TIFF Interview: Michael Koch Talks “Marija”


The life of an immigrant can vary. For some it can be fortunate and eventful while for some it can be eventful but less fortunate. Marija is a woman from Ukraine who travels to Hamburg hoping to have a better life. As it happens in most cases, Marija was not so lucky and has to reconsider her plans in order to make her dreams come true.

Michael Koch is a young and talented filmmaker with whom I had the pleasure to talk over Skype to discuss his latest project and the idea behind making Marija. Here’s what he had to say.

MOVIEMOVESME: Could you talk about your collaboration with Julianne Grossheim?

Michael Koch: I studied in Cologne academy of media arts and she was also studying with me. We did some documentaries and this is why it my research period was really long and I found all these stories and tried to put them together with Julianne.  I started with her and it was a long period with her but we split because she had other things to do and I finished the script alone.  I was in Ukraine for quite a long time in 2010 and I just met people, young people who just wanted to go away from the country and I got in contact with a young woman who was coming from Odessa to Dortmund.  She started in Dortmund with cleaning in a hotel.  I met her and it was really impressive how she wanted to start with a new life and she had such pride.  I wanted to tell the story of this woman who starts with nothing and fights for her dream.

MOVIEMOVESME: What about the radical decision she had to take whether to stay who she is or follow her dreams, for instance opening a hair salon.

Michael Koch: Yes, that’s exactly the question I was interested in, as to what price she has to pay. The difference in Ukraine was she had no perspective, she was born in a little town and just wanted to go away. She was okay with starting a little lower than what she had in Ukraine. But she knew she would get away from this and go further. Her strong belief for me was really the starting point. For me it was really interesting to ask the question, “What will it cost?” Yes, she got exploited also but in the story I tell there are a lot of points where she can decide and she decides to do it. She can leave Cem, this guy who’s exploiting her but she, in order to go further, she wants to do it. It’s not really black and white whether she’s a victim or not but she wants to get out of the role the society is giving her. I heard a lot about people how they live there and succeed in their daily lives and then I put up this story. In the end she gets her salon but it’s not really a pure happy end because she also lost a friend of hers, who goes back to Ukraine. She doesn’t allow herself to express her feelings for the guy she likes and decides not to go with him. What is she winning and losing was for me an interesting question.

MOVIEMOVESME: What were you looking in Marija and the lead actress that could have fulfilled the character you have written?

Michael Koch: For me she’s really incorruptible, she has a strong focus and inner need to fight and live freely. She wants to work on her own, not for someone, also not to work for men. In order to get to this, point she has to handle men. For me it was really important to find someone who was really strong and I would not have to explain what she has to do. She’s really special in her movements and physicality. For me it was important not to compromise on her aim. It was important not to generalize, saying something like all Ukrainian women are going like this. But I also made this experience that in Ukraine there’s this really strong woman, even stronger than men, who wants to go her way. I had a feeling in Ukraine that young people, especially women, have great determination to find a way out.

MOVIEMOVESME: What is the best for you, acting or directing?

Michael Koch: Directing is a big responsibility for me because I actually started in theatre and it was special to me because while rehearsing you create your own role. I think in films it is a little bit different and I also played in films but it was really disappointing me because I always played in really bad films. It was also a bit of coincidence that I played in those films as I never wanted to be an actor. I just acted to have the money for my studies. After my studies it was clear to me I’ll not act anymore. But it helped me a little bit in directing. I have an interest in acting but not in front of the camera.

MOVIEMOVESME: Whenever Marija goes somewhere, we as the audience cannot see her emotions as it is shot from behind her. Can you talk about the approach with respect to that?

Michael Koch: I wanted to start with someone whose face or story we don’t know. But during the whole film we give her a story, a little place in society. That’s also why at the very last shot we see her from the front and this for me is the end of the film so she now has a little place in society. In the beginning she was no one, she had no place, no face, no story. This was one reason I wanted to start with this shot and end with the face. The other thing is that I really wanted to tell the story from her perspective because I know a lot of films telling similar stories like I did, in this milieu, in this style, but I wanted to go with her in this world and just follow her. For me it felt right to follow her because I didn’t know where she has to go. So it had also me and my cameraman think about to find a bit of her translation of her determination. Her eyes never moved left and right, she doesn’t turn around, she always focuses on her aim. There are little moments where you see her face and you see a little bit of emotions and it’s really important to see it on the big screen.

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