When Philip Koch invited his now fiancée on their second movie date — the first one was a choice of hers, as he remembers, a romantic comedy with Amanda Peet — he was adamant to lay all cards on the table. At this point it was important to him to show her who he really was and who she would be dealing with, if their relationship was to be serious. Koch took her to see his all-time favorite film by his all-time favorite director, Werner Herzog’s trippy descent into madness, AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD. “She hated it”, he says with a shrug, smiling. “But we’re still together and going strong.”
This is just the kind of story you can expect to hear when spending an hour with the 32-year-old filmmaker, talking about his life and convictions as an artist. Everything, it seems, revolves around film for Koch one way or another. After all, this is the guy who was yelled at by upset audience members in Cannes that he should consider psychiatric treatment, after his astonishing debut PICCO was shown at the Directors’ Fortnight in 2010. An experience he still savors five years later: “It was an absolute highlight, totally unreal. The movie was well received when it debuted at the Max Ophüls Festival in Saarbrücken a few months prior, but it was the invitation to Cannes that really announced my arrival as a director, that made people take note. And to provoke such a deeply emotional reaction from the audience was exhilarating.”
No wonder. PICCO is a tough movie, to put it mildly. Loosely based on the true story of a juvenile prison in Siegburg where a group of delinquents tortured a 20-year-old for hours on end and finally made him hang himself in his cell, Koch’s gaze is merciless. He doesn’t pull any punches in his depiction of what happened that day, thereby making the audience an accomplice in the atrocities. You can sense a steely cruelness one might expect from Michael Haneke, but at the same time PICCO harks back to juvie detention classics like Alan Clarke’s SCUM that had left a strong impression on Koch when he first saw it. His film is as blunt a critique on the penal system as possible, but it also has a transcendent, almost poetic quality, something Koch likes to call the ‘Ecstatic Truth’, echoing his idol Werner Herzog’s movies. It’s this Ecstatic Truth that drives Philip Koch, that makes him tick.
Koch was raised on film. His eyes light up when he talks of his grandfather, an American who stayed in Germany after the war after he had fallen in love with a German girl – and an obsessive film nut who taped every movie he could lay his hands on on TV back in the VHS era. He kept his countless tapes in the attic which became little Philip Koch’s own private film museum — or as he puts it: “It was my church.” Although he was hooked, Koch did not harbor any early intentions to become a filmmaker himself. “There are no early attempts at Super 8 movies,” he remembers. “Actually, it wasn’t until I finished college that I seriously considered being a director.”
He enrolled in the HFF München to learn his trade. PICCO was his graduation film, produced by Walker+Worm Film and made for less than 100,000 euros. The film was shunned at the German Film Awards, where it wasn’t even considered for the 60 titles that had a shot at being nominated, but its ongoing success at international festivals like London or St. Petersburg made sure that Koch could keep going.
He tried to get a supernatural thriller off the ground, took on screenwriting assignments like the dark TV drama OPERATION ZUCKER, directed by Rainer Kaufmann, and then got together with MEN IN THE CITY director Simon Verhoeven, a screenwriter in his own right, to hash out the psychological horror thriller UNFRIEND. “We finished writing the screenplay together, but our initial plans to direct the film as a team fell apart pretty fast — I’m afraid we’re both too headstrong for something like this to really work.”
Verhoeven directed the still unpublished film by himself, and Koch returned to a project he had been working on for a while, a black comedy called OUTSIDE THE BOX. Again based on a true story Koch had read about in a newspaper, the screenplay about a group of executive consultants on a corporate team event in Italy that goes horribly awry came together quite fast. Teaming up once more with producers Philipp Worm and Tobias Walker, the film was shot last autumn mainly in South Tyrol. Volker Bruch, Stefan Konarske, Lavinia Wilson, Samuel Finzi and Frederick Lau are among the leads. Koch is in the middle of putting the finishing touches on the editing of the film. “It’s quite tricky to find the sweet spot where everything comes together the way I have imagined,” muses the director. “But we’re getting there, it’s supposed to be funny and slightly surreal and over the top, but not so much that it becomes ridiculous.” On first glance it’s quite a departure from the relentless realism of PICCO. But strip away the tonal differences, and you will easily find a common theme in Koch’s work – the struggle of the individual against the constraints of a system that is forced on him. “I feel quite strongly about that,” he says. “Not least it’s something that’s mirrored in my daily work as a filmmaker trying to get my projects made against all odds. But don’t get me wrong: As hard as it may be sometimes, I feel truly blessed. And I plan not to squander that.”