We’re the white hats, they’re the black hats.
That perspective is deeply challenged in “Two Lives” (“Zwei Leben”), Germany’s entry for Oscar consideration in the foreign-language category, which tells the story of a former East German spy who has built her life in Norway on a fake identity, only to have it unravel later in life – and with grave consequences.
“For us it was very important that my character was not only the bad character – that it’s not divided in good and bad. We worked very much on that the (audience) is on my side, in a way … otherwise the film would be boring,” said Juliane Kohler, who plays Kathrine Evensen, a Lebensborn, or “war child” – the result of an affair between a Norwegian woman (played by Norwegian acting legend Liv Ullmann) and a Nazi occupation soldier during World War II.
Kohler, writer-director Georg Maas and producer Rudi Teichmann were on hand Monday night at the Landmark Theater in Los Angeles for a Q&A with TheWrap editor in chief and CEO Sharon Waxman, following a packed screening of “Two Lives.”
Evensen’s life in Norway, with her husband and an adult daughter, is idyllic enough – until a German-Norwegian lawyer shows up following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, asking her to testify about her separation from her birth mother in Norway, during which she was made to cooperate with the Stasi. The revelation stirs up her secret past connections to the secret police – an association she must rekindle to prevent her past from being revealed.
Though the film focuses on the Lebensborn, a little-known historical legacy of the Third Reich, Maas – who said he meticulously worked for years on the project, which is based on a true story – said “Two Lives” is really meant to stir ambiguities about victims and villains.
“I wanted it to be a film about not judging,” Maas said. “I wanted the audience to make a journey, to lose the capacity of judging, and knowing what’s black and white. Our tendency in judging, like the Germans did in the second World War – good Aryans, bad Jews (but now it’s good Christians, bad Muslims) – all of this judgment, saying ‘We are the good ones, they are the bad ones’ … that’s the salt of war. So that we can shoot another person.
“I thought, put a person in the middle of this film who is good and bad – who is perpetrator and victim at the same time — that allows us to make this kind of journey.”
Fittingly, the film about a woman torn between two lives was shot in its two real-life locations – Norway and Germany – but to pull off the haphazard shooting schedule, the filmmakers needed the main set, the Evensen family home, to exist equally in both.
“We had 34 shooting days, half in Norway, half in Germany,” Maas said. “We had to divide the house in two parts, so the ground floor and the exteriors were in Norway, and the (upper) floor was in Germany,” he said, eliciting audience laughter. “We had to find a house that matches.”
Kohler said despite the film’s purposeful duplicity, a single truth emerges at the end: her love for her Norwegian family.
“My favorite scene is the end, when (her husband) says, ‘This was all bullshit,'” Kohler said. “And she says ‘No, this was true.’ And he says ‘What was true? Because you lied so much.’ And she said ‘That what I lived with you was true.’ And that for me was the most important scene in the film.”
Producer Teichmann saw it Kohler’s way: That the character is redeemed in the truth she forged for herself, no matter what was in her past.
“The story of Kathrine is, ‘What do you have to do to find love?'” Teichmann said. “If you lie, if you invent an identity … how far do you go? It’s not about the Stasi, it’s not about Lebensborn, it’s about how far do you go to find love … to find a decent life?”
In spite of the film’s non-vilifying spirit, it wasn’t particularly well-received in Norway, where its release was met with sparse sales, the filmmakers said. By way of explanation, Maas recounted a story he’d heard from one Lebensborn child who recently tried to reunite with his Norwegian mother – and repeatedly had the door slammed in his face and the windows shut whenever he would try to approach the house.
“Maybe it wasn’t something the Norwegians would run to the cinema for,” Maas said, chilling the audience into silence.
The film’s September release in Germany was much more promising.
“In Germany it was much more successful because the people were much more … because it’s our history, in a way,” Kohler said. “We were so close to East Germay, and it’s important for us to get to know the truth.”