Die Überflüssigen digs its fingers deep into the wounds of capitalism and shows how resistance to its absurdity is still possible. Aleksandra Kumorek’s dystopian vision of Berlin (“The Superfluous”), has seamlessly blended her socio-political concerns with graceful filmmaking. Although achingly aware of the implications of her Orwellian accomplishment, it is, she insists, not a call to arms.
Does your film have any intentional affiliation to Die Überflüssigen, the political group?
I didn’t know a lot about the group when I wrote the script in 2005, but I am glad that they exist. Their work is very important to raise awareness that, in society, some things are going horribly wrong. What influenced me was my membership in the anti-globalisation movement, ATTAC Berlin. It had (and still has) meetings where they inform people about what is going on ‘behind the scenes’… It was a profound and eye-opening experience for me.
The film criticises the ‘dumbing-down’ of politics and emphasises the nature of thoughtless ‘recreation’ (cannabis, fast food, TV) as a negative feat for society. Why?
Recreation is great – but it can be dangerous when it is used to manipulate people. In the film, the so-called ‘recreation’ is part of the political system; it is used to make people dumb and dull. People are so busy with watching TV that they don’t even ask what is going on next door. It’s the modern version of the ancient Roman panem et circenses. This is happening in our society today; the new Iphone becomes more important than the next election.
The film has some similarities to George Orwell’s 1984. Was that intentional?
There are similarities to 1984 and also to Huxley’s Brave New World. I watched a lot of ‘philosophical’ sci-fi films, like Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but in the end I had to find my own style for Die Überflüssigen.
Do you believe that when people’s comfort comes under threat – during, for example, an economic recession – that they are more likely to put their trust in a strong political system?
I would not say that the people in my film really trust in the political system. They know somehow that the system is insane, but they try to come to terms with it. They try to find individual solutions to a problem that is not individual, but global. Only one character in the film has understood that the only solution can be a social movement. This is what is happening now all over the planet, with the Occupy movement.
The characters in your dystopia, set in 2020, are made redundant by capitalism. You made the film in 2007. Are we much closer now, in 2012, to the fate of those in Die Überflüssigen?
Whenever I open the newspaper I see that we are getting closer to their world. I read that poor people move to the suburbs, as they cannot afford to pay the rent in the city centre. China is gradually becoming the leading economic power in the world and more and more people emigrate to Asia to find work. And the riots in London last summer, and those in Greece, remind me of the riots in the film; young people who know that they will probably never have a job – who feel that they have been fooled are striking back.
Most of the protagonists in your film are struggling to find employment, or are made to do menial jobs like handing out leaflets for (what can only be the 2020 equivalent of) McDonald’s. Is that your reflection of how you see today’s society?
This is why young people in Greece, Spain, Italy, London and other cities all over the globe are so angry: they understand that they have been fooled, that they will never participate in this wealth which they see everyday on TV. Most of them have a good education – even a university degree – but still no chance of getting a decent job. And they don’t believe that its their own fault. They start to understand that the fault is to be found in the political and economical system.
Is Berlin’s ‘society’ any different?
A lot of people in Berlin are politicised. Grassroots democracy is very strong here. Berlin was the first city in Germany where citizens initiated a successful referendum, the ‘Wasservolksbegehren’. Berlin is not only ‘poor and sexy’ (as the mayor says), it is also very politicised and very creative.
At one point in the film, one of the characters mentions that ‘the superfluous’ are rioting because they are not getting the ‘junk food’ fix that they’ve gotten used to. The system is turning in on itself. This sounds very Marxist – a comment on the unsustainable nature of capitalism. Was it intended to be?
I was born in Poland (I emigrated to West Berlin with my parents in 1981) and I saw the Wall coming down in Berlin. I spent most of my childhood and youth watching the decay of the Communist regime. When I first read Naomi Klein’s No Logo, I became aware of the fact that we are now witnessing the decay of capitalism. Both systems are not sustainable, so both have to pass. The capitalist system is unsustainable as it destroys nature and society, but the Communist system was not good either. Many people have understood that the economy cannot grow endlessly and many people all over the world already practice excellent models of a new sustainable grass roots economy.
The film looks almost post-apocalyptic at times; scrub-land, abandoned warehouses, and so on. Did you film Die Überflüssigen in Berlin?
We filmed mostly in East Berlin – old houses, schools or offices from the Communist era. What an irony that these houses which were serving the Communist regime where now used to show the decay of the capitalist regime! Most of the buildings were torn down just a few days after our shooting was finished.
The script contains very powerful messages (‘as long as the superfluous are lambs, they’ll be led to the slaughter’). Are you encouraging the viewers to think about what they have seen and apply the messages to their own lives?
The film shows a wide range of characters who have all chosen different ways how to deal with being ‘superfluous’. The viewer thus has a lot of opportunities for identification. Films should not give the viewers ‘messages’ – but it’s great if people go home and get a new perspective on their own problems.
Does film, as a form of political provocation, go far enough? Or would you encourage the viewers of your film to extend their discontent with some of its issues to other forms of political engagement?
Films should not be a call to arms; that makes them propaganda. I am not interested in this. I hope the film can help viewers (especially those who feel ‘superfluous’) to recognise that they do not have an individual problem; we all have a global social problem. Instead of trying to escape it, we should start to face it.