Before The ShootIt was the events of 11th September 2001, New York, that made this film happen. Like everyone else I phoned friends and family that Tuesday and had a long chat with Mum about the awfulness of what was happening.
It wasn’t until some weeks later that I realised that her childhood home town in Germany, Darmstadt, had been obliterated on the same date. This is surprising because I had already started reading about the subject and thought I knew it quite well. There was less material around in the late 90’s about the destruction of the German cities (about two a month got this treatment in 1944/45) but Max Hasting’s Bomber Command 1979 had a whole chapter on Darmstadt, his research heavily based on a locally published collection of first hand accounts Die Brandnacht 1967 by Klaus Schmidt which I’d also read.
I never wanted to draw too many parallels between Darmstadt and New York - one was, after all, part of the Nazi regime – but they did share of the date of the attack, the airborne nature, and the important fact that civilians were the targets and victims. Darmstadt and Mum had dealt with it in a way that New York had yet to do, and I felt that there may be a way that the survivors could talk to each other directly, across generations and continents, of the horror and violence they experienced. That New York might learn something from simple survival.
And the 9/11 connection also, of course, provided a starting point, a way in, to look at what was done in the Allies’ name – by our side if you like – within living memory.
By the summer of 2006 I realised that there would be a marking of the 5th anniversary of New York come September, and that this was the time to shoot the film. I particularly wanted to shoot Mum watching the TV commemorations of NY in Darmstadt, in German, while what had happened to her own schoolfriends and neighbours went almost unmarked.
I mentioned the project to Susi Arnott, an old friend from National Film School days, who absolutely insisted that I had to make it, and further that she was going to shoot it. So Mum was asked and agreed, we booked some ferry tickets and the project started to exist.
The ShootThe three of us, Mum Susi and myself, drove to Germany with a camera, radio mics, some lights, tripods etc. We shot for five days’ collecting about 15 hours of interviews, reminiscences and views of the modern day town. Basically we walked the route of Mum’s run that night, discussing in a free form her memories and thoughts.
By now, I had read everything I could find on the attack so that I knew the subject well enough to guide the areas of interest, but was still constantly surprised by detail and the realities that came out.
Nearly everything Mum said, I was hearing for the first time. Including that she developed tetanus. I was shocked, on camera, that she had never mentioned this before, and had to constantly remind myself to keep an open mind and listen, to let the story go where it should, rather than fall back onto research.
There were times that I thought she was mistaken, but she was later proved right. For example, my reading had shown that the marker flares were all white – as reinforced by the tiny bits of footage available – yet Mum had said they were many colours. It turned out that several colours of correcting flares were indeed used when markers had been dropped wrongly, which, as a child at the very centre of the markers, that is what she would have seen.
There was so much fine material we shot that we didn’t use, because I wanted to keep the story simple and finely focussed on Mum. A moving memorial service in the church, Mum’s memories of her father in the first world war, the arrival of the Americans, and perhaps most poignant of all, the heartfelt memories of Berthold’s (Mum’s brother) wife Gisela. As a child she had had a terrible war, as her father, an ordinary local man, had been in opposition to Hitler and the war. He was taken away in the night and later murdered. Gisela also had searing memories of watching Darmstadt burn from about 10 miles away. The editing decisions were difficult.
After The ShootPretty much all documentaries about airborne warfare show what happened from the military’s point of view. They interview the pilots, they tell us all about the planes and the power of the bombs. The people on the ground are barely mentioned and if they are, they are thinly sketched, barely more than cartoons.
I wanted to turn that around. By spending almost all the screen time on one person, she becomes rounded, fully developed and someone who’s experience we can begin to understand and try to share in. The perpetrators on the other hand are not interviewed – there are whole channels for them now – and indeed are literally shown here in cartoon form. This is determindly the story of the effects of military action on ordinary civilians.
We spent some time in the Autumn filming sequences of Mum’s life in London as an opening for the film, though this was eventually discarded. Then I approached another old friend whom I’d met at the National Film School, Adrian Rhodes, and asked him if he’d care to advise on music. Adrian is an extraordinarily talented musician and sound mixer, and I was extremely pleased when he went quickly from advising to offering to compose the music himself.
Towards the end of the editing process the world came crashing in when my brother Marlon was killed riding his Harley Davidson. He was the second son my parents had lost, brother Mark died in his 20s in 1989. The film was put to one side for a while. it didn’t seem that important. I couldn’t bear to look at Mum’s face on the monitor, as she was now so different, so distraught. Compared with happier times on the shoot.
Eventaully, though, we continued. In the nineties I had produced animated commercials and so now I approached some good friends from those days, Philip Hunt and Andy Staveley to help with the graphics. They now work through Studio aka, though seem to spend most of their time collecting awards. Where I had a simple Bomber Command map, they created a fantastic night sequence with movement, flares and a shuddering sense of dread.
I also travelled to Darmstadt again to visit the archives and see the friends we had made. I had heard that after the war – with not untypical thoroughness – all the streets had been photographed and logged. I could barely believe it, but eventually in the City Archives I found a picture of Mum’s actual house. She hadn’t seen it for 60 years, but there it was. Everyone was incredibly kind and helpful. The local film club provided the movie footage of aerial devestation, and the fantastically titled Kampfmittelräumdienst (war-materiel-clearing-up-service) – still working – provided the aerial stills.
We were getting there. My next door neighbour, Andrew Pearson, kindly offered to colour correct and grade, which he did, brilliantly, finishing the film onto HDCAM.
Now we just have to find an audience.