From the guys who brought you last year’s award-winning comedy “When Even Death Forgot About Carl Swenson” comes this year’s Campus MovieFest (CMF) Best Picture, a short film based on real-life Nazi SS Officer Kurt Gerstein. “The Gerstein Report,” filmed in German and French with English subtitles, sends audiences back to 1945 Germany.
“This was a story that was completely different from anything we had seen before at CMF,” College junior and co-director Matt Fennell says. “We wanted to do something that would take on a challenging aspect of not only history but the human condition itself.”
In just five minutes, co-directors Fennell and Goizueta Business School junior Matt Ryckman capture the essence of Gerstein’s internal struggles, which ultimately lead to his death. Gerstein, in the movie and in history, is a Nazi scientist who delivered shipments of Zyklon B gas, chemicals that — unbeknownst to Gerstein — were used in deadly gas chambers.
When a Nazi general offers Gerstein a view of the gas chambers at Belzec concentration camp, Gerstein realizes that he has indirectly participated in the murder of thousands of people. Distraught, he buries the remaining gas canisters and begs for assistance to inform the Allied Powers of the Nazi atrocities.
Wracked with guilt and finding no other aid, Gerstein surrenders himself to the Allies. As atonement for his deeds, he writes “Der Gerstein-Bericht” while in prison, later used as evidence against Nazi war criminals during the Nuremberg Trials.
Ryckman wrote the script in December after stumbling across Gerstein’s story while researching World War II topics for the movie.
“I knew that we were going to have the insane asylum to shoot in, and that location kind of looked like an old prison cell,” Ryckman says about Emory’s Briarcliff campus. “I figured we could make that look like some sort of period-piece prison, and then I came across the Gerstein thing.”
Fennell and Ryckman cast College junior Ari Blinder as Gerstein, initially unsure of his acting capabilities.
“We didn’t really know how good of an actor Ari was,” Fennell says. “We realized that in the course of five months [of planning] Ari had gone from an amateur actor to one of the best student actors I have ever seen in my entire life.”
Blinder prepared for the role for a month and a half before the shoot, Fennell says.
“Kurt Gerstein was an incredible individual. He really wanted to change what was going on,” Blinder says. “I’m Jewish, so to play a Nazi was very interesting.”
Blinder does not speak German, though it is nearly impossible to tell while watching the film. Ryckman enlisted German studies teaching assistant Katharina Babczyk as a voice coach and translator. She recorded the script so Blinder could hear the pronunciation, and the two practiced his speech for more than 10 hours to ensure he sounded authentic.
“It was pretty intense, but it was really worth it,” Babczyk says.
The scenes in the film were shot in various Atlanta areas, including Briarcliff campus, Blinder’s basement and White Hall Historical District in downtown Atlanta.
“I think the most important thing for us was to not use any locations that could immediately be associated with Emory’s campus,” Ryckman says. “It takes the viewer out of the movie, and suddenly the whole story that you are trying to create with your film just becomes Emory campus.”
College senior Jason Vigdor, production designer, began researching the time period and creating the Nazi costumes and set pieces a few weeks before production.
“Most of the clothes were from thrift stores, and I put patches on them and attached pendants to them,” Vigdor says. “It took several weeks to collect the props and costume stuff from a million locations — from Home Depot to Craigslist.”
B-School senior Chris Knific, the film’s cinematographer, shot the movie using Ryckman’s personal camera. The team also sought the expertise of film studies lecturer Eddy Von Mueller and cast film studies professor Bill Brown as a French diplomat.
“Eddy has been enormously helpful in all aspects of the creation of this film. He gave us a bunch of notes,” Fennell says. “A lot of the equipment that we were using belongs to the film department and ETV, and he was enormously helpful in all of that.”
The group edited the final movie through the morning of the last day of production.
“The most fun was editing that whole night,” Ryckman says. “The film really came together that last night.”
College senior Joe Reiff composed the score for the film, along with input from College seniors Michael Choi and Stephen Yang.
“I think the music was really helpful to guiding the audience to how they should feel,” Ryckman says.
“The Gerstein Report” will compete against other top films from schools in the southeast at the 2010 Southern Regional Grand Finale at the Tabernacle on March 27.
— Contact Christina White