Menschen the movie

Menschen, a historical fiction, a what-if scenario from the end of World War II

MENSCHEN

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To read on Indiegogo website:

About the film

MENSCHEN is German word for « human beings ». The film challenges prejudice behind stereotypes like « enemy », « disabled », or even « hero ».

SPRING 1945, the war is over but the fight to survive goes on. The Wehrmacht forces are weary from retreat, the Allies are closing in. A single Austrian captain attempts to guide his platoon behind the Russian lines to surrender to the Americans. They take under their wing a young man with a severe disability. As the loyalty of the captain’s men is tested, the bond with the boy evokes a painful secret from the past.

MENSCHEN is a German-language U.S/Austrian co-production. The film was shot entirely in the state of Colorado in Spring 2012.

Historical background

« Action T-4 » was an ethnic cleansing program implemented by the Nazis prior to the Holocaust that targeted the children and adults with disabilities. They were deemed as « life unworthy of life » by Hitler’s regime.

Menschen tells a story of hope – of LIFE WORTHY OF LIFE

Filmakers

Sarah R. Lotfi (DIRECTOR) most known for her WWII film THE LAST BOGATYR, a national finalist in 37th Student Academy Awards. Some of Lotfi’s other films include TUDOR ROSE and WAKING EYES.  She has worked on numerous professional productions including ABC’s CELEBRITY WIFE SWAP, and HBO films production of CINEMA VERITAE: THE SAGA OF AN AMERICAN FAMILYfeatured in American Cinematographer. Lotfi’s experience growing up with a brother and sister with Down Syndrome provided much of the inspiration behind the MENSCHEN. www.sarahrlotfi.net

Peter Wigand (DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAHY) was born and raised in Graz, Austria. After working in the independent filmmaking scene in Europe, Wigand studied cinematography in the U.S. at Colorado Film School. He has won numerous awards for his work including BROKEN CYCLE, BUNKER’D, and SHINY THINGS. Recently, he was director of photography on the apocalyptic feature film DUST OF WAR. As a native Austrian, the story of MENSCHEN was a direct link into the culture of his « Heimatland ».  www.peterwigand.com

Anastasia Cummings (PRODUCER) is an award-winning filmmaker and one of the most sought after in the state. For many years she has served as the US representative for French production company, Diesel Productions. Trained as a Script and Continuity Supervisor in Los Angeles and fluent in three languages, Anastasia translated Sabine El Gemayel’s acclaimed film NILOOFAR. Notable shorts she has been attatched to include BROKEN CYCLE, JACK IN THE BOX and the upcoming BREATHE. Cumming has plans turn develop a feature from her noted short film CODA exploring a musical legacy out of cold-war Europe to present day America.

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To read on WIPO website:

Independent Movie-Making: An Interview with Sarah Lotfi

June 2014

by Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO

Making a career as a film-maker requires painstaking determination, resilience and vision. It can be a tough road to travel. Film directors are typically hired on the strength of their track record making it very difficult for aspiring youngsters to get a foothold in the industry. The only way in which young filmmakers can build up a portfolio of work to attract potential producers and investors is to start off as an independent filmmaker. The award-winning writer, director and producer, Sarah Lotfi, shares her insights and experiences as one such filmmaker.

How did you get involved in film?

I have always been fascinated by film. Growing up, movies were my window on the world.

So far I have made four short films that have gone on to film festivals. Menschen is by far the most successful. As a student, in 2009, I made The Last Bogatyr, a surreal piece that gave a Russian perspective of the Front in WWII, which was successful on the film festival circuit and helped me really make my name as a young filmmaker and gain credibility among crowd funders. The film was a regional winner and national finalist in the 2010 Student Academy Awards film competition run by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

So far Ms. Lotfi has made four short films. Menschen, which she
hopes to develop into a feature length movie, is by far the most
successful to date. (Photo credit: Mark Mook)

Building on my experience in making The Last Bogatyr, I continued working with what I call historical re-enactors, that is, people who explore new perspectives on historical events, to make Menschen. Given my interest in the WWII movie genre, they advised me to read memoirs of the Wehrmacht. The WWII genre is well developed and I was searching for a new perspective. Drawing on my own experience as the sister of two siblings with severe developmental disabilities, in Menschen I explored what happened to those with severe developmental disorders under the Nazis, and instead of focusing on their tragic treatment, I wrote a positive story of hope and humanity amid institutional brutality; a story, which moves beyond stereotypes and which I hope will have a lasting impact. Menschen has also made it possible for me to draw public attention to these disabilities.

As much as film is about entertainment, I believe it is also about empowerment. Conor Long, who plays Radek, has Down’s syndrome. By casting him in this role we were able to reach out to disability advocacy and support groups. I had a wonderful experience at a film festival recently when a young woman with Down’s syndrome came up to me with a beaming smile to tell me she saw herself in the film.

Sarah Lotfi directing Conor Long, who plays Radek in Menschen. Ms. Lotfi believes that film is a very powerful form of communication and as much about empowerment as entertainment. (Photo credit: Luke Askelson)

Filmmaking offers a huge opportunity to create awareness and really touch people. It is such a powerful form of communication. I find it incredibly invigorating to write a story and to see it transformed into an audiovisual work. I think any creator will tell you the same.

Why did you film Menschen in German?

I believe filmmakers have a responsibility to be authentic. In a period movie, this means being as true as possible to the identity of the characters represented. That was why we chose to make the film in German. We even engaged a dialect coach to make sure we got the accents right. This will ensure the film is credible among European audiences.

How long did it take to research and make the film?

From pre-production to locking the cut it took just 9 months in 2012. I am very ambitious as a filmmaker and want to get things done as quickly as possible. Menschen was a large undertaking for a short, independent film. On our first day of filming up to 80 people were on the film set for our largest action shot. Shooting elaborate action sequences takes a great deal of detailed planning and coordination. Even the editing is a lengthy process.

What were the key challenges in making Menschen?

Securing funding is always a challenge for independent filmmakers, and is especially difficult when it comes to small film projects, such as Menschen. We opted to crowd-fund the film, dividing our funding campaign into three phases. This enabled us to raise smaller amounts of money at different stages of the production process and helped ensure we had a constant flow of cash. Crowd-funding has been used to great effect by iconic filmmakers such as Spike Lee and Zach Braff. It also offers unknown, small independent filmmakers like me, an incredible opportunity to realize their projects.

Filmmakers need to know and build their audiences, and crowd-funding is a useful way of doing this. When you make a film like Menschen that appeals to specific audiences, those niche groups are drawn to the film and help build its success.

Independent filmmakers often find themselves in a “catch 22” situation. For example, you negotiate for named talent but the named talent does not want to sign on to your venture because you don’t have the financing in place but the financiers will not commit without the producer bringing assets, such as named talent, to the table. So it goes round and round. That is why crowd-funding is such a blessing for the independent world because you can start building an audience that really believes in your project and this gives you something to really negotiate with, even if you are crowd-funding for smaller amounts and not your whole budget.

Independent filmmakers strive to get known talent involved in their work. This opens doors for them to get their work screened not only in a theatrical setting but also on the film festival circuit. It is becoming a trend among “A” list actors to get involved in independent film projects. Some see an independent film with a good script as an opportunity to play outside their type cast and to play characters they would not normally get with a more commercial production. If it fits in with their schedule, they may take a lower rate of pay to embark on a potentially interesting venture.

The short film Menschen was produced in just 9 months in 2012. “Menschen was a large undertaking for a short, independent film,” Ms. Lotfi notes. (© Sarah Lotfi)

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The opinion of Mardra Sikora:

Why the Film Menschen is Not “Just a Movie”

I suppose everyone has a “button” phrase. Something said to them, even in passing, that hits a nerve. Today I am going to confess mine: “It’s just a movie.”

When I sob over a character’s death, or I have nightmares from violent images, or when my chest aches before I’ve even left the theater, it’s personal. When I close my eyes, turn my head, or walk away, with these real emotions, I’ve been told too many times, “It’s just a movie.”

No. It’s not. And personally, any movie worth its salt is not just a movie.

Any story that shares the triumphs, hopes and adventures of characters who are mirrors into what we see, or want to see, or are afraid of, then this tale is not just a movie.

Recently I saw the live action short film Menschen. It deeply affected me, and here I’ll tell you why it is not just a movie.

  • *Note: Although I am sharing images from Menschen and concepts covered in the film, everything in this piece is derived from my own experiences and opinions. I am not in any way professionally associated with the film and do not know or represent the opinions of the filmmakers or producers.

Menschen is a historical fiction, a what-if scenario from the end of World War II. The what-if scenario, however, originated in an all-too-real photograph seen by writer and director Sarah Lotfi. “I came across a picture of a boy with Down syndrome, taken during the WWII time period by an SS photographer. It was taken in an institution. Oh God,” Lotfi asked herself, “What happened to that kid?”

It’s possible when she saw that photo, she knew the history of the Nazi T4 program. Maybe she knew already what the Nazi’s did to disabled children and adults. She definitely knew faces that look a little like that face in the picture; Lotfi has both a sister and a brother with Down syndrome, Oh God…she said, before she began to write the first line.

Hitler’s mass killings began, not with the Jews, who in 1939 were being herded into ghettos, but with the targeted murder of disabled children and adults. Hitler labeled it a mercy. In a letter dated September 1939, Adolf Hitler authorized doctors to provide “mercy death” to those persons who held a “life unworthy of life.” These mercy deaths were carried out in killing centers that introduced gas poisoning which later became the regime’s preferred method of killing millions in the concentration camps.

Menchen includes the story of a boy with Down syndrome who is hidden by his mother. She is trying to protect him from those who find his life unworthy, without contribution, as the doctors and men of science in that time and place carried out systematic euthanasia. It is a horrific story. And it is not just a movie. Not to me.

I too love someone with a face that’s a little bit like the boy in the picture, and I have recently read that same sentiment that killing a person with Down syndrome is a mercy. Where? In the Daily Mail, just last month. The headline reads: “Aborting my baby Oscar was the kindest thing I could do for him: Woman who made the agonizing decision to end her child’s life after discovering he had Down’s syndrome.”

I wonder if that mother saw this movie, Menschen, what would run through her mind? Would she nod in agreement when the SS soldier said, “It would be a mercy,” as he offers to kill the found boy with Down syndrome? What does that mother think when she sees a young actor like Connor Long, A self-advocate who won this role out of several casting calls? Long was named ‘Best Actor’ for his performance in Menschen at the Filmstock Film Festival. That’s not a small deal; that’s a big deal, for anyone. Thankfully, the role he played is one of the long dark past.

Or was it? I am sad to report that sometimes, still today, a scientist will publicly announce, without remorse, that people with Down syndrome, flatly cannot “contribute,” and are “not enhanced.” These specific comments followed the statement that giving birth to a child with Down syndrome is “immoral.” In fact, this belief is so prevalent and persistent that it leads to the large scale eugenics that proceeds, practically undaunted, across the world today.

For example, this information came and went in a mere blink: “Here’s a recent Danish headline: ‘Plans to make Denmark a Down’s syndrome-free perfect society.’ The Danes want to promote aborting fetuses with Down syndrome, so their society will be free of “such people” around 2030. One bioethicist describes it as a ‘fantastic achievement.’” Actually, by today’s standards, that headline is old news (from 2011), and was so little challenged, that their “fantastic” policy continues. Europe and beyond systematically eliminate the births of people with Down syndrome with great success. (Further easy to follow charts and links on the state of eugenics are included here.)

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