Searching For Illumination

Berlinale Interview With Julia Helmke About Cinema, Church and INTERFILM
Dietrich Brügggemann: Kreuzweg

Dietrich Brügggemann: Kreuzweg (Preis der Ökumenischen Jury, Berlin 2014)


February 2014: Interview about Cinema, Church and INTERFILM between Kirsten Dietrich, Journalist, Correspondent Berlinale for Deutschland Radio Kultur and Dr. Julia Helmke, President of INTERFILM


Kirsten Dietrich: As of Thursday, all eyes are on Berlin as the International Festival is underway. And the Church is also on location! An ecumenical jury is following the festival and won't just be watching films exclusively on the topic of faith. Though it looks like they'll have plenty to do considering the variety the Berlinale has to offer: from growing up in a strictly Catholic family – the film submission "Kreuzweg" – up to and including a film that accompanies a Buddhist monk for one hour as he walks through Marseille. So the Church is interested in the film. But why? That's what I wanted to ask Julia Helmke, Commissioner for the Arts and Culture at the Hannoversche Landeskirche, Protestant pastor and chair of the International Church Film Organization, INTERFILM.

Julia Helmke: Because they are both storytelling organisations. The Church is a storytelling community that has told the biblical stories from the very beginning, preserved them and passing them on, updated them and retold them. Cinema is also a storytelling community that tells tales of people, also accompanied with images. That makes it interesting for the Church, though it focuses more on the word.

The first cinemas had biblical names

Dietrich: Because both organisations have created stories together. The rituals are also similar: To go to church, to go to the cinema; we sit neatly in a row, look ahead where something transcendental might happen!

Helmke: In that case, I think the cinema borrowed a bit from the Church or drew inspiration from it. The first cinema complexes that existed 100 years ago also had biblical names like "Gloria", "Excelsior" and were made to resemble cathedrals - there is a clear structural analogy. When at church, you feel like you're at the cinema and vice-versa.

Dietrich: Can a film go so far as to take the function of a sermon?

Helmke: Yes, a sermon on its own wouldn't be exciting enough. A film that is said to preach a message invites a negative connotation. I would say, a full church service, yes, definitely. Hopefully, you leave feeling differently than when you arrive. You know what to expect and yet, hopefully, there is always an aspect of surprise!

Dietrich: That sounds like every trip to the cinema, every film you watch is automatically like that. Is the film entirely of secondary importance compared to what is shown?

Many feature films recount a "hero's journey"

Helmke: I think the ritual itself is important and is still important today even if more people stay home to watch films. But a visit to the cinema in company or the fact that you aren't always watching something alone, but with others and can share that experience afterwards, I think that's quite important. But course, like a good sermon or church service, it is also important that the film itself is good. As different as the films from different genres are, they still have to offer a certain quality.

Dietrich: Are there criteria that determine whether a film is religious or draw attention to religious aspects in an appealing manner?

Helmke: There are actually very few. For a long time, reference has been made to film analysis, film dramaturgy involving the journey of the hero, that is, a person abandons his or her familiar surroundings and embarks on a journey and transforms as a result of that encountered along the way. In the end, the hero returns transformed if he or she hasn't sacrificed him or herself for his community or for others. The story of salvation, of how Christ journeyed into the world, gave his life for the world, transforming people and the world as a result, can also be seen in this light.

But that is an old archaic legend, a myth so to speak. As many feature films follow this pattern, you can also see religious aspects in every film. Of course, the content also conveys intriguing themes and motives. In that case, I'd say, cinema, as a seismograph for our society, but also in expressing religious and cultural sentiment, is perpetually exploring the questions we are faced with in our lives. These are questions of faith and religion.

Dietrich: I would like to take a moment to talk more about the hero's journey! So this means that films like large-scale epic fantasies such as "Lord of the Rings" or "Harry Potter" where there is a lot of action have an inherently religious structure?

A pastor in a film doesn't make it a religious flick

Helmke: Yes, for sure. In the 80's and 90's, there was even talk of the Hollywood religion. Films like "Terminator" with Schwarzenegger or "Matrix" very clearly replicated this pattern 1-1, replete with religious motives, just think of Names like "Trinity", "Neo" (the new salvator)...
Dietrich: How important is it with this concept if films also refer to genuinely religious themes in the stories they tell? Or if a pastor does appear, is he more an accessory or does this make the films particularly religious?

Helmke: Merely the appearance of a pastor in a film is not a sign of a religious film. But then, it is of course always a question of the themes dealt with in the film; what does the person on this journey encounter, what does he or she carry with him, what drives him or her? Today, I think that there is a lot of very interesting examples. Right now, I have the German film "Schwestern" by Anne Wild in mind. It deals with a sister who decides to join a monastery, for the rest of her life and her entire family as they try to support her on one hand, but on the other, are incapable of coping with such a profound decision because all of them more or less avoid making decisions in their own lives or are still in the process of coming to a decision. I find that fascinating because it is a fundamental religious motif, the decision or turning back to god, confessing ... and that this is done in a German film in a very light and yet touching way; I find that to be a very intriguing motif in a film that is itself interesting.

Dietrich: And also in a film that is very much inspired by the rituals and music that the viewer experiences. This means that the film very much draws on what religion has to offer!

Helmke: Yes, and I think that today it is almost a movement. Because being Christian is no longer a matter of course or being religious for that matter in our society. And filmmakers appear to be observing this phenomena of someone wanting to be a Christian from the sidelines. Seeing how christianity is practised interests many filmmakers. So it is more of an outside view, which is often very much appreciative and an eye-opener for us insiders.

Dietrich: Can religion, can religious people learn something from cinema, from film that they can't learn in other places where religion is conveyed?

Films are windows to another world

Helmke: It would be too simple if I recognise something in the film and say, aha, this person also believes or that's what I would do so I'm right, if the film was purely of an affirmative nature. That would be too simple and even cheesy. But continuing to be challenged and realising that people are confronted with decisions and how they deal with them; not just relying on myself but another force and  eternal energy called God is important.  For me, films have always been windows to another world. I immerse myself in something that I didn't know existed. Something that may be foreign to me and may enrich me and even lead to transformation. I think this is particularly present when values and norms are concerned. But today as well, whether with respect to different lifestyles, films show me something that I might not be familiar with, but that can enrich me, also question my own faith and in the end move me adopt a broader, less restricted perspective. Of course there's also exploring other religions where cinema very literally becomes a window to the world.

Dietrich: How aware are everyday viewers of this dimension? Well, do filmmakers not instill their films with something or suggest something to their audiences, which is not necessarily a genuine part of the film experience itself?

Helmke: The hero's journey as I already mentioned is also something that takes place beneath the surface. But I do think that a film does stir up more in the viewer than one would think. People talk about the film in one's head and a good film is one that triggers something in me that I may not be aware of in the moment.

Cinema is an emotional machine, it first of all reaches me through feelings and I am sure that every viewer is also reached in this way and is also capable of change even though he or she may not be entirely aware of it at first. But that's why in that case the conversation after the film or sitting down afterwards at a bar is really important so that you can talk and find out about what the other person saw, thought was exciting, interesting to gain more insight. But sometimes, films can also be relaxing, which is just fine and beneficial.

Dietrich: How can the Church connect with this broad film experience and be taken seriously, without merely using films to attract people they wouldn't otherwise be able to reach?

The Church takes a special look at films

Helmke: Protestant film work has attempted to do this in many ways for over 60 years. On one hand, this is achieved with film discussions hosted after the film, which in some cases are led by experts, I think that's a great way of inviting people to go to the cinema as a church with a follow-up discuss that is moderated in some cases and where other aspects are discovered in the process. After all, the fact that there will continue to be, and hopefully for a long time to come, epd Film or in the case of the Catholic church, Filmdienst, where sophisticated critiques of film are also offered.

Then there's a film company like EIKON that also produces films covering special subject matter. The fact that -  which is what I am present in INTERFILM -  juries that also distinguish films at the major festivals like the Berlinale, in Cannes, Venice but also small festivals, short-film festivals like the one in Oberhausen and provide a unique perspective - I think that the form it has is effective and thorough.

Dietrich: To an increasing degree, churches or religious communities are becoming filmmakers themselves. Then there's the aspect of more and more religious persons producing religious films portraying, for example, moving stories of discovering faith for religious viewers. What does the church film commissioner, the Church film pro say about films like that?

Helmke: I actually don't end up watching them. That is, I very, very rarely encounter films of that kind. I very much support films being produced by members of the congregation as I know a number of them, young people in particular, who are trying their hand behind the camera. I think that's very exciting, but it is also an entirely different category and quality than films that come from professional production. Films by religious people, as you mentioned, primarily tend to be produced in the USA as opposed to here in Germany by religious individuals but also film companies; they are intended for and viewed by a very small, Christian audience.

I don't think that that sort of thing is shown in most Lutheran or Catholic parish halls or churches, but on the other hand, there is an increasing number of church services where a short film, feature films and documentaries are shown. But in that case, then always at a certain level.

Dietrich: What allows a film to stand up in front of an audience without a religious background as well.

"A number of things have changed in recent years"

Helmke: Yes, that's because it is an artwork in the form of a film and not just excerpts can be shown or reduced to a merely functional, instrumental level.

Dietrich: So what is the role of film in terms of the Church's exploration of art and culture? I know that ten years ago the Lutheran Church took a long look at how it dealt with culture and published a memorandum on the topic; the first draft forgot film altogether!

Helmke: That's right, a place for interaction. That's where Lutheran film work can still poke the official church a bit because in actuality it was the one that also worked the longest and most intensively with culture. I think that was the mindset on one hand cinema and the Church's film work, which exists in any case, maybe we don't even need to consider them, but on the other hand, cinema continues to stand for the arts and culture. I think a number of things have changed in recent years. Lutheran film work fortunately still exists, but just like many other areas, and this needs to be said, it is really struggling to stay alive

Julia Helmke is the Commissioner for the Arts and Culture of the Hannoversche Landeskirche and President of INTERFILM.