Clara Schwinning plays the role of Kindness in "Ein schöner Ort."
Clara Schwinning received an award for Best Acting Performance for her role as Kindness in "Ein schöner Ort." Photo: Katharina Huber

Katharina Huber’s “A good place” at Film Festival Cologne

Film Festival Cologne brings big-screen drama to the city. For local cineastes and film fans, the highlight is the screenings that are open to the public. The films shown at the festival are cinematic art that’s new and relevant. The “only film festival for the pop-culture zeitgeist” will be taking place for the 33rd time from 19 to 26 October. The programme includes films by leading international directors as well as productions by the regional independent film scene. Katharina Hubers’ feature-length debut, “Ein schöner Ort” (A good place), is being as touted as a favourite to win the Film Award NRW. We spoke to the Cologne producer and director about the festival, making films in Cologne and, of course, her film.

An interview with Katharina Huber

Hello, Katharina. Let’s start by talking about your film, “Ein schöner Ort”, which premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in August and promptly won the Best Emerging Director Award. Just a few days ago, it got the Hamburg Producers Award. And now it’s starting in Cologne. Did you expect this success?

Katharina Huber: No. I concentrated on it actually happening, on this film coming into being, taking on shape. Obviously, my hope was that people would see it and get something from it. But it could have gone wrong too. When the invitation from Locarno came, that’s when my personal dream goal was fulfilled and I knew we’d have an audience that wanted to see it. All of the awards are nice but they’re more of a bonus.

As you live and work in Cologne, Film Festival Cologne means a home audience. What does the festival mean to you and your film?

Locarno’s fantastic, of course. But showing here in Cologne is even more special. Since my student days, I’ve felt an ever-closer connection with the city. I have friends here, people who know me, who know the process, who’ve known about the project for a long time. The film was made here; we filmed it in the surrounding region.

Are you going to have time to see other films at the festival too? Which are your favourites?

Of course. The fact that the festival’s in my home city and I can attend everything is a luxury for me. I definitely want to see a few of the films – Youth, Eureka and Vienna Calling, for example. And a few other documentaries.

Back to your film. How did you devise and develop your story?

That was a long process. I had some initial ideas about the basic setting a few years back. There was this feeling of unease, of “systematic paralysis”. It’s striking how we keep sensing in our day-to-day lives – from the smallest events to global events – that something’s not right. There’s something disruptive, perhaps awkward, unhealthy, destructive, harbouring the risk of bringing us all down or just not good for us on a personal level. Nobody wants that and hardly anyone does anything about it. We just accept these things. Either because we’re in some sort of rut, are proud or frightened of change or due to simple ignorance or even laziness.

The “good place” in your film isn’t a rural idyl. The chickens are suspicious, the relationships falling apart, the businesses dodgy. People simply disappear and nobody knows where they’ve gone. Anxious radio broadcasts announce the imminent colonisation of space. “But there isn’t anything out there,” someone says. What place is it?

(Laughs) It did become a sort of fairytale. It’s true, we don’t know where and when it takes place. I felt it was important to find and create an abstract space. The village and the community have a specific yet simultaneously general nature, almost like an experimental set-up. The characters don’t leave although there are paths to leave on. There are fences but they’re all broken, people could climb over them. There are roads too. But they’re still stuck there. It’s a mental barrier too. They’re preserving themselves until they turn rotten.

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Clara Schwinning as Güte. Photo: Katharina Huber

Something has to happen. But what? Perhaps blow everything up? The conflict in the film seems weirdly familiar and omnipresent. What’s wrong with Margarita and Güte, the two protagonists?

There are lots of questions. What should they do? Will they leave? Will they stay and, if so, what are they going to do? Can they change things? How? There’s a big “but” when it comes to the leaving question because “there isn’t anything out there.” It’s actually referring to the rocket but it also refers to that thought of, fine, I’m going to leave my surroundings but ultimately it might not make much difference because I always take myself with me.

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Should they stay or should they go? Margarita and Güte can’t decide. Photo: Katharina Huber

End-of-days village poem, anti heimat film, wonderfully evocative snapshot, apocalyptic countdown – those are just some of the attempts people have made to describe and categorise your film. It doesn’t seem to lend itself to that. What’s the significance of the voice on the radio that reports on the rocket launch?

(Laughs) After Locarno, people were even talking about science fiction. I liked that. After all, there is a rocket even though you don’t see it. When you submit a film, you have to specify the genre. I always put my tick next to “comedy” but they still listed it as a drama. Now I tick “science fiction”. Because it is real, the rocket does exist out there. It represents progress, overcoming barriers, that ideational space where you realise that we humans are capable of the impossible. Potentially, at least. Whether that’s a good idea is a different question.

The radio voice reflects on our lifestyle today, with all these channels we consume. Listening, watching and reading. That’s how we develop our view of life or an opinion, isn’t it? It’s self-radicalisation. The radio made it possible to incorporate thoughts and ideas without the protagonsists having to say them.

You don’t seem to be a fan of overly obvious truths or ready-made solutions. The film touches the viewer but it doesn’t give any answers. Many things remain unresolved at the end. Why is that?

That’s a very important point. No, I don’t have a specific message, a statement I want to make or an agenda or something. I just don’t have an answer. Patience and education, talking to each other, making an effort and being alert, perhaps. I believe in human beings’ intellectual progress even if it feels (very much so at the moment) like we’re being thrown back into the Middle Ages. I think it’s always two steps forwards and one back. Or do we have to destroy everything? As the voice in the film says, “Come on, blow it all up! What are you waiting for?” I don’t know. I think it’s difficult to presume that one does know. I am, after all, merely a construct of the things I’ve absorbed in some shape or form. There are very few people who manage to formulate their own original thoughts and ideas. So I make a suggestion. I put something out there and create opportunities for people to latch on and engage in a conversation.

I’m interested in these unresolved things – in film or art form too. We’ve already got so much narration, so many stories, even more so since the boom in series. There are subtexts for every topic and interest. I do like stories, I like watching well-written, exciting things but I think there are people who simply do that very well. I see my task as lying elsewhere.

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Katharina Huber (in the bed) on set. Photo: Nik Hellenthal

You studied in Cologne, moved to London and then came back. How do you feel about the city, what are your ties to it? What networks and infrastructure can you draw on here as a filmmaker?

I’ve been living in Cologne since 2005 and I feel right at home here. It took a while but now the city’s like a good friend. I think it’s a good mix of urbanity and calm. It’s a good place to work in. And then it doesn’t take long to get out into the countryside – like where we filmed, for example. There’s lots of culture. Of course, you can always get better, bigger and wilder but there’s a lot going on. I also like the feeling that there’s already a great deal of history here. The city’s seen a lot. And the river makes quite a difference. I love driving across the bridges.

Finally, back to Film Festival Cologne. Apart from the films, a film festival means celebrities, parties and awards. How do you take part in all that? Where do you go out?

Yes, I like going out at festivals. Especially to bars where you can have good, long conversations until everyone has to leave. It’s a good way of bonding with people and meeting like-minded people. It’s only one week so I try to do a lot. Lots of things are easier if you have a drink together (and it doesn’t have to be alcohol). But, in this case, you’re also likely to bump into me at the cinema.

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