“Of Fish and Men” is a transformative film that is part thriller, part drama. In some cases, the film is not easy to watch with its traumatic moments, but there is so much beauty we see in the setting of the Swiss countryside. The basic plot is about a mother, Judith, and daughter, Milla, whose solitary and peaceful existence gets interrupted when a stranger, Gabriel, comes to work at the fish farm with Judith. Soon after his arrival, there is an accident when Gabriel is trying to rob a gas station, and accidentally kills Milla. Judith does not know that Gabriel is the one who killed her daughter, as he was wearing a helmet during the incident. She turns to Gabriel during her grief, and he agonizes over how to tell her. This film is riveting and you will be at the edge of your seat.
I had the pleasure of not only watching the film for the Chicago International Film Festival, but also speaking with the filmmaker Stefanie Klemm. English is Klemm’s second language, and her first is German. Because of the language barrier, for clarity I have abbreviated some of her answers.
“Of Fish and Men” had its world premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival, and is expected to have the US release next year. Visit Bluebox Film site for up to date information about the film and Stefanie Klemm’s work.
“It’s quite a tragic thing,” Stefanie Klemm said, while recalling how she came to her film. “Once I was attacked and I was a victim of a robbery at the petrol station.” Klemm then opened up about the details of this tragic experience. She and a friend were there to get gas for their vehicle. It was nighttime, and the surveillance camera was not in their view. Two or three guys came at them, knocked them out, and took everything from their car. The journey to “Of Fish and Men” would start there, at a place of tragedy.
Klemm said, “I suffered from PTSD. It was 10 years ago, and I decided to not let the situation take me down.” As a creative, writer, and filmmaker she channeled her pain into the story. It was difficult for her because she explained that usually you bring your characters into terrible situations, but because of her own, she was also struggling. “During this time, I wrote a diary, and I was full of these thoughts of revenge,” she said. “I was really torn apart, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my revenge, so all of these experiences went into my script.”
The script started out with a woman who is attacked by a man. She later falls in love with that man. Then she finds out the truth about him. “I realized it’s too close and I have to make a shift,” she noted. The shift was for the woman to lose a child in a tragedy. “All of these experiences went into the script, and my experience as a mother,” she continued. “My son is an adult already, but I am familiar with that feeling to have a child and to always be a little bit afraid of what could happen to them. This is how the project began.”
Reading the statement of producer Sereina Gabathuler in the press notes, I was curious why there was a few years gap from the creation of the script to the beginning of production. I wanted to hear more about why she transitioned out of this project. “There were a few reasons for that,” Klemm said. She had to overcome doubt in herself for the project, as she was too close to it. Also, she had to take the time to trust her intuition and follow her heart in her development of the two main characters.
The two main characters of the film are Judith, played by Sarah Spale, the mother who loses her daughter in a robbery gone wrong, and Gabriel, played by Matthias Britschgi, the robber, who is also her friend, lover, and co-worker. Both characters have to deal with the death in different ways. They are tied together by this moment. I am so glad she followed her intuition, because she had received feedback that Gabriel’s story was much more interesting and that she should transition to him as the main character. Klemm said, “Both of these characters are the main characters, but Judith is a little bit more in my heart. I love Gabriel very much, but she is my main character too.”
Also during this time, Klemm switched to another project and it was quite successful. She received an award for this project, and she had to put all of her energy in to it. After this three-year period, she returned to working on “Of Fish and Men”.
Now Klemm had the script, and she had to fill those roles with actors who could embody these passionate characters. “Yes, they all were terrific,” Klemm said, “I’m so lucky. Sarah’s a brilliant actress.” She had Sarah Spale in mind for the role of Judith from the beginning. She had admired her from her work on television. She had the main role in a series where she was a police woman. “Of Fish and Men” would be Spale’s first major onscreen role in a film. Klemm was so happy she could find Spale for the role, as Switzerland does not have a wide selection of actors. Klemm sent her the script, they met for coffee, and Spale said, “Let’s go for it.”
It took a longer time for Klemm to find the right actor for Gabriel. It was important that she found Matthias Britschgi. He stood out to Klemm because, “he is a bit younger. Also, he’s not the typical ‘older strong guy.'” I mentioned that he had a great chemistry with the actor who played Milla [Lia Wagner]. She said that it was natural for him to connect with her because he also is a father, and has two young children, one at that time.
Nature is another character in Klemm’s film. The story takes place in the mountains in a northern region of Switzerland. She describes it as, “a small valley, a one-way valley, with a one-way road. You have to take the same road to go in and out of the region.” The main character Judith works at a fish farm in this remote region. I thought that was a fascinating choice within the climate and the landscape of the film. “One thing I really like watching in a film is characters in real professions,” she observed. “I enjoy learning more about something that I didn’t know before.”
Another reason for having Judith work at a fish farm is the metaphor of the work she does with fish. The metaphor plays on the title of the film, “Of Fish and Men”. Klemm explains, “Fish can’t speak. They have no words, and I think that it’s a metaphor for what happens to my main characters. What happens in the film is so tragic and there are no words that can express that.” She went on to explain Judith’s transformation from being like a fish and then coming to a place where she can really be a full human being again. “Judith’s feelings are so enclosed in her, they are so locked within her,” she said.
Following the tragic death of her daughter, Judith’s feelings carry on through the stage of shock and paralysis. We talked about some of the research Klemm did on the subject with Death Researcher Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Klemm’s reason for focusing most on shock and paralysis, and not going through the rest of the stages, was because, “I thought the stage of shock and paralysis is what is very visible to the viewer. We can see her reacting and we can understand her more. She is remaining in this state of anger. In this anger, come thoughts of revenge.”
As Judith is on the side of anger and revenge, we see that Gabriel is also going through his own stages as he is the reason for her daughter’s death. Klemm says that the film’s story is only functional because we have both characters, Gabriel and Judith, “knit together.” And it was important to Klemm to add a thriller element to the film, to keep people guessing, “It’s not only a film about mourning or overcoming this type of horrible situation, but also a film that will keep you at the edge of your seats.”
Though the film was based on a real life tragic situation, Klemm brings an element of hope and fantasy into the film. Early in the film, the character Milla keeps talking about this bird, a heron, that keeps visiting her at night. Judith dismisses the heron as a dream. After the tragedy, the heron represents Milla and her spirit. “When you get to the end, and the heron visits Judith, it’s little bit like Milla coming back, like a metaphor,” said Klemm. “Judith can have Milla come back through this heron, let go, and move on in some way.”
Closing the interview, I asked Klemm about her advice for emerging female filmmakers. “One of the most important things is not to give up,” she said, “along with the importance of breathing, making small breaths.” She also encouraged emerging filmmakers to try new things, and to not feel like you have to wait for money in order for your vision to be realized on screen.