Like peanut butter and bacon, some juxtapositions are so wrong they're right. For German director Tomasz Thomson, the idea of urbanite "loser-gangsters" stuck between snowy mountains seemed so sweet that it became the basis of his 2010 dark comedy Snowman's Land, which opens in the States this week with a limited New York City release at Cinema Village before expanding.
When burned-out hit man Walter (Jürgen Rißmann) botches a kill and his contractor blacklists him, he accepts a "vacation" job from a grizzled old crime boss (Reiner Schöne) protecting his house and young, sexpot wife Sybille (Eva-Katrin Hermann) in the picturesque Carpathian Mountains. Paired with him for the task, which turns out to be more isolating, cold, and perilous than expected, is his talkative, loose cannon assassin buddy Micky (Thomas Wodianka). Thanks to an unfortunate accident with the gangster's lady, and encroaching mountain men with ill intentions, Walter's trip turns into something much darker (and hysterical) than mindless R&R.
Complex connected with Thomson to ask him about the difficulty marrying violence and humor in Germany, artistry in genre films, and how his cast and crew avoided emotional frigidity in freezing cold and high snow.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
Your largely unknown cast was phenomenal. How did you settle upon the actors to find the perfect dynamics in the relationships between?
I knew many of the actors from smaller projects or commercials I‘ve done and I really loved them. But in the beginning I was unsure if I rather should go for better known actors because of promotional reasons. I talked to others about the project but soon realized that the first idea was the best. It just felt right. Looking back I am very glad about that decision. I love it how Jürgen, Thomas, and all the other actors brought the characters to life.
You've described Snowman's Land as both a genre film and a proper indie film d'auteur. Do you find that most genre films lack artistry, signature style, and feeling?
I guess it‘s actually very simple: There can‘t be a good film without a personal and unique approach. This is an universal rule of storytelling regardless of genre or budget. The how you tell a story is as important as the what you‘re telling. If a film is lacking this, it‘s most probably not a good one.
I love the mix between an artistic approach and genre very much. Films don‘t have to be less successful at the box office—just the opposite might be the case. The lines are blurry more and more often. Sometimes you can‘t really tell if something is an indie or a genre film—and who cares? Great films come out of it. Everything is fine as long as a film is good and powerful and original.
How does making and releasing a black comedy genre film differ in Germany than it might in the US?
Unfortunately Germany has no tradition in black comedies and almost none are produced. This is also due to the specific German situation that you need a public TV station as a co-producer to get an indie film funded; they prefer drama. My producer and I were very lucky to be an exception. But it wasn't easy, probably it never is.
Most of the German reviews were very good, which made us really happy. The few bad ones disliked the film all for the same reason: because it wasn‘t a drama. They blamed the film for being immoral and hated the mix of humor and violence. But isn‘t that what makes a black comedy a black comedy? It needs to be rough and politically incorrect and entertain. I never heard anything like this outside of Germany again, so maybe it‘s a specific German point of view.
I understand that, in the early stages, people didn't get the jokes. How did you fix that so people recognized comedic cues?
Many of the comedic situations in this film come out of an absurd situation or a certain gesture or reaction of one of the characters. They are not jokes in a classic way. As a written script it‘s not funny at all. That's bad if you‘re looking for funding and not everybody gets it that he or she is reading a black comedy. So we shot a trailer beforehand to make clear the tonality and the type of humor. And that worked very well.
Has audience reception differed much from region to region?
When it comes to the audience, the feedback is great. Every time it is fascinating to see that people are not so different in their reception. They laugh in the same moments, they like movies for the same reasons. There is no difference between an audience in Germany, Brazil, or the US. Film is a very international language.
I liked the contrast between the snow-covered, massive mountains and, in between, nervous loser-gangsters who don‘t belong there. The guys will vanish one day, the mountains and the woods will remain.
The audience aside, was it ever difficult for you personally or the cast to balance the darkness and the comedy?
No, it wasn‘t difficult, because you actually create most of it in the editing room. You can change the tonality or at least moderate it.
Was everything meticulously mapped out in your script? Did any of the comedy come out of improvisation?
We had a script but we changed a lot during shooting. Most of the time because circumstances forced us to do so—and I don‘t mean it in a negative way. You have to be very flexible when you‘re shooting low-budget and do the best with the things you find on the way. And we did.
Take Berger‘s huge house. In the script it was never planned to be this huge. It was supposed to be a regular size one. But we found this location by chance (a lucky strike) and fell in love with it, so we thought about how to adapt it to the story. Many ideas came up: Berger can't heat a building like this—meaning, it is heated only in a few rooms, the rest is freezing cold. And it's easier to move around in this building on a bike; let's give Micky a bike. Or the scene where they are sledding down the hill. Many scenes—my favorite ones—were developed this way. And I really enjoyed it.
Do the Carpathian Mountains actually house a violent criminal element or is that fictitious?
They are very friendly and hospitable people. I recommend going there. But the Carpathian Mountains were perfect as Berger‘s hideaway because most people know almost nothing about that remote region. It's a blank spot on the map somewhere in the wild East.
The murderous, thieving woodsmen are seen primarily in the narrated illustrated scene that tells the history of the region. Other than that, they are only the occasional shadowy figure in the trees. Was it always your intention to have them exist only in the shadows, like a personification of the unforgiving landscape? Were they ever going to be seen up close?
I found it more fascinating to leave them hidden in the woods and to tell the story from Walter‘s point of view. You don‘t know if the threat is real or just a product of Walter‘s and Micky's overheated imagination and fear. It‘s possible that they are convinced to fight against an army of wild woodsmen but in fact there are only a few old drunk men.
The environment plays a big role, from the gloomy city to the isolated, snow-covered mountains and the sanatorium you used for Berger's residence. It affects not only the plot but the mood of the protagonist and the viewer. Did you always envision the environment acting as an additional character?
Yes, that‘s right. The pristine landscape, the nature with it's purity was always very important as a counterbalance to the weirdos in the movie. I liked the contrast between the snow-covered, massive mountains and, in between, nervous loser-gangsters like Berger, who don‘t belong there. The guys will vanish one day, the mountains and the woods will remain.
What were the greatest difficulties of filming on location in the Black Forest?
The snow. We were prepared for it but were still surprised about how difficult everything gets when there‘s snow. You want to relocate the camera let‘s say only a hundred meters in the woods? You need a lot of time for it. And it‘s exhausting. You are bundled up because of the freezing temperatures, so you start to sweat like crazy when moving through the snow. Then, again, you stand still for half an hour and you start to freeze. Shooting this film was a tough physical job.
Although the Black Forest itself is a very comfortable location. It's beautiful, it's well developed touristically, so it‘s easy to travel around, the local authorities are very cooperative, and the food and the beer is great. Actually, the whole team loved it.
So your snowy set, which depresses most of the characters, never made the cast and crew miserable?
We had the very special—and lucky!—situation that we all stayed in the same small village in the Black Forest for a few weeks. Going home over the weekend wasn‘t a good idea for most of us, because it was just too far away, so we spent all the time together. And that was actually good.
After work we went to one of the three local bars there, or went to a small cinema nearby or had a party at the location from time to time. It was a bit wild, but it worked well. We liked each other very much and everybody in the team felt responsible for this project. Sometimes it was like being on vacation, despite 17 hours of hard work every day.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)