I was in Germany in September to premiere Touched, a feature film I’d directed, but within 36 hours of landing I found myself locked in a prison cell with a convicted murderer.
The cell was small, and in the silence I stood near the barred window, while he watched me with unblinking blue eyes.
“What inspired you to make this film?,” he finally asked. And so the interview began.
Oldenburg, Germany is a medieval city in the North, home to the Oldenburg Film Festival, one of the world’s zaniest film festivals and perhaps to one of its most enlightened maximum security prisons. The link: For years, festival director Torsten Neumann has organized screenings inside the prison. Local pols, members of the public, filmmakers, and convicts all sit in the prison chapel, turn off the lights, and watch movies together.
How do the inmates react to the films? “You can’t smoke during the movie, that’s the only part they don’t like,” a guard tells me.
Sure enough, there’s a palpable buzz of excitement before the screening, as prisoners and visitors are seated together.
“We share this language of cinema together, and I think it offers the inmates a special experience… while the visitors see a part of society that feels very far away,” Torsten says of his project, now in its twelfth year.
Afterward, everyone mingles at a cocktail reception, grazing on finger food made by a variety of thieves, killers, and rapists.
“That man has given us a lot of trouble,” a prison officer whispers to me at the cocktail. He’s pointing out a burly, bearded inmate, talking to two pretty young women who attended the screening. “He’s killed many people for money and may never get out.”
I watch the hired assassin pop a cucumber sandwich into his mouth and laugh at something the women say. “Aren’t you worried he’ll hurt someone here?,” I ask. The officer shakes his head. “He hasn’t been violent for several months, so now we give him this chance.”
And this is the prison’s philosophy. Each inmate is given a chance, right from the start.
“My first job is to protect the public from these men,” says Thomas Gerdes, the manager who trains the guards. “My second is to prepare them to re-enter society. Because these men will be your neighbors.” With that in mind, the prison’s unusual design makes sense: there’s space, light, and paintings (many by the inmates). It feels more like an attractive school than a prison—a school with high walls, barbed wire, hundreds of cameras, and guards. No matter how pleasant the architecture, I never managed to forget I was in prison.
One convicted killer talked to me about the strange feelings the place gives him. “It’s almost too nice, because it’s still a prison and these things don’t seem to go together,” he said. “But you can’t complain about anything—the food is good, everything is clean. And when you can’t complain, you have no choice. You have to start to think about yourself.”
Even in a progressive part of a progressive country, there are critics who feel the inmates are being coddled. And the inmates are sensitive to this. Several mentioned seeing U.S. prisons on TV all the time. “If you treat men like animals, and make them suffer, what do you think they will do when they get out?,” one inmate pointed out to me with self-serving common sense. Gerdes mentioned that the Oldenburg prison boasts some of the lowest rates of violence and recidivism in Germany, despite housing some of its most dangerous prisoners, approximately 80 percent of whom have mental health problems.
The disconnect is poignantly visible in the chapel where the films are screened. The first thing you see are the enormous stained glass windows made by one of Germany’s most dangerous killers. This man arrived at the prison by helicopter, and is regularly transferred because, as Gerdes says, “He’s extremely charismatic and has influenced many others to help him escape.” During one escape he kidnapped a guard, and then killed him and two others. He was eventually recaptured, and continues to make the vivid stained glass (actually molded plastic), though he will never be allowed out now.
The guards I spoke to admitted that even in a prison such as this, there is always tension. One officer who’d been assaulted by an inmate before, talked to me about a break-in at his home and how he still wondered if it had been someone from the prison.
To travel through the prison, I was given a razor scooter, and glided down a long hallway in a fog of jet lag…to an art class. Sculptures, still lives, a painting of Frank Zappa—the men were happy to show off their work. I scooted past a beautiful wood-paneled gym as well as classrooms and workshops where the inmates hold down jobs. Our final stop was the conjugal room, which looked like a comfortable mid-range hotel room, with a play area for kids, a fold-out sofa bed, a shower room, and plenty of condoms (“Billies” we call them, said a guard) and no cameras. “We treat them with respect,” says Gerdes. “And it works.”
Which brings me back to my interview: because the inmates also publish a monthly magazine and produce an in-prison TV show.
The director of this show—the convicted murderer—was interviewing me about my film for the inmates to watch. A tall, slender man in a jean shirt, he had strangled to death his neighbor, an elderly woman who he felt had rejected his advances. He spoke smoothly and seemed relaxed, but his eyes followed every move I made with a tight focus. He was charming and clever, and I was disconcerted to find I liked him.
I talked to this friendly murderer about my film Touched, which is about a solitary landlord who embarks on a dangerous and possibly delusional search to find a disappeared tenant. Because it wasn’t subtitled, my film wasn’t scheduled to screen in the prison, but the inmates requested to have it broadcast on their TV network anyway. There was at least one murder in my film. I wondered what my interviewer would make of it.
I told him about other projects I was working on, including one about a successful man who’d been convicted of a crime. He watched me intently. He was only 36, (“prison keeps you looking young” he said with a grin), had learned to play the piano, and was reading Haruki Murakami. He hoped to get out in just a few years. And he wanted to know why the successful man had thrown his life away. I told him I didn’t know, that it was one of the things I was trying to find out in the film. He shook his head and smiled. “It’s hard to know sometimes, why people do what they do,” he said.
After the interview I shook hands with him and the warden unlocked the cell. I was given my razor scooter and spent another dizzyingly surreal 10 minutes scooting through the prison, and then I was back out in fresh air.
Between the main building and the outer wall there were dozens of apple trees. I could hear music playing in the distance. A giant chess set gleamed on the lawn, some pieces lying on their sides, covered in dew. I was escorted to the outer doors by smiling guards, and finally I stepped back outside to an immediate wash of relief, the high wall at my back.
In a year or two, Gerdes and his colleagues would decide if my interviewer, possibly reformed, possibly a remorseless sociopath, should be paroled. Your soon-to-be neighbor. In the meantime, the debate over punishment vs. rehabilitation would go on.
I felt the guilt of a tourist, as a chauffeured Audi whisked me off to my own festival screening and away from this thoughtfully designed house of pain. “Whatever people think, however nice the prison is,” my interviewer had said, “at night, when they lock the door and you’re in your cell alone, you feel like the loneliest man in the world, and that your life is ruined. And you suffer.” MM
Karl R. Hearne is the director of Touched, which recently screened at the Oldenberg and Austin Film Festivals and is looking for a distributor. Learn more about the film here.