OSCAR Shorts Special: Andreas Kessler Talks Nakam

Director Andreas Kessler joins us on Close-Up Culture to talk about his OSCAR-shortlisted short film, Nakam.

The film follows twelve-year-old violin player Mitka, who is supposed to execute an attack on several SS officers in the name of a Ukrainian partisan movement. But his attempt will also put his only friend in life danger.

Can you tell us where the inspiration came from for the storyline of your short film, Nakam, as I understand it’s inspired by a true story?

Yes, it is based on the true story of Motele Schlein whose parents were murdered by the Nazis. When he flew into the Ukrainian forests the only object that he could save was his violin. He then joined a Jewish-Ukrainian Partisan movement.

I read about this story in a newspaper and found out that the boy’s violin still exists today! It is now in Yad Vashem – Holocaust Remembrance Center. I was immediately drawn to the story and couldn’t forget about it. I was so impressed by how courageous the young boy must have been. His will and strength to even fight against the Nazis at an age of 12 were very touching. After many years of developing the story, I decided to make a film about it. A film that should show that children are the ones who suffer the most from a brutal war.

The film focuses on a group of Jewish Ukrainian Partisans who fought against the Nazis, including a young boy who is faced with a very challenging dilemma. How important was it to you to tell a story that’s so real and authentic?

This was one of my main goals. I wanted to do as much research as I could. During preproduction, we had a large crew composed of different nationalities. It was an honour to work with a Ukrainian, Jewish and German crew! Everybody knew that we wanted to create an environment for the young actor Anton Krymskiy who plays Mitka that would allow him to fully engage with his surroundings and his character. So, he would be ultimately able to interpret the character of Mitka as close to reality as possible.

All in all, I wanted to create a set which would feel entirely historic no matter where you look. But at the same time, it was very important for me to never lose focus on the boy’s emotions. Because that is what mattered the most to me in order to tell a story that should touch the audience in a profound way: How the young boy would feel in every single moment.

As a short film, it has a distinctly epic feel about it – perhaps this is due to the high production values? How challenging is it to make a short film that conveys the atmosphere of an epic period feature? 

It was quite challenging to make sure that every detail would suit the story. I wanted to create an atmosphere of oppression and tension in the film which would start from the very first second on. In the first scenes, this young boy encounters a Nazi who looks exactly like the people who killed his family. Even though we don’t know all of his backstories yet, we can feel that. I talked a lot to Anton Krymskiy about this situation and that the way he encounters the SS-officer August Seeger would be very important in order to show the audience what’s at stake for Mitka!

The conflict has tragically once again returned to Ukraine –do you feel there are lessons we should learn from history, and from historical/period films like this?

I definitely think that it is inevitable to always look back in time. As human beings, we always try to compare situations and conflicts with each other to understand the present a little better. This can on the one hand helps us to understand a situation or conflict we are in and on the other hand, it is essential to never forget what has happened in the past to not let it happen again.

As a filmmaker, what are the additional responsibilities you take onboard when working on a film that tells a story of Jewish men and women during this particular period of our history?

There are many additional responsibilities to take on board which is why I worked with a large crew that would allow me to have experts in every field. During the script writing process Fabien Virayie, the writer, and I showed the script to Jewish friends from our university. We talked about every line with them and got wonderful advice. Furthermore, we contacted historians, archives and general institutions who could help us with their expert knowledge. A few months before the shooting we onboarded Marina Gerber as an assistant director in Ukraine and who took care of the different languages used in the film. She told us that her ancestors were Ukrainian partisans and fought against the Nazis in the same region as the young boy. They might have even met!

I was very honoured to work with so many different people on the film. I tried my best to keep an overview of everything but also at some point was able to trust my crew to do great work which eventually even enhanced what I was thinking about.

Nakam is now shortlisted for the 95th Academy Awards, in the “Live Action Short Film” category. What are the blessings and the challenges of having a film that’s a potential Oscar contender?

I am very blessed to be shortlisted now. And of course, I’m super excited to see how it goes on and how audiences like my film. The fact that Ukraine is in a war again is such a tragedy. If there is something that my film can do then to make people aware of the fact that it hasn’t even been a century ago since horrible WW2 was started by the Germans. A war which only brought suffering and death to the world. Now there is war again bringing so much violence to innocent people. Violence always creates more violence. There are no winners in a war which is why this should be stopped as soon as possible.

Finally, what do you hope audiences take away from watching Nakam?

My goal is that they get a profound emotional insight into the emotions of a 12-year-old boy who tries to seek vengeance for his family at an incredibly high cost. Through the eyes of a child, war becomes the worst. Children are carrying the heaviest weights on their shoulders after experiencing those terrible conflicts which war causes. I hope audiences find my short film touching and carry away the feeling that we should end all conflicts and wars. 

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