Akiz on His Latest Film ‘Der Nachtmahr’

The story of a girl and her monster is perhaps one of the most classic horror stories of all. There’s Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Bride of Frankenstein. These are stories of need, of love, acceptance and connection. The monster is at first reviled, then loved in some way, lest he have his revenge.

I recently connected with filmmaker and artist Akiz to discuss his latest project, Der Nachtmahr, a story not so dissimilar from these classic tales. A German horror/coming of age hybrid, the film is the tale of Tina, a girl who may or may not be losing her mind. Or perhaps more simply, experiencing her last phase of puberty. When a little monster appears, a curious creature that at first scares her, then intrigues her, things start to get very weird. Is the monster real? Is it a figment of her imagination? Is it connected to her is some way? The result is a fascinating, engaging entry into the subgenre that I won’t soon forget.

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The origin of the narrative came from Akiz’s work as a sculptor. He built the creature first as a 3-dimensional art piece, conceiving it to represent both an old entity and a fetus. Over several years the piece evolved, he added moving parts, and he started putting notes together that eventually formed its story. It came alive.

With the initial thought of creating a film for his creature, he said, “I thought of it in terms of budget. The German art scene is conservative. I envision available light, natural settings.” The result of these plans lend the film a very real quality, something that makes it feel immediate and open, and even realistic.

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The theme of this film immediately recalls Henry Fuseli’s painting, The Nightmare. It’s an iconic, gothic piece suggestive of all the things its title evokes – someone, in both cases a woman, in peril and a creature poised to terrify. Funny enough, Akiz said the painting only subconsciously influenced him. This revelation, the notion of subconscious being brought to life, plays perfectly into the theme of the film. He said E.T. more consciously inspired him, though. “When I was a kid, I was epileptic, and I had a near death experience in a hospital. There were cables all around, coming in and out of me. The hospital scene with the creature was a reference to that, and to E.T., which I felt very close to.”

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The creature itself is quite reminiscent of the famed Spielberg alien, equally as curiously destructive, but it’s more goblin-like in some ways. Akiz says the creature is 80% real, and the rest was CGI. The still shots were practical, the creature controlled by one or several puppeteers, depending on its level of movement. To make the creature even more realistic, one of the things Akiz immediately thought about was its breathing. “E.T. breathed. It was so realistic,” he said. “So we used a balloon in our creature’s chest, with one of our puppeteers breathing through a tube into it, to create that inhaling, exhaling effect.”

While the creature is perhaps what the film is inspired by, its the experience of Tina that the film is centered upon. “I wanted someone young and convincing for this role. I was frustrated with those that auditioned for the lead because some of them were over acting, not bringing the right element. When I saw Carolyn Genzkow I immediately knew she was Tina. She played it perfectly, natural, and perhaps that was because she never went to film school. She wasn’t trying to act.”

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A surprising cast member, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, shows up as a literary teacher in the school scenes (to make the older viewers feel even older, I guess). “She didn’t even read the script. She came at her own expense,” Akiz said. “She was just happy to be a part of the film. She’s a fan of my work, and working with me was just something she wanted to do.”

While Gordon’s music didn’t appear in the film, the soundtrack is filled with an assault of techno music. “I wouldn’t consider myself a big techno fan,” Akiz admits. “I wanted to have something that was realistic for people at this age in Berlin, with the drugs and the possibility of hallucinations.” His efforts paid off, because the music creates a perfect tension, an aura of discordance and confusion that weaves perfectly into the experience.

I was surprised to learn that Der Nachtmahr is the first part in a planned demonic trilogy. Akiz says, “the second part will be about love, hate, jealousy.” No word on what the third will be. Whatever they are, if they are anything like this, I’m looking forward to seeing them.