Two discordant city employees ploughing through an incredibly mundane job inspecting benches come to an unexpected and perceptive understanding of each other upon finding one of their charges housing a homeless man who offers up some astute philosophical food for thought. Filmmaker Serkan Bayrak’s debut fiction short Civil Servant (Staatsdiener) looks at the fundamental differences between us all and with his playful, carefully crafted scripting and delicately balanced characters, shows us that no matter whatever way of living you may prescribe to, there is always a middle ground to be found. Set in the natural beauty of Germany’s Erftstadt forest, Civil Servant employs well thought out visual language keeping the viewer engaged in this dialogue led short. With the film very much in the thick of its festival journey, we spoke to Bayrak about scheduling actor rehearsals months before filming in order to better tailor the script for their performances, how some of the more stringently planned scenes actually took away from the freedom of the edit and taking significant breaks in post to experience the film from a fresh perspective.
Is this a very odd but specific job role you happened to stumble upon as inspiration? How did Civil Servant develop as a production?
The story and plot originated from a walk with a friend, we were in the forest and amusingly describing the different benches. I worked on the screenplay for about six months, with breaks in between and gradually the characters grew. Within their dynamics, I was able to incorporate a part of myself into the script. We were understaffed, and there wasn’t a lot of money available either. Fortunately, our cameraman Simon Altmiks was very enthusiastic about the project and had his own equipment and worked alongside me as co-producer. Together, we worked intensively on a resolution to the script which was crucial for the next steps. The more precisely we discussed it in advance, the more flexibility we knew we would have during filming. We had found our desired location beforehand in Erftstadt where the atmosphere was perfect.
The more precisely we discussed it in advance, the more flexibility we knew we would have during filming.
Assembling a team with limited funds was a big challenge. The production team contacted the actors because, until then, I had only worked on advertisements and other such projects so was lacking any kind of expertise in that area. It was so wonderful to find that the actors were interested in the project. They found the screenplay intriguing and we all learned a lot from each other. The two main actors, Matthias Eberle and Felix Lampert had four rehearsal dates, which were scheduled three months before the filming started. This allowed me enough time to refine the screenplay and align it with the actors or make necessary adjustments. This shared space was essential for the project. It was my first time doing something like this and it was an invaluable experience.
How was the transition into the actual shoot following all of your preparations beforehand?
Once we had the filming permit, there was no turning back. We all had a call sheet and everything was precisely scheduled. This allowed us time to incorporate improvisation here and there, which had been loosely discussed with the actors beforehand but thanks to the well-planned pre-production, we saved ourselves a lot of time and effort during the actual production. We had a mobile home in the forest which was an intimate and wonderful location for filming. We knew exactly which scene we wanted to shoot first although it didn’t follow a chronological order due to the location. The distances between the benches were quite large, and our supporting actor was only available on a specific day.
It was well organized and we knew beforehand that Asad Schwarz-Msesilamba, who was playing Diogenes, could only work on a certain day. A day of shooting was swapped, so to speak. We also discussed this during rehearsals because the energy of the actors and how they go into the next scene is very important to be in the moment you want. As an actor, this is another challenge, but also for the whole team, which has to think backwards.
The Erftstadt forest location obviously adds a lot to the film’s atmosphere. Tells us about merging the natural beauty of those surroundings with the mundanity of their bench assessing task.
Well, I think nature has a self-healing effect that we sometimes don’t understand at all and they are pushed into the forced banality of everyday work. Whilst Christian, Thomas and Diogenes are all very different they do feel like people who would come together naturally in this situation. In the film they are a bit exaggerated but still honest and natural to each other. The forest location, which was a suggestion from our cameraman Simon, also brings this into harmony and mediates between the characters. Simon and I of course talked about the script and the ideas. Each scene was carefully performed and acted out in advance. Each setting has its own visual language and was deliberately chosen. Of course, this gave us a certain security in advance on the set, but on the other hand, it took away some of our freedom in editing.
At a certain point I stopped following the structure of the script and focused on the characters and their dynamics.
There is a playfully eloquent style to the argumentative conversation between the characters, how did you achieve that flow when writing their dialogue?
The opposing characters were worked out and the plot was set. At a certain point I stopped following the structure of the script and focused on the characters and their dynamics. The more detail I gave to the characters, the more interesting the script writing became. It was very important to understand a lot in the background for oneself in order to get the dialogue right bit by bit.
The chalk and cheese chemistry between Matthias and Felix is so wonderfully palpable right from the film’s opening moments, how did you build their fractious onscreen relationship?
When I was writing the script, I already had both Matthias and Felix in mind and I was so pleased they both agreed to come on board. It is of course important that the chemistry within the script is already there but the actors immediately brought an authentic and, above all, personal touch to the characters. We had a few rehearsal dates, which was very important for all three of us. Even if we didn’t always follow the script, we had a mood that both of them captured very well. It was an exciting process, especially when Matthias and Felix explored the characters with me.
We were so precise in the scenes which we had shot that we didn’t have much leeway during the editing.
I think the overcast weather is so fitting to the themes of the film, can you tell us more about the choices that went into Civil Servant’s visual aesthetic?
We owe the atmosphere partly to the weather and above all to our sound designer Nic Brinkmann. To be honest, we actually wanted sunny days, and we got some of those during the last few days of shooting. The stormy beginning was ideal. Unfortunately, we had to delete a line from Diogenes as he scolded them to, “Get out of my sun!” but I actually think that gave us some leeway to improvise at the end of the scene with his character. Our colorist Madmo Cem Adam Springer and I talked about a suitable look and I think he hit the colors very well. Since we were shooting in 6K raw, we had enough information to incorporate the color style into the mood.
How then did everything come together in post production to arrive at the final film?
Post-production required a significant amount of time. It took approximately six months because we took breaks to watch the film with fresh eyes since we had seen every second of the footage hundreds of times. Ultimately, the film was recreated during this process. As mentioned before, we were so precise in the scenes which we had shot that we didn’t have much leeway during the editing. We were fortunate that the actors were always on point and confident in their lines; otherwise, it would have been challenging to achieve the desired flow. Finally, we needed a creative translation. This was also a process I hadn’t experienced before. Our translator Ellie Watson put a lot of effort into it. She is a native English speaker, which was so important to make the film sound natural and flow properly.
With your first narrative short now making the festival rounds, will we see a new project from you soon?
I met a lot of wonderful people on this project and learned a lot. My second short film script is now finished. At the end of the year we start planning again. I’m curious about who will be there again and with whom I can share this warm and creative space again.