Ben Knight meets Ralf Stadler, a young German filmmaker who has a script that he says will take the zombie movie back to its serious, meaningful roots. Ben joins him on Day 2 of his EFM Diary at the Berlinale.
Ralf Stadler thinks that people don’t take zombies seriously enough anymore. “They’ve become a joke. What are zombies, after all?” he asks. “They’re symbols of the past returning. They are metaphors for how we can never break free of the old patterns of our lives and our families.”
We’re sitting in the cafeteria at the DFFB – the ninth floor film school that looks down (with a mixture of yearning and superiority) onto the Cinestar multiplex and the little ants skittering about under the big Sony tent. The plastic tables and cheap college coffee have been requisitioned by the European Film Market. The tables around us are all alive with talk of film projects. People are coming out of screenings of rough cuts clutching scribbled-in-the-dark notes. There’s a director at another table looking sullen as two producers and a publicist pull his film apart. The phrase “But what are you trying to say?” drifts across the room, and he winces.
Ralf will probably have to field that one a few times in the coming years. He’s a director and screenwriter, and in town to pitch his zombie movie idea. His six-minute movie “Cigarette Break” won the German short film prize in 2006 and was screened at the New York Film Festival, and he’s set to start shooting his black comedy Mummenschanz next year. But at the moment he needs a co-producer for Season of the Dead, or, Zombies on Vacation, a script he’s spent two years honing with collaborator Christoph Steinau.
I’m the first the person he has presented his pitch to this year. “You’ve caught me cold with this ‘What’s the film actually about?’ thing,” he says. “I’ll have to think about that. It’s about memory and loss, and the ending is a total renunciation of the concept of family. It’s going to be a catharsis.”
I look a little blank. “But I thought you said it’s about zombies?”
“Yes, it’s a classic horror film, but it’s in no way a comedy. Zombies in recent films have just become sort of clowns – they just get mown down. It’s very important to me that no zombies get shot in my film.”
“Do they get cut up with chainsaws?”
He gives me a disappointed look. “No, you can’t kill them. You can walk between them and you can push them away. But they just keep coming. Slowly. They can’t run. European zombies can’t run.”
The plot involves a young couple on holiday in an Italian Adriatic coastal resort, where main character Jan (and Ralf) used to spend his childhood vacations. But the resort is desolate, its tourist economy destroyed by the budget flight age. Jan’s partner Karo, who wants a baby, is injured while swimming, and her blood awakens something under the water. It turns out that the town is built on an old cemetery, which was dug up to make way for the resort. Jan and Karo learn that the corpses – you guessed it – were dumped in the sea…
A lot of other stuff happens before a “spectacular showdown.” But then the couple return home, where what Ralf calls a “cathartic ending” happens: in a fit of psychotic rage, Jan kills Karo, who at this point may or may not be pregnant by a zombie. “By doing that, he submits to the old psychological patterns of his family,” he explains. “What we can never escape from. But at the same time, his whole holiday so far is about the loss of his childhood.”
There is a pause. Utterly confused, I realize it’s my turn to say something. “Is it sort of ‘Michael Haneke with zombies’?” I offer.
“Yes. You could say that!” he says brightly.
Ralf says that zombie films have become cheap – he wants to return them to their roots, which, he claims, are not only German (“Those original Romero films – they were German-Italian co-productions”) but used to have sub-texts. “Horror films used to be about something – they had meaning, they addressed issues – homosexuality, war, whatever – but now they’re just jokes.”
Ralf thinks he can do it for €250,000. “But I’ll just go there with two people and film it myself if I have to.” We agree to meet next week, when Ralf and his co-author will take on the EFM.