Writing about Daily Life
Scriptwriter: Laila Stieler
Stieler was born in 1965 in Neustadt, Thuringia. From 1986 to 1990,
Stieler studied dramaturgy at the Konrad Wolf Academy for Film and
Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg. Since 1990, she has worked as a
freelance scriptwriter and producer, working with directors such as
Andreas Dresen, Dagmar Hirtz, Tim Trageser, Maria Schrader and, most
recently, Doris Dörrie. Her collaboration with Andreas Dresen goes
back to the late 1980s, when they were both students at the Film
Academy. Stieler co-wrote the script for Dresen's feature film debut, Stilles Land (1992, Silent Country), followed by Die Polizistin (2000, The Policewoman), Willenbrock (2004) and Wolke 9 (2008, Cloud 9), which won the Coup de Coeur Jury Prize at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Die Friseuse (2010, The Hairdresser)
was her first collaboration as a scriptwriter and producer with the
internationally-acclaimed director Doris Dörrie. Laila Stieler is
currently working on a script about the East German singer-songwriter
Gerhard Gundermann. This feature film, directed by Andreas Dresen, is
announced for release in 2013.
For more information:
You belong to the
generation of filmmakers that studied in the GDR and were then sent out
into the film world of post-unification Germany. How did you,
personally, experience this change of worlds?
I had a lot of fear and a lot of luck. After I finished my studies in
1990, I worked for a year as a dramaturg at Deutsche Fernsehfunk (DFF),
the former East German television station. It was a one-year grace
period that was very important for me, because I had no work experience
and did not know whether a unified Germany would even need dramaturgs.
Would I be able to feed my family? Should I look for another career?
Those were my existential questions. My editor-in-chief, Karl-Heinz
Staamann ñ who unfortunately died too early ñ supported
me. He all but gave me my first film, Mein Bruder, der Clown (My
Brother, the Clown). In this and the following years, it became clear
to me that I had gotten a very solid education. It boosted my
self-assurance. But back then I felt my otherness, a strong Eastern
European imprint, very clearly. Sometimes it made me sad and sometimes
The role of
dramaturgs, which was central in East German film production, is not
widespread in the US. What role did dramaturgs play in East Germany and
what role do they play in German filmmaking today? Could you also
please describe your training as a dramaturg at the Film Academy? As
there is no specific apprenticeship for dramaturgs or scriptwriters
here in the US, students are always positively surprised when they hear
about the education of filmmakers in the GDR. How do you see your
education at the Academy for Film and Television today?
There were only four young women in my year. We virtually had
individualized instruction in several seminars and lectures, and it was
really noticeable when one of us was absent. How we envied our fellow
students! But years later I often thought it had been a blessing, that
we couldn't get around working hard. A class with only four
students--imagine the luxury! To think the GDR did this! We had very
demanding subjects--like: theory of film, culture, literature and
media; film history; historical and practical dramaturgy. And also
economy, Russian, English and Phys. Ed. Counting hands-on seminars, we
often had 12-14 hour days.
Dramaturgs had a very present and responsible position in East German
film and television. Value was placed on good scripts. The dramaturg
was often the initiator of a production and thus reponsible for
organizational and financial duties. But sometimes the dramaturg also
had to play the role of a political watchdog; that was the downside of
the profession. Here and now dramaturgs no longer play such an
important role, also because part of their work is done by line
producers and producers. Pure dramaturgs, who develop the narrative of
the film, hardly exist anymore. It also has something to do with the
relative lack of importance atrributed to scriptwriting in Germany.
You had already
worked with the director Andreas Dresen as a dramaturg and scriptwriter
during your years at the Film Academy. Would you please say something
about working together, perhaps especially on Stilles Land (Silent Country)?
In my program, there was an open, creative, friendly atmosphere and we
were downright obsessed with collaborative work. So I worked on
projects with Andreas Dresen as of my first year. Silent Country was somehow handed to us on a silver platter. We wanted to make a film that meant something to us. And at the time the Wende--that
deep break--was the topic that moved us the most. At the same time, we
already had a bit of distance, a certain disenchantment. And we saw
that the upheaval also had its comical aspects. We wondered how best to
narrate a sort of Wende-chronicle--the
day-to-day of a revolution, where engagement and lethargy, pathos and
banality, tragedy and comedy stand side by side. So we hit on the idea
of a theater. We divided up the scenes between us. I already had a
computer, Andreas brought his handwritten text and we discussed and
corrected our work together. Sounds exhausting, but the first version
of the script only took 14 days. I never managed to do that again.
Silent Country was
Andreas Dresen's first full-length feature film, as well as his thesis
film. At that time you had already graduated from the film academy. How
did the script originate? Were some of the narrated stories from your
own experience? What were the sources for this script?
Andreas Dresen comes from a theater family; he was, so to speak, the
original source. Together we did research at the Anklam Theater, where
we later shot the film. There we found the exact atmosphere we were
looking for, the tension between hope and resignation. I then visited a
few other provincal theaters and found the situation was similar. Many
of these impressions and stories were then incorporated into the
script: like the relationships inside of the ensemble, for example; the
little fights about status; the lack of distance that develops when you
work too closely and too long with one another; the course of certain
love affairs. The basic idea of the the script: a hopeful graduate
starts his first job at a theater and runs into encrusted structures.
It came out of our own life situations--after all, we were both fresh
Silent Country takes
place at a small provical theater in fall 1989. The Film
Academy's website describes the film as, "The story of a revolution
that isn't one--but nevertheless, the story from the epicenter of the world." What role does the univeral aspect of stories play in your scripts?
I always do very exacting research, because I believe the more
concretely you tell a story, the more universal you can be. This seems
to be a contradiction, but it is my experience. The better I know the
details, the deeper I go into a story, the greater the chance it will
reveal its universal core. I always strive for that working principle.
In Silent Country, we had the
universal aspect of the story in sight from the start; a theater is,
after all, a small world, a universe unto itself. That's how we wanted
to tell the story.
Many of your scripts, like Die Friseuse (2010, The Haidresser) or the ZDF/arte television production Die Lehrerin (2011, The Teacher),
are stories about day-to-day life. How do you find these stories? And
how do you discover the details--of characters and stories, for
example--given that I assume they are very different from your own
life? What role do your own experiences play in your scripts?
I come from a documentary-film family. As a child at the International
Festival for Documentary Films in Leipzig, I had to watch films about
striking Bolivian miners, about the English union movement and schools
in Africa--which really bored me back then. But it must have made an
impression on me. Daily life interests me, the apparently
unspectacular. If I should tell a story about a king, I would describe
his daily life. The stimulus for The Haidresser
was the stories of my hairdresser, three doors down from me. And
teachers were just genreally interesting to me, because they have such
a difficult job and get so little respect in German society.
When you were still a student, you wrote the script for Dresen's So schnell geht es nach Istanbul (1990, Shortcut to Istanbul), which is based on motifs from Jurek Becker's short story, "Romeo." Also adapted from literary texts are The Policewoman (original story by Annegret Held), Willenbrock (novel by Christoph Hein), and the script for Liebesleben (2007, Love Life,
based on Zeruya Shalev's novel), which you co-wrote with the director
Maria Schrader. How is it for you, as a scriptwriter, to work from
literary sources? Does the scriptwriter have room for creative license
in adapting a literary work? And what is the relationship like between
the literary author and the scriptwriter?
I have thought about these questions for a long time. I wrote my thesis
about literary adaptions; I evaluated linguistic theories that
sought a sort of formula for transforming literature into film
ñ and predictably didnít find one. Adaptation is a
mysterious process; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
I found out for myself that the success of an adaption depends in great
part on the scriptwriter's/director's reading. In any case, as a
scriptwriter working with a literary work, I feel like I have a little
treasure in my hand--a wealth of ideas, figures, patterns. The
tranformation of a literary work into a script is then mostly a
suspenseful process. With all due respect, I must distance myself from
the original, in order to be able to create another original. On the
other hand, I must not distance myself too much, so as not to lose the
intention of the literary work, not to become arbitrary. All authors I
have met so far in my career showed great understanding for this
problem and more or less let me do my work.
Could you please say something about the process of finding filmic images, which accompanies a reduction of the original...
In adapting a novel reduction is unavoidable, because it involves a
substantial work. At the same time--it sounds paradoxical--I often
invent additional episodes or extend plotlines that support my reading.
In the novel Willenbrock, for
example, the inner conflict of a man who loses his sense of
self-confidence after a robbery is depicted in various areas of this
characterís life. In the adaptation, I concentrated on
Willenbrock's relationships with women, in which his inner conflict
took on a sensually concrete form. To this end, I expanded and
intensified an episode that is only hinted at in the novel.
There was an article here in The New Yorker (Jan 10, 2011) about Stieg Larsson's trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest)
that stated that the movie adaptations are better than the books and
that this is, above all, thanks to the scripts. What do you think about
this? What role does a well-written script play for a director?
Here in Germany, audiences usually say: But the novel was better. It's
rarely the other way around. And I believe that people in Germany feel
the same about the film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:
But the novel was better. The reason for this might be that here film
is still seen as entertaiment, while literature is serious art. You'll
notice I find this really galling. A good script is clearly not a
discrete work of art; but it is the requirement for a good film. And
not only because the story and the dialogues are right. It starts with
the colleagues; actors like to play well-written characters, the whole
team is more motivated when the material is good.
Your stories are
often set in the former GDR, or Eat Germany is part of the background
of the stories. Are there reasons for this? Do you think it is still
important today to retain images of the GDR in film? And has this
presentation of the GDR in films changed for you in recent years?
I basically like writing about people I know or think I know. And I
don't think much of prematurely negating differences; people are shaped
by their past. As for the presentation of the GDR, I think we must be
careful, that images don't get stuck in our heads that are too starkly
reductive. I simply miss differentiated films that deal with everyday
life in the GDR, with its contradictions.
What influence does the director have on the script? Do you write your scripts with the director and/or audience in mind?
I am my first viewer. I cannot write a film that I wouldn't watch
myself. And I'm very critical. I tend to block out imagining other,
diffuse viewers. Certainly I think about the director, if it's already
clear who that is. Is s/he able to stage this? Does s/he get the
subtext, or do I have to write it down? (No, that was a joke. I always
have a lot of luck with my directors.)
Various writers worked on the script for Dresen's Cloud 9.
It is known that the actors also had a lot of room for improvisation.
How did the idea of using actors' improvisation in the film influence
work on the script?
There wasn't any script, just a detailed treatment, which rarely went
as far as to work out dialogue, in order to leave the actors the room
Does it also sometimes happen that you first write the script, and then look for a director or producer?
Yes, I've experienced that too. It's not bad either. It obviously gives
me a lot of freedom. On the other hand, I miss the constructive input
of the director.
What influence do
you have on the film as a scriptwriter? Are you there for the shoot, or
later for the rough cut? How important is it to you that the finished
film be close to your script?
It all depends on the director how involved I get during the shoot or
editing. For films for which I am "only" the scriptwriter, I'm often
not too interested in always being on the set or in the editing room. I
mean, I've done my work. And sometimes it bothers me to watch others
doing theirs. So, I also don't pay scrupulous attention to how closely
the edited version follows my script. Directors mostly have good
reasons for deleting scenes or change their order. But I have also
never experienced having the entire structure or atmosphere drastically
For some of your
most recent films, you were the producer as well as the scriptwriter.
What does it mean for you to take over these two extremely important
roles? Could you imagine also taking on the role of director?
Actually, I only got into it by chance; I had started producing a film
and then jumped in as co-author in an emergency. Up until then, I'd
rejected situations like this, because I didn't want my authors to feel
in competition with me. In this case it worked out and was a
surprisingly positive experience. It gave me the courage to continue
working this way. As an author I am my own worst critic, I don't have
to mince words. Besides, I know all the details, because I know the
text so well. Changes necessitated by the production process can be
made right away. So I am very happy with this personal blending. On the
other hand, becoming a director has never appealed to me; I believe
that would take very different talents.
How would you
describe the situation for scriptwriters in the German film industry?
Are there any differences if scripts are written for film or television?
Scriptwriters often get forgotten in Germany, whether at award
ceremonies or the party held to celebrate finishing a production. But
these are only symptoms. I think it is really essential to note that we
sriptwriters donít appear in press releases, media presentations
or the short reports of television magazines. The director and actors
get mentioned, but rarely the scriptwriter. In short: We only get
mentioned when a critic notices something negative about the film. Then
they mostly say: Thanks to a brilliant performance, it is a good movie,
despite the mediocre script by So-and-So. Of course, a mediocre script
rarely becomes a good film, and itís much more common for a good
script to turn into a bad film.
So it's a question of the public recognition and respect, which don't
come to us in the measure we deserve. In my opinion, this is still left
over from the German "auteur film" tradition, according to which the
director is the all-encompassing genius. I have the impression,
however, that now we have a very self-confident generation of
scriptwriters coming up and that, in general, there is a growing
awareness of the division of labor in filmmaking.
Writing scripts for cinema films sometimes takes years, are developed
longer than scripts for television films. That means certain stories,
for example those that need more extensive research, are excluded from
the start. But there are always exceptions; for example, I spent months
doing research at various schools for my television film, The Teacher.
So in the writing itself, I see hardly any differences. I don't
write faster or in less detail because itís for television.
What are you working at the moment?
I'm writing a biography of the East German
singer-songwriter Gerhard Gundermann; but I'd rather not say anything
about it, because I'm in the middle of working on it.
For which director would you like to write a script?
By all means and whenever possible for Andreas Dresen. But I'd also like to write for Fatih Akin. Maybe you could let him know?
The DEFA Film Library would like to thank Laila Stieler for this extensive interview. Interview conducted by Hiltrud Schulz, of the DEFA Film Library, in February 2011.