Interview with the directors Ulrike Franke and Michael Loeken

Your film documents the dismantling of the Kaiserstuhl coke factory in Dortmund by a big Chinese corporation, resulting in the loss of hundreds of jobs to the Far East. When and how did you find out that this was happening?

ULRIKE FRANKE: I was born and grew up in Dortmund, so to speak in the shadow of the blast furnaces. My parents’ allotment garden bordered on the grounds of the Westfalen steelworks. Michael comes from a town close to the Ruhr Valley and we both feel very closely bound up with the people here and with the region. That’s why we are interested in the region’s development. We found out about the impending disassembly of Kaiserstuhl while doing research on another topic. The fact that the Chinese are breaking down entire industrial complexes in Germany and shipping them off to China is in itself nothing new; they’ve been doing that since the mid-1980s. Zündapp was the first plant to go, and others followed. Kaiserstuhl, however, was an industrial site that was still the most modern in the world at the time of its shutdown in 2000, after being in operation for only eight years. We felt compelled to take a closer look.

Which concrete aspects and conflicts ultimately motivated you to tell the story of the plant’s disappearance?

MICHAEL LOEKEN: After visiting the site a few times and becoming acquainted with some of the possible protagonists, we learned that 400 Chinese were to come over and the last of the German workers at the coke factory would help them to dismantle their own workplace. It was clear that this was a perfect story for a documentary. Everything fit: it was an exciting subject, and there were good protagonists – seasoned, authentic Ruhr Valley people. The unity of place and time was right; the breakdown was to take two years and everything would take place on the grounds of the coke factory – in a microcosm in which two utterly disparate cultures would come together and be expected to work side by side. How would that work out? We anticipated that it would be suspenseful, very bizarre, very funny, but also quite serious and sad. The storyline that would unfold here was impossible to predict. And based on the personal fates, the “small” stories, one would be able to get an idea of the “big picture”, the state of the world. That’s a stroke of luck for any filmmaker.

Was it easy to obtain permission to shoot from those in charge on both the German and Chinese sides, and to persuade them to play a role in the film?

M.L.: We quickly met with approval from the official side and were granted permission to shoot. We were also given our own passes with which we could visit the site whenever we wanted to. The main work in a documentary is to win the trust of the protagonists. That took some time. We got to know their work routine, their daily habits. This included a hearty breakfast with treacherously strong coffee, and rolls with raw minced pork and onions at nine o’clock in the morning. We became familiar with their work and their anxieties, their inability to comprehend why their state-of-the-art plant, their pride and joy, was being given up and they were being let go to face an uncertain future. We also learned of their resentment against the Chinese and were sometimes embarrassed by how they talked about them. When the Chinese then came onto the scene, it was different because we could at first not communicate on the level of language. But with time our respect for their work and sincere interest in them as people and their lives built trust and granted us access. Personal relationships developed with certain people, and they then became the protagonists in our film.

How long did shooting last altogether? Where did you face difficulties, where were you pleasantly surprised?

M.L.: We accompanied the entire dismantling of the coke factory with the camera – that is, over a period of one and a half years, during which we spent over one hundred days on the grounds shooting. At the beginning of the project, we first had to get to know the exact processes and communication structures in order to be able to understand what was going on. What’s more, we didn’t have a budget until shooting was half over. We were unable to interest any of the television stations in the topic; maybe we didn’t try long or hard enough. But we knew we wanted to shoot the film and we had to start because the breakdown was getting underway and we couldn’t wait any longer. Back then we always said: the Chinese are breaking down this gigantic factory faster than we Germans can procure financing for a documentary. Now that the film is finished, we have to admit in all fairness that they rebuilt the plant in China faster than we were able to edit our film. At any rate, since we didn’t have a budget, we not only directed the film, but also did the sound and camerawork ourselves. It was a wonderful experience. Immediacy, a very intimate situation, freedom. It was liberating: you film differently, the way you always wanted to, without consideration for formats or specifications. An enriching, worthwhile experience.
U.F.: At some point, after a relatively short time, we were simply part of the breakdown process. We were there at the site before the Chinese arrived, and they immediately got to know and accept us as part of the plant – even though in the beginning they did show some shyness and scepticism. I think at first they thought we were there to keep an eye on them, but in the course of the dismantling work they came to trust us more and more and opened up to us.

How did you manage to get close to the protagonists? How did you communicate with the Chinese workers – were there interpreters who accompanied you during the shooting?

M.L.: We spoke with people at length about their lives, their families and their points of view and regularly asked them to explain their work to us. They could sense that we took a sincere interest in them and that made it possible to build mutual trust. Alone the fact that we were at the site from early morning until late evening, in every kind of weather, convinced them that we took our work seriously.
U.F.: In the first few weeks, we could only communicate with the Chinese using gestures. It was a special situation that took some getting used to. We learned that people can communicate even without speaking each other’s language, because you can see emotions. This was a very valuable experience, incidentally, because after all, a documentary is ideally about images and sounds that speak a universal language and should be able to get by without too many words. The further shooting progressed, however, the more we depended on the help of the interpreters. Only then could we ask detailed questions about things we had previously only suspected or felt.

In “Loser and Winners” two (work) cultures come up against each other that could not be more different. How did you experience the encounter between the German and Chinese workers behind the camera?

U.F.: The Chinese came to Dortmund to accomplish something: namely, to procure a factory that in technical terms would put them ahead by decades and grant them a secure future. The Germans, by contrast, were involved in a process of destruction – they had to help dismantle their own workplace. For the one side, the breakdown is a step to a brighter future, while the others are losing something they thought would always be there for them. Under these circumstances, the willingness to get to know each other and reach out to the others is naturally very limited. In addition, the Chinese workers had a 60-hour workweek to master. They worked very, very hard – under massive pressure from management, mind you, but also with a clear goal in front of them and driven by the vision of a better life one day. This is the kind of wishful thinking that people here know only from the days of the Economic Miracle of the fifties. The German workers for their part couldn’t leave the site fast enough at the end of their shift, except for on a few official occasions. At their workplace they could no longer find an answer to the question of what their future would hold.
M.L.: The two groups really made no attempt to get closer. Among the Germans, a certain arrogance was noticeable – more or less pronounced depending on company rank. As builders of the most modern coke factory in the world, they apparently felt superior. They had no desire to learn anything from the Chinese. They laughed at the way the Asians worked, incredulous at how often they had to improvise. They confiscated tools the Chinese had cobbled together as proof of their inferiority or backwardness. This reflects the typical European pride vis-à-vis the so-called Third World. The Chinese for their part gave the Germans the feeling that they themselves were “the greatest”, having always achieved what they wanted using their own methods.

Towards the end of the film, the German workers speak out incredibly openly about their feelings in the face of losing their work and their home. Which side did you find more open and accessible – the Germans or the Chinese?

U.F.: Trust in us and our project only developed slowly, over the course of time. There was in principle no difference, even though it was of course easier to hold a conversation with the German workers because of our common language. I think that the protagonists also became interested in us, in the sense that we gave them a chance to express their feelings – whether their grief at the loss, their pride in their work and accomplishments, or their hopes and wishes for the future. I believe that the Chinese found it unusual that we showed so much interest in and respect for them and their work. They felt honoured and appreciated.
M.L.: From the very beginning, we were able to develop a good relationship with the protagonists Kruska and Vogt. They were really hurt by the fact that they would no longer be needed in the future, but they hid their disappointment behind a mask of toughness and were happy to be able to show someone what the Chinese were up to and how they were breaching German safety regulations. But the real reason why they agreed to show us around their place of work was to demonstrate that they still had the place under control. We developed a good mutual understanding. And I think that the film was also appropriate for them as a platform allowing them to directly express their emotions and their fears.

“Losers and Winners” breathes life into the omnipresent and yet still somehow abstract concept of globalization, making it more tangible. To what extent did both of you find that your personal view of this theme was influenced by your work on the film?

U.F.: It was never our intention to illustrate concepts like “globalization” or “work culture” with our film, let alone to explain them. Instead, our focus was on the people, who told us their stories and, with them, conveyed a palpable image of the drastic changes that are taking place in today’s society.
M.L.: The workers in Germany are not prepared to face these changes. They don’t want to believe that the people of the so-called Third World have begun to sally forth and pocket the wealth that we in countries like Germany have for so long taken for granted.

You did most of the camerawork and sound yourselves. The unusual atmosphere of the location and the out-of-the-ordinary conjunction of two dissonant cultures of work and life would surely be a windfall for any filmmaker, but also present a major challenge when filming on a shoestring. Did you have a specific visual concept in mind from the very beginning with which you approached the object under observation?

M.L.: We agreed early on that we did not want to succumb to the gigantism of industry and technology. That would have been out of the question anyway on our budget, and would not fit in with our approach. We were much more interested in getting as close as possible to the people involved and in accompanying them without letting the technical details get in the way. In our case, a lack of funds turned out to be a blessing. Being equipped with all the technical conveniences, with options for using light, dollies and so forth, definitely holds a fascination for us, but telling people’s stories on film in an authentic, true-to-life way is our first priority. Technology comes second.

You already started the project in 2003, in a sense spearheading what would become a major contemporary theme – China’s economic boom and its consequences have by now become a fixed component of media reporting. How are you experiencing current developments on this front, and how do you view them in connection with the theatrical release of “Losers and Winners”?

U.F.: We never intended to make a film about an issue that is explicitly up-to-the-minute, but rather about material that goes beyond the area commonly explored in the media. A film that does not first and foremost convey information, but instead portrays people’s emotions and stories: what makes them happy, what scares them, the loss of their jobs and with them their identity, their visions for the future, their hopes and dreams. Naturally, we also wanted to show how these emotions are expressed, namely through small stories that are often outrageous or funny, sometimes full of meanness and trickery, at once fascinating or endlessly sad. In any case, stories that everyone knows and with which we can all identify. The fact that this all takes place against the backdrop of the debate on raw materials supply of course plays a role in our film, and it makes the situation of the people in it more comprehensible.

Today, the situation on the world market has changed drastically. Now that coke prices have gone up precipitously, no one can deny that it was a major mistake to sell the Kaiserstuhl coke factory to China. How do you think your film will be received – in particular in the Ruhr Valley? Which discourses would you like to spark with your project?

U.F.: Of course, we hope first of all that the people who took part in the film and are directly affected will be pleased with the result, and that we were able to do the protagonists and the situation justice. The film also has general relevance beyond the specific situation in the Ruhr Valley. Many people know what it’s like to lose their job, or at least have experienced how important work is in shaping our identity. “Winning” and “losing” in life means something to almost everyone. And everybody is familiar with the human weaknesses, meanness and small tricks with which our protagonists fight their way through life. If the viewer can identify with these stories, if he can feel empathy and smile or laugh on top of it, we would be very gratified.

Your film is called “Losers and Winners”. Whom do you see as the winners in your documentary, and who are the losers?

M.L.: The viewer has to decide that for himself. We had the impression that, at least in terms of the workers, the losers are on both sides, as opposed to their employers higher up in the corporate hierarchy. On the one hand, the Chinese, who almost blindly chase the vision of a better future, working under brutal conditions that give reason to fear that they might not come out of the boom in one piece. And on the other hand the Germans, who are not only losing their workplace, but are also being robbed of their prospects for the future and their homeland. How they come to terms with the psychological problems involved – with the massive loss of identity, for example – remains to be seen.

Interview: Frank Domhan