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Interview Elmshorner Nachrichten

Article Norddeutsche Rundschau

FAZ-Article by Christian Meurer (german)

Barmstedter Zeitung-Article by Christian Uthoff (german)

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Kai Ehlers - personal information

Kai Ehlers is a documentary filmmaker, whose most recent film "Freistaat Mittelpunkt" has been premiered at Hamburg Documentary Filmfestival in 2019. He has graduated as director from Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg with his award winning film Country No.1 - Fall 2001 in New York. Since then he freelanced as writer, director, cinematographer and producer for documentary feature films and reportages. Among them the direct cinema film Helene Fischer - Allein im Licht for the ARD prime time. Concurrently, he studied history of art and philosophy at Free University Berlin and creates stage videos for opera and theatre productions, among them Bayreuth and Salzburg Festival. He also works as film curator and teaches film at schools and universities. At present, he is finishing a documentary art book about the lost tradition of a seafarers tavern and is preparing his new film Cut The Line . Since 2016 he is an active member of the Berliner Studio for acting and directing actors. Together with Domenico Distilo, he founded the production company Moon Jar Film in 2017.

How the Film came into being

One day, while I was curating a documentary film program at the Arthur Boskamp-Foundation in the countryside in the north of Germany, I was approached by three men. Christian Meurer. Lothar Pigorsch and Olaf Plotz wanted to introduce me to a man who they thought might be of interest for a documentary. The man was Ernst Otto Karl Grassmè.

They told me that he had lived as a hermit in a former peat bog, now a forest, not far away, and that they had known him. He was educated and well-read, they said, and that he spoke strangely, was mostly joyful, and liked singing and making jokes. Apparently, he had impressed them enough to approach me almost 25 years after his death. They showed me photographs, but more important were the hundreds of letters he had written to one of their daughters when she was a teenager.
These letters were written in a warm-hearted and poetic but volatile sty- le. He reported on matters of his everyday life, then jumped abruptly to fragmentary memories referring to seemingly disturbing events that had happened in his past. Of those events, none of the three knew anything.

Their material also contained photographs Ernst Otto Karl Grassmè had taken himself. He made portraits, mostly of children and teenagers. They struck me as simply good pictures.

I started to research. I spoke with many people who had known him, but nobody knew anything about what had happened to him. Only by putting together the fragments did an outline become slowly visible. An archive research finally drew the picture: Ernst Otto Karl Grassmè had been a victim of the Nazi racist ideology. Having been diagnosed with schizophrenia, he was considered to be suffering from a hereditary disease. To prevent that disease from spreading to future generations, he was hospitalised and sterilised. A few years after his release he went to live in the woods.

I found this to be an unusual story of an extraordinary character whose life work was his writing and photography. Because, until today, the victims of the official programs of Sterilisation and „Euthanasia“ by the Nazis are not considered judicially equal to other victims of this regime, I considered this underlying theme worthy of being presented in a film. And a view of one individual’s self-determined life - in spite of mental illness - is still of interest today.

Ernst Otto Karl Grassmè lived in the woods, and from this distance his letters make us look into the mirror. How do we live? But without his wife - whom he could marry only after the war - he would hardly have been able to sustain himself there. She remained in Hamburg, but visited him regularly and was faithful to him until his death.

His testimonials and the archive material allowed me to choose a perspective of narration which doesn’t speak about him in the third person, speculate about his condition, judge him, and decide his fate - as was so often the case in his life. I could let him - as the writer - and his wife speak for themselves. In the many letters addressed to government agencies - but foremost to Katja, the daughter of one of the three men who lived in his neighbourhood - a complex and touching life story unfolds. He stood outside of society, and yet wished to be part of it. And the warmheartedness and sentiment in his letters to the girl reveals his futile longing: to be a father.

This story is presented as a voice-over on the audio track of the film.

His voice is given to him by my father, Reinhold Ehlers, who grew up in a craftsman’s household only a few kilometres from where Ernst Otto Karl Grassmè was raised. His dialect, his age and the boyishness he has retained predestined him for this role. When I discovered that he knew the firm Ernst Otto Karl Grassmè had worked for, my willingness to get so deeply involved with this story (while shooting I once almost sank into the peat bog) suddenly seemed justified. I am also part of this history.

For the part of his wife I could win over Kristina Krupp, a teacher whose voice and her accent from Rostock came closest to my imagination of the East Prussian origin of Berta Grassmè and her harsh but vulnerable character.

To contrast the defenselessness of the protagonists, which is intensified in the english version by their german accents, the official letters and texts are presented by Chris Hirson, a native speaker, who also composed and performed the original music for the film.

I decided to work with non-professional speakers because I wanted their voices to be unspoiled and to create an intimate relationship with the audience, as if they were the actual persons.

Their voices shall revive the two protagonists and their antagonists and allow the viewer to immediately empathise with their story. Thus, evoked only by sound, the cruelties he was subjected to are brought to life. And his individual and sometimes humorous form of resistance, his struggle for an existence as a sovereign human being, strikes us directly.

To give space for the this imagination to unfold, I contrasted it with associative imagery. In it, we explore the world in which the exile Ernst Otto Karl Grassmè had chosen to live: the woods and its immediate surroundings, from which he participated in life by listening to radio, hearing his wife’s reports, and undertaking bike trips.

Embedding his story in the today’s landscape points to the question of the „presence of the past“, which is raised by this story. Thus, we might ask ourselves not only which meaning the past has for us today, for our ideas of freedom and self-determination, but also how we imagine it.