Marija, a young Ukrainian woman, earns her living as a hotel maid in Dortmund, but dreams of owning her own hair salon. She puts money aside each month, but when she is fired without notice, her dream seems out of reach. Without work and under financial pressure, she finds herself forced to look for other opportunities. Her body, her social relationships and her own feelings take a secondary importance to her goal.
Michael Koch’s feature film debut is the portrait of a young woman who lives on the periphery of our production and consumer-oriented society, but does not accept the ascribed role of the victim. Demanding, determined and uncompromising, she fights to live a freer, self-determined life.
Kino!2017 at New York City’s Sunshine Cinema keeps delivering quality German Films to American audiences, year after year. This year’s edition takes place in downtown NYC from March 31- April 6, 2017. Anticipating the festival and Marija’s screening at the event, we spoke with Director Michael Koch about the immigration and exploitation topic, the authenticity of the film, the nature of the key characters and more. Marija premiered in the International Competition at the 69th Locarno Film Festival last year and screens on Monday, April 3 and Tuesday, April 4, 2017 at the Landmark Theatres in New York.
Find more information & tickets to “Marija” at Kino!2017 HERE
Why did you choose Marija’s character as someone from the Ukraine vs another nationality that migrates to Germany?
I was in the Ukraine in 2010, traveling around and met mostly young people who wanted to leave the country. The determination to find a way out of their country for a better life, without any perspective was very touching and I wanted to write about this subject. I got in contact with a Ukrainian woman through a friend of mine. She came to Germany, a cleaning lady in a hotel in Dortmund (which is where the film was shot). For me this woman was Marija. She had a lot of problems but the urgency she fought for her independence was really impressive. Also because she never loses her pride. I started questioning what people like Marija or this woman have to fight for each day, to survive and if they allow themselves to have moral feelings. It was the starting point and a subject I wanted to explore.
The film reflects immigration and exploitation. What do you think about the current refugee crises in Germany?
I started working on the film long before the crisis that exists today. It wasn’t my intention to make a statement about the crisis. Of course, the film is somewhat political because if you don’t give the people opportunity to really work, to live as normal human beings, they will take other paths.
In Germany, you have to give the people the possibility to work, to participate in the society. That’s just the normal way to be part of our community. You lose a lot of people and they are getting very frustrated doing other things that you actually don’t want them to do. What Merkel did was good but it was the first step. The second step is to integrate them, to give them work.
The film is also talking about the structure of this system. The area where we shot the film was interesting. In the ’60s there were a lot of steelworkers. When the steel industry crashed a lot of workers left, except the Turks. They didn’t have money to go away. So now we have the second-generation of these workers, middle class, own houses, know the language, doing the same thing the parents did when they came to Germany. it’s almost the same structure. if you know the system, you take advantage of the newcomers, that don’t know the language. But it’s not Turkish people, Bulgarians, not about nationalities but about a system you can discover everywhere.
What was the reaction of the Turkish community living in Germany about the Cem character? The Turkish landlord who abuses the system, charging a Romanian family to apply for child support.
It wasn’t easy for me. It was important that I worked with the people living this life that I am telling about. In the house where we shot the film, there was a Turkish guy who was doing stuff that Cem is doing. I spent a lot of time in this area to know the people and to allow me to shoot there. This Romanian family is living there and is requesting child support money.
Normally people go in there, take pictures and you read in the newspapers the bad things they are doing. In a way they respected me because I spent a lot of time with them, I tell the story in a quiet way, what’s going on without judging. It’s just showing the life and struggle of these people. if you get to know these people, see how they survive, you understand a little how they do things that you morally wouldn’t think is okay.
The reactions were very different. Some were happy there is a person telling the story of their life without judging and others were fearful the dealings or business that they do, would be shown. Also, the politicians in Dortmund want to solve the problem but they don’t know how so there’s a lot of pressure to the people like Cem but they find ways to get the money out of the poorest of the poorest.
There is a very human aspect of Cem too. You end up feeling for him. He does have a lot of economic pressure, so you kind of understand. Also, he does care for Marija.
It’s interesting that you said that. I’m glad you saw and felt it. I don’t want to be too stereotypical in the characters. it’s too easy to say this a bad guy. Cem is also feeling something for Marija, but he is used to buying everything he wants and he does the exact same thing with her. It was important to show the human side of Cem, Marija, and Georg. They’re all human beings and we are ambiguous creatures.
I have to say you did a great job writing a story centered on a female character. Can you talk more about your collaboration with Juliane Grossheim.
We worked together on my thesis short film in film school. I was afraid to write a screenplay alone so I asked her in the beginning to co-write. It became a long process and she had other things going on so I had to decide if I wanted to continue on my own. When I met and got to know this Ukrainian woman in Dortmund, I felt I could write the screenplay. It was important for me to follow this character and since I had a personal relationship I couldn’t share every choice in the script. So I decided to write it alone and the last versions of the script are mine. We couldn’t agree sometimes also because she didn’t know this woman as I did. I could not write the screenplay if I didn’t know this person but after meeting her I was able to write the character of Marija.
Marija achieves success economically by having her own hair salon. But I didn’t see a happy ending for her.
You don’t get a clear answer. I don’t think it’s right to finish the film with a happy ending. It might sound that way because she does get her salon that she wanted, but it was important for me to show what price she’s paying for it. She made this step that was important for her but she realizes she didn’t allow herself to show feelings for Georg, so ends up alone and this is sad. On the other hand, It was also good she didn’t run off with him to Mallorca. You don’t know if there’s a future for them. It’s very ambiguous at the end. I also realized in my research that these people are struggling, achieving things moving forward but then you go backward too. She did an important step but she also lost a lot. It was important to finish with her walking towards you; to show that life goes on. In the beginning of the film you see her walking from behind, you don’t know her. We live next to these people but we don’t know them and I wanted to do this film in order to know their stories.
— Interview conducted by Lia Fietz