Generally speaking, a typical debut film – especially in German cinema – is easily spotted as such. A story about someone finding his or her way, with obvious autobiographical inspiration, realized on a recognizably low budget, and visually rather demure – this or at least something like this characterizes most debut films. CORTEX, however, which premiered at Hamburg and Zurich film festivals this autumn, is not one of them. Which might also be because Moritz Bleibtreu is a debut director like no other.
“Anyone who knows me even a little will find the film very personal,” the actor emphasizes when asked just how much of himself there is in this film – which he also wrote – for which he took a seat behind the camera for the first time in 40 years. “I believe this story is about whether we are really who we claim to be. Or whether we would have preferred to become someone else. So as an actor who spends a lot of his life trying to find himself in others, this premise is certainly autobiographical.”
The 49-year-old leaves no doubt that a long-cherished dream has come true with CORTEX – a mixture of psycho drama and thriller, whereby not only two men’s identities but also the boundaries between reality and dream are blurred: “I have always written a lot, even in my youth, everything from plays to poems. I have also toyed for a long time with the idea of directing, and that really took root in my thirties. Of course, the fact that it still took so long was because I can’t really write at the same time as I’m acting.” And he continues: “For a while I didn’t know which of the stories I was working on ought to be my first film, either. In the end it was CORTEX mainly because I would like to watch this kind of film myself. That was my main motivation.”
It was certainly not that Bleibtreu, son of actors Monica Bleibtreu and Hans Brenner, was bored with acting after all these years – that did not contribute to the development of his first directorial work at all. On the contrary, as he states for the record: “I can truly say that, as an actor, I have always felt spoilt by luck. Sure, there have been moments when I wished for more courage to extend the limits here in Germany. But no matter at what stage of my career: I have never felt under-challenged.”
Success has always been on his side as well, whether in the dawning days of a new German cinema boom in the 90s (KNOCKIN’ ON HEAVEN’S DOOR, RUN LOLA RUN), in what he describes as the “golden age” from 2000 onwards, with major prestigious productions such as ELEMENTARY PARTICLES (Silver Bear at the Berlinale) and THE BAADER-MEINHOF-COMPLEX (nomination for the European Film Prize), or most recently, when he has been as convincing in complex cinema films such as THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON as in high-quality series à la SCHULD. Not to mention the fact that Bleitreu has always worked abroad as well, together with directors such as Paul Schrader, István Szabó, Paolo & Vittorio Taviani or Fernando Meirelles, and on major Hollywood films like Spielberg’s MUNICH, WORLD WAR Z or SPEED RACER. “I have made almost half my films outside Germany,” he laughs. “Only that hasn’t always been noticed here, as not all of the films were released in our cinemas, by any means.”
Bleibtreu appreciates that it constitutes a privilege for CORTEX – in which he himself, Jannis Niewöhner and Nadja Uhl, as well as Thomas W. Kiennast’s remarkable camera work play the leading roles – to be shown on the big screen in Germany. “I’m well aware that such films will probably not be shown in cinemas in the near future, or only rarely,” he says with respect to complex stories lacking the direct appeal of mainstream productions. He agrees strongly with Christopher Nolan that cinema offers the ultimate film experience; Nolan has had a great influence on Bleibtreu’s approach as a storyteller, anyway (“For me, INCEPTION is one of the best films of all time!”). Let’s hope that he will also make the cinemas with his next work as a director. It is only a matter of time before he can do so, he assures me as we say goodbye: “I know what story to tackle next. I just need someone who will let me do it.”