Christel Gräf (dramaturg): The Tragedy of an Indecisive Person
An interview with dramaturg Christel Gräf, by Erika Richter for KINO DDR.
The title of your film Die Flucht (The Flight) implies something adventurous, a thrilling story. Is this film a crime movie?
Certainly, we tried to tell an enthralling story and chose the narrative structure of a crime genre, although you cannot describe this film as a crime movie in a conventional sense. It is about a political case: A man, Dr. Schmith, signs a contract that guarantees him a highly-paid position as a doctor in West Germany. This fact provokes different expectations in the audience and relates to inner, as well as outer tensions. Everybody in our country knows [that people try to leave the country illegally], but since Der geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven, 1964) it has rarely been used in literature or film as a basis for ideological and ethical debate. This was the deeper reason that moved us to address this problematic. Our film is an attempt to start a public discussion about this social situation. We represent our point of view openly and without reservations, and hopefully encourage viewers to question their own position on the issue. Everyone involved in the film knew that with a theme like this, the audience would hold every mistake against us two- and three-fold—every inconsistency in the characters or indoctrination. If we want to encourage an honest discussion, we can’t act like know-it-alls; we must ask ourselves serious questions as well.
What role does the psychological exploration of the main character play within your ”political case”? Is he a tragic hero?
I would again like to point out that we are trying to speak out about an important social problem with our film. This is the main intention. It’s primarily about political and moral circumstances. Because we are making a feature film, not a documentary on this topic, however, we cannot approach it as a dry report, either propagandistically or didactically. All our intentions would have been doomed to failure from the start if we had not invented a character that reflected the social and individual issues we wanted to raise in a unique way. Creating such a character also means having to deal with the character—to figure out the motives behind his thoughts and actions, not only external reasons, but also internal constraints. To make his behavior and decisions believable—including emotionally believable— requires discovering his intellectual and emotional physiognomy. The latter is even more important because Schmith is neither a political dissident, nor an ambitious careerist; he is simply not an antihero. Here is a man with huge abilities. His development—determined by intertwining subjective and objective circumstances—is from a certain angle also tragic. So it is certainly a psychological film and a character analysis—although this was not the original purpose. We are not interested in the character of Dr. Schmith in its totality, but rather in the character traits that become important in the situation in which Schmith finds himself in the film. This is linked to the structure of the tale. As Schmith is increasingly forced to make a political and moral decision over the course of the approximately four weeks in which the film plays, certain character traits become more dominant, including his egocentrism, his inability to recognize political facts as such, or his ignorance of them—and especially his indecision, his attempt to avoid consequences. This might be the main point: indecision that leads to getting caught in the middle can be deadly.
Do you also see his fear of consequences as the reason that Dr. Schmith cannot free himself from the mechanisms he sets in motion, even though he doesn’t want to escape anymore?
At the start of shooting the film, the director and author expressed the theme of the film like this: “It is the tragedy of an indecisive person; as a result, it is not actually tragic, but maybe enlightening and instructive….” This statement captures the intention of the film exactly. It’s primarily about indecision in the face of the fundamental issues of our time. For us it was important not only to explain Dr. Schmith’s inconsistency in terms of his character, but also to indicate social circumstances that foster such behavior.
This interviews with dramaturg Christel Gräf was published in the East German monthly magazine, KINO DDR (10/1977), and coincided with the theatrical release of the film Die Flucht (The Flight). Comparable to today’s press kits, KINO DDR focused on new national and international movie releases and included synopses, information about the productions, interviews and photos. PROGRESS Film-Verleih, the East German film distribution monopoly, prepared the texts (with film historians and journalists) and published and distributed this magazine to the East German media.
The DEFA-Stiftung holds the rights for KINO DDR; we are grateful for permission to use this interview.