What short film manages to win 82 awards and get invited to over a hundred film festivals? The remarkable Silent River, by writer-director Anca Miruna Lǎzǎrescu, achieved that feat back in 2011. Her 2005 short film Bucuresti-Berlin had been an early sign of a promising career. Lǎzǎrescu studied in Munich, and started out as a documentary filmmaker. Her documentary film The Secret of Deva won Best German Newcomer Film in 2007. Since then, Lǎzǎrescu has gone from strength to strength.
In 2016 Lǎzǎrescu wrote and directed her first feature film, That Trip We Took with Dad (2016). It’s a strong film, compelling, funny and moving. The story is based on her own family history, an incident which happened well before her birth, when her father was just eighteen. A family trip to the German Democratic Republic, in 1968, took a surreal turn with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Unable to travel back home directly from the GDR, they were given a 48-hour transit visa via West Germany. This meant an agonising choice for Lǎzǎrescu’s father’s: defect or go home? He decided to return to Romania. It took more than two decades for him to finally move to Germany, along with his family, which by then included a young Anca Miruna, who then grew up in her new home country, Germany.
Lǎzǎrescu’s experience of both Germany and Romania has left visible imprints in her films so far, and is a theme in her new project, which also marks an interesting variation in her work. Lǎzǎrescu is now directing, together with Igor Cobileanski (Umbre), a six-part HBO Europe series called Hackerville, set mainly in Germany and Romania. This is HBO Europe’s first international coproduction, but not Lǎzǎrescu’s first experience on a major television series – she had also previously spent time working on Scrubs, a long-running U.S. comedy series, among other projects.
Inspired by the real-life case of a small Romanian town which happens to at the heart of international hacking and internet fraud operations, the drama series is a co-production between HBO Europe and TNT Serie, the German production company behind Deutschland 83 and its follow up Deutschland 86. Hackerville will be completed in Autumn 2018.
I met Lǎzǎrescu in Berlin. We discussed her cross-European career and the different facets of her work: working across documentary, drama shorts, features films, and television series; and starting her career with significant autonomy on film projects very close to her heart and sometimes personal life, and then joining large teams working in television drama. The writing process is a key element of all her work. Lǎzǎrescu described how she works:
I started studying documentary film. My first feature film (That Trip with Dad) was definitely, had somehow a documentary approach… I did a lot of research, I was the mother and the father of this project, I was living this project. Once I had the actors, I started also rehearsing, and throughout the rehearsing process, I able to adapt the script. But it was always about storytelling, it was a lot about characters, how do you face these characters with the worst dreams that they might have, how do you make a filmic emotional impact, to take all the emotion you can get out of the characters.
Emotional impact is a key theme in Lǎzǎrescu’s work. This includes the emotion of being, in part, other. This mirrors the filmmaker’s own life story.
I was born in Rumania and grew up in Germany and I had a lot of times the impression that people here wanted me to be different to the way I am, and the way I was socialised.
One of my biggest tasks here was to adapt regarding energy and emotional, my emotional way of being. I am a very emotional, very passionate person in my private life, and especially in my official life as a director, emotional life as a director… I am a really bad poker face. You can always see what is going on.
But this is also how I am throwing myself into the work with actors, throwing myself in every discussion, you will always see and feel me, the way my heart is beating, I care too much sometimes, I care a lot, sometimes maybe a bit too much. I become a bit vulnerable but I couldn’t fulfil, you know, all the work that is expected from me, if I wasn’t like that this.
Lǎzǎrescu’s latest venture, for HBO Europe, brings together once again her experience of both Romanian and German society – but has also brought her into contact with yet another culture – British culture.
This project, Hackerville, is a lot about culture clash, it’s about having a stubborn, a little bit arrogant, young policewoman, coming from Germany, being born in Romania, but being socialised, growing up in Germany. And she has to come over, and work with police, very misogynistic police, with all these Eastern European rules, having to build up very quickly a team, so they can hunt the hacker damaging a lot of things, endangering.
We are shooting in Romania, and we are shooting in Germany. Now my lovely, really very sensitive and clever boss, called Johnathan Young, he is the boss of HBO Europe, is indeed running this show, but we are meeting in Eastern Europe, and all these lovely places in Romania. I am working for HBO but I am not really working in the UK…. I am working with him, I am getting along with, learning now all these London rules, so to say, and his humour. I really have to say, I am really enjoying it, and I can see a huge difference, to the approach of a German producer, also because, you know we also have Germany producers, on the German side. It’s a co-production.
Johnathan Young, who is exec producing Hackerville, has a long and distinguished career in British television drama, including old faithfuls such as Eastenders, Casualty, and The Bill. These are long-running shows which [carry] their own sub-culture.
The approach, the communication, the way jokes are being told, he (Johnathan Young) is very gentle, sometimes giving information, which he is really strict on, the elegance – he is doing what he is doing, this might differ from let’s say, the German approach, but at the end, and this is what I like so much, it’s about being passionate. It’s about really truly believing in the story, it’s about: how can we improve with every little detail… storytelling, artistically-wise, camera, actors.
While Lǎzǎrescu’s role in Hackerville is primarily that of a director, she is nevertheless involved in the writing, story development, and advising on aspects which are especially close to her own experience.
HBO gave us scripts, they are still in the re-writing process, and what is so great about it, is that they are definitely interested in us giving strong feedback when it comes to character work, when it comes to arcs, and when it comes to this culture clash. Because they know, that for example for me being raised in Germany but also for example the main character, Anna Schumacher, she was born in Bucharest and was raised in Germany, they really listen to us, they take advice, they really implement storytelling aspects that we are proposing. I don’t want to exaggerate when I say we are somehow a big Hackerville family but we do sit around a big table. We are able to throw all our ideas. And our creative minds – we are more than taken seriously, we are part of this very unique, very emotional process of building this world, Hackerville.
It is also part of my story, it’s a lot about what does it mean to be German, what does it mean to be Romanian, how can you handle all these misunderstandings, all these cultural borders you have to cross, and I really have to say I am really enjoying it a lot because I am able to put a lot of my experience, all of the things that I have gone through, throughout all these years, in this show.
At the end of the day, this is what I like so much about this project, when it comes down to the real work. It’s all about emotions, it’s about being powerful in storytelling, it’s about the craft of reaching the audience – the impact the show will have on the audience.
Interviewed during Berlinale 2018. Originally published on Scenes Journal.