Apocalypse Hanoi – An Interview with Jörg Foth about Dschungelzeit (1988)

September 22, 2011

This interview with director Jörg Foth regarding Dschungelzeit (1988, Time in the Jungle) was conducted by Evan Torner on October 5, 2010 and in September 2011. It is the first interview Foth has ever given about his experiences in Vietnam.
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DEFA Film Library [DFL]: You began working on the East German/Vietnamese co- production Dschungelzeit (Ngon Tháp Hà Noi, Time in the Jungle), back in 1982. How did it come about that you were working on this film? How did you develop its content?

Jörg Foth: It was not in 1982, but after I had made my debut film Das Eismeer ruft (The Arctic Sea Calls) in 1983. I was asked first to work as a director’s assistant again, like before my debut film. So in spring 1984, I assisted for Bernhard Wicki when he shot Die Grünstein Variante (Grünstein’s Variable) with the DEFA. With few exceptions, junior DEFA directors in the 1980s had to first work as assistant directors, then debut with a children’s film, and either earlier or shortly thereafter finish an international co-production as co-director. That’s why Michael Kann worked in Bulgaria, the USSR and Czechoslovakia in 1982 and 1985; Dietmar Hochmuth worked in the Soviet Union in 1988, Helge Trimpert in Switzerland in 1988, Yugoslavia in 1989. These double and triple hurdles–assistant director jobs, children’s film directing, and co-production– helped prolong our way to our first autonomous film beyond the children’s stories and waste our best years.
So I worked as a co-director for DEFA in Vietnam and had to visit the Studio for Feature Films in Hanoi Film for initial talks in fall 1984. The script was about a group of Germans who went to Vietnam as members of the French Foreign Legion after they had been POWs in France at the end of WWII. It was based on someone’s authentic report that he had written down years later.
Now I had heard the name of the German legionnaire who had placed his memoirs at DEFA’s disposal at some point back then, but never laid eyes on or spoke with the man. I also didn’t know if the name was correct at all. Legionnaires had false names not only while they were in the legion, but probably also afterward in the GDR. In any case, it wasn’t H.S. Stautmeister (Der Mann aus dem Dschungel, published with Verlag Frieling), nor was it Horst Pahl. Maybe I can find the name somewhere, but it certainly didn’t interest me at the time—Burmeister, or something like that. The books that proved much more important for my preparations were those like [Peter] Scholl-Latour’s ―Death in the Rice Field.
The film script had been already completed as a collaboration between the Vietnamese author Banh Bao and the East German author Peter Wuss, who rather uncollegially withdrew his name from the credits when the film was already finished and censored. But it had to remain an equal co-production, so that’s why my name was next to Bao’s in the final version. The original script title was ―The Tower of… (some name of a place) – it was supposed to be Biblical. Leonja Wuss, Wuss’ wife, initially wanted to co-direct the film. I had no idea why the job eventually fell on my desk, but it was certainly the main (or one particular) motivating force behind Wuss’ withdrawal of his name after the film had been accepted. It was, then again, not really my job to develop the content, but just to follow the script, prepare the shooting and cast the German actors.

DFL: The co-production conditions themselves bring to mind different aspects of the GDR’s relationship to Vietnam and other postcolonial countries.

JF: The GDR defined itself always as a ―friend and helper of all countries of the so-called ―Third World. My entire childhood and youth in East Germany was filled with slogans, messages and speeches on international solidarity and people’s friendship. Peace and friendship were two of the main founding promises that the young GDR gave. And of course it impressed us as children who had played in ruins for a long time after the war. For Fasching or Carnival, we dressed up and painted ourselves as Chinese, Indians, Africans in our kindergarten or school. We didn’t do so only because it looked nice or strange, but with feelings of solidarity even if we never had seen such strangers from abroad.

DFL: Economic and world political factors may have dramatically affected your co- production. Did you have conversations with people from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and/or other institutions about the content or conditions of you film project?

JF: No, my conversations only took place inside the DEFA studio and the film studio in Hanoi. I don’t know what and how the directors of both studios talked to their officials in both governments.

DFL: What did the GDR have to gain or lose with the project?

JF: The GDR was a pretty small country, it had some nice landscapes like the Baltic Sea in the north and some mountains–Saxon, Thuringia, Harz–in the south, but the GDR always felt smaller than it was, also because people couldn’t travel abroad. An international co-production sounded like an adventure for the DEFA and its audience and also a way to discover faraway perspectives. The longing for distant horizons and for making your own life a little more global than it was, were the motifs for all international co-productions that DEFA had tried. Another reason was saving half of the production costs at the same time.

DFL: What was the justification for the cooperation, and how was the co-production cooperative?

JF: The co-op effect of the co-production was an illusion. If there are 2 countries, 2 film studio bosses, 2 production managers, 2 directors, 2 cameramen, 2 set designers, 2 sound engineers, 2 costume designers, 2 production teams, 2 casts and so on, it is very hard to cooperate. And in our case, for each step or for exchanging personal position each side needed a translator, who often played his/her own play instead of translating, so things went truly wrong.

DFL: What was the political atmosphere that surrounded the project?

JF: Starting in fall 1984 and continuing during the preparation of the production in 1985-86, the political atmosphere surrounding our production changed because of the emergence of Glasnost and Perestroika, as well as the more abstract point of view that the GDR was starting to take on the Soviet Union.

DFL: You have expressed privately that the film did not turn out very well, and that there were great challenges in the creation of the film. What were the largest obstacles to overcome in the realization of the film? What difficulties did you have in talking through a translator? How did your body manage the different climate in Vietnam?

JF: The two main obstacles were the absent sanitary conditions and me actually being unable to ultimately turn down the project despite it not going so well. I was ill when I returned from the
shooting period. I had amoebas in my blood and was losing the hair of my beard. The doctors back home couldn’t find out about my illness. All of a sudden, I wasn’t sure what had made me sicker: the lack of sanitariness or the impossibility of working together!
As for the inability to say ―no: two friends of mine privately and urgently advised me against this co-production. Uli Weiß was afraid (as he put it) ―that then you’re stuck with them for 2 years (actually, it would become 5 years). Production head Hans-Erich Busch said something similar: ―Jörg, go to the doctors and ask that they write that you’re unfit for the tropics and save your strength for something else.  In truth, Busch probably did not want to make this film and now hoped I’d let him call it off in this fashion. But it could’ve been that my life, my youth, my connectedness with Western protest culture and music now stood in my way, so that I just couldn’t say ―no to this film.

DFL: The film eventually was completed in 1987 and 1988 (premiered in East Germany on April 14, 1988), and stands as one of the few films treating the subject of Germans caught up in postcolonial conflict in Vietnam during the late 1940s.

JF: There are a few more movies, documentaries, as well as TV films on this specific topic in Vietnamese history. And it is not a surprise than in the early 50s there were 20,000 Germans fighting for France in Vietnam. The GDR tried to call them back to the ―new Germany. Because of WWII, the POWs in Soviet camps and people fleeing to the West, East Germany needed men.

DFL: How was the film exemplary or extraordinary for a DEFA film? What kind of aesthetic did the film have, and were there mutual East German / Vietnamese influences on how it looked?

JF: It was exemplary only for the fact that it had artistically failed like every other DEFA co- production. But nothing about the production was extraordinary. I think there were not any cultural influences from one or both sides. This film is neither a Vietnamese nor an East German one, that’s the co-op problem. I tried to work closely together with the Vietnamese side, but this only meant that I had to leave my own position and without really reaching the Vietnamese partners.

DFL: What scenes in the film were particularly memorable for you?

JF: I often think back of the scene that takes place on a hanging bridge. On one side of the river there is large group of Viet Minh hiding themselves because they had been warned and on the other side some paratroopers appear. Among these Vietnamese rebels, there is a small German group of former members of the Foreign Legion who had run away and had joined the Viet Minh. We did not really have available white actors who could convincingly play the enemies and cross the bridge. I talked to my co-director and colleague, Tran Vu—a very impressive elder film artist from Hanoi—if we shouldn’t use our East German actors who fought in the film for the Viet Minh, dress them with French uniforms and let them play the scene, a double acting like a mirror scene. Tran Vu looked at me in an unforgettable way and said quietly: ―This will be the best scene of the film.  I’m sure DEFA would not have approved filming the scene this way, but Tran Vu’s words made it possible.
It was at the time when Heiner Müller wrote the following lines in Wolokolamsker Chausee V: ―The moment of truth – when in the mirror / the image of your enemy appears.

DFL: The protagonists of East German and Vietnamese cinema tend to be quite different, with the former favoring upright heroes and the latter favoring clever tricksters. What cultural differences did you encounter that were striking to you?

JF: The play of the Vietnamese actors was much closer to theatrical expressions than the performance of the East German actors. But I wouldn’t say that this was an obstacle that we couldn’t manage. At least, it was better to have different ways of acting on both sides of the actors. The strangers could stay strangers. Unfortunately, both sides speak the same language on screen. This is really a huge mistake.
If you take one look into the German-European and Vietnamese-Asian fairytale worlds, you quickly notice that their heroic types are diametrically opposed. In Europe, the image of the open, upright, and fair soldier is exalted and cultivated, even when such behavior is quite obviously never practiced in actual physical or martial conflicts. In Asia, it is the image of the mentally superior hero that is more ideal than the physically superior one, probably due to the fatal dangers of the weather, nature and the animal world there. This intellectual advantage, which is decisive for any victory, includes lying, trickery, deception and all that we would call ―unfair. We could have built our film based on that kind of cultural difference without discriminating against either side. Quite the opposite in fact: understanding each other’s differences would have more than helped our story. But despite the long planning phase, I still had almost no idea about what other countries like Vietnam were like, let alone their cultures. The GDR was too small. And we were too blind.

DFL: Almost no one has seen this film since its release. Perhaps given that it resembles Kurt Maetzig’s Preludio 11 (1963) as yet another failed co-production about past postcolonial conflict abroad. Is it likely that there are two different versions of this film that exist–one for the GDR and one for Vietnam? How would you assess the final film today?

JF: Even Helmut Nitzschke shot a complete film in the Carribean, based on a novel by Anna Seghers, Das Licht auf dem Galgen (1976, The Light on the Gallows), or Bernhard Stephan, Rückkehr aus der Wüste (1989, Return from the Desert). Both were not co-productions, but in my opinion failed films because of failures in working with–and getting lost in–other cultures.
I’m sure that the Vietnamese film version looked and sounded different the version we had made for our cinemas. The Vietnamese named their film script Jungle House, whereas ours was called Time in the Jungle. This little difference tells you a lot about the two different points of view of the same story. The title I had the DEFA use stands for irritation, confusion and chaos. The Vietnamese title is for the opposite: stability and sovereignty. The Vietnamese team didn’t follow our invitation to the German premiere and they didn’t invite us to their premiere of, I’m very sure, a Vietnamese version of our film. This was the very bitter end of a very hard film project, which was otherwise the first international co-production ever completely shot in Vietnam.

DFL: Is there anything else about the film and its creation that you’d like to mention?

JF: In my preparations for the film, DEFA neither offered to screen Apocalypse Now for me, nor did it alert me to the DEFA-produced TV film released in cinemas Flucht aus der Hölle (Escape from Hell, 1959/60). With that film, it had nothing to do with content or art, but rather the GDR idea of friendship among the peoples and proper protocol.
The first thing the Vietnamese asked me was if I knew of Apocalypse Now, and if I’d like to see it. So I spent my first Vietnam trip to the film studio at Hanoi in a small Asian screening room,
watching a print of Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola had personally given this copy of the film to the Hanoi Film Studio as a gift. And I think the film cannot have a greater impact than when one is watching it alone in the middle of Hanoi, having arrived there for the very first time.
During the preproduction from 1984 to 1987, friends and colleagues of mine often advised to try to get out of this project. But on one hand I was trapped in history and memories of my youth in the 1960s and on the other hand I was shocked to accept that it seemed to be impossible to work together. I was unable to share this. I did not want be the one who would say, there’s not any way to make a film together. Again, I was too much lost in all these slogans of friendship and solidarity that my country fed me.
After I had returned from the shooting period and all the post-production was done, I did not speak about my experiences and challenges for many years. 25 years later, this is the first interview I’ve had about Time in the Jungle. Thank you for asking.

Evan Torner, former program assistant of the DEFA Film Library, he is a PhD candidate in German & Scandinavian Studies and Film Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where he is writing his dissertation on “The Race-Time Continuum: Race Projection in DEFA Genre Cinema.” In addition to curating and coordinating the 2011 Summer Film Institute, he is also the official English translator of the 100 Years of Babelsberg exhibit at the Filmmuseum Potsdam. Torner has published numerous articles on 20th-century German genre fiction and cinema, and is co-editing a volume on Immersive Gameplay with William J. White for McFarland Press, 2012.

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