Till Then 1 1

As seen in Benjamin Wolff’s Bis Gleich, sometimes you don’t need words at all in order to form a connection.

The 19-minute film (which means “Till Then” in English) is set in a vibrant, gentrified district of Berlin, Germany, and centers on two neighbours, Albert (Horst Westphal) and Marta (Gertrud Roll), who form an unspoken connection with each other from the distance of their parallel windows.

Although Albert and Marta have never properly met, they share a sacred daily ritual: Every day, at nine in the morning, they both wake up, sit by their bedroom windows and watch the bustling world outside. It’s a simple exercise, one that brings out their youth and humor. And watching these two charming actors find pleasure in what we often take for granted is an absolute joy to watch.

One morning, however, to Marta’s surprise, Albert stops appearing and his bedroom window stays shut.

Wolff, who shot the film in the summer of 2013, has earned a total of 29 film festival awards worldwide, in cities like Boston, New York, Savannah, and Cleveland. And to end its three-year journey, it could land the most coveted prize of them all: Oscar. (It’s one of 10 finalists shortlisted for Best Live Action Short Film at this year’s Academy awards.)

I spoke to the Hamburg-born director about developing the chemistry between the two leads, how technology hinders human connections, and the challenges of directing the film.

Till Then 2 2

ScreenPicks: Although Albert and Marta have never spoken to each other, you never once question the connection that they’ve formed. And you could even argue that dialogue wasn’t necessary, since so much of their non-verbal interactions spoke for themselves. Was the limited dialogue always an intention for the film?

Wolff: “I thought it was. The author Tara [Lynn Orr], she wrote it that way, and there was never any dialogue in the first couple of scenes. I think that the idea was there from the beginning to have a non-dialogue [be] a big part of the film.

ScreenPicks: I know that you’ve looked through the show reels and websites for the actors, and you collectively chose Horst [Westphal] and [Gertrud Roll]. How did you help them develop their chemistry? They were amazing on screen together.

Wolff: “Thank you. Yeah, we think so, too. I’ve never seen them before in real life. I interviewed them on the phone and then we met and I saw their show reels and everything. They were pretty much our first choices after we looked at some other old actors in that range, but they clearly stood out in their performances.

“She [Gertrud Roll] stood out very much as this very elegant woman that still has a lot of dignity in her age and ages really elegantly. You can still see that in [the] choice of her clothing and the way that she behaves and so she had the perfect contrast to this little, you know, more of a little boy in a body of an older person … They made the perfect couple.

“We had practising days. I remember we had a whole day of practising before we started shooting, but we didn’t really do casting, because their ability of acting was so clear in their show reels, that I was happy to get them for the short film that we made. I was happy to get them over to Berlin and just do it. I didn’t doubt their capabilities of being these parts, of playing these parts.”

ScreenPicks: This film reminds us of how technology prevents people from making connections, even in such a big city. Two of the characters that really stood out were the woman in that young couple and the old man’s daughter. How important was it to highlight these little details in such a chaotic atmosphere?

Wolff: “I think, mainly, the idea of those two old people being sort of aliens in this new world, if you wanna call it new, but Berlin, especially, has been taken over by many young, new, upcoming people and they take away the apartments — funnily enough, I was one of them. When I moved to Berlin years ago — I’m now living in Hamburg, but I lived in Berlin for a while — so I was equally as responsible for kicking out people out of their places, to be honest.

“And I think it was a nice idea to show these old people living in their own world and not being part, but being part because they could watch what happens in front of them, in front of their door. And the people on the street don’t really take notice of those old people sitting at their windows. So when I first read the script from the scriptwriter, I liked the fact of those two worlds living parallel to one another but not having any interaction to one another. And the modern way of communication with phones, and with people on the streets, this only came stronger later within the filming process. The idea mainly was to have two separate worlds.”

Till Then 3 3

ScreenPicks: I wanted to talk more about the vibrant atmosphere of this big city ’cause there’s so much for Albert and Marta to observe from their bedroom windows. So I imagine it must’ve been difficult to choreograph all of that activity on that street. Can you talk about how you took that challenge on?

Wolff: “Oh, yeah, it was a challenge, but we wanted to keep it as real as possible. So we had to find two apartments that are actually across from one another or opposite from each other and then be in the same height so that they could look at everything they look out of their windows actually happening. The choreography was quite a challenge. We had, of course, a second, assistant director who arranged it fantastically. But everything that you see is basically happening.

“There’s only some closeups where I played or I told the actor what he is going to look at and what is happening at that moment so we could shoot some real closeups of their faces without them actually seeing what’s happening. But the rest of it is pretty much happening as they are being filmed.

“Also, the interesting part was the eye lines because you never really — in such a distance, when you’re so far away from someone, he’s looking at the window and he points his eyes to a guy on the street, the eye movement is so little because it’s so far from the distance that you sometimes can’t tell where is he looking now. So it was quite a challenge, but for some reason it worked out — I don’t know. In the editing, we were quite surprised that it worked out so well.”

ScreenPicks: Were the movements of the actors really specific, or did you allow them to improvise what they were doing with each take?

Wolff: “Yeah, funnily enough, we did some improvisation. As I said before, we shot some really intense closeups. We let them look at stuff, but I told them, ‘there’s the bike now, there’s the fireman now.’ And in the editing, at the end, some bits ended up not being the stuff that I told them, but it’s a facial expression that just makes it so unique, even though it doesn’t really fit to whatever they are looking at. So yes, there is some improvisation, if you want to call it that.”

ScreenPicks: This film explores gentrification and transformation, not only of the city, but of the people living in it. Other than Albert and Marta, the residents, it seems to be mostly young adults and young families. And yet I don’t think the film ever undermines the youthful vitality that both of these elderly people have. We see them being playful and cheeky with one another. Why is it important to show this side to an elderly couple?

Wolff: “I don’t know. I think that’s probably a question of interpretation. 
The fact that I didn’t write the script myself, but it’s created by two people — the writer and then I came on board, directed it. It shows how I see the world or how I want to see the world. I’m always influenced by more comedic films since I studied in England, and I love films that haven’t got that so deep, darkness about them. So I wanted to keep it entertaining and also uplifting and not too sad.”

ScreenPicks: So this film has been through quite the long journey. You filmed it in 2013, so it’s been through the festival circuit for two years now. And according to your website, it’s won 29 awards. What would you say has been your most rewarding experience so far?

Wolff: “Well, I haven’t been to too many of the festivals, since they were all happening in the States, mostly. Since I’m far away, you know, I couldn’t really go to all of the festivals. But there was one festival that I visited — which I loved very much — it was ten days in Savannah, Georgia. It’s SCAD, it’s the film festival of the College of Art and Design in Savannah. And it was a very, very fantastic time. First of all, it’s a great festival. It’s a very high quality festival, and it’s run by fantastic people. I met loads of nice, young — you know, I made great contacts there. And that stood out for me.

ScreenPicks: Finally, are there any upcoming projects that you can tell us about?

Wolff: “Well, at the moment, my head is pretty full of a documentary I’m going to do about a photographer. He’s an English guy and he’s doing very specific and very unique photographs. I’m working on documentaries as well as on feature or commercial work. My work is pretty much all over the place, actually … I’d love to do another short film, to be honest, because doing a short film is a great thing to do.

Till Then 5 5

All 10 Best Live Action Short Film contenders are listed below.

“Ave Maria,” Basil Khalil, director, and Eric Dupont, producer (Incognito Films)
“Bad Hunter,” Sahim Omar Kalifa, director, and Dries Phlypo, producer (A Private View)
“Bis Gleich (Till Then),” Philippe Brenninkmeyer, producer, and Tara Lynn Orr, writer (avenueROAD Films)
“Contrapelo (Against the Grain),” Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer, director, and Pin-Chun Liu, producer (Ochenta y Cinco Films)
“Day One,” Henry Hughes, director (American Film Institute)
“Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut),” Patrick Vollrath, director (Filmakademie Wien)
“The Free Man (Zi You Ren),” Quah Boon-Lip, director (Taipei National University of the Arts)
“Shok,” Jamie Donoughue, director (Eagle Eye Films)
“Stutterer,” Benjamin Cleary, director (Bare Golly Films)
“Winter Light,” Julian Higgins, director, and Josh Pence, producer (Innerlight Films and Prelude Pictures)

The nominees for the 88th Academy Awards will be announced on Thursday, January 14, 2016.

(All photos are courtesy of Benjamin Wolff.)