally foreign situation, forced to confront new challenges. Then it’s important for them to have a safety net, so that they do not stand alone and fall through the net.
MAI: There are indeed certain stereotypes that are undermined. So, for example, Falk is a single father, as opposed to the more common trope of the single mother…
SH: …or this perfectly harmless and affable Ulf, who stumbles into a tragic car accident as a result of his state of exhaustion and disorientation. That was intentional on my part, I do that in all my stories, because these tragic turns are like a slap in the face—life doesn’t always deal us a fair hand, or at least that’s my impression of it. As I say, there is no life insurance, and anything can happen.
MAI: To come back to the notion of inversions: for example, in the first car accident, Kay is abandoned by her partner, whereas in the second car accident, Elena tells the ambulance staff that she’s Benjamin’s wife so that she can accompany him. I assume these chiasmatic constellations are intentional?
SH: Correct. Kays fiancé had no backbone. Elena has one, she loves Benjamin, with all his quirks. I wanted to use the structure of a ‘Reigen’ because I believe life itself is like a round-dance! We are all connected with one another in this world; at least that’s how I see it, and it’s palpable in all my films. Trump can make statements about ‘shithole countries’ but at the end of the day, his family also originates from a ‘shithole country.’ We have to be conscious of what we say, the language we use, and how damaging both language and images can be.
MAI: So true! Building on the ‘Reigen’ as metaphor, there’s also an expression, ‘what goes around, comes around’. The topic of visual impairment is interesting in the way it gets interwoven with the topic of racialisation processes. Being a visible minority in a predominantly white society can mean experiencing both a hypervisibility, but also sometimes being rendered invisible, as not counting. Perhaps for the blind, race and skin colour are not an issue—do they embody the perfect colour-blindness?
SH: Ah!! I wouldn’t underestimate the issue. I was amazed at what a topic this is among the blind. Just because someone is blind or impaired doesn’t mean that they have no prejudices or resentments.
MAI: Perhaps your ambition was to show how, for example, with the figure of Pan, who’s looking for a partner, the burdened history of melanin doesn’t have to be an impediment.
SH: It was important to me that one couple comes together through a common love of music—that’s Pan and Till. And for another couple, Benjamin and Elena, its humour and laughter that is the key, and for another other, it’s about language and the voice. Falk falls in love with the radio moderator Kay without even having laid eyes on her, before he has even met her. It was important to me to convey that sometimes external features are not what attracts us to a person and inspires us to fall in love. It can be the hands, the voice, their laughter, or sharing a common language—literal or figural. So, love isn’t necessarily always motivated through the body or the look.
MAI: Although it does operate via the senses, because hearing is still a sensory organ anchored in the body. Music, for example, isn’t necessarily mediated via the eyes but rather the ears, so it’s still sensorial. In this regard, this is a very haptic film, the characters are often fumbling their ways to one another via a mediated sense of contact and touch. This is poignantly rendered when Till takes Pan’s hands at the piano and they begin to play four-hands.
SH: One of my favourite scenes in the film! I told the two actors, when you play piano with one another, it’s as if you’re having sex for the first time, approaching one another without really knowing one another yet. This process of getting to know one another and sensing the compatibility and connection happens via the musical play.
MAI: It’s a process of harmonisation that takes place via this musical instrument—the piano.
SH: Yes, I really love this scene! And Benjamin falls in love with a woman who is his therapist, which is a classical scenario, and then he also becomes, in effect, her therapist. The patient treats the therapist!
MAI: Indeed! Another one of my favourite scenes takes place in the inner courtyard where Falk and his daughter live. They are hanging out with Kay, when this older gentleman leans out his window and shouts to them, telling them to quiet down What I like is that what is depicted is a microcosm, one in which all protagonists just happen to be Black German, but in surroundings where they don’t experience themselves or each other as necessarily a minority.
SH: I also find that the diversity that actually exists in Germany is missing on German screens. German cinema and television is projecting a world that doesn’t exist in reality. You can walk through the streets of Berlin and see many people of colour, Turks, Asians, people whom you don’t really know exactly what their origins might be. But it’s astonishing how rarely this is reflected in German films. Television and the cinema seem to resist depicting this. I don’t know why, and I don’t understand this reticence in Germany. I may be depicting a fictional story, but there is a realism and a truth in it. It was important for me to depict also the older generation of Black Germans, the third or fourth generation living in Germany. I didn’t want to just depict young people. People grow old in society and that needs to be acknowledged in everyday scenes, we can’t just ban them from the screen.
MAI: This is an issue overall—actors over fifty are barely seen on film.
SH: Exactly, male actors are permitted on screen until age sixty and women until age thirty!
MAI: Speaking of generations, your two daughters also have roles in this film. How did that come about?
SH: Ella Sade Hagen-Janson plays the role of Falk’s daughter, Carla, and Zoe Hagen who is a little older now and who has started writing screenplays and does poetry-slams, played the role of Pia, the teenager who destroys the furniture in the therapist’s office. It was really very self-serving: I knew both were capable of doing this, and it saved me the trouble of casting, which otherwise costs time and money. I was self-financing the film, also with the help of friends and family, so I asked both daughters if they’d do me the favour of performing these roles. Ella initially hesitated and, in fact, refuses to watch the film even now because she claims she doesn’t like the sound of her laughter in the film; but, of course, she has seen the film many times in the past—after all, she’s now seventeen years old. So yes, both daughters did me this favour and played their roles splendidly.
MAI: I love the idea of an intergenerational family project. But was it challenging to direct your own children?
SH: Not with the older daughter, but the younger was quite the diva, a young girl getting all this attention on set, with everyone doting over her and asking her what she needs and wants. She started to think she was the star of the film, but she was really very charming and sweet. The whole thing was quite uncomplicated; I was really lucky, in that regard.
MAI: Do you think they’ll pursue the same career path as you?
SH: Yes, Zoe aims to work behind the camera, Ella’s not sure yet what she aims to do, career-wise.
MAI: As long as we are talking about families: I so enjoyed seeing these alternative social structures, such as that created through the highly functional roommate relationship between Falk and Ulf, which operates like a surrogate family. And then you have Till and Antje, and the aunt who happens to be white, but it’s presented as simply the way things are and the spectator can draw their own conclusions as to whether this means that there was a mixed marriage, an adoption, or who knows what. It’s not explained and the story is set up so that it’s not important to know.
SH: It’s left up to viewer’s imagination. With regard to family structures, it was important to me to show family members as diverging in appearance. Sometimes there are children who don’t look at all like one another. We live in an era of patchwork families and of adoption and technological reproduction. Today, everything is possible, so this classical image of the family has become outdated. That is to say, we still have that classical structure, but it’s not the only one.
MAI: Yes, there is something very utopian in this film. I don’t mean that in the sense that it is unrealistic, but rather, that it depicts both what is possible and also what is already present in society as a positive force seldom acknowledged or celebrated—it’s all compacted into this one story. It was really a breath of fresh air.
SH: Thank you. You know, since you were just mentioning the characters of Aunt Else, who is white and Till, who is Black, it occurs to me that I actually don’t even think about these things anymore. I cast according to an actor’s energy and not their external appearance. Of course, there are some actors I just want to work with, regardless of their skin colour. But otherwise, I’m looking for an energy that can be channeled into the character I have in mind, and their appearance is really irrelevant or at least secondary.
But, for example, with the character Lena in my new film Blue Window/Fenster Blau, I was actually aiming for a black Lena, but I didn’t find her. The Lena that I found (Kristin Alia Hunold) does have African heritage, Moroccan, in fact. I was looking for someone that is like a feral cat, and she is my little wild cat. I wanted someone powerful, but at the same time also tender and childlike, who, unfortunately, gets broken by the structures and patterns present in her family.
MAI: The thematic of family takes on a very different twist in Blue Window/Fenster Blau. It’s a film with dark undertones and this black/white aesthetic, the rugged northern coastline…
SH: … and blue! Yes, it’s a totally different aesthetic and tone, and a totally different story with a different power. It’s about the brutality of family and self-liberation. Lena’s story is painful and she chooses the dark side. As a child, one is born into a family and expects to be protected, and yet the exact opposite can also happen, where family can also be like a predatory animal that eats you up. But it’s not so much Lena’s story as it is that of Ljöscha (Emilio Sakraya). It’s about what happens with the fruit of incestuous relationships. This is a young man who grapples with this question, wants to understand, in order to liberate himself of it.
MAI: So it’s a story about incest. That wasn’t immediately evident to me, but at some point it suddenly registered with me that this was the hidden secret of the grandfather (Dietrich Hollinderbäumer) that was only indirectly being addressed, and that there are two different temporalities in the film.
SH: The grandfather is, at the same time, also the father…
MAI: Ah, so that’s why it’s so important that Ljöscha calls him ‘Grandfather’ at the beginning of the story. As a viewer, you really have to work hard to figure things out.
SH: It’s a complex film. You need the first 20 minutes to figure out the relationships and their history. In At Second Glance/Auf den Zweiten Blick, you also need some time to figure out how the many characters relate to one another. In Blue Window/Fenster Blau, there are fewer characters, but the plot is more of a puzzle. It seems very simple, but the more time passes, the more questions you have about what is going on. I really liked that aspect of it. It’s the adaptation of a play, Muttermale Fenster Blau, by Sasha Marianna Salzmann. I like the stubbornness of this young man who was searching for the truth, even uncomfortable truths, so that he could live. He wanted to live, while Lena chose to embrace self-destruction. There’s the sunny side and the shadow-side, and we always have the free will to choose between them, I believe. So I wanted to depict two individuals of the same age, Lena at age 19, and then her son, Ljöscha at 19. Lena could have liberated herself from the situation at hand, she could have left the room at every moment and she didn’t. She chose self-destruction, while her son chose life.
MAI: And the use of blue CGI?
SH: Blue represents both hope and grief. Blue reveals Lena’s pain, but also shows her liberation. She paints her world blue and that’s her refuge. In the play, it’s the colour black that is used, but I didn’t want that, I wanted a powerful vivid colour. I chose blue because blue can both be warm and cold, it has both these aspects. So Lena starts to paint herself blue, it’s her way of protecting herself from her father. She takes refuge in the colour blue. And our blue is real, not CGI, it was only colour corrected.
MAI: In Blue Window/Fenster Blau there is also a figure who is deaf, as I recall?
SH: Yes, deaf and mute. That was important to me because most of the characters speak a lot, but they don’t really speak with one another that much. The only one who really communicates is this young woman, played by Anne Zander, who can’t speak verbally, but is the only one who communicates honestly and directly. She is important for him. She gives him strength and courage just by being present and sticking by him even if she appears to annoy him. But by constantly being there, she becomes a kind of guardian angel.
MAI: The grandfather/father is a sculptor, if I understand correctly. Is there anything metaphorical at work in that?
SH: His daughter gets deformed through what takes place between them. Well, he wants to sculpt her after his desire and have her as his whore, and preserve his image of her, which isn’t possible. What he does in reality with his hands is to turn her into his wife. He robs her of her childhood, her right to be a child.
MAI: Although an adaptation of a play, this film still retains the feeling of a chamber play.
SH: I love Salzmann’s use of language. Every play invites you into its world and its language. Even Shakespeare demands that you adjust to his language, but today everyone is already so familiar with it. I liked the eccentric and odd quality of Salzmann’s language, as well as its directness, the humour, and also the raw brutality. In the scenes where the grandfather and Ljöscha speak with each other outdoors, it seems like everyday speech, but when they are together in a room, it feels like a theatrical language. But that’s a subjective perception created by the spatial confinement, which creates a kind of corset around their interactions and makes their speech seem stilted even though it’s actually the same language. And yet, when they are in this expansive outdoor space, with the sea and the power of this untamed landscape, the speech of the characters manages to match those surroundings and, as a result, you hear and experience their dialogue differently as a spectator. It was important to me to explore how that works and to work with the power of nature, and of the sea…
MAI: … and the violence…
SH: … yes, the violence. The sea, and the rain, or shall we say, water and fire—they both possess qualities that have the power to destroy, but also to warm and calm a person.
MAI: And purify them.
SH: And purify, yes exactly. That was important to me. The purification takes place near water, on the shoreline at the end of the film. Ljöscha experiences a cleansing, and grounding, if you will.
MAI: Was this film made for television?
SH: No, it’s also for theatrical release. This is a film that absolutely must be viewed on the big screen—the epic and powerful images demand that format. The theatrical setting doesn’t make them easier to digest, but it does sweep you along. It’s a difficult film, I’ll grant you that—it’s one you have to wrestle with. Some people can’t deal with that, and others simply love it, it has nothing in between. At Second Glance/Auf den Zweiten Blick is, so to speak, more accommodating of its audience, in that regard.
But Billie, the next film I want to make, is again about one of these epic topics. I love scenes involving intense interpersonal relationships, it’s what speaks to me the most. It’s about domestic violence, but using the genre of comedy. That’s right. What?! Most people are surprised, but really, that can work! It’s about four women, that is to say, two Black German mothers, one has a 15-year old daughter, the other a 5-year old daughter. In order to get ahold of 300 Euros for the school field trip of one of their daughters, they become reluctant bank robbers. It’s really about what plays out behind the scenes in the bank. It’s about women’s friendship, solidarity, and self-liberation.
MAI: Like Thelma & Louise (1991)?
SH: Sort of, there’s that, but the tenor of the film is really Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri (2017). The topic is different, as is the casting, but the tone is similar to that film.
MAI: Staying with that comparison, does your next film similarly aim to take on the topic of racism and structural disadvantages?
SH: Well, it was more coincidence. I was watching the film and realised, ‘Hey, that’s exactly the tenor of my film!’ Certainly, the topics of racism and structural, economic injustice are also thematised in Billie.
MAI: Thank you so much, Sheri, for this engaging conversation. We wish you all the very best for the distribution of Blue Window/Fenster Blau and the production of Billie.
Landry, Olivia (2017), ‘Colourblindness in Sheri Hagen’s Auf den Zweiten Blick‘, Black Camera, Vol. 9 No. 2, pp. 62-79.
Klümper, Hannah (2013), ‘A Chat with … Sherin Hagen’, Ex-Berliner, 7 October 2013, http://www.exberliner.com/whats-on/film/a-chat-for-sheri-hagen/ (last accessed 20 January 2020).
Sheri Hagen’s Films
At Second Glance/Auf den Zweiten Blick (2012), dir. Sheri Hagen.
Blue Window/Fenster Blau (2016), dir, Sheri Hagen.
Simply Different/Einfach Anders (2015), dir. Sheri Hagen.
Stella and the Storks/Stella and the Storks (2007), dir. Sheri Hagen.
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