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An Interview with Eric Stanze, Director of Ratline

by Mike Haberfelner

September 2011

Films directed by Eric Stanze on (re)Search my Trash

Another Interview with Eric Stanze:

 March 2009

 

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Your new movie Ratline - now I might have asked this one before [click here], but bring us up to speed, what is it about?

 

At the core of the story is the most sacred relic of the Nazi party, the Blood Flag, a real flag that went missing at the end of World War 2. In our story, the flag possesses supernatural powers, infused by the occult experimentation of the SS Paranormal Division. A mysterious stranger with a blood-soaked past, Frank Logan, is getting closer to the flag's hiding place.

 


The real life Nazis actually did have a certain interest in the esoteric and paranormal. To what extent is Ratline's background the SS Paranormal Division based on historical facts?

 

I did a lot of research and pieced together the story from as many facts as possible. As often as I could, I used real people, places, objects, dates, and events from history. Even the really bizarre stuff, like the ceremonies that included decapitations, I pulled from interviews I found (though it is certainly up for debate if those ceremonies actually took place or not).

 

The fictional aspects are in how I stitched all of the facts together. For example, the Blood Flag was real, and apparently the paranormal experimentation was real, but there is no evidence that the Blood Flag was ever part of those experiments.

 

Eric Stanze in Ratline

An underlying theme of your film seems to be the many (still) unresolved questions of the Nazi-era and the USA's not always too fortunate way of dealing with them. Would you like to elaborate on that?

 

In writing the story, Jason Christ and I knew that we wanted to explore moral ambiguity and keep our characters from falling neatly into good-guy and bad-guy categories. It was easy to connect this with World War 2. Both the Allies and the Axis committed loathsome, grisly acts. It is impossible to view the Nuremburg Trials without noting some hypocrisy. America was in pursuit of justice - fighting to topple foes that needed to be defeated for the betterment of the world. However, Hitler too had some motivations for what he did that could be considered honorable. To paint these rivals as white and black, pure good versus pure evil, is naive. I was very interested in letting that moral gray-area influence the writing of Ratline.

 

Consider the Nazi eugenics aspect. Hitler's widespread sterilization and killing of the infirm, then the medicalization of his anti-Semitism, which spiraled into the holocaust, represent the most nightmarish and chilling aftershocks of the war. The part of the tale that history seldom reports is that Hitler was inspired and educated by eugenics theories and practices developed in America. The scientific base for the Nazis building a Master Race through breeding restrictions, forced sterilization, and mass slaughter can be traced back to American organizations, like the Race Betterment Foundation in Michigan, The Eugenics Records Office in New York, and The American Breeder’s Association. Eugenics was not a dark secret that festered underground - it was a science supported and advanced by high profile American organizations, like The Rockefeller Foundation and The Carnegie Institution. The ideology was even bolstered by the U.S. Supreme Court. Before the war, U.S. foundations helped develop and fund various German eugenics programs, including the one that trained Josef Mengele - the Nazi who would earn the nickname "The Angel Of Death" as he conducted gruesome human experiments on concentration camp prisoners.

 

Today, the Nazis are often seen as the trailblazers of a deplorable pseudoscience. However, in reality, Nazi eugenics sprang forth from American eugenics, and it was a science embraced by many countries around the world before the end of the war.

 

After the war, the USA's handling of the Nazis is best described as opportunistic. When a show of power was the desired effect, we punished them severely. Under other circumstances, when it was to the Allies' benefit, heads were turned to look the other way. When the USA could benefit from Nazi know-how, Nazis were completely let off the hook, and in fact rewarded fairly generously. And when the USA was in the position of having appeared to be too closely aligned with the Nazis (for example, in the realm of eugenics) those American pursuits were swept under the rug. I'm not a USA-basher, and I believe the Second World War represents America's finest hour. But the conflict wasn't a comic book with heroes and villains. It was complex, political, emotional, and ripe with error, double standards, and back-peddling. The good guy / bad guy line blurred dramatically.

 

As an artist interested in making movies that, in addition to the fun stuff, stimulate a few brain cells as well, I am drawn to war. I find war fascinating in that it brings out the best and worst in people, without letting anyone be the best or the worst.

 

*** SPOILER in this question/answer. Skip if you choose. ***

In the beginning of Ratline, a group of Satanists is set up in quite some detail, only to then brutally be killed off by Frank Logan in a manner of minutes. Given their diligent character introductions, did you ever intend to give the Satanists a bigger role in your film? And/or was the contrast between these wannabe occultists and the methodic evil of Logan an intended effect?

 

The Satanists were never intended to have bigger roles in the narrative. From the beginning of story development, we wanted them to function as misdirection and as an unexpected and inventive way of introducing Logan. There are multiple feints in Ratline and the Satanists kick this off.

 

Jason Christ, who co-wrote the screenplay with me, presented the idea of the satanic cult, and his idea was to build them up as main characters and total scumbags so that the audience would have a stronger reaction to Logan's introduction. Jason wanted to see one version of evil quickly swept aside by a more powerful evil. I really liked this idea, and I became interested in presenting Logan as a hero, and thereby generating some conflict in the audience. So the Satanists were written to be as unlikable as possible. They're dangerous, racist, white trash meth dealers who have no respect for human or animal life - on top of just being kinda lame and annoying. I wanted to create a moment where the audience was essentially cheering on the "bad guy" of the movie. This connects back to that moral gray-area discussed above.

 

Despite all the atrocities he commits, Frank Logan as played by Jason Christ comes off as rather charming (at least when he's not decapitating people). Was this intended from square one or did his character develop only during shooting?

 

I intended this from the beginning. Logan is a wanted man. He has had to play different identities and acclimate to different communities in his efforts to elude capture, so we knew he had to be smart, sometimes charming, and someone you'd feel comfortable living next door to. I also wanted Jason to speak and act much older than his character appears, so that contributes to his oddly refined conduct.

 

Ratline features quite a few pretty drastic outbursts of violence. Was there ever a line you refused to cross in terms of violence and gore?

 

I tend to think about violence and gore in terms of tone. Like most other things you put on screen, violence is not confined to single shots - it alters the whole vibe of a movie. In creating the universe of one movie, the tone summoned by extreme violence may be completely inappropriate. For other films, violence is an essential color on the palette in generating the tone a director wants the movie to have.

 

To create the tone I wanted Ratline to have, I decided early on that the more violence and gore I could work into the movie, the better. (And on a limited budget, that was a challenge.) The only line I didn't want to cross was lingering on the gore or letting the movie wallow in it to the point where something stopped looking realistic. When I say I wanted as much violence and gore as possible, I'm talking more about the impact the violence has - not the number of seconds I can get away with ogling it. Often, trimming a bit off the end of a shot gave the violence more kick, and that was the priority of those shots - they had to have impact and hopefully rattle the audience a little.

 

Why did you choose a small, conservative Midwest community as the setting of Ratline? And your views on smalltown USA as such?

 

In the grand tradition of independent filmmaking, I wrote in a Midwest community because it was something I had access to. If I'd had access to something else, I would have set the story elsewhere, and not in Hermann, Missouri.

 

If you are careful, and don't get discouraged about not having the money to shoot whatever you want, wherever you want, you can usually find success in making your resources and your creative intentions sync up nicely. Hermann, Missouri was settled by Germans in the 1830's as a "Second Fatherland" - a self-supporting colony established to preserve German cultural heritage; a beacon for German immigrants. Today, Hermann still embraces these German roots, thriving as a tourist getaway.

 

I was already toying with Nazi occult story ideas when I was told that our "powerful friends" in Hermann could grant us access to virtually the entire town for purposes of shooting a movie. I jumped on the opportunity and began writing Ratline, a story that begins in World War 2 era Germany and takes place in a town that was advertised in America and in Germany as "The German Athens Of The West" when it was originally settled. I embraced the history of the town and let certain layers of our story be influenced by it.

 

I am intrigued by Smalltown USA as a story setting, and Ratline touches on typical American small-town closed-mindedness, but for this movie and this specific location, I also wanted to comment on the fact that traditional German-themed beer halls, wineries, and restaurants provide the economic backbone for this small town. Hermann prospers by continuing to link itself to Germany's past.

 

Our movie also links to Germany's past - on a much more sinister level, of course. I enjoyed the idea of Nazi nastiness slithering around this modern, touristy, Americanized version of Germany.

 

Sarah Swofford and Emily Haack in

Ratline

How did the lesbian subplot sneak into your film?

 

Well, let's be honest - two attractive young ladies passionately making out ain't gonna drive the target audience away. Even straight girls and gay dudes seem to enjoy watching this! But I digress...

 

Plain and simple, I wanted to ground Ratline with a love story subplot - and two heterosexuals hooking up seemed not-quite-right, and kinda boring, in the context of this specific film. Furthermore, Jason and I have both noted that gay people are seldom written as fully fleshed-out characters in movies. They are generally written as characters who seem to have no dimension beyond their sexual orientation.

 

I'm not gay, so as a writer/director, I'm not as inclined to write gay characters with an "Important Homosexual Message" as the reason for their existence. I just thought it would be interesting to write two female characters who fall in love, not despite, but because of their extremely different backgrounds - backgrounds that have pretty much nothing to do with being homosexual. I wanted to write two characters who happen to be gay. Not two characters who spend all of their screen time drawing attention to their sexual orientation.

 

Ratline has been released only recently. What can you tell us about critical and audience reception so far?

 

I've been overjoyed with the audience and critical response to the movie. Great fan-reactions and great reviews.

 

We worry, working at this budget level, that we'll be judged solely on our lack of Hollywood funding. No big movie star, no chase scenes with cars flipping up into the air, no buildings blowing up - and worst of all, no 30 to 90 million dollar ad campaign to convince everyone the movie is awesome even if it sucks.

However, what audiences and critics seem to have zoned in on are the aspects of Ratline that made it worth making. The story is fresh and inventive. This is not a movie that you've seen a million times before. This isn't rip-off / cookie cutter / lazy filmmaking. We poured tremendous effort into writing an imaginative script and crafting a good movie.

 

Not everyone is going to love and rave about Ratline, but so far, nobody has booed us off the stage for not having a bigger budget or *insert marketable star actor here* above the title. The things that are important to the fans seem to be the same things that were important to us when we made the movie.

 

Any future projects you'd like to talk about?

 

Nope! Even before Ratline post-production was complete, opportunities to direct or produce other films started coming my way. These projects either never caught traction at all, or they'd sputter to life, look like they were going to happen, and then die - crumbling primarily due to financial setbacks. So nothing is in the works right now. As I write this, I've got a few projects I'm developing. Six months from now, one may be in production. Or I may be directing something I don't even know about yet. Or nothing may be happening. It's a weird time - I have more opportunities in front of me now than I've ever had before, but I have no idea which spark will turn into a fire first.

 

Anything else you are dying to mention that I have merely forgotten to ask?

 

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Hmmm, let's see. In the middle of editing Ratline, I had to shut down post-production multiple times because we were out of money. I'd go away for a month or so and do something else to bring in some cash. This was pretty frustrating, as it obviously slowed Ratline post-production down considerably. However, one of the things I left to go do while in the midst of Ratline editing was work on the set of the Glass Eye Pix production of Stake Land, directed by Jim Mickle (Mulberry Street) and produced by Larry Fessenden (Habit, The Last Winter).

 

I directed 2nd unit on Stake Land, and I also directed/shot/edited the hour-long making-of documentary on the DVD release. I loved working with the Glass Eye team, and as a big fan of Mulberry Street, I was happy to have my moment of collaboration with Jim Mickle, who is not just a talented director but a really nice, awesome human being. However, the real reason I bring this up is not because of my positive work experience on that set, but because the movie turned out amazing. If you're a horror fan, and you have not yet seen Stake Land, run, don't walk, to pick up the disc. I was thoroughly impressed by the film and I am proud to have participated in its creation.

 

Your/your film's website, Facebook, whatever else?

 

I'm easy to find on Twitter and Facebook, so follow and friend! There's also the Wicked Pixel Cinema Facebook fan page that you can 'like' to see updates about Ratline. The company website is wickedpixel.com.

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

You are more than welcome, Mike!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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Thanks for watching !!!



 

 

On the same day
a Burglar wants to kill you
and your Ex wants
to make up ...
... and for the life of it,
you can't decide
WHICH IS WORSE!!!

 

A Killer Conversation

produced by and starring
Melanie Denholme
directed by
David V.G. Davies
written by
Michael Haberfelner
starring
Ryan Hunter and
Rudy Barrow

out now on DVD

 

 

Stell Dir vor, Deine Lieblingsseifenoper birgt eine tiefere Wahrheit ...
... und stell Dir vor, der Penner von der U-Bahnstation hat doch recht ...
... und dann triffst Du auch noch die Frau Deiner (feuchten) Träume ...

 

Und an diesem Tag geht natürlich wieder einmal die Welt unter!!!

 

Bauliche Angelegenheiten
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Michael Haberfelner

 

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