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TWO GIANTS THAT EXIST HERE – A GERMAN FAIRYTALE

ZWEI RIESEN DIE ES HIER GIBT- EIN DEUTSCHES MÄRCHEN

Gianna Scholten

Clouds, high above. A voice talks of freedom to a frenzied crowd. “Once upon a time in Germany” appears written in the sky. This shows the lofty viewpoint from which Gianna Scholten is able to examine the dark side of a certain ‘German mindset’ in this ferociously gritty fairy tale. The context is the resurgence of unapologetic antisemitism during the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to reconstruct this zeitgeist in its cultural tradition, the virtuoso editing of Zwei Riesen weaves together three strands. The image brilliantly reworks the folk imagery of a bucolic, pagan and conservative Germany:  vast landscapes of enchanted nature inhabited by supernatural beings; Hansel and Gretel picking mushrooms, spied on by the anthropophagous witch; garden gnomes, music boxes and snow globes. The soundtrack imitates a radio broadcasting the voices of contemporary members of Germany’s far right: low-level conspiracy theorists, shameless defenders of family values inherited from Nazism, and rabid antisemitism. The image is imprinted with a satirical narrative, as if Brecht had rewritten a Grimm Brothers fairytale. The spirit of the great Bertolt, his powerfully ironic directing style, runs right through Gianna Scholten’s satire. With the AfD, Germany’s far-right party, having just won its first local election in Thuringia, her film is both a cruel mirror held up to her contemporaries and a miniature treatise on cultural and political history. Nothing could be more salutary.

Cyril Neyrat

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In an inventive and ironic way, the film confronts us with the right-wing movement in Germany, which grew during the Coronavirus pandemic. Where did your interest in this subject come from and what was the origin of the film?

My interest in the subject stems from observing a demonstration in the summer of 2020, which included a diverse mix of people, ranging from concerned seniors and stoner hippies to prominent figures of the far-right scene. I was perplexed by the fear they expressed about democracy, while my friends were at the time primarily concerned about the well-being of their grandparents and their economic situations. However, there was also a reality in which it was apparently normal to compare yourself to Anne Frank because you now had to celebrate birthdays in secret, since the temporary ban on partying.

This experience led me to investigate the so-called Querdenker Scene, a group with no unified ideology or agenda. There were people who openly spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. But, there were also content creators with several hundred thousand followers, who produced different formats every day, covering a wide range of topics such as mindfulness and gardening. And it took time to realize that these were not just hardcore conservatives, weird or grotesque, but simply extreme right-wing persons, clever enough to not say things which could be prosecuted by the German domestic intelligence service. It was this manipulative spiritual Trojan horse, in which highly problematic content was stuffed, that bothered me the most. So I finally decided to make this film.

The film takes narrative and aesthetic elements from fairy tale literature, directly summoning the Brothers Grimm’s work “Hansel and Gretel”. Why did you opt for this treatment? And how did the choice of this Grimm work come about?

Fairy tales and conspiracy myths have similar ways of storytelling. They tell us that when the enemy is gone, all will be well. Forever and ever. That eludes the nasty complexities of the world and rely on a dichotomy of good and evil.

Moreover, the Grimm brothers’ tales shaped Romantic Nationalism. Their work was first accused of not being German enough. So they threw out stories from their publications and deleted words that had a non-German origin. So the princess became a king’s daughter. This emphasis on language, folk traditions and history created a romantic idea of a homogeneous Germany to which one either belonged or not. Richard Wagner even claimed that people of other ethnic origins were not even able to understand his music.

The Nazis used the ideas of romantic nationalism for propaganda and perverted them to justify a racist ideology based on the superiority of a certain “Aryan race”. And to this day, romantic nationalism is an instrument used by right-wing radicals to underpin their racist ideas. Although of course fascism is the very last thing that any kind of ideal world will bring or has brought.

So I decided to steal Hansel and Gretel back. And give them money so they don’t have to starve. Besides, the witch isn’t a cannibal either. So the fairy tale is actually deprived of everything it is based on. But in a certain way, the two are still captivated by the witch, whom they even regard as their grandmother. They don’t nibble on anything sweet, but are addicted to the cosiness of stagnation and let the witch constantly sprinkle them with her values. The gingerbread house is inside them. And then, after a moment of silence, everything collapses and a kiss takes place. 

This kiss came to my mind when I was walking through the Siebengebirge and it was the first image I had for the project, even though it wasn’t yet brother and sister. In this forest we did most of the filming and it was also here where Richard Wagner’s Siegfried from the Saga of the Nibelungs killed the dragon and where Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs supposedly lived.

The images are accompanied by sound recordings of several controversial personalities presenting a variety of accents and ways of expressing themselves. How did you select the extracts and compose this corpus?

Initially I threw myself into this scene, at times the output of these personalities has been my main input. I tried to get an overview. I wanted to understand it all somehow. Then I started to transcribe these recordings. I was looking for recurring themes and people who were particularly present. I also became really interested in their linguistic techniques and populist tricks. And then I looked for a structure that resembled the undertow that drew me into this weird fascination with the scene.

It was important for me not to give this theme a final sound. Or to bring a seeming order into it. I wanted to make it in such a way that the viewer doesn’t drop out completely, but also doesn’t sit there comfortably and points the finger at the people and instantly label everything as stupid bullshit. As a consumer of media, you don’t have this order either, and you have to see for yourself what is actually being said. Honestly, it was pretty hard to consume so much hate and fake news and I was really glad when the sound mix was done and I could finally leave all these groups.

Could you tell us about the editing work to structure and balance these different sound and visual elements?

I had 50 minutes of footage, several hundred hours of sound and probably three dozen timelines. The tricky thing was that if you have a big mess, you need just as much structure, and if you stay in the mess too long, you don’t see it anymore. Then you think you’ve finally got it, and you align everything with what you’ve grasped. And then you realise that you’ve just made the same dychotomous narrative that you’re criticising. So new cut. And then someone says the birds are wrong. Because suddenly they’re putting accents that they’re not supposed to put, they’ve taken on a life of their own. Even some of the mosquitoes are fake – all of a sudden you’re not only responsible for the personal rights of the right-wingers, but also for the mosquitoes and birds because you just created them there. But I think it was really important for me to be able to have my own world next to this dull world of conspiracies. Without this visual world we’ve created, I probably would have dropped the film at one point. 

Who are the two giants referred to in the title?

Firstly, the giants refer to a statement by someone in the scene who claims: „There are also two giants here, at least that’s what I claim, simply because I sometimes feel them.” I liked this sentence so much, it is somehow so cheeky that I actually wished I was just as self-confident. And so I decided to adopt that attitude for the film, even though I think the person who said it is awful. Secondly, it reminds me of the German phrase “Ein Elefant im Raum” (an elephant in the room), which signifies an obvious or uncomfortable problem or fact that is being ignored or suppressed.

Interview by Marco Cipollini

 

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Technical sheet

Germany / 2023 / 21’

Rights holder
Gianna Scholten
g.f.scholten@gmail.com