May 23, 2024

Kilian Riedhof’s “Stella. A Life.,” which has its world premiere at the Zurich Film Festival, tells the tragic, fact-based story of Stella Goldschlag, a young Jewish woman in Berlin who, in order to survive, cooperates with the Gestapo to betray other Jews. The film stars Paula Beer, who won the awards for best actress at the Berlin Film Festival and the European Film Awards for “Undine” in 2020, as well as the award for best young actor or actress at Venice in 2016 for “Frantz.”

Riedhof came across Goldschlag’s story around 20 years ago in a newspaper: “The photo of a blond, beautiful woman, very lively, on Kurfürstendamm in the middle of Berlin – for me it was a very modern woman.”

Headlined “The Blond Poison,” the article told the story of Goldschlag’s role as a Gestapo informant who betrayed hundreds of people, including friends and acquaintances.  

“Though I was deeply shocked, I learned that she was also a victim, that she was persecuted by the Nazis, that she was tortured and threatened along with her family with deportation to Auschwitz.

Riedhof says he was intrigued by the ambivalence of the character; he found Goldschlag difficult to define. “Whenever I found a reason to say she’s guilty, there were two others that called for at least some understanding of why she did what she did. That ambivalence drove me all the way as I was making this film.”

In researching the story, Riedhof also read Berlin court documents as well as protocols of Goldschlag’s interrogation by Soviet authorities after the war. He also spoke to survivors and historians. “This kind of research was crucial.”

The filmmaker also sought to examine the idea that ordinary people are capable of great evil when pushed to the edge, that many people will abandon their morality when trying to survive.

“That was the first question that came to my mind: How far would I have gone or how far would I go? We are living in really dangerous times, with populism and totalitarianism around the corner here in Europe, so you really have to be sure where you stand and know what your ethical point of view is. Those are the questions I asked myself hundreds of times. Would I have said no if they had asked me?”

“This movie is basically about guilt. How far can you go to survive, to live on? Is survival by all means an option? … Maybe we have inside ourselves an inner voice which tells us how far to go and then at a certain point you have to say no, you can’t go on like this. But it’s very hard to tell. Under the given circumstances, it’s really ambivalent.”

“On the one hand we have this criminal system that perverts her; on the other hand, we have a special character here.” Riedhof describes Stella as a modern character who “is quite self-centered; you may call her narcissistic.”

Riedhof points to current society in which everyone is taking selfies, watching themselves, focusing on themselves. I think we are in big danger because we are used to behaving like this, to only seeing ourselves in the mirror.

“That makes you unaware of the circumstances, unaware of your surroundings, of the people around you. I think that’s the modern part of the story. We are very trained and used to just following our ego trips. And in time of totalitarianism, it’s really something dangerous.”

In casting Paula Beer as Stella, Riedhof says, “She was the only option I had in mind. She’s an extraordinary actress. She really defends the inner core of the character. She has an independence as an actress, which is really rare. And she has a certain aura and I think that’s what the character needed.”

Noting that the character is very ambivalent, beguiling and also very horrifying, Riedhof says the part called for an actress that could balance these aspects. Beer, he adds, plays the part without judgement and instead manages with great ability “to bear this character, to bear the ambivalence of this character.”

Going in a very different yet timely direction on his next project, Riedhof is currently developing a feature film project about young people trapped in a techno club in Berlin amid rumors that a nuclear war has begun. “One night in one club, that will be my next project – with 100 minutes of techno music.” He is aiming to shoot the movie at the end of next year.

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