• Arne Birkenstock (© Fruitmarket/René Dohmen)


Marcos Kantis, Michal Pokorny, Martin Lehwald (© Stephanie Kulbach)

In little more than 18 months, the production house Schiwago Film will be celebrating its 20th anniversary after having been established by Martin Lehwald and Michal Pokorny in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district in 2000. Marcos Kantis then joined in 2007 as the company’s third producer. “We started developing projects for television from an early stage in the company’s history,” Lehwald recalls. “We have now reached a point where we can show that we are able to handle programs for the prime-time as well as do our little quirky productions for cinema.”

“Television is a much bigger market,” Marcos Kantis adds. “Feature films take longer in the development and financing stages and you need more partners, whereas our experience with television is that you usually only have one partner and the projects can be realized much quicker.”

The last couple of years has seen the company being commissioned by ZDF to produce the OSTFRIESLANDKRIMIS series, based on the books by the best-selling author Klaus-Peter Wolf, as well as the PRAGER-KRIMI detective series set in the Czech capital for ARD Degeto. “It’s been interesting to see how we can achieve a kind of cross-fertilization between television and cinema,” Kantis says.

Poster Oh BoyPoster Der STYX

“The director Rick Ostermann is a case in point: I saw his feature film WOLFSKINDER and was then keen to work with him on a new project. We ended up making FREMDER FEIND together with WDR as a TV film for a Wednesday evening slot, and the film then had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival which was quite an unusual situation for a TV movie.” And this year has seen Ostermann travelling up to the East Friesland region of Germany on the border with Holland to direct the latest episode in the OSTFRIESLANDKRIMIS series.

“It’s interesting for the broadcasters to work with us because they can tap into the feature filmmaking talents like Bettina Blümner who had previously made the documentary PRINZESSINENBAD, and now directed one of the episodes of ZDF’s RIVER OF LIFE series,” Lehwald suggests. The series – with five stories set on the banks of the Loire, Ganges, Kwai, Danube, Amazon and Okavango – also had episodes directed by Michael Karen, Torsten C. Fischer, Carlo Rola and Franziska Meyer Price.

“It was a crazy idea really because we don’t have any continuous roles appearing in each episode,” Lehwald explains. “We start from scratch on every film with the characters and story lines, and we don’t have any key locations that we can return to. And of course, we had to first become acquainted with the film cultures in each of the countries where we were shooting, they are all so different,” he says. “In India, for example, we can have 120 people on the set and that’s how things are, you won’t be able to reduce that number.”

“One of the consistent features of Schiwago Film has been our desire to build long-term relationships with filmmakers and create our own ’film family’,” Kantis continues. This began with actor-writer-director Jan Henrik Stahlberg on the German Film Award-winner MUXMÄUSCHENSTILL in 2004 and continued with SHORTCUT TO HOLLYWOOD. Lehwald is now preparing MUXMÄUSCHENSTILL 2 with Stahlberg to go into production during 2019.

“80% of the story is set in France based on the premise that Muck didn’t actually die, but only slipped into a coma after the accident at the end of the first part and he has now been a patient in a specialist clinic in Geneva for the past 15 years,” Lehwald explains. “When he comes out of the coma, Muck tries his luck in Germany but gets his butt kicked, and then turns to the motherland of all revolutions, France, to bring about a utopian salvation for the world before returning in glory to his native Germany.”

Similarly, there has been a long-standing relationship between the Schiwago Film team and director Jan Ole Gerster since producing his multi-award-winning 2012 film OH BOY. Gerster was attending the Torino Film Lab with his project IMPERIUM, based on the Christian Kracht bestseller about the young nudist and reformer August Engelhard who travelled to a South Pacific island in 1902 to save himself from moral and spiritual pollution, when he met the Slovenian writer-director Blaz Kutin who started working with him on the script’s development.

Kutin subsequently offered Gerster another script that he had written some 10 years previously – and, once Corinna Harfouch and Tom Schilling were onboard, it wasn’t long before the financing came into place for what has become Gerster’s second feature LARA, to be released by Studiocanal in early 2019.

The collaboration with Kutin went so well for both sides that Schiwago Film is now in development on his feature directorial debut ESTONIA which recently was awarded funding by Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg at its June session.

Moreover, Kantis will be looking to continue the collaboration with Austrian filmmaker Wolfgang Fischer after his drama STYX which had its world premiere at this year’s Berlinale. “Wolfgang started developing the screenplay around seven years ago and when we were putting the financing together, some doubted whether the film would still be of any relevance when it was completed,” Kantis recalls. “In fact, we shot the film two years ago, but, unfortunately, nothing much has changed since then. The film is still highly topical: we had the premiere of the film in Malta at the Valletta Film Festival on the very weekend in June when the Maltese authorities were refusing landing rights to the ship with the refugees.”

Other filmmakers with projects in Schiwago Film’s development slate include Oliver Rihs, Cüneyt Kaya, Aelrun Goette and first-time filmmaker Laura Laabs who directed the web series COUNTRY GIRLS last year. Meanwhile, shooting rolled at the beginning of July on the DFFB graduate Florian Dietrich’s feature debut, the edgy comedy HOMIES, which is being co-produced by ZDF Das kleine Fernsehspiel and ARTE, with Camino Filmverleih as distributor.

“We are always open for projects that are fun to work on,” Kantis observes. “And for projects where we can share a director’s personal vision since we are very ’hands-on’ producers.”

And, as for the company’s name, Schiwago Film? Well, the name does indeed conjure up visions of wide Russian steppes, Tolstoy’s classic novel and David Lean’s Oscar®-winning film. Far from it, according to Lehwald: “I don’t particularly like the DOCTOR ZHIVAGO film, but I was looking for a name which one would immediately associate with cinema. What’s more, I was in love with a girl called Lara at the time, so that’s another reason why we went for this name which is also understood internationally.”

Martin Blaney