SHOOTING THE FILM: THE DIRECTOR'S VISION
WILL THE REAL FRANK RATCLIFFE PLEASE STAND UP?
ON THIS PAGE: THE FILM, A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DDR, THE JOURNEY FROM SCRIPT TO SCREEN, ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS AND WRITERS
They left the land of Marks & Spencer for the world of Marx and Lenin. MRS RATCLIFFE'S REVOLUTION is a feel-good comedy following one dysfunctional family's journey from 1968 North of England to 19 below freezing East Germany and back again. Mr Ratcliffe fought for the cause, but his wife fought for their family : a teenage sex goddess and an eleven year old communist spy. Will Mr Ratcliffe throw away his party card and fall in love with his brave new wife? This is a story of failed idealism, and of reawakening. It tells how a woman finds her voice, takes control of her life and restores the balance to her distinctively dysfunctional family. How a man, blinded by his obsession, finally sees the light and falls back in love with his wife.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DDR
"The Wall will be standing in 50 and even in 100 years, if the reasons for it are not removed" - Erich Honecker
The DDR - Deutsche Demokratische Republik - (also known as East Germany or the GDR - German Democratic Republic) was a communist state that existed from 1949 to 1990.
Established in the Soviet occupation zone of Germany on October 7, 1949, it followed the creation in May 1949 of the Federal Republic of Germany ("West Germany") in the zones occupied by the United States, Britain and France.
Berlin (in practice, East Berlin) was claimed as its capital and the Republic was declared fully sovereign in 1955. However, Soviet troops remained based there as American troops remained in West Berlin and West Germany.
The GDR and Berlin in particular became focal points of Cold War tensions. The GDR was a member of the Warsaw Pact and a close ally of the Soviet Union.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 and strong popular pressure, free elections were held on March 18, 1990 and the ruling Communist party, the SED, lost its majority in the Volkskammer (the DDR parliament).
Soon after, on August 23 1990, the Volkskammer decided that the territory of the Republic would accede to the ambit of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany on October 3, 1990.
As a result of German reunification on that date, the German Democratic Republic officially ceased to exist.
A JOURNEY OF A THOUSAND (AND THIRTY EIGHT) MILES BEGINS WITH A SINGLE STEP
In 1968, a man called Brian Norris packed up his family and all their worldly belongings into a Russian Moscovitch car. They started a journey that would take them from Bolton, England to Halle in the communist German Democratic Republic.
Almost 40 years later that story has now arrived on the big screen in the form of new British feature film MRS RATCLIFFE'S REVOLUTION.
There was no doubt for producer Leslee Udwin that the film had those unique elements to make it a success; "The concept of the film is distinctive and remarkable and yet it's theme is entirely universal. It deals with how families should function, which is something that is ultimately recognisable across the world. And the other really rich seam in this film for me is the whole question of idealism and the failure of idealism: the concept of a nation, the German Democratic Republic, that built itself on the foundation of a dream. And that dream turned sour so quickly. On a personal, narrative level, this is also what happens to the dream Frank Ratcliffe has in our story.
So the personal and political are intertwined and mirror each other in a very satisfying way in this story. The other, crucial theme in the story is the empowerment of a woman - Dorothy Ratcliffe, Everywoman, British housewife, who finds her voice and becomes an unlikely 'revolutionary heroine', mirroring the social drive of the growth in strength of the Women's Movement of the 60's."
But as is so often the case, despite the quality of the story, it was not an easy process getting it made into a film. "I've been working on this film for five years now," says Udwin, "for me it's like family, and like a sort of crusade - rather like Frank Ratcliffe, I'm obsessed, driven, unbalanced!"
Getting two of the hottest British scriptwriters, husband and wife team Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, on board at an early stage was an important step in starting the road to realising MRS RATCLIFFE'S REVOLUTION. Leslee was thrilled to have them write MRS RATCLIFFE'S REVOLUTION. According to Udwin they "write the most original, anarchically comic, heightened, and fresh material which makes me howl with laughter, think, and feel. And with two of them, you get double the gift - double ingenuity".
The writers, husband and wife team Peter and Bridget, recall the process: " This was the first film we'd written together and it we had to go through quite a learning curve. For the first few drafts we worked fairly intensively side by side. We tried other ways of working on it, for example, taking a few scenes each and amalgamating the best from each.
The core of the story for the writers was always the family and its personal relationships - essentially all one has when big political movements have let us down.
"We loved the idea of Frank's faith in communism being so strong that he would uproot his family and take them into this foreign environment, but when things go wrong it's Dorothy's faith in the family that holds them together."
"The themes seem very relevant today and the period setting is really just a medium to explore them: - the empowerment of women, the relationship between the individual and the state, the struggle for freedom and the loss of political idealism. It's interesting to see how much focus there is currently on life in the GDR and what is was like to live in a police state. Perhaps people see a darker mirror image of the way our own societies can go".
As for the fact that there is a real story, with real people, underlying the film is concerned, and the potential difficulties or restraints this might have imposed: Peter and Bridget say: "To be honest the true story was just the inspiration - this was a very fictionalised version of what really happened, so the characters are all more or less invented, and the plot had to go its own way if this was to work as a comedy, rather than a documentary account".
So with script in hand Leslee had to start the process of bringing the money together to make the film. But that was to prove to be an adventure in itself. "Almost all the financiers and distributors I approached recognised the originality of the project and admired the quality of the writing. It was getting their interest to turn to commitment that was the sticking point: a familiar obstacle given a truly non-genre independent film with no American stars. The exception was Warner Brothers Pictures, who came on board at an early stage and never wavered in their trust of the material. They were steadfast throughout, and, frankly, it was their unswerving support that kept me going.
In August 2005, after a 2-year battle to square the circle of financing on the film, I succeeded to fully finance the film. Then the unthinkable happened. One of the financiers fell out at the last possible moment. I had to send the crew home from location and start again. But Warner Bros' support and my passion for the film kept me going. I regrouped and did what no producer should ever do; I re-mortgaged my home, and pledged everything I had to get the project up and running again."
IF AT FIRST YOU DON'T SUCCEED…
Traveling in trust that the film would see the light of day Leslee started putting together some of the team who would help her make it happen. One of the first people she was in touch with was German actress Heike Makatsch, who featured in Richard Curtis' Love Actually. In MRS RATCLIFFE'S REVOLUTION she features as Stasi agent Fraulein Unger. "I think out of most of the actors I'm the one that possessed the script for the longest time," she says, "and every time we thought okay, this autumn we're gonna go and we're gonna start shooting, everything fell apart again. So we all had to be patient. But I was because I so much believed in the script and fell in love with it from the moment go. And I always said to Leslee; "just tell me when you are ready; I'll be ready too"."
With this kind of support Leslee looked for her director and struck gold with Bille Eltringham.
Bille's TV series "The Long Firm" had recently won plaudits and BAFTA nominations when Leslee approached her.
The style of the film is novel to Eltringham; "I hadn't done a comedy before and I like laughing and lots of things make me laugh as a person. So the idea of being able to do a comedy was really nice. But I think it's also about trying to play it as a truth. It's a slightly heightened truth, but it's still a truth and you're still trying to tell a story."
And to tell that story the next key element was finding the right cast.
BORN IN THE DDR
Back in 2004, the Producer took the writers and director on a scouting trip to the former East Germany. This was very much a 'writers' recce', aimed at immersing the team in the factual landscape, and the personal memories of the real former GDR citizens. Amongst the extraordinary people they met and talked with was Andrea Lorz, a former university lecturer in Leipzig.
Andrea recalls: "I was so pleased to meet the film-makers and learn of their undertaking. Most Germans are not willing or able to engage with their history in a self-critical way. I feel a very keen sense of regret that the reality and existence of the GDR should be relegated to 'a negative footnote of history'. Of course dictatorships are always unjust and they produce injustice - but this is also part of the tragedy of the collapse of the GDR. The 17 million people of this former state cannot be degraded as merely 'stasi-stained': these were 17 million lives, nearly 2 generations of achievements and lives fully lived - joys and sorrows, aspirations and valuable dreams.
There were certainly good aspects to the GDR, mostly from an ideological viewpoint, which could be helpfully remembered by us now. Each and every school-leaver had a training placement and after this apprenticeship, had work - a good start in life, a good health system; affordable child-care in day nurseries. There was a real and broad enthusiasm for and participation in sporting events; and, perhaps most importantly, a real sense of community and strong friendships grew out of this system.
Looking at the post-1989 reality, I often wonder how such a sudden and dramatic change - also in human behaviour - could have been possible. I suppose another aspect of the tragedy of the collapse of the GDR was that its citizens found themselves not only socially and politically disorientated, but also emotionally and behaviourally unconfident. After decades of 'locked in society 'they were entirely unprepared for the changes and the risks of solid democracy. Today the East Germans somehow feeling like "second class citizens" in the new unified Germany, and some even look back on the condition sin the GDR nostalgically, and even unrealistically.
I ask myself why now that democratic values and the freedom of the individual are 'guaranteed' - why schools close due to a 'lack of pupils', and houses are 'built back' (a euphemism for 'pulled down') and many young people are reluctant to create families and forego having children, and know only how to live competitively, and are only valued until the age of 35. Egoism and individuality and 'elbow mentality' are called for; jobs are rare, social security is in danger….
I really miss the human warmth, primarily, and a workplace not only bound by competitiveness and productivity levels. I miss the values we had of ensuring the merits of culture and art (both of which were heavily subsidised in the former GDR) and 'my Leipzig' which was a city of music, books, science, art and sport. And it was not a 'luxury' to treat yourself to any of these life-enhancing forces.
I wish the film great success, and wish for the film and its audiences that it will spur some discussion and debate".
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
Bille Eltringham (Director)
Bille Eltringham graduated from Bournemouth Film School in 1992. Whilst there, she met and joined forces with Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) setting up Footprint Films in 1993. Together they made a series of shorts and a full length feature film for Pathe/BBC Films The Darkest Night starring Kerry Fox and Stephen Dillane.
In 1999 Bille directed Kid in the Corner, written by Tony Marchant, and starring Douglas Henshall. This critically acclaimed Channel Four serial was nominated for a number of major awards including a BAFTA and Bille herself was nominated as Best Newcomer at the RTS Awards and won best director at the Monte Carlo Television awards.
Bille was awarded the 'Women in Film and Television' best newcomer for 2001.
Subsequently Bille directed the feature film This Is Not A Love Song.
This film was shot in 12 days on digital DV cameras creating a gritty, immediate thriller, which was the first feature to be streamed live on the internet simultaneously with its cinema premiere.
She went on to direct The Long Firm for the BBC. Based on Jake Arnott's novel and adapted by Joe Penhall, the series was a massive hit garnering critical and popular acclaim.
Starring Mark Strong and Sir Derek Jacobi the series was nominated for seven BAFTA awards. Bille then went on to direct for the hit US show The L Word before beginning work on MRS RATCLIFFE'S REVOLUTION.
Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan (Screenwriters)
Peter began his career writing for the stage and has written several award winning plays including Bones which premiered in 1999 at Live Theatre in Newcastle, and Noir which premiered in 2002 at Newcastle playhouse, and which he has recently adapted for the screen.
Peter's latest writing commissions include an adaptation of Toby Young's novel How To Lose Friends and Alienate People for producer Steve Woolley and Film Four, The Men Who Stare at Goats - an adaptation of the book by Jon Ronson for Ruby Films/BBC Films, and A Christmas Carol for Working Title.
Peter's first produced feature, 66, an original screenplay which Paul Weiland has directed for Working Title, was released theatrically in November 2006.
Bridget has written theatre, radio, short stories and film, as well as pieces for The Guardian and The Irish Post. She recently completed a two month attachment at the National Theatre Studio to develop a new play. In January 2000, Bridget was the Visiting Creative Writing Fellow at the University of East Anglia.
Her play The Lovers was performed at the Live Theatre, Newcastle, in November 2005 and The Flags has been performed at The Royal Exchange in Manchester and in Dublin and is transferring to the West End.
Bridget has also written two collections of short stories - Here Comes John (Picador 1993), which won the 1993 Irish Times Fiction Prize, and Tell Her You Love Her (Picador 1997), both of which have been published in translation - and her short fiction has appeared in magazines and anthologies including Penguin Best Irish Short Stories and Time Out, for which she received a Time Out Short Story award.
She has co-written two films with Peter Straughan - 66, which was produced by Working Title Films and released Autumn 2006, and MRS RATCLIFFE'S REVOLUTION. They are currently adapting A Christmas Carol for Working Title and Bridget is adapting her play The Lovers as a feature film for Thomas Thomas.
THE ART OF ADAPTATION