Work with Thomas Strittmatter

Nothing is harder to describe than the secret of a successful collaboration. Authors and writers work alone. Thomas was one of these lonely workers and a very hard working one at that. It is only scriptwriters who sometimes work in a team.

Thomas and I met in the summer of 1985. We met outside the editing rooms of the SWF where he together with Nico Hofmann edited POLENWEIHER while I finalised a little portrait about Tristan Shandy. Boring Baden-Baden days soon turned into fun nights in Karlsruhe. In autumn I sent him a story I had written about a Chinese waiter and a Pakistani rose seller. It was about 5 pages long and I asked him if he would be interested in helping me. He arrived on the night train at the end of October. We spent a few days and nights at the LISBOA, in Chinese restaurants, with some recently befriended Pakistani and Chinese waiters. Thomas needed only few moments to capture the essence of people and their environments and was able to convey them in their entirety.

We then set to work during the early afternoons on a somewhat strange Canon typewriter, writing down scenes as they popped into our minds. In this manner we managed to quickly construct a simple but working narrative. It was a competition of ideas as we took turns at the typewriter, exchanging the strange machine between us which would print out our ideas on fax paper.

In this way we got down 50 scenes within just 10 days. We created all the staff, with their little characteristics that are so important in the film (like Xiao’s bike-clips). I was very sceptical with a few of the ideas and Thomas had to arduously convince me of their worth (for instance of the idea to give the German caretaker a Thai wife). Even dialogues were created in this way: one wrote, the other added two, three sentences.

The writing was however only one element of the process. Together, we thought about locations and cast (Wolf-D. Sprenger, the caretaker, I owe to Thomas). Since we wrote in the actual locations the script was directly inspired by the space and the small details were able to be effectively funnelled straight into the script. We continued to use this same approach when writing other scripts together: We wrote WINCKELMAN’S TRAVELS on the road of Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg, BYE BYE AMERICA in New York, Berlin and Poland.

The key was to write everything down at once, all possible options were discussed immediately ­ then rejected or taken up. Of course there were numerous revisions, corrections and refinements that had to be made later on (it took over a year until DRAGON’S CHOW was finally finished) – which were extremely difficult to get Thomas to agree to. A unique quality was there from the very beginning: each character had it’s own characteristic voice, it’s sound, it’s color. Dramaturgic revisions he found ­ so it seemed to me ­ narrow-minded and conservative. The most important factor was that the storyline and dialogues fit just right.

The process of working on each of these three scripts had it’s own character. DRAGON’S CHOW was surely the most naive, the most innocent scratch; WINCKELMAN’S TRAVELS ­ the second film after the successful debut was a difficult birth; but Thomas beared my personal doubt and strain. BYE BYE AMERICA, had the longest and most complicated genesis of all.

After working on the DRAGON’S CHOW script Thomas left on the night train back to Karlsruhe, 6 cans of beer in his luggage. We met again in London the following summer where I began casting. We had secured no money for the film as yet, so we rented a double room in a cheap hotel. By the time we departed we had found the two main characters and had bought two beige colored jackets at Kings Road.

He arrived with a 2nd hand Volvo station wagon for the shooting, lived at my place and appeared on set by lunchtime. With an unmistakable mix of self-irony and vanity he performed diverse roles as an extra in the background and even took on small acting roles.

Fame and success were things that he ­ being four years younger than I ­ was much more comfortable with and also the experience of the effort and stress that one has to endure to stick to ones own story and tone after a success. At some point DRAGON’S CHOW was finished and invited to the Film Festival in Venice. We drove to Venice together ­ wearing the London jackets that were a bit too warm ­ and stayed in a cheap hotel behind Marcus Place. For the 3 days of the festival however we moved to a luxurious suite on the Lido that was paid by the Festival. In the evenings we dined in the magnificent dining hall of the Excelsion (the Festival provided expenses for 3 meals). We went into the festival with low expectations for our black and white film of approximately 70 minutes telling the story of 2 immigrants in a wintery Hamburg, a film by an unknown director and an unknown author.

There was deathly silence after the screening to an audience of maybe 1200 in the SALA GRANDA on the afternoon of the 2nd of September. My heart fell into my shoes and Thomas gave me a cheerful pat on the shoulder. It seemed like eternity to me before the applause finally erupted. As we walked back from the festival palais to the hotel I felt daunted by the extent of our success. It was then that Thomas spoke a crucial sentence that was to help me a great deal later on: “Jan, it took me 4 years to get rid of that again.”

What I always noticed was his honesty. He was himself all the time, a guy from the Black Forest with a work place in Berlin. There is this sentence that does him justice: “origin not as emblem, but as inexchangable conditionality – a natural acceptance of this conditionality; the cosmopolitan attitude, which always only compensated a national conditionality, became superfluous” – a sentence by Max Frisch about Bertolt Brecht. Thomas was the same to everyone: to the old boardwalk-men in Brighton Beach, the shampoo salesman in Itzehoe and to Sir Richard Attenborough in London.

He was open and reserved at the same time, attractive (especially to women) but also shy. Thomas was a people-catcher like no one else I know. Often, after I had researched an area for a script and when we moved out to meet the people, he conquered them in a few minutes whereas it took me weeks. This little polish-jewish plumber Abraham Herzhaft, who spoke a strange concoction of 6 languages, was 75 years old and crossed Brighton Beach on a racing bike, was such an example: He had survived everything the 20th century could throw at him ­ custody by the Gestapo, Concentration camp, Siberian Gulag and Polish prisons. He cooked filled fish for us and Thomas ­ the consummate chef ­ was most impressed by Abraham not cutting his onion on a board but simply in his hand. A simple gesture which symbolised the plight of a homeless person. Abraham became the model for our Moshe in BYE BYE AMERICA.

The last film had the most complicated story of creation. Thomas was writing on RAABE BAIKAL, his first novel and was simply too busy. So he helped me finding another author but I just couldn’t find the right one ­ or could not make a decision. In the autumn of 1991, when I still hadn’t yet found anyone, I tempted him with a trip to the US to help me write. His novel was finally written and Thomas was the ideal author for this film since he was familiar with the Jewish/Polish experience through his first plays VIEHJUD LEVI and POLENWEIHER. He even spent a summer in the Masuren and could speak a broken Polish ­ he was especially able to greet and curse and had a profound knowledge of the Polish cuisine.

Our first station was New York where we moved into a suite at the run down Chelsea Hotel (in which all the Germans lived) and started to collect impressions for our story: Brighton Beach, Coney Island and the Lower East Side. Afterwards we spent 3 weeks in Berlin and two in Poland ­ at the Grand Hotel in Sopot to be exact, with its pier far out into the Baltic Sea. The structure of the journey and the constellation of the figures were clear, as were the three main characters. Still, it was difficult in this elliptical form of a story in which the figures moved from one moment to the next to create and keep a dramaturgic tension.

So we redrafted our notes and scenes into a script. I began with the production, finance and the casting ­ we met every now and then. Thomas did not like this process of redrafting; in his eyes the script was completed. I had to squeeze every change out of him. What was so easy in the actual writing stage was now so much harder. When it came to the shooting in America though, he was there by my side like always. The shooting was taking a long time (3 months), it was cold (minus 28°C in Poland) and it was dark. Whenever the team was tired – or I desperate ­ his enthusiasm always brought us back on our feet.

In Thomas I found an ally who was amazed by the same things, who loved the same people and who had a similar humour. Never I was let alone with my actions or my doubts. Sometimes, he was angered that he received more recognition as an author than as a dramaturgic. Film meant a lot to him ­ but still always stayed his duty to the real things for him: prose and plays.

I was never sure if he actually apreciated my opinion about his work. His opinion about others was always clear and unmistakable; mostly full of enthusiasm and high esteem. Competition was unknown to him, he was sure about what he was doing. For a long time I felt embarrased to talk with him about his texts ­ though he liked discussing his own work.

The fourth script was planned for autumn 1995: a Berlin crookstory in the time of reunification. It was not about the big crooks, more a tragicomedy amongst tricksters. At the end of August, when it was hot in Berlin, we met up for a dinner together with Karl Baumgartner from Pandora Film ­ who was interested in the production. After that dinner Thomas and I stayed there for a while before we walked to Kollwitzplatz together. We separated at Knaack Street. It was a summer night, he walked down the street, I watched him for a moment and walked to the Subway station at Schönhauser Allee.

Three days later he died, thirty three years old, from a cardiac insufficiency in his flat in Berlin.

Revised version of a text for the Hunziger publishing house, June 2000, Hanover, new Hampshire

Translation: Kathleen Wächter