IT is a mild summer’s evening and Helene Hegemann suggests that we sit on the terrace of the Italian restaurant alongside Volkspark Friedrichshain, so that she will be able to smoke. In a few seconds she has rolled herself a cigarette, while her dog Charly dozes peacefully under the table.
Her full-length feature film debut AXOLOTL OVERKILL has just been launched in German cinemas after celebrating its world premiere at the well-known Sundance film festival in January. This is remarkable in several respects. Not merely because she is only 25 years young and has never studied at a film academy, but also because she was also adapting her own novel, Axolotl Roadkill. She published the novel at eighteen and became famous overnight, the book proving a huge success. But the uncontested literary quality of the novel, the radical subjective perspective of a teenage girl, was overshadowed by an occasionally scornful discussion following accusations of plagiarism. By contrast, the film is being almost unanimously praised by the critics. Not that Hegemann reads the reviews. She stopped doing that long ago, for reasons of self-preservation.
Shortly after its appearance, there were already several attempts to adapt the book, Hegemann tells me, but she didn’t like any of those screenplay versions by various authors. “Fortunately, I had retained the film rights and so I met up with the people who wanted to film the novel. But it soon became clear to me that their ideas were no better than mine, so I might as well do it myself.” This sounds very self-confident, but Hegemann emphasizes that it was largely an “act of desperation”.
“All the versions offered to me took the wrong approach entirely, they were just mixes of WETLANDS and WE CHILDREN FROM BAHNHOF ZOO. I was left writhing. I wanted the very opposite of such a strange party-bold-girl-teenie-story.” She had even managed to keep the final cut, i.e., the right to avoid cutting in the end by a nervous film distributor looking to create a dismal movie with mass appeal. This is anything but automatic in the German film industry. But her final film also reveals that artistic freedom.
AXOLOTL OVERKILL is a consistent further development of the novel: apart from the basic constellation, she has kept very little of the original in her radical screenplay. “After all, the novel was the protagonist’s inner life, for the film I had to develop an external world for her, and in the end, all that was left were two of the original scenes,” Hegemann explains.
Mifti is a 16-year-old girl from Berlin, who lives with her two half-siblings after her mother’s death from alcohol abuse; she doesn’t go to school and prefers to drift through the clubs, wavering between hedonism and self-destruction, but always rather independent and smart, at least in the film version.
The axolotl of the title is a gill-breathing salamander, which never really gets old, and thus provides a rather fitting image for the characters in Hegemann’s film, whatever their age. The result is laconic, cynical, killingly funny, without seeking to tell a real story. Things happen with no apparent consequences, scenes are left deliberately unresolved, not explained. The outcome of this is a confusing undertow, which is very rare in German cinema. The uninhibited, often ecstatic images by Manu Dacosse won the award for best camera in Sundance.
And the author filmmaker demonstrated fine instincts in casting, too, the majority of the actors come from the theater, and – from the sensational Jasna Fritzi Bauer as Mifti to Mavie Hörbiger, Laura Tonke and Bernhard Schütz – they all lend a buzzing vitality to their characters. “It’s because they all know what they are doing, and they totally get the context,” the director enthuses.
It is not Hegemann’s first work as a director; two years before the novel she had already made a mid-length film entitled TORPEDO. At the time she was 15 and already streets ahead for her age. Having grown up in Bochum, at the age of 13, after her mother’s death, she moved to join her father Carl Hegemann in Berlin, where he is chiefdramaturge at the Volksbühne, an unconventional and, for many, one of the best German-speaking theaters. She began to write at 13, and two years later she won the Max-Ophüls-Prize with TORPEDO. A little later, her disturbing debut novel appeared. She is fêted as a screwed-up, brilliant wunderkind.
In the seven years since its publication and the associated hype as well as the hostility, Helene Hegemann has grown up. She seems confident and worldly-wise, speaking with great reflection about herself and her work. “I always did retain a healthy distance, because I keep changing my professional field.” Now “Axolotl” is finally done with, too. She is currently working on a new novel, her third. It is about life in gated communities. She wants to continue with both writing and filmmaking. There is only one thing she doesn’t want to do again – adapt her own book. Or at least that’s what she says right now.