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Janni Schenck – Writer-insighter

Don’t mention the war

I did, but I think I got away with it. I’d written a screenplay that actually got as far as being considered for the Cannes Film Festival (before being placed, possibly even gently, in their Trash folder) by the Maison des Scenaristes, of which I was a member, hem hem.

It was a blend of two true stories, one I’d heard at first hand. Somehow in my life I’d separately met two very old men who had both been in the Hitler Youth. Both of them said the singing, camping, Strength Through Joy part of it was absolutely brilliant, it was the giving up your life for the Fatherland in 1945 that was somewhat problematic, which was exactly what one of them was told he was doing when the American army rolled up to his village. A girlfriend’s grandfather had been a surgeon in the Wermacht Heer stationed in Czechoslovakia. Very early in 1945 he laughed at a joke about Hitler and as a result was sentenced to death, as was his colleague who told the joke. I called the boy Janni Schenck.

Janni Schenck

He lived when his schoolteacher, who was supposed to be the head of the local Jugend gruppen, assembled the boys on parade, beat them up, made them throw all of their guns in the ditch and sent them home crying.

The surgeon lived when as he and his friend were being taken out to be shot partisans attacked, the friend said “Run!”

He didn’t stop running until he got home to Bremen, past Gestapo and SS death squads, past the fires of Dresden, afraid to move in daytime thanks to the RAF and USAAF blasting anything that moved on the roads, without papers or food and starting only with a shirt, jacket and trousers. It’s over 900 miles.

Those stories are being lost with time, as they always are. I wanted to write something that remembered them, not as glorious warriors but people who had nothing left except hope, who somehow built a decent life and a decent society out of the smashed rubble of hate the previous generation had made. I combined their stories and had the surgeon turn up in the boy’s village just after the schoolmaster had prevented the village from being massacred and gave it to a friend to proofread. She gave it back a week later, saying it was good but she never wanted to read it ever again.

She told me most of her family had been killed by boys like Janni. She thought nobody wants to read stuff like this anymore. It wasn’t relevant. And not everything is about what people of our age call The War. That was before JoJo Rabbit. And before tanks started rolling across the Ukraine again.

Something better change

The Stranglers told us that a long, long time ago, but it didn’t really. The thing I’ve been writing lately has gone on hold a bit, thanks to Vladimir Putin. It was about something else that happened in 1945, when an American airman missed the last transport back from a dance in Ipswich and had to walk back to his base at Leiston, 22 miles away. He had to fly his unit’s last combat mission of the war the next morning. I doubted it could be done so I walked it myself.

The problem is, my proofreading friend was wrong. It is relevant. Everything about Russia invading Ukraine is about The War, and specifically how Roosevelt and Stalin carved-up Europe at Yalta, planning how the world was going to be run. Churchill was remarkably like Prime Minister Johnson it seems, claiming and presumably imagining that his and Britain’s influence was what the world listened to, when it was all but completely irrelevant to how things turned-out in Europe after German forces surrendered.

It’s all happening again, just as pointlessly, just as predictable, with exactly the same bombast and weapons-grade lies from the British government about how Our Brave Boys beat Johnny Ruskie at Crimea and we – oh sorry, chaps, I meant you, I’ll be a bit too busy to be there in the trench – can jolly well do it again.

The same people are losing their homes, the same people who lose them in every war anywhere, ever. It never changes. I don’t know whether that makes a little story about a walk through the dawn 80 years ago relevant or not.

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The Bremen Town Musicians

I’d never heard of them until a German woman told me the story one day, the same as she told me another story, about her grandfather. He was from Bremen too.


In the story, four old animals, an ancient donkey worn-out from work, a dog too old to hunt, a cat too tired to catch mice any more and a cockerel too much of a cockerel, too loud in his crowing, all of them considered too old, too much of a burden to be any use any more. All of them destined to be killed or left to starve.

Being industrious northern Germans they thought they would do no such thing. After all said one of them, you can get anything better than death. The four ancient beasts team up, find a house in the deep woods and seeing it occupied by robbers, turn them out of doors by a trick. The robbers return but by then it’s night-time, dark, confusing. The cat goes berserk and scratches them, screaming, the dog bites them, the donkey kicks them, the cockerel crows and crows, not useless now at all.

The robbers run away, never to return. The four animals found a co-operative and live amicably in the old house ever after.

My friend’s grandfather came from the same place. When the war came he was a surgeon in the Wermacht, posted first to Norway, then to Romania, both a long way from home. One day early in 1945, fed-up and tired of stitching young men like himself back together only for them to fight again he made a joke about Hitler. His friend laughed.  And that was very nearly that. The joke was overheard. Both of them were sentenced to death.

As they were being taken out to be shot the kind of thing that happens in Hollywood movies happened. Partisans attacked. The surgeon looked at his friend and said one word: “Run!”

They ran. They walked, they hitched lifts, they avoided the patrols looking for deserters, they avoided the Russians, they avoided the death squads and somehow, months later, 900 kilometres later, having seen Dresden burn with his own eyes, the surgeon opened his own front door, intact, back in Bremen. His wife ran a bakery there. A day or two later he walked around the corner and surrendured to a Britsh patrol. They asked him where he lived. When he said ‘around the corner’ they told him to piss off home. So he did.

He lived to be over ninety, a prosperous doctor in West Germany who saw the wall come down before he died. I saw a photo of him once. He sat next to his grand-daughter, the woman I knew. She was about seventeen in the picture. Both of them blond, blue-eyed, with their high Saxon foreheads and something I never saw in my family, a fierce love bathing the two of them like fire. You could see it like an aura and feel the heat of it in the old man’s eyes, bask in the warmth of it in everything about her being. In the picture, while he was alive, anyway.

As the four musicians said in the fable, you can always find something better than dying. But you have to try for it.

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Long day-works

Summertime. And the living is queasy.
Summertime. And the living is queasy.

Back when I was at uni, when now-respectable professors happily got their kit off for photos, which is a story that needn’t bother you now, I did Sociology. Or as Paul McCartney nearly put it, Sociology did me. One of the pitifully few things I remember about any of it was the concept of time being introduced to work with the introduction of factories, whistles, time-sheets and clocking-on. Before that in summer there were long day-works and in the absence of artificial light in winter, short ones.

Tomorrow is going to be a long one, not just because it’s summer, although the weather says otherwise here. More because I’ve got to get s train ticket with a code and codes, in my experience, don’t always work. If that sounds like me just being old, I bought one of the first airline ticketless tickets, back in 2003. It didn’t eork. Nobody knew what to do with the bit of paper with the code on it at Heathrow, the printer there wasn’t working, the last plane I’d tried to catch there someone had tried to blow up and I’d spent £2,500 on Business Class tickets. Chiefly because someone else was paying. The ticket still didn’t work though.

Tomorrow I could go and get my tickets after I’ve gone to the post office and the opticians and just casually stroll up, tap my code receipt in and like a normal person, go to London. But what if it doesn’t work? If I go now and it doesn’t work at least I get a whole evening to panic about it. Because tomorrow is a bit important. I’ve got a job interview tomorrow lunchtime for something I’d like to do. After that, almost unplanned, or certainly not planned when I bought my ticket, I’m pitching Janni Schenck, the screenplay what I wrote, at Raindance. In front of money people. In front of producers. In front of people who could say “we’re going with this. Here’s some money to not sell it to anyone else while we sort out some stuff about it.”

I haven’t thought about what accent they’d use, yet. Might not happen. But it could. If my ticket works, obviously. If I can decide what to wear. And I can find somewhere to park. All kinds of things.

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Getting serious

Once upon a time I wrote this thing. This script, Janni Schenck. Then I re-wrote it and each time I learned something else I had to re-write it again. I’ve lost track of how many re-writes I’ve had to do.

Not a game. Not at all.
Not a game. Not at all.

For years I convinced myself I couldn’t write it. It’s about a German kid in a small rural village in 1945. I’m not German. I only went to Germany once and that was Hamburg, which nice though it is, isn’t any more like a rural village than Heathrow is like Keevil airfield. Exactly. Where I grew up. Where we used to ride mopeds. Where there was a huge WWII resettlement camp for Polish people. More irrelevancies; that was the point. There was always a reason not to write it, because I thought I couldn’t.

Then late last year I got pneumonia. It really wasn’t funny but one good thing came out of it: I wrote Janni Schenck in about ten days. That might explain why it needed so many re-writes, but on the plus side I only remember sitting down to write, with my laptop, on the sofa practically in the dark twice, for about ten minutes. It must have taken longer than that, but I honestly don’t remember.

So the update: when I wrote my first script it won the BBC Writers Room prize, which was going to pitch it to Cascade studios which I duly did and equally duly they didn’t option it, life being unfair. Later on, someone who works on scripts for a living told me ‘it’s not a script.’ She also told me that Cascade’s rejection of it on the basis that there was ‘a gap in the narrative arc,’ (unlike say, the millions of narrative gaps in Love Actually) was standard. As she said, ‘there always is.’

I sent it to Film Suffolk via an actor friend who liked it and sent it on to someone who might be in a position to produce it. He sent it back too, but for reasons I’d predicted. More than somewhat surprisingly he’d written a screenplay about a German kid of the same age, set at the end of WWII in a little German village near where my semi-invented German village was. Or wasn’t. I don’t know where the real Janni Schenck’s village was and I think he’s long dead given I met him nearly a quarter-century ago; I set it in the fictional village in Fall, which is a real place but these days is mostly under a reservoir. It caught my eye not for its name but for the story in the newspaper a while ago, about how the water was drying out. Fall was resurrecting.

They only live in old photos now.
They only live in old photos now.

I sent it to an American festival where screenplays they like are performed. They liked it but they didn’t perform it for a number of technical reasons, none of which were what I expected and all of which are fixable. There are three major things to do, one of which I’ve completed and the other two I’m wasting time not doing today, so by six o’clock or it won’t get done.

The reason Film Suffolk’s producer friend didn’t want to get involved was for the reason I’d predicted. Outside Germany it’s going to be hard to place. Germans in films are Bad. Everyone knows that. This is a world America saved, don’t forget. At the cinema, anyway. Band of Brothers had the 101st Airborne showing the Brits how to do it at Arnhem don’t forget, which is a pretty good trick given there were precisely no Americans at Arnhem at all. None. Zilch. Nada. It never happened. Except on TV.

So I need to find a German producer and one who’s worked in the genre, as we say, taking off our hand-crafted Persol shades and looking intent. And I might have found one, after only a very little research, if you can call Google and Wikipedia ‘research.’ But don’t start me on that.

Please step forward Herr Tom Tykwer. While I was teaching kids to shoot in America and driving my Chevrolet to Gene Fleck’s Meadow Inn with a cheerleader called Nancy-Jean (no, I actually, tragically actually did all this stuff), Herr Tykwer, who I am going to be incredibly polite to before I’ve met him, was setting up a film company. And he made a film dealing with a similar theme.

Four Days In May is curious. It’s about a boy in the Hitler Youth, about the same age as Janni in 1945, set in the very last week of the war. The end of Janni’s war came about a fortnight earlier. But other than that, very similar.

I’ve just signed-up for the London Screenwriter’s Festival,  but first a weekend course on re-writing.

The course promises to transform it from good to world class. And so far, I know it’s good. When the only negative comment to date is “I’m not reading this again – it’s too upsetting. Sorry,” then although I hadn’t intended to upset my friend, it wasn’t the worst thing she could have said about it.

There were serious reasons she’d been upset by it, but it’s a serious subject. When you’re thirteen you only know what you’re told. For some people, that goes on for the rest of their lives. The tragedy is that for some of those, that’s quite a short time-scale.

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Blurred lines

I did a thing I’m not sure about today. It’s about totemism and maybe it’s not a bad thing in itself and I did it for a reason that isn’t bad, but I did it. And I’m not 100% happy about it.

hj cap

A couple of years ago I was in Spain. A friend from university and her husband took me to a huge outdoor market, the kind of place I’ve always loved, in a little Spanish town whose population probably doubled that day. I got talking to a Moslem woman from I don’t know where. She had a cutlery stall and because I needed some pheasant shears (yes, needed. Is there a problem with that?) and because I was fascinated by the special little knife for bread rolls they like in Germany and because I asked where they were made, Solingen or somewhere else, the woman assumed I was German. I’m not.

Presumably someone who was had got rid of the Nazi Party badge on another of the stalls in the market. Or their kids had, or their grandchildren had. Great grandchildren, maybe, now. A woman whose grandfather was in the Wermacht, who describes herself as ‘the third generation of the war’ is forty this year. Her family were going to throw her grandfather’s things from that time away until she took them out of the skip her mother had put them in. Because it happened, she said. It was a real thing and it happened and forgetting it happened makes it easier for it to happen again. The little black and white and red enamelled badge was nothing to do with him. But there it was on the stall.

I didn't know this was a Hitler Youth badge until I looked it up tonight. More chickens coming home to roost.
I didn’t know the badge I saw was a Hitler Youth badge until I looked it                    up tonight. More chickens coming home to roost.

At one time there were 16 million members of the Nazi Party. You joined, or you didn’t, according to how you thought. Most people didn’t, evidenced by simple arithmetic. I’d never seen one. On May 10th 1945 it was very difficult to find anyone who openly said they were members of the Nazi Party, let alone wore the badge. Anyone with any sense had thrown theirs into next door’s garden.

I didn’t buy it. A week or two later I asked my friend if she’d go to the market and get it for me, as a rare thing, as evidence of the thing that happened. As part of a story that’s now forgotten, how someone ended-up in the east of Spain, a long way from home, forever. I didn’t tell my friend all of that. I should have. She went nuts at me.

And now I’ve written the screenplay Janni Schenck, about a boy who wasn’t a Nazi but got conscripted into the Hitler Youth on his thirteenth birthday, like every other German boy born when he was born. I’m trying to generate a publicity campaign for it. I used an old photo from another friend’s grandfather’s things. I think that boy died in 1944, but I don’t know and now I never will, unless I can somehow read his name on the photo and find the records. And he was SS, not Hitler Youth, as the flash on his collar tells the world.

I thought of using a friend’s young son and photographing him in a Stalhelm, but I don’t have one and don’t know anyone who does. And apart from anything, it would have to look new, because once, when the things in Janni happened, it was. I didn’t have a couple of hundred pounds to spend on an original one for a couple of photos and I didn’t want to buy a Chinese reproduction and wait month after month for something from EBay. A cap would be the answer. An M43, a Feldmutze, but the only ones I could find again were made in China and currently in Hong Kong, or silly prices. And there was that thing.

I found one today at a flea market. It was £10 and I bought it, hoping it’s ok to buy it. Hoping it doesn’t have more baggage with it than it self-evidently, unavoidably, ludicrously obviously has.

It doesn’t have a badge of any kind. It’s a very standard Wermacht grey wool M43, much too small for me. About right for a 14 year-old boy. It’s just a piece of felted cloth. But it doesn’t feel completely right, buying it. I haven’t tried it on. I’m not going to. I know what that woman’s mother felt like now. It feels wrong just having it in the house. Because it happened.

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I’m appealing

Or Janni Schenck is, anyway.

In case you’ve missed the flurry of posts, after fifteen years when for most of them I didn’t think I could write it, after two years of buying every second-hand book I could find and being that sad bloke with the bookshelf full of broken-spined books with black hakencruzen on them (well, if you don’t know it won’t matter, will it?) and a good bout of pneumonia early last winter that I sat through in a daze, I finally wrote the story of a kid of fourteen who was beaten-up by his schoolteacher to save his life.

Why me? Because I won the BBC Writers Room screenplay competition in 2013. Because I heard this story first-hand from the man I always thought of as Janni Schenck.


There were lots of odd things about it. I don’t remember writing for more than twenty minutes, for a start. Pneumonia isn’t all bad, apart from the feeling that you actually really seriously genuinely might die of this. But I didn’t die and when I came out the other side of it 135 pages of properly-formatted feature film script was there in front of me. The day the first draft was done I went on Facebook and met Christa Muths, who had that day coincidentally finished her factual book about German anti-Nazi resistance. And yes, there was a lot of it. And a lot of it was covered-up, for all sorts of reasons.

There being no point in this screenplay sitting in my desk drawer it needs to be made into a film. Film Suffolk like it a lot. But they estimate it needs about £10 million to get it made, as tanks, airplanes and German villages don’t come cheap. So the best plan I have is to go to the Cannes Film Festival and buttonhole people there until I latch on to someone with the courage and the vision to make a film of the truth.

There’s a snag. I don’t have the kind of money or life that allows me to flit off to Cannes and hang out with film directors whenever I feel like it. I’ve sorted some cheap accommodation at sixty euros a night. But I still need money for fares, entry into the Festival, entry to the Marche du Film and living for ten days while the Festival goes on.

You can help in lots of ways. You could contribute directly, but even if you can’t do that you can also help by just sharing this appeal.


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Seventy-one years

By coincidence, because I don’t plan that well, the story of Janni Schenck ended and began almost exactly seventy-one years ago today. If he was fourteen then, he’s eighty-five now. Which is probably time to get something straightened out. It’s not his real name. I heard his story first-hand from him, but I never knew his name.


The key things in the Janni Schenck screenplay are true. There was a weapons bunker hidden outside a small village in Germany. People were bombed out of their homes by the USAAF and the RAF. Kids of thirteen had no choice when they were conscripted into the Hitler Youth.There was a key difference between being a member of the Hitler Youth and being a member of the Nazi Party.

There was an organisation called the Edelweiss Pirates. They loved Swing. They killed the mayor of Cologne before the Gestapo hunted them down.  People loved Swing music. It was never illegal as such, but if you played too much of it then it was. There was German Swing, manufactured parodies of mainstream Swing, written and played by the Party and broadcast specifically so that UK and US troops would hear it. The lyrics were not encouraging. Except when they encouraged distrust and suspicion. They were quite good at that.

A soldier made a joke about Hitler and when his friend laughed they were both sentenced to death. As the sentence was about to be carried out, partisans attacked and they ran. When they stopped running one of them walked 700 km home to Bremen, lit by the fires of German cities. All of these things are true.

The more I talk to people who have talked to older people about these stories then the more I hear that the ending of Janni Schenck was the ending for many other people too.

In late April 1945 the SS came to the little village where Janni lived. They gathered up all the boys in the Hitler Youth and marched them to a small wood near the village. From the bunker they uncovered in the wood they issued the boys with brand new factory-fresh machine guns and rifles, grenades, bullet belts, helmets, knives, anything and everything that they could carry.

The SS told the boys that the Americans would be in the village within half an hour. They told the boys that the village had to be defended to the last bullet. For the Fatherland. For the Hitler Youth. For Germany. For the future. For civilisation.

They told the boys they had to go now. They left for Switzerland.

The boys carried their new weapons back down to the village. On the way they met their schoolmaster in the lane. He was the head of the Hitler Youth troop in the village.

He beat them up. He made them throw all their guns in the ditch and sent them home, crying.

The Americans arrived less than half an hour later. They were ready to shoot the entire village if anything had started. Thanks to an unknown man long ago, those boys lived for the future. For civilisation. For an unbelievably better Germany.

Not everybody followed orders, whatever the television tells you. Not everybody at all.

So happy anniversary, Janni, wherever you are.  I wish I knew your name.


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Getting what it takes

It had its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, back in 2007. In a familiar scenario, 856 other films were entered, as some 230-odd were at the bit of Cannes I entered this year. It was one of 16 winners, unlike the similar number at Cannes of which mine isn’t one. I think I can see where the differences are though.

It got screened at loads of regional festivals in the US and popped up as one of the top five American films presented at the Directors Fortnight bit at Cannes in 2007. It was based on a true story. Unlike Janni Schenck, Zoo was a film about a man who died after getting a horse to get down with him and shake what Barry White might have called it’s lurve thang. But presumably not with the intent of ramming it through his intestines, which anyone who’s actually seen a horse might think an entirely predictable outcome of what turned out to be a totally spoiled evening.

Keep On Doin’ It

As you might know, there’s this screenplay called Janni Schenck what I wrote. Cannes don’t want it, which is entirely what I predicted would happen, so I’m not that downhearted about it. Not least because everyone, absolutely everyone who’s read it thinks it’s really good. Even someone who refuses point blank to read it again because it’s upsetting thinks it’s good. That’s why she won’t read it again. That and the fact that kids like Janni killed some of her family once, a long time ago, but not so long ago that it’s not still upsetting when they’re brought to life as what they are. Which is just kids. Kids who’d been told everything they did was fun and good and pure and noble, kids who were told they were the saviours of their country. Kids who weren’t given the choice, by 1939, of saying that they didn’t want to join the Hitler Youth.

German children, 1945.
                                              German children, 1945.

So, tough, Cannes. You missed it. You want to feel edgy and street watching films about horses shagging American inadequates then you go ahead with what you have. I hope it doesn’t put you off your butterscotch popcorn.

But after the meeting with Film Suffolk today I have work to do getting this made. They like it too. So if you’ll excuse me I’ll go and find a producer somewhere else. As well as around £10 million. All without scaring the horses.

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Back Into It

I thought it was Spring. The clocks went forward (Spring forward, Fall back, although being English we don’t have – and you have to make an inverted commas sign with your fingers here and do a little moue at the same time -“Fall”. It’s called Autumn). I went out without a coat for the first time this year. I went to have a look at my lovely boat, looking a little less lovely after being covered in fallen leaves all over the cockpit, but the cabin roof scrubbed up nicely in less than a half hour. The fact that all the mould I cleaned off was sluiced off the roof by that night’s rain should have been a lesson. It’s only just April.

I’ve been travelling for most of March, all over Scotland and Ireland, then a week at home, then London and the Cotswolds. Five days at home and now London and the Cotswolds again, shepherding American tourists while I wait to hear from the Maison des Scenaristes about Janni Schenck and the Cannes Film Festival. It’s entered for it. Did I mention that?

No? Really? Well, my screenplay, Janni Schenck, is entered for the Cannes Film Festival.

Thank-you. I’m rather pleased.

But right now I have to phone some restaurants and get to a hotel near Heathrow to sleep on my own on a Saturday night. At least they do a very, very good vegetarian pizza. Probably the best I’ve ever eaten. Ain’t life grand?

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I spent fifteen years telling myself I couldn’t do something. Which was stupid, because that always turns out to be true. To be accurate I spent thirteen years doing that and another two years thinking I had to do it but I didn’t know how. Then a year seriously thinking about how I was going to do it.

It was a story. The problem was it was true. The bigger problem was it happened in a Germany that has thankfully disappeared, which I knew next to nothing about. Not least as I didn’t speak German.

I didn’t want to be the sad bloke with shelves full of books with swastikas on the spine. Even after I learned they’re called hakencruzen. I read everything I could, buying books from boot-sales, second-hand shops, anywhere. What I didn’t want was military history. I needed to know how a village worked. What people had for breakfast in 1945. What the newspaper was called.

I had the story: I’d heard it first-hand. I needed the framework it happened in. And the reality of that wasn’t anything you’ve ever seen on TV. You think you know about it from the graphic violence of Saving Private Ryan or the extended buddy movie treatment of Band of Brothers. You don’t. Even Der Untergang doesn’t touch on what happened to ordinary people, the millions of people who just happened to be born at a place, at a time. Who could have been anybody. Who could have been you.

I hadn’t the first clue before I started this what had happened to ordinary people. I got my first clue talking to a German woman about her town. I’d asked her what’s it like?

Oh, quite new houses, like any other town in the north of Germany, she’d said. And the old town? Well, the RAF took care of the old town one night in late March 1945. Chiefly because they could. It shocked me. It still does. And before anyone jumps up and down screaming about the Blitz, yes. Awful. About 40,000 British people died from German bombing in the war. About 40,000 people died in three nights of bombing by the RAF in Hamburg. Something else they forgot to mention at my school, along with the whole idea of German resistance to Nazism which by its nature, was quite secretive and predictably and inevitably short-lived. It must have been exactly the same as in places like Syria now. “Why didn’t you fight it?” always comes up against “How?”

It must have been exactly the same as in places like Syria now. “Why didn’t you fight it?” always comes up against “How?” When the police take away everyone in the house next door, what are you going to do? Call the police? Maybe write to your MP? Fight them, the same way refugees are told they should, with sticks against rifles? And there’s always plenty more room on the truck. But some people stood up.

I turned it into a screenplay, Janni Schenk. One person refused to read it twice because it upset her so much the first time. It’s not graphic violence. The body count is very low and almost all of it happens out of shot. It’s a very simple story. Almost all of it is true.

An orphaned boy is betrayed by his country, his youth-group and his school-teacher before he saves his village from total destruction.

Except his youth-group was the Hitler Jugend. And the people about to destroy his village were the US Army. And for that reason alone I don’t think any film-maker outside Germany is going to touch it with gloves on. Certainly not an American film-maker. But let’s see. Maybe I’ll be wrong.

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