Director Gerd Schneider talks about his new film THE CULPABLE, winner of 2016 SBIFF Audience Award

THE CULPABLE (Verfehlung) Trailer from Pluto Film on Vimeo.

Photo: Dir. Gerd Schneider doing his acceptance speech receiving the 2016 SBIFF Audience Award; with SBIFF Festival Director Roger Durling.

by Oliver Carnay

One of the best films Iíve seen at the recent Santa Barbara International Film Festival is 2016 Audience Award winner THE CULPABLE. The film is about a Catholic prisoner minister named Jakob (a compelling performance by Sebastian Blomberg) who is shaken when his colleague and friend Dominik (Kai Schumann) is taken into custody under suspicion of sexual abuse. Iíve seen many films about the anomaly plagued in the Catholic ministry, cover-ups of high-ranking Cardinals, not to mention the Oscar-nominated SPOTLIGHT. But this film offers a viewpoint on the other end. With great screenplay and story different from what weíve already seen, director Gerd Schneider manage to write and deliver a film that is well-crafted and such that is engrossing until it ends.

I caught up with Director Gerd Schneider later after the SBIFF Awards announcement and below youíll read the in-depth stories about the challenges he encountered in creating his film.

HF: Congratulations for winning the Best Audience Choice Award at the recent Santa Barbara International Film Festival!† You attended the announcement and how did you feel the moment they announced your film?† What does this recognition mean to you?

GS: Well, I was very surprised and caught a bit off guard, when Roger announced the winners of this years SBIFF. The award means a lot to me and also my producers since this is an audience award. People obviously liked THE CULPABLE very much. I'm deeply grateful.

HF: There were a lot of films made that already tackled clergy child-abuse scandal roiling the Roman Catholic church and the latest is the Oscar-nominated "Spotlight," what inspired you to do this film?† What made your film different from the other films that has come out?† What was your motivation? Also, can you describe Raul's relationship with Bro. Jakob, which maybe for some people, are not familiar about the role and job description of being a Catholic prisoner-minister.

GS: The idea to THE CULPABLE came to me several years ago; it was just a single situation I had in mind: a prison minister has to take care of his imprisoned friend and colleague who is under the suspicion of child abuse. I studied catholic theology and was myself about to take the cloth, so I know the inner system of the church very well. And I knew that transgressions have taken place; in fact, every one could have known. Jokes about "the quire boys" are old and common. But I wanted to take a different point of view on the story: who are those people, who got knowledge of these incidents and turned a blind eye to them? What is going on between priests who want to do something about the situation and their superiors? While SPOTLIGHT focuses on the journalistic investigation, THE CULPABLE tells the story from the other side of the fence. And the Chilean film EL CLUB takes an insight of a whole group of perpetrators beeing more or less under house arrest in a very remote place, concealed by the church from the rest of the society.

HF: Raulís part is actually that of a mirror character: he is expecting a verdict for rape and fatal aggravated assault; Jakob does his best to take care of this special inmate. There is an intense and intimate relationship between the both of the men; Raul is trusting Jakob, but loses that confidence when he sees that Dominik is released from custody. And so Raul gets lost which puts the pressure on Jakob. Suicide does happen in prison, and it is a very sad thing to see somebody going that way and feeling absolutely helpless about it.

HF: Tell us about how did you research on the theme as well as the characters you put into your film?

GS: I got in contact to survivers and interviewed them. That was something very special and also exhausting, because there are so many sad and unsettling stories, peoples lifes were so deeply affected by the transgressions. After one of those interviews I stopped writing for about three months because I thouhgt I would never make a good screenplay out of it. At a point, you have to let go and work on the story. I worked closely with my actors on their characters, we spend a week in a monastery for readings and rehearsing, especially the liturgical parts. In fact, we had a blast there, laughed a lot.

HF: There is an obvious feeling about the objectivity of this film the way the characters, the conflicts that are provided to the audience, and I like that it is not being judgmental at all the way the story was enfolding.† Can you talk more about this?† What was your original perspective in creating the arc of the film and its characters?

GS: Well, things are never black-and-white, there is a lot of grey out there. That sounds like a weisenheimer's piece of wisdom, but it's a finnicky business to get that into a good screenplay: all the characters have their reasons, some are good, some of them are selfish and some arise from cowardice. It is usual people under unsually high pressure. As I've said before, I wanted to establish a perspective on those who fell silent - and there's a lot of silence on all sides: the church, the families, survivers and investigators. Jakob is the character the film concentrates on, his struggle to simply do the morally right thing and his shattering finding that he himself is not meeting his moral standards - as neither anybody on the clerical side. The film has a certain position but is not forcing that on the audience; I just wanted to pass the ball back to the audience: what would you do?

HF: The movie tackled a lot of issues: trust, faith, morality, dedication and hope.† What do you think this film can help achieve for the people who see it?

GS: I would like people to achieve one thing: be aware of what's going on and don't turn the blind eye to it. That means to leave your comfort zone but otherwise nothing will change. And it takes more than prayers, God isn't fixing it.

HF: What was your favorite scene in the movie and why?

GS: My most favorite scene is Dominik's confession to Jakob in the chapel; the incredibel acting of Kai Schumann and Sebastian Blomberg in this unsettling situation is outstanding. We shot just three set-ups, nothing else: a 2-shot from behind and two 'over-the-shoulder'; I wanted the camera to be kind of eavesdropping, the audience beeing the silent third party. Jakob's reaction to Dominik's opening is literally breathtaking; Sebastian's highly sensitive and emotional acting shows the slow disruption of the prison minister's world.

HF: You got great actors to create a well-crafted dramatic piece, where did you find your actors?† What was the casting process?† Can you tell me more about their background?
GS: We worked with casting agent Suse Marquardt in Berlin who is an experienced and emphatic caster. We sat together, talked about the screenplay and tried dozens of combinations first on the paper, then invited actors to audition at her casting office. It took us weeks to try all the combinations as I wanted to find actors who could play the three clergymen and friends in a highly credible way. None of them is a really religious person, Sebastian refers to himself as a 'bedraggled Lutheran'. Kai Schumann actually played mainly in comedies which why I casted him for the part of Dominik. Jan Messutat starring as Oliver, the freshly appointed Vicar General, is such a good and thoughtful actor; as well is Sandra Borgman, who gave Vera Rubin, the victims mother, a touching and humane character drawing.

HF: How long did it take you to start and finish the script?† Was there anything from the original script that you left out in the final print?† How many shooting days did you have?

GS: Writing is quite a process; a screenplay is a living and constantly changing document. It took me 5 years to deliver a draft that attracted sponsors and convinced filmboards. By then everything went pretty fast. We had 30 days of shooting which we completed in May 2014. A lot of things change during the shooting process as the screeenplay becomes alive. I had scripted a different, more conventional ending but as we were shooting it I already knew this was not going to be the ending of the film. My editor Uta Schmidt developed a new version which I immedeately fell in love to and we sticked to it. I think it is a powerful and provoking ending now.

HF: What was the greatest challenge for you as a director, and as a writer, in creating this film?

GS: There's a lot of challenges, that's for sure. Time pressure and a tight schedule are the most challenging circumstances, and by that I think to me the biggest challenge was to direct a scene adequately and with care. Sometimes you don't know what to do with a scene, your head is just empty but the train is rolling and you have to give direction. And you hope what you do is hopefully the right thing. It feels like surfing with three boards.

HF: How did you come up with the title of the film?

GS: For a long time we had a working title, 'THE RESPONSIBLE ONES', but that didn't sound right anymore. So we were discussing the title a lot with the german distributor and some executives from the networks; there were dozens of nominations and a lot of discussions, but we finally came together on THE CULPABLE. I think it has the right sound and gives you an idea what you're about to see.

HF: Can you give me a little description about your background and your goals as a writer/director?† What are your favorite films or the type of films do you watch growing up ..† do you have a dream project?† What's your next project?

GS: I don't see myself as an Author's filmmaker. For that, I'm too lazy I'm afraid. No really, I would love to work with screenwriters as they bring in their own creativity and I'm bringing in mine. I've always loved films with a strong story and a strong message, wether mainstream or Arthouse I don't care; a good science fiction movie can enthrall me as well as an emotional drama. I love the films of Kubrick, Spielberg, Gilliam, Bergman, Lubitsch, Herzog and so many others - there is no particular filmmaker I would favour. They all have a certain quality and handwriting which I hope to develop myself. Right now I'm working on a very special lovestory in times of a society politically shifting to the extremes again; it's going to be a film about seduction and sedition. And I'm working on the adaptation of an old fairy tale which I want to relocate to a contemporary Berlin.

HF: Where else can we see this film after SBIFF?† Have you found distribution and what is the marketing plan of this film?† I hopefully want this to be available for the U.S. audience, definitely.

GS: THE CULPABLE is invited to the Festival of German Films in New York in March, which I will personally attend; L.A. Goethe Institute is hopefully going to screen it as well. Right now we are dicussing US-distribution, first promising contacts have been made. I'm very hopeful we find a distributor. I'd love to have THE CULPABLE showing in U.S. theaters.