‘The Culpable’ (Verfehlung) tells the story of three priests, Jakob, Dominik and Oliver, whose career and friendship are shaken after Dominik is taken into custody under suspicion of sexual abuse. How does one deal with such accusations?
There is a truth we welcome and there is a truth we fear, about which we tend to fall silent. Jakob Voelz begins to turn against that silence enclosed in the church, in order to discover the truth.The film brings an inside view of the hierarchy within the church.
Kino! 2016 at New York City’s Cinema Village keeps delivering quality German Films to American audiences, year after year. This year’s edition takes place from April 7-14. Anticipating The Culpable screening at the event, we spoke with the feature film’s debut Director Gerd Schneider about the origins of the film, the sensitive topic of child abuse and the Catholic church cover-up, his transition of theological studies to filmmaking and more. THE CULPABLE won the Audience Choice Award at the Santa Barbara Film Festival 2016 and screens on Tuesday, April 12 and Wednesday, April 13, 2016.
Find more information & tickets to ‘The Culpable’ at Kino! 2016 HERE
What made you decide to explore this particular story?
The story is based on true incidents. In a way, I was part of the system because I studied theology. I always had a problem with how the church was dealing with some situations. The church has an inclination of covering things up, dealing with it from the inside rather for the public. When I planned on writing my debut feature film, I asked myself what kind of film, what will I tell people and does this have something to do with my life. I wanted to bring this story to tell people how things can happen. I always say that you don’t necessarily have to be a Catholic priest to get into this situation, like the main character of the film, Jakob. It can happen to anyone. I was interested in those who knew and didn’t do anything.
This has a resemblance to the film Spotlight, which actually had a later release date than The Culpable.
Yes, I am pretty proud of that. The theatrical release of The Culpable was March 2015. I heard about the book, of course, that was written by the Boston Globe journalists and I realized that they were going to cover a similar topic, with a Hollywood star attached. I was happy that I was already shooting my film while Spotlight was in the works. I really think Spotlight is a good movie and am glad it got a lot of attention. I have to say my film has a different approach. There is another film, El Club, with the same topic. You have three movies, same topic, but all with different approaches. There is the film against the perpetrators, about the victims and the bystanders, which were the people that I was most interested in.
I wanted to direct the focus in a different perspective. There is a lot of gray in this situation. As I mentioned, you don’t have to be a Catholic priest. This is about friendships, lies, a person that you know by heart for more than 15 years. All of the sudden there are allegations and you don’t know what to do with it, because you think it’s not true. Then you learn it is. What now?
The three main characters, that are all priests and long time friends, were they inspired by real life?
Not really. I must admit they were kind of stereotypes. You have the one who is the secret perpetrator, who hasn’t been revealed yet. Then you have the one who’s trying to make it right, who’s actually a good guy but needs some time to break through and then you have the one that’s just trying to cover it up. These are three branches that spread from one trunk. There is more, of course, especially the perpetrator. This is something I was talking a lot with the actor. The abuser is not aware of doing something wrong. He acts as a 15-year-old, when he says I’m in love, which is a grotesque thing to say, it’s his personal truth. I didn’t do anything wrong, you know that he has a problem, but it’s too slow in his mind. The actor was attending a program at the Chartié Hospital in Berlin. Basically, a program they offer for those who don’t want to become a perpetrator, reserved to people that have the inclination towards young kids before something happens. These people can attend the program, turn themselves in and say I need treatment. He attended it to learn about the mindset of those people, of how they see the world.
Sebastian Blomberg is a well-known actor in Germany. Can you talk about the casting process?
I was looking for an assembly of three actors that could be real friends. I had Sebastian in the casting process and in the beginning he portrayed the character in a very technical way. He played Jakob not really with a sympathetic attitude, more as a grumpy person.I liked that he wasn’t playing him as a nice guy, so I picked him.The other two, Kai and Jan, I was casting towards Sebastian and they worked really well all together. We spent six days in the monastery preparing, with readings and liturgical rehearsals, because none of them ever stood at the altar before.
After studying to become a priest you switched to film. How was this transition?
There are so many similarities between religion and film. It’s about telling stories. A visit to the theater is like a liturgy. 200 people sitting in a dark room staring at a glowing screen that is kind of telling them the truth. The Catholic church is playing the same play for 2000 years now, with a huge success, based on the old story. In the film business, there are a lot more Popes, another similarity, it’s part of the system to have a hierarchy. In general, it’s about telling stories, trying to discover the truth, about relationships, love, hate, reconciliation, similar stories told in the Bible. After I finished my theological exams, I asked what am I going to do now and suddenly it was possible to become a filmmaker. I walked down that road ever since.
The Culpable won the audience choice award at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. Do you know what the Catholic church reaction was towards the film?
It had some effect. I was in contact with the media board director of the German bishops’ conference, who was actually a civilian, not a priest. I sent him the film and he was immediately fond of it. He intended to show the film to each bishop, as he was really a fan. So far just one Bishop responded because he was forced to, due to the German network TV. He said it was good but didn’t really give an opinion. I got some responses from priests, those who didn’t like it, wouldn’t say anything. I shot in a Catholic church, so I had to deal with the person in position there. The person in charge just mentioned to not destroy anything while shooting. On one hand it was fairly easy. The outcome is that the Catholic church isn’t promoting the film, but also not condemning it.
Your graduation film, The Edge of Hope, for the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg, was also a controversial topic. It’s about the Palestine and Israel conflict.
You dedicate yourself to something for a long time. There’s blood, sweat, and tears. I was always interested in that struggle, the conflict in this tiny part on the map. It’s so dictating on daily political life in a global way. A conflict standing for so many conflicts in the world. The documentary is about a Palestinian camera-operator for Al-Jazeera, that is producing those images we know from TV. He’s doing his daily job for more than 20 years. So many things are happening, but nothing is changing.You could tell just from the haircuts when it’s the 70s, the 80s, but the images are the same. The soldiers and tanks on the street, people throwing stones at the soldiers; 40 years of the same and nothing is changing. Everyone will tell you this is not normal but this is daily life for them and that’s what I was interested in.
—Interview conducted by L. Fietz