After Eduard Leander’s wife passed away, despite his daughter’s disapproval, the ninety-two-year-old German sets off in a journey to Ukraine with the hope of finding Svetlana, the only woman he truly loved while fighting the Cossacks against the Red Army during World War II.
Leander never talked about his dramatic past. Partially resentfully, his granddaughter Adele joins him on a journey that turns out to be more tragic than anyone could expect. Ukraine is in turmoil. Following the fall of the pro-Russian government in Kiev, a new crisis threatens to engulf east Ukraine as pro-Russian separatists storm government buildings in Donetsk and Russian troops amassing on Ukraine’s border. Old and new war experiences come to surface, The duo shares a compartment in the train to Ukraine with Lew, a Russian-born Ukrainian, who refuses to choose between his conflicting identities. He offers Eduard and Adele refuge with his politically shattered family in Kiev. His brother, Boris, is a separatist and wants Eastern Ukraine to form part of Russia. Lew favors a unified Ukraine independent of Russia. The Final Journey is a striking narrative about the Cossack tragic history, love, and forgiveness sending its leading characters on an emotional and dangerous quest through a land in disruption.
Nick Baker-Monteys was born in Berlin in 1964. He gained a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Stirling in Scotland and worked as a journalist for different London newspapers before moving to Berlin in 1990 shortly after the Wall came down. Since then he has worked in Germany as a writer, director and script consultant on films for cinema and television and is a guest lecturer and tutor at the German Film and Television Academy (DFFB) in Berlin. His films include PERFECT MOMENT (short, 2006), THE MAN WHO JUMPED CARS (2010), and THE FINAL JOURNEY (2017).
Kino!2018 is held at New York City’s The Landmark at 57 West this year and will deliver once again quality German Films to American audiences, year after year. This year’s edition takes place in the arthouse theatre complex located on the Upper West Side from April 6 – April 12, 2018. We spoke with Director Nick Baker-Monteys before the last screening at the festival about the challenges filming during the unrest in Ukraine, the Cossack’s back-story in this gripping drama, the casting process of three generations of characters, and more. The Final Journey will have its final screening and Q&A on the Kino!2018 festival Tuesday, April 10, 2018, at the Landmark Theatre in New York City.
Find more information & tickets to “The Final Journey” at Kino!2018 – HERE
The story of The Final Journey is set during the Ukraine and Russia conflict. Were you trying to make some sort of a political statement or being agnostic about it?
I definitely wasn’t trying to make a political statement. Firstly, I don’t believe as a filmmaker in starting off in some kind of agenda, maybe there are exceptions where I can get on my high horse, but that wasn’t the case here. Secondly, the story evolves around the grandfather and granddaughter going to the Ukraine to go back into his past. When we were developing the story and in the early stages of the idea, there was no conflict between the Ukraine and Russia. When we were good to go three years ago, the conflict happened. So we had to rethink what we were going to do.
What about the ethnical cleansing and repression of the Cossacks in the story?
The Cossacks story was always there. When I started researching the history of what was going on in the Ukraine and in Russia during the war, I stumbled on this bit of history which is for Germany pretty unknown. A lot of Cossacks fought for the Germans, against the Red Army. It’s not that all Cossacks changed sides, some did because they saw the opportunity to regain their freedom. They weren’t fascists or pro-German, they just were opportunistic in fighting with them and be kind of free again, which hasn’t been the case since the Russian Revolution.
The film spans through three generations. Can you talk about the casting process?
We started with Petra Schmidt-Schaller who plays the granddaughter Adele. I started thinking what is the physical presence of someone in that landscape. Petra was someone for me who has this wonderful physical presence, apart from being very talented.
For Leander’s character, that was something difficult to cast, someone who’s supposed to be a grandfather, 90 years old. There is hardly anyone working at that age. It’s a miracle even if you find someone in their 70’s who’s working.Two months before we wanted to start shooting, we approached Jürgen Prochnow. I wasn’t that hopeful because he was still living in LA at the time. (He’s actually moved back to Berlin, which is where he’s originally from). He’s a bit of a legend, living in LA, making a pretty low budget film would be difficult in our minds, but we sent the script to his agent and shortly after he was interested, so I was pretty amazed. I think it was the fact that he saw something in it which was connected to his own family. His father was a prisoner of war and he was separated from his father, so the project was very close to his heart from the beginning.
The mother character Uli, was the last person we cast. Suzanne von Borsody is actually a very famous actress in Germany, but she has a smaller part in the film and some scenes with her, she’s on the phone so I’m definitely very grateful to have her on board. If you have a good script you have a better chance to get known actors from Germany.
For Lew’s character, he was always an important figure in the story, even when it was in the early stages. Before the Ukraine and Russia conflict, he was always the guide, he had this larger-than-life personality. So we were looking for someone who could play that part who also needed to speak Russian and German, which is very difficult to find. The actor Tambet Tuisk happens to be able to speak both, he’s actually Estonian.
Was it challenging to film in the Ukraine?
It was seriously challenging because in the Eastern part of the Ukraine there was a war going on. When I was doing the research for the scene where Leander is, remembering the Cossack’s town, looking across the river to get to, that’s the Eastern part in the Ukraine. During the research there wasn’t any conflict. Then, when we wanted to shoot, there was. So we filmed in the outskirts of Kiev because that was a safe area. The locations that are supposed to be in East Ukraine and Russia are all shot around Kiev. Also what was difficult was the finance of the film coming from Germany, so it needed to be filmed in Germany. The majority of the scenes were filmed there.
As a guest lecturer and tutor at the German Film and Television Academy, any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
It is very important that you really want to do it! If you want to be a writer and/or director, if you want to use filmmaking as a means of expression, it’s kind of difficult because it’s a very expensive process, it’s not easy to get finance, how do subsidize oneself pursuing your dream, just something to be aware of. If you have this creative urge to make films, go and do it. Don’t let anything stop you.
— Interview conducted by Lia Fietz