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Among Peasants (Unter Bauern)

Among Peasants
Ludi Boeken (photo © Petra Seeger/FilmForm Koeln)

Production Report featured in
German Films Quarterly 04/2008

“It is about people rather than ideology,” says producer Joachim von Mengershausen about Unter Bauern (“Among Farmers”) which is based on the memoirs of Marga Spiegel that were published in book form under the title of Retter in der Nacht in 1969 and have been adapted for the screen by Otto Jaegersberg, Imo Moszkowicz and Heidrun Schleef.

The German-French co-production is – after the documentary In Search of Memory by Petra Seeger – the second foray into production for Mengershausen’s Cologne-based company FilmForm, although the former commissioning editor at WDR can look back on an extensive career in broadcasting with involvement in such prestige projects as Edgar Reitz’s Heimat family chronicles.

Unter Bauern recounts how some courageous farmers in the Muensterland region gave refuge to Marga Spiegel’s husband Menne, herself and her daughter under false names in their farmhouse between 1943 and 1945. The farmers succeeded in achieving the seemingly impossible: protecting the whole family for two years and saving them from deportation to the death camps without themselves having to pay with their own lives or being punished in other ways by the German government in those days.

The leads are taken by Veronica Ferres (who appeared in Paul Schrader’s Adam Resurrected which premiered at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals), Armin Rohde (Mr. Woof) and child actor Louisa Mix, with Margarita Broich (Four Windows), Martin Horn (Buddenbrooks) and child actor Lia Hoensbroech playing the Aschoff family of farmers in front of the camera of the Israeli DoP Dani Schneor. Other parts are taken by Marlon Kittel (Summer Storm) and Veit Stuebner (The Counterfeiters).

As Mengershausen notes, the actors approached during the casting for the film were immediately enthusiastic about being involved in the project: Veronica Ferres and Armin Rohde both accepted without hesitation to play the Spiegels. Interestingly, these two roles were cast with German actors of non-Jewish origin, while there are some Jewish actors cast for non-Jewish roles.

The veteran writer-director Imo Moszkowicz had given Mengerhausen Marga Spiegel’s memoirs to read in 1999 as this had been a pet project of his to direct. In the meantime, Moszkowicz’s state of health prevented him from being in the director’s chair himself.

“I was very moved by what I read because it is an extraordinary story about the persecution of the Jews during the Nazi terror,” Mengershausen says. “The farmers’ decision to save the Spiegel family was their reaction to the excesses of the Nazi party to drive the Jews out of Germany. It was a unique incident to save a whole Jewish family and it was never found out. The people who saved them didn’t have to pay for their actions.”

“The farmers had decided in all humility that somebody like Menne Spiegel, their former horse dealer, should be saved from this injustice,” Mengershausen continues. “This human feeling of solidarity was very rare in those days, like a light in the darkness.”

Shooting of Unter Bauern has been done in the original Muensterland locations, some of which have hardly changed since the 1940s. “It is as if time has stood still,” the producer says, adding that the locals in the Muensterland region are proud that this story is now being told at last for the big screen.

The project also has a personal resonance for the film’s Dutch-born director Ludi Boeken who was the producer of another film about this particular chapter of recent history, Radu Mihaileanu’s award-winning film Train of Life in 1998.

“Ludi was really shocked when he received the screenplay for Unter Bauern,” Mengershausen recalls. “His German grandmother had married a Jew in Amsterdam and was so outraged during the Second World War about the German occupation of the Netherlands and the persecution of the Jews that she helped bring hundreds of Jews to safety by hiding them in the countryside outside of Amsterdam. Our film’s story is a German variation of what Ludi’s family went through.”

Genre History, Drama
Category Feature
Year of Production 2008
Director Ludi Boeken
Screenplay Otto Jaegersberg, Imo Moszkowicz, Heidrun Schleef
Cinematography Dani Schneor
Susan Fenn
David Greilsamm
Agnette Schloesser
Cast Veronica Ferres, Armin Rohde, Margarita Broich, Martin Horn, Lia Hoensbroech, Louisa Mix
Producers Joachim von Mengershausen, Karl Baumgartner, Werner Wirsing
Production Companies FilmForm/Cologne, Pandora Film Produktion, 3L Filmproduktion/Dortmund, in co-production with Acajou Films/Paris, WDR, ARTE
Format Super 16
Shooting Dates Duelmen, Wadersloh, Lippstadt, August - October 2008
Sound Technology Dolby SR
Festivals Locarno 2009 (Piazza Grande)
With backing from German Federal Film Board / FFA Filmförderungsanstalt, German Federal Film Fund / DFFF Deutscher Filmförderfonds, Film- und Medienstiftung NRW, Eurimages
German Distributor 3L Filmverleih/Dortmund