Who Am I - Kein System ist sicher

Deutschland 2013/2014 Spielfilm

A Hollywood Head on German Shoulders

Portrait of Director Baran bo Odar, German Films Quarterly 4/2014

Sitting across the table in Berlin's café Nola, Odar is the embodiment of controlled undersell to create a quality image; he considers his words before he utters them, speaks in a measured tone and is a million miles from the clichéd way some in his position think they should present themselves. He is also very professional: he has a new film, "Who am I – Kein System ist sicher" ("Who am I – No System is Safe"), which celebrated its world premiere this September in Toronto, and takes the opportunity to promote both it and himself.

"'Who am I – Kein System ist sicher' ('Who am I – No System is Safe') is a film about a young man," Odar explains, "a nobody, an invisible guy who is not taken seriously by society. He has one skill, he can hack, and just wants to be noticed. He meets the mysterious Max, joins a hacker group, starts hacking for fun and becomes a star, like the guys in Anonymous and LulzSec. But when he starts playing with fire, they're soon being hunted by the German secret service and have to save themselves. It's essentially a film about the need and search for identity."

The project landed on Odar's computer via production company Wiedemann & Berg: "They had the idea about doing a hacker film. I thought it was a set up and asked for more time to think about it!" He then plundered Amazon for source material, becoming "fascinated not by the hackers' world, but by the people: they are very charismatic and smart, insulted as nerds for being introverted, very talented. Kevin Mitnick's biography was my biggest influence. He co-invented social engineering. The highest form of hacking is hacking people, getting the information to manipulate them." Mitnick, who is famous or notorious depending on which side of the law enforcement fence you come down, hacked the LAPD when he was just 17, pretending to be a detective who had forgotten his password! The rest is history.

Having got his inspiration, Odar pitched and won, co-writing with his wife, Jantje Friese. "I'm very good in ideas, she is very good in detail and structure. Then we play ping-pong with it." Friese also co-wrote "Das letzte Schweigen" ("The Silence"), itself "a film about outsiders and identity," Odar explains. "I'm interested in normal, insignificant people suddenly getting into a situation and be - coming heroes or anti-heroes. In principle every film is like this. I like dark stories. Although "Who am I – Kein System ist sicher" ("Who am I – No System is Safe") is entertainment, popcorn entertainment, it is still dark though. I don't like happy endings!"

As a director, Odar always has the pictures in his head when writing: "It's obligatory! Otherwise I could do theater or write a book: you have to have pictures. Even if they are unspectacular, like Woody Allen's. How do I narrate this or that scene? I must have the first and last pictures in my head."

Unsurprisingly, given his grounding in commercials and music videos, Odar develops his characters in a "very Hollywood-like way. My wife is a big fan of enneagrams, developing a psychology and reducing the figures to archetypes, from the Power of Conscience to the Power of Imagination. When you have the new archetypes you get the constellations of the characters, which is standard in Hollywood. We don't write their diaries but we do try to understand them at the basic level: what do they want? What is their greatest flaw? That gets us to the story and from there we write the film."

Once the script is locked, it is time for Odar to direct, a process that begins with storyboards "which I draw myself.It's like a rewrite only more detailed, so I can see which scenes and transitions work or not. I want to be as best prepared as possible because the unexpected always happens! Something always goes wrong!"

As well as giving himself notes, Odar references the fact that the German word for acting, "spielen", also contains the word for play, "Spiel", which "let's me try things out and have fun, playing around to see what works best. You can play serious scenes in a fun way and vice versa. That gives me choices during editing. On set I can never say, "Take eight is the one!" Often it's impossible to know and I find later eight is the worst and three's the best!"

Digging deeper into Odar's working methods, he explains, "Sometimes I write for particular actors, other times I'm open. Casting is very important because you need to trust them with the space to interpret and act the character. I have a clear idea of what I want," he continues, "but if I don't try to give them the space then we are all limited. And I love getting surprised! Often they come up with the best choice and I, the director, am only the first viewer! It all comes down to whether it works or not."

The actor Wotan Wilke Möhring could be called an Odar regular. In "Das letzte Schweigen" ("The Silence") he was a paedophile and murderer. Never anything short of versatile, Möhring here, in "Who am I – Kein System ist sicher" ("Who am I – No System is Safe"), plays a loud, aggressive punk. "He's one of the best in Germany," Odar agrees. "I'm not an intellectual. I don't want to talk and discuss something for fifteen minutes, I want to spend those fifteen minutes directing the scene! Wotan is the same: he is very practical, always open to new things and speaks his mind. He also (and this can be a rare talent in an actor) has no problem whether he is right or wrong!"

"Who am I – Kein System ist sicher" ("Who am I – No System is Safe") also features the superb Elyas M'Barek, the star of the ultra smash hit "Fack Ju Göhte" ("Suck Me Shakespeer"). "It's my first time with him," Odar says. "I knew him from "Whole Train" and he impressed me greatly. Then he got into comedy, which was great for his career. He plays the other lead role, Max, and is very charismatic."

Casting the lead was a non-brainer for Odar: "Tom Schilling! He fits perfectly, is a superb actor, the best of his generation. He brings depth and I need actors who can do that, even when they are doing nothing or next to nothing! I can do one hundred takes with him," Odar continues, "ninety-six will be good. He's incredibly professional and I can argue with him very happily too! He digs and digs away at something to give his best."

What about the director's often bugbear, the producers? Far from it, it seems, because Odar "had 100% freedom. Quirin (Berg) and Max (Wiedemann) and I would argue but they are known for making successful, commercial films and also understand the importance of telling good stories and letting the director tell them. I had a huge amount of support with the occasional question thrown in! We rarely argued but even then it played a positive role. I admit, I'm not infallible and it was all for the good of the film."

"Who am I – Kein System ist sicher" ("Who am I – No System is safe") was released in September in Germany, through Sony Columbia (topping the German charts on its first weekend), and Odar was already stuck well into his production slate, and what a slate it is! "There is "Bad Girls", an action comedy with Working Title," Odar explains. "It's based on my idea and Jantje and Katharina Eyssen are writing it. The script is well on the way and we hope to film next year." Then he adds "possibly", because this is the film business after all. "I have "The Hunt", with Universal, a feature film crime drama and a miniseries with Scott Free," he continues, "a crime drama called "Dark", for Channel 4. Best friends meet at a best friend's funeral and realize he spent twenty years looking for his younger brother's killer. It's about friendship, a bit "Stand by me" -ish." Germans writing for the English market? How does that work? Very easily, actually: "We write in English. I write German for German films, of course, but I find English easier. It has fewer words! I can be punchier with the language and love it. You can play with English in a way you can't with German."

Odar is also sent scripts by UTA, his L.A. agent, maybe 200 to date and admits, "I thought about moving to L.A. Doors had opened for me and I decided to go with UTA and David Flynn. I was out there many times in one year, had lots of pitches and it's where the industry is. I was like a small child in a sweetshop. But it is also very tough."

Then it's on to his favorite films, and Odar lists "Blade Runner" ("The final cut, of course."), "Lawrence of Arabia" ("Lawrence von Arabien") ("It and 'Blade Runner ' taught me so much on creating huge cinematic worlds and opening them.") and Michael Mann's "Heat", which "I have seen so often. It's the perfect film for me on every level."

Okay, enough about films! What does Baran bo Odar do for hobbies and interests? He thinks carefully and... We're back with films again! "I think about them 24 hours," he confesses. "I draw and paint comics too, but just for me. And that's pictures anyway, isn't it?" What about music? "I love sounds, listening to music, but I can't play a note though. I would have loved to be a drummer! But what I would really like is more time to watch films. When you make them you have less chance to watch them. I'm actually a big fan of South Korean films." Expanding on that, Odar says it is because "they have a different way of dramaturgy: it's a cultural thing, they like open ends with no resolution. Americans love happy ends and must have resolution."

With what looks set to be a hot local hit and a busy production slate, Odar admits there is one film that still eludes him: "I have always wanted to make Akira," he says, calling the classic story of teenage gangs in Tokyo "the most exciting story ever narrated." Odar is adamant, "but you need to have a Japanese cast." You can tell he is still not going to give up.

Author: Simon Kingsley

Source: German Films Service & Marketing GmbH