You know you’re onto a good thing when the warm-up chat is still going great guns 45 minutes in and you’ve yet to hit the record button! So with apologies and an assurance you haven’t missed the best bits, not all of them anyway, here we go...
Coming off the phenomenally successful DOGS OF BERLIN, Christian Alvart is happier to talk about film rather than his own ones. “The greatest artistic strength of the medium,” he believes, “is its ability to convey empathy to the audience, which reflects it back. It gives us the power to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It can show us how life is for others, it can make people smarter and wiser. And, yes, it can even make it harder to start a war with a country when we know it and it’s people through it’s films.”
Alvart cites the Iranian film CHILDREN OF HEAVEN (MAJID MAJIDI, 1997), in which a boy loses his sister’s shoes and then shares his so they can alternate going to school. “It showed me how emotions get transported, how hostile images can be dismantled,” he explains, “that entertainment can do so much more than just entertain: just how powerful it can be.”
And this is what marks Christian Alvart, who made a debut splash with the horror thriller ANTIBODIES in 2004, as a consummate filmmaker, his ability to convey the bigger, perhaps the biggest picture of all, within internationally popular, entertainment formats; that people, the characters and thus the audience, come first.
“The JACK RYAN series”, he continues, “shows there is more than just Tom Clancy’s own views. Because the serial format allows for expansion and explanation, we get to know the characters and are not so quick to condemn. And this is what DOGS OF BERLIN [his police series for Netflix] meant to me. The figures are looked at with love and empathy. The world building was all about tension, but I soon realized there had to be feeling as well.” And feeling there is.
The core idea of DOGS OF BERLIN was a cop with a former rightwing background who misses the fighting and companionship. He’s a gambler who one day stumbles, by accident, on a crime scene: Germany’s most famous footballer, one with a migration background, dead and the next day Germany plays Turkey! “He’s the guy on which the whole social- political-sporting discussion is turning and he’s dead!”, Alvart, who has a solid TATORT background and loves what Germans call ‘Krimis’, explains. “Football’s close to a religion and the city will explode if this gets out! Plus, the lead guy can place some bets and win big, too!” But then a second cop arrives, a Turkish-German. He’s “good for the politicians,” Alvart continues, “gay and Left-liberal, so not your classic Turkish cliché!”
The story and characters, both of which originate from Alvart, started as a 160-page series bible he wrote “before Netflix’s Eric Barmack came asking: ‘Do I have a show?’ I first had to check this was for real! But then I sent him the bible and pilot, pitched it and they wanted it. The problem was I was already working on a two-parter with Til Schweiger, had written CUT OFF and was working on DON'T.GET.OUT! – I couldn’t deliver! They just told me to come back later. I was scared it would be dropped, but I kept in touch, pitched again and it all moved so fast, I even had to get co-writers in to deliver the scripts. Now I’m very proud of it, 100% behind it, controversy and all!” He is also unstinting in his praise for Netflix’s handling of the show: “They did a super marketing job; giant posters everywhere, adverts on the trains, the underground, trams, character posters, everything, and really stylish.”
Coming from a highly religious background where films were forbidden, it is no surprise that Alvart, born 1974 near Frankfurt, went out of his way to watch as many as possible and so learned first-hand the powerful attraction of genre films for his audience. Such is the case with his 2009 science-fiction drama PANDORUM. Not a mainstream success by any means, as he admits, but “those that love it, love it! Some went and got tattoos and they sent me photos. They want a sequel and to do a fundraiser for it: when you get that kind of passion it is fantastic!”
So what is a ‘Christian Alvart’ film, then? “My taste is very broad but my approach is very detailed,” he explains. “What does the project need? What does the story need? The most important thing is that the camera tells the story, it’s the language, the story is told with pictures, so it cannot be random. I hate shooting coverage. I’ve always used storyboards and I don’t want coincidence to play any greater role than that, coincidence. The viewer must feel the director’s stance as a narrator/storyteller.”
“The film has to have a voice,” Alvart continues, “and tell the story well. The actors must understand that their being positioned is to tell the story. The highest compliment is when people watch a film and are entertained and understand it even if they don’t speak the actual language! Spielberg is a master of this. Also Luc Besson! My two masters! NIKITA, LE GRAND BLEU and LEON, they are perfect.”
And now the dreaded ‘B’-word: backstory! “It’s a curse!”, Alvart avers. “It’s the most uninteresting of everything! Many books and films function by showing a situation and the backstory is withheld, which we then learn as the film plays.” And then, more excitedly: “I want to see the film of the backstory if they consider that more important!” Calming down, but just a little: “It also reduces the empathy. Rambo in FIRST BLOOD is the way he is because he has experienced this and that, it’s obvious. Westerns never had backstory; costume and character is all you need.”
Alvart is currently making DJANGO LIVES! with Franco Nero, “and the lack of backstory is part of the suspense. In the first scene of the original he saves a woman from robbers, brings her to a village... and then hands her to Mexican bandits! Only later do we learn he wants the gold and still has a shred of decency. When we get Darth Vader’s or Snake Plissken’s backstory they become banal.”
Enjoying family life (wife, three sons and a daughter off to university) by a lake outside Berlin, Alvart’s other passions include, amongst canoeing and reading, writing and music. “Cinema became my profession,” he says, “but I can imagine the two as careers as well. But it’s cinema that I live for, even if having my own production company means taking care of staff, doing the accounting and being entrepreneurial.”
Also amongst the current projects in his entrepreneurial loop, alongside DJANGO LIVES!, is a remake of the Spanish thriller LAS ISLAS MINIMAS. As FREIES LAND, the film ditches the politics of the Franco era, “which is very hard to convey to a German audience,” and is set in 1991 in the state of Mecklenburg-Western-Pommerania, and individual fates following German reunification: “There is de-industrialization, West Germans buying things up, young women leaving and it turns out some have been murdered. An East German cop teams with a West German colleague. It’s a portrait of the soul of Germans at this time.”
With close to 4,000 Blu-rays and DVDs at home, plus a home cinema set up to kill or die for, Alvart is, no surprise, a passionate supporter of the cinema-going experience: “I love it when the curtain opens! The cinema must be kept alive! But operators need to understand they have to deliver the best sound and picture quality and experience, they have to give you a reason to be there. I go a great deal and too often you try finding someone to complain to if things are not right!” Fully accepting that “the future will be streaming,” Alvart makes the case for co-existence between the streaming networks, the cinema and physical media, and admits it will be a balancing act. “Who controls which version, even whether it will be available? ANTIBODIES is on Amazon Prime. It was filmed in Cinemascope and they have the squeezed version! I didn’t even know till someone wrote to me!”
“Amazon has new guidelines so many queer films are no longer available: algorithms tag them as offensive. Tarantino and Nolan are trying to save 35mm film so there is at least one copy in existence, even if it’s their own one at home! You get policing and politicization, like Spielberg changing guns into radios in his reworked E.T.. In DOGS OF BERLIN the language had to be softened, so the Neo-Nazis were made to speak ‘nicely’.”
“If you want to see DOGS OF BERLIN,” Alvart continues, you have to subscribe to Netflix because they don’t release physical media. These companies are very, very powerful and I understand why some people are resisting, because they love the cinema and see Netflix as wanting to abolish it. But they, the streamers, also face competition for the viewer’s time in the form of social media and gaming.”
Looking further ahead, in the face of the current superhero deluge, Alvart believes that “in ten years people will be making their own films at home with gaming engines. People will create their own, open source, universe. Good luck trying to protect the copyright on SUPERMAN and BATMAN! That dethrones the studios, a monoculture with SFX and CGI being replaced by the end-users, who will do their own rendering and compete directly with Hollywood. And this is why they will again need real stories, real actors and characters.”