Squadron of Specters: Dominik Graf Introduces His Film "The Invincibles" (Director's Cut)

"The film's real subject is to show how catastrophes happen..."
Notebook
Dominik Graf's The Invincibles (Director's Cut) (1994/2019), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing in MUBI's Rediscovered series.
Above: Dummy explosion in Düsseldorf from the set of The Invincibles.
Greetings to all of you interested in The Invicibles! It is a pleasure and honor for me to see that MUBI now presents my more than a quarter-century old film in its 2019 extended cut. Thanks a lot for that! In the following remarks, I shall talk a bit about some of the notions that developed like concentric circles from the film's original idea—the thoughts beyond the core plot.
Flashback: Starting around the so-called Wende (the German Democratic Republic's Anschluß into the wealthy West, polemically speaking), a series of still unsolved assassinations and murders happened at regular two-year intervals: On November 30th, 1989, Alfred Herrhausen, banker and political advisor, was shot in Bad Homburg; on April 1st, 1991, Treuhand manager Detlev Karsten Rohwedder got shot in Düsseldorf; on June 27th, 1993, finally, a counter-terrorism operation of German Federal Police's elite tactical unit GSG 9 at Bad Kleinen train station ended in a shoot-out with Red Army Faction members during which one of the latter, Wolfgang Grams, got killed under suspicious circumstances by officer Michael Newrzella. Captains of industry got murdered, and so did 3rd, maybe even 4th generation RAF members who hadn't given up the fight yet, still underground, still in arms.
This is the historical soil from which The Invincibles grew.
In the second half of the 1980s I worked on my first big police actioner, Die Katze (1988). During the shoot, two officers from Düsseldorf PD's SEK (Special Deployment Commando) were always around to assist in making a large scale police operation look as realistic as possible. After the film was finished, we continued to meet. These two, Peter Hollweg und Klaus Maas, told me stories from their daily life on a job that includes close protection security detail, hostage crisis intervention (as in Die Katze) as well as operations with potentially lethal endings. SEKs were a pretty new thing back then; their body-armor-and-balaclava-look was spectacular.
Originally we thought about opening The Invincibles with roll-up titles. Günter Schütter, the film's screenwriter, had written them like this:
There are no pictures of SEK officers; at headquarters, only a few are allowed to know their names. On their ID it simply says: Police Officer. They are not allowed to talk about their job to even acquaintances and friends. In public, they appear only hooded.
Günter Rohrbach, back then head of Bavaria Film and best known probably for producing Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot (1981), saw major movie potential in this project that I had conceived as a miniseries for TV. Ambitions were massive on all fronts; we were fighting over the screenplay for three years.
But then, in the summer of '93, pre-production finally commenced in Düsseldorf. And while the stars were learning SEK work the hard way in boot camp, and while we were busy finding money to balance a budget that had taken a few hits too many, the Bad Kleinen Incident happened.
German satirist Wiglaf Droste later summarized the official story's absurdity in a brief text called The True Story of Bad Kleinen that starts like this: On June 27th 1993, at Bad Kleinen train station, Mecklenburg, GSG 9-officer Michael Newrzella starts proceedings by shooting himself. It's on YouTube, and when you listen to it you'll hear the crowd howling with laughter after this one. And there's more to chortle, chuckle and guffaw about, for Droste continues like this, constructing a completely demented narrative detailing the shoot-out's development in a fashion that scrupulously respects all the blanks and redacts the German State's official statements concerning the operation had on offer. Total pandemonium, insult gets added to injury, surrealism rules. Faced with the RAF's so-far last major post-Wende stand, the Federal Republic of Germany looked like a bumbling idiot
Bad Kleinen was more than an incident, as it made us look anew and more doubtful at our Internal Security heroes. Some suspect that at Bad Kleinen an elite tactical unit turned rogue to execute terrorist Wolfgang Grams—a theory seemingly neither properly verifiable nor believably refutable. This hubris, will for vigilantism, desire to act above the law: this was at the core of our project The Invincibles. Not surprisingly, the incident's fallout seeped into the atmosphere on set as well as in post-production—for months, journalists investigated and published their findings, only to get debunked or outright denied by officials who often enough (were) soon resigned or (got) retired; all this we read about in the morning and discussed over lunch.
Showing the lethal dimensions of violent male self-aggrandizement turned into an even bigger obsession for me—it's already there in the original screenplay but now reality asked for more, and I tried to deliver. The film's real subject is to show how catastrophes happen: how some hombres' need to take care of matters alone ends in escalation and bloody mayhem: Testosteron-Untergang. All that and, yes, sex. Sex and crime, sweaty bodies in heat and action, bod cult supreme. I wanted to show how violence and sex both become battlefields on which the men's will for initiative is mercilessly turned against them.
But as I already said: The nucleus for all this—warrior-furies in uniform get taken apart—had been all over the screenplay that went into production, and in a mighty obvious fashion. FRG high concept production guru Bernd Eichinger (ao. The NeverEnding Story, 1984; again Petersen) originally showed some serious interest in co-financing a big scale battle-heavy hymn to cop heroics with his company Neue Constantin, but after reading the script he withdrew his initial offer saying that these guys weren't Invincibles but Defenseless. Du. Quod erat demonstrandum.
Starting with the film's opening, the gruesome deed of SEK officer Heinz Schäfer already offers a garish glimpse at the trained supermen' perverse hubris and would hang like a dark cloud over the film proper but also its making. The glory Special Deployment Commandos bask in for being crisis management pros gets tainted. Macho myths turn miasmic. On the surface, chief inspector Karl Simon is chasing a phantom: a former colleague presumed dead—but in reality he's fighting against his urges, his will and need to turn as well into an all-purpose killing machine.
And thus, in 1993, a big and very expensive cop actioner was made as something like a requiem for a tradition of the cop shop shows we knew from the Bonn Republic. Only to be ignored, even reviled in the immediate post-Wende years of deutscher fun. We should have seen it coming, but preferred not to. The Berlin Republic was a dead zone for political action thrillers—make that action full stop. So far, the corpse has resisted reanimation.
A VAGUE IDEA OF A GERMAN CINEMA
The “new” old scenes (which we had to cut out of the film's release print as the distributors worried about the audience' patience) survive only in VHS-quality; the original 35mm materials got all destroyed, what remained is a tape with an early rough cut; which is why in comparison with the state-of-the-art 4k digitally color corrected images they now look as if someone had re-shot Super-8-footage with some antediluvian video technology whose time-worn remains got dragged out of a recycling bin for discarded home entertainment tech. You can't miss these shaggy scenes amid all that glossy digi glory—its grain vs. pixel, as simple and brutal as it gets. But I don't want to complain here, as this new disjointedness fits the project perfectly, I think, with all its high-flying dreams and hard knocks.
The “new” scenes add up to some 12min. additional running time. This parallel universe they come from offers glimpses at the German cinema we dreamed of back then. Okay, the film we shot is based on a screenplay much shorter and less politically thorny than the one we started with, but fuck it!, back then as right now you have to be happy whenever you finish up working with a coherent script—few manage to survive those endless discussions with the various production jocks representing this TV station or that subsidizing fund. And the main aspects were still there. No excuses, this was and is our film—my film and Günter Schütter's film.
But mind: The Invincibles isn't a blast-from-the-past contribution to the subject du jour of cop violence. The screenplays of Günter Schütter (with whom I've been working now for some thirty years) veer between closely observed studies of petite bourgeois daily life and grand-scale myth-making with a nice touch of the ancient Greeks and their idea of theater. No investigative journalism's moral furor here. Günter's favorite characters, men and women alike, have something existentially broken to them; their skin is thin like parchment; their lone protection are the dialogues which sometimes are phrased in a fashion almost demanding a hexameter-heady delivery, or in song, why not; it is like this: frail and bigger than life at the same time, that they face the audience. No social realism, if you please, verboten! We're closer to the world of fables and legends here. Of and on in the film you hear a lullaby-like tune with lyrics in French inspired by a Grimm brothers fairy tale about siblings walking thirstily through the woods, and whenever they want to drink from the rivers and rivulets these warn them: Stay away, for those who imbibe our water shall turn into beasts.
Schütter's screenplays are a pleasure to work with. They're very demanding, and I'm afraid I wasn't always up to them as a director—I'm still learning something from him. But it's always fun—the Lawrence-way, to which Dryden dryly remarked: It is recognized that you have a funny sense of fun.
WOLFGANG GRAMS' POTHOLDERS
But back to the story. Official German culture's idea of a proper way to treat the RAF is witnessed by Andreas Veiel's scrupulously balanced 2001 documentary bourgeois tragedy Black Box BRD, in which Alfred Herrhausen and Wolfgang Grams are presented as 80s-FRG's victim-perpetrator-antipodes. The films presented the potholders Grams crocheted while doing time in the 80s, which, in combination with the on-screen tears of Herrhausen's widow, should probably express the pity of it all, with everybody being kind-of ordinary and suffering and whatnot. German film criticism showed itself deeply moved. Problem is: Conciliatory gestures like this don't help us dealing with the RAF—its history and our history.
Besides that, let's not forget that the killings of Herrhausen and Rohwedder remain unsolved. Maybe because the two, each in his own way, had through his respective work developed an attitude decidedly apart and against the Robber Baron 2.0 variety of capitalism under whose sign Central and Eastern Europe got conquered? Officialdom called it a liberation—for what frightfully fatal freedom? As Erich Kästner put it: The wrong lived, the wrong died.
Maybe the state had ordered these killings? Maybe the secret services had worked together in one way or another with the extremists on the left and the right? If Italy could do so in the 1970s then why shouldn't the FRG try its own Strategy of Tension under cover of all that Wende-cheering? In 2017 I shot an episode for the well-established FRG TV crime series Tatort: Der rote Schatten (The Red Shadow), in which we looked at the RAF's legacy apropos also the so-called Stammheim Night of October 17th-18th, 1977. This is another political murder mystery where the official explanation doesn't quite square with the evidence. Taking into account the investigation team's mistakes and oversights forty years ago, we showed two version of what happened to terrorists Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe, who died that night, and Irmgard Möller, who survived a four-time stabbing. One sees them commit suicide, the other getting killed/injured by—whom? We filmed both versions using Super-8-material and made them look identical: like documentaries straight from Stammheim. The alternative version looked as true and possible as the official narrative. After the film got shown on prime time TV, the shit hit the fan—even the FRG's president felt personally moved to voice his indignation about the film in general and these two aesthetically identical versions of what happened at Stammheim's Max Sec Unit in particular. Thou shalt not question history as written.
All of this adds up to this final twist: In the original screenplay for The Invincibles, the child murderer and former SEK-officier Heinz Schäfer worked as an undercover operative inside the RAF. We were told in no uncertain terms by the film subsidizers that this won't fly—we wouldn't get money if this stayed. Which is why we changed the milieu and part of the motivation: now it's all about Italian counterfeit money and corrupt German politicians, with Schäfer getting turned into a killer. A bestselling German novelist told me after seeing the film in 1995 that he couldn't imagine such a Black Op with official blessings happening in the FRG.
Looks to me that today we can't afford such a lack of imagination here anymore.
Translation by Olaf Möller

Tags

IntroductionsNow ShowingColumnsDominik GrafLong Reads
2
Please login to add a new comment.

PREVIOUS FEATURES

@notebookmubi
Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.

Contact

If you're interested in contributing to Notebook send us a sample of your work. For all other enquiries, contact Daniel Kasman.