Twisted Reality in The Mind of Nikias Chryssos

The underground director on his dark debut feature, Der Bunker

From masochistic power play to riotous absurdity, Der Bunker is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Is it a sadistic thriller? A dark comedy? Camp horror flick? Who is to say. Whatever the case, what’s certain is that independent cinema has been given a gift in the form of Nikias Chryssos.

Alison RhoadesViktor Richardsson

Chopin’s Nocturne Opus 9, Number 2 is heard from a vintage stereo, a kitsch Roman statue perched on a shelf looks on ominously. In the forest green kitchen, its indisputably retro cabinets furnished with faux-wood panelling and a hefty stack of canned food in the corner; a mother, father and child sit at the breakfast table, quietly discussing the weather. “Something’s brewing,” says the father. “A storm?” The mother asks anxiously, noticeably unnerved. “I’m afraid so, yes. Let’s hope our guest will find his way.” The child looks up from his plate as a hooded young man trudges through the snowy woods, marching towards Der Bunker.

Within the first minute and a half, we’ve already been introduced to the four characters that constitute the entire cast of the bizarrely brilliant debut feature film from Berlin-based writer/director Nikias Chryssos. ‘Der Student’ (Pit Bikowski), who believes he has rented a quiet room in the countryside that will allow him to finish his research on the Higgs particle, is thrust into the mysterious world of a sadistic family burrowed away in a Cold War-era bunker in the middle of the woods. ‘Der Vater’ (David Scheller), a self-aggrandising family man, waxes poetic about topics that, frankly, he appears to know nothing about, while ‘Die Mutter’ (Oona Von Maydell), who oozes a horrifically enchanting sexual energy, is governed by an alien-god named Heinrich that speaks to her from a wound on her leg.

Through lessons on the global finance system, Heidegger, and frequent use of corporal punishment, the parents are preening their eight-year-old son Klaus (Daniel Fripan) to be President. Within a day, they manage to manipulate their guest into becoming Klaus’ private tutor. But when the student finally encounters Klaus, he is astounded to find that the eight-year-old, still struggling to learn the capital cities, appears to be a significantly older man dressed as a little boy (Fripan is in his 30s). The student finds himself drawn into the twisted life of this family until escape seems like a far-off dream.

Born in Heidelberg to German-Greek parents, Chryssos discovered his passion for movies at a young age, playing with his grandmother’s Super 8 camera and watching Roman Polanski films when he was sick in bed. He had an affinity for Humphrey Bogart and loved films where children found themselves in fantastical circumstances, such as Home Alone or The Goonies. As he grew older, he discovered the filmmakers that would later influence his visual style, such as David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino and Andrei Tarkovsky. His avid reading of such authors as Franz Kafka, James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov would also have a profound effect on him as a screenwriter and storyteller.

When talking to Chryssos, you become acutely aware of the vast span of his interests, from the arts and psychoanalysis, to architecture and fashion. Cinema became a medium through which all of his passions could coalesce: “If you make a movie you can talk about architecture with the production designer, and music and sound with the composer, and fashion with the costume designer, and I think that’s so rich in a way – and also, of course, if you write you start researching … there’s just a lot of things to explore when you make a movie and I think that’s very fascinating.”

After completing an internship at a TV station and spending several years in Munich undertaking various gigs at film production companies and shooting short films with friends, he landed a place at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg in Ludwigsburg on one of the most prestigious directing programs in Germany. Driven by his interdisciplinary approach to artmaking, Chryssos spent his time in Ludwigsburg exploring different styles and genres, but it’s not difficult to find through-lines in his work. Among other themes, the director preoccupies himself with the question of how we come to accept a given thing as truth, be it socially, psychologically or even physically.

“I’m interested in people who build their own worlds,” he explains. This is evident from various projects, from the documentary Man Liebt Hund [Man Loves Dog, 2011], a sensitive if upsetting portrait of a pair of zoophiles living with their animals, to his prize-winning short film, Hochhaus [Tower Block, 2006]. Set in a social housing tower block in Halle, Hochhaus tells the story of a young boy whose older brother viciously ridicules and abuses him, compelling him to befriend a junkie living in neighbouring apartment. The boy imagines his new friend as a heroic cowboy, a renegade defender of honour who helps the child cope with his problems. “He’s not actually a saviour, even though the boy wants him to be,” explains Chryssos. He describes the film as, “dreamy, [a] mixture of reality and imagination.” Like Polanski or Lynch, Chryssos likes to construct a world into which the viewer can almost insert themselves, but that then ruptures: “Someone drifts off into a fantasy world, or (the real world) blurs into imaginary worlds.”

The inspiration for Der Bunker came from a bunker-style room in his grandparents’ holiday home in Switzerland, which was mostly used to store skiing equipment but was helpful to have in case, you know, a nuclear war broke out. “I liked this image of someone going to look for a nice room in the countryside, and then he basically gets locked up,” says Chryssos. Then he got to thinking about who this person could meet there: maybe a couple, who perhaps have a son. “This controlled or closed setting allowed me to put a lot of themes or topics that I was interested in into the movie because only these four characters were there, and they brought their own neuroses and idiosyncrasies into the story, and I was just curious what would happen if they’d all meet in this place. And of course there was some fantastic element of having Daniel Fripan play the child,” he says.

Film financing in Germany is usually a mixture of film funds and television money. Chryssos had already been rejected for another project and wasn’t interested in repeating the process: “I was really eager to shoot a feature and didn’t want to go through the same process again. You send it out, you wait three months, maybe you get a response, it takes a lot of energy and it can take forever, then you just receive a ‘no’, and then you start financing for another year to get all the money. I wondered if we could do it another way.” Additionally, a genre-crossing tale of a weird family camped out in a bunker in the snowy woods of east Germany with an adult–child son was, understandably, hard to sell to the famously conservative German television stations. “This is a project that is hard to pitch and hard to imagine if you just read it on paper, and for me it was always an experiment that was evolving in many ways,” he explains. With all of this in mind, Chryssos planned the film with a relatively small budget. In the end, he set up his own production company, Kataskop Film, working with father–daughter team Hans and Hana Geißendörfer of Geißendörfer Film- und Fernsehproduktion as co-producers. The film was shot close to Berlin in a former family home that recently became empty, contributing to the morbid atmosphere. The location was key here. “I see the bunker as a sort of fifth character in the film,” says Chryssos.

Once they found the location, they set to work. “We were really lucky to find a team that put so much into the story. Every department really enriched the film,” he explains. Melanie Raab’s set design, for example, creates a feeling of being frozen in time that is exuberant and quirky, yet somehow repressed. Henrike Naumann’s costumes contribute to this mood, from the mother’s ‘70s beige shawls to Klaus’ bizarre wardrobe of retro pullovers, schoolboy uniforms and traditional Bavarian garb. “Sometimes Klaus looks like a boy scout, or a little lord, or a sailor; the mother kind of decorates him,” says Chryssos. Additionally, Leonard Petersen’s entrancing yet haunting music, which recalls the keyboard-heavy soundtracks of ‘70s horror films with a touch of industrial noise music, provides an essential backdrop to the beguilingly unnerving narrative.

Chryssos had previously worked with all of the actors, and their input was vital to the process. “Before the first draft I talked with each of the actors about the story, the characters, and their roles, and I think some things really developed from there,” he says. Heinrich, for example, came out of a conversation with Oona Von Maydell where she spoke in a lower voice. Fripan spent a day at his former elementary school, carefully studying the mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of young children. All four actors are traditionally cast in ‘rougher’ roles, but Chryssos’ personal relationships with them allowed them to explore characters that they aren’t normally associated with: “Pit is very smart, and has this analytical, student thing. Danny is a very lovable person in real life, even though he often plays criminals or skinheads. I think that many things came from the actors’ personalities.”

I want to use humour as a means of anarchy

Like Lynch, Polanski and Tarantino, writing has always been an important part of Chryssos’ practice. Because of the unsettling, occasionally outright disturbing tonality educed by the performances, sound and lighting, upon reflection, one might forget how painfully funny the film is. Chryssos is steadfast in his belief that humour is one of the most important components of a good film, be it a comedy or tragedy. From the father’s pathetic and clownish wit to the outrageous exchanges between Klaus and the student, it is clear that Chryssos’ directorial skills are rivalled by his talent as a writer: “I want to use humour as a means of anarchy. That’s what some of my favourite comedies do.”

It’s easy to see the influence of Chryssos’ cinematic heroes reflected in his films, from the slapstick humour of the Marx Brothers, to the surrealist dreaminess of David Lynch, to the masochistic realism of Stanley Kubrick. “The student gets caught in this world, and he either has to get sucked in, or he has to leave, which he tries to do very late, but he can’t. And suddenly he is part of the whole thing,” says Chryssos. The film calls to mind Kafka’s The Castle, in which a man turns up in a village, tasked with a certain job, and is suddenly enmeshed in a web of toxic bureaucracy, manipulation and corruption. It also bears a painful resemblance to the experience of being a foreigner: turning up somewhere where you don’t fully understand the rules, which slowly become normal somehow.

Chryssos suggests that the bunker acts as a metaphor for complacency, not opening yourself up to other points of view: “That’s why it’s so important to not live in a ‘bunker’, so you have these other influences and that you realise that maybe your view is just one possible way, and that there are possible ways of understanding the other side.” Art, then, can function as a vehicle for bridging those gaps. “We agree on a certain reality in some way,” he says, “but we also live in our heads; in our own little worlds. And through things like art we can connect or share something.”

Initially, Chryssos came to Berlin after finishing his studies in Ludwigsburg to work with a screenwriter. His thinking was: “OK, I’ll get a room here and see what happens.” Of course, the city has changed in the past decade, and the more people come, the more expensive it gets and the more difficult it is to survive here as an artist. But Chryssos isn’t concerned, and feels it is the best city to live in as a filmmaker in Germany: “It’s very open, creative, it’s a city that feels very alive. It doesn’t feel like it’s settled, unlike Munich or Hamburg. There’s still a good energy here.”

And things seem to be going well. After its premiere at the 2015 Berlinale, where it was hailed as “stylish and darkly absurd” by Der Spiegel, Der Bunker has been touring festivals worldwide, winning a myriad of prizes, including Best Picture and Best Director at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, and the Jury Prize at Paris’ Festival Mauvais Genres. Fripan was also awarded Best Actor at Fantaspoa in Brazil. During our interview, Chryssos briefly excuses himself to answer the door and returns with a giant computer screen. “It’s part of the prize from Fantastic Fest,” he explains. At first perplexed at the scale of the thing, the director suddenly lights up: “I think it will be good for watching movies!”

Der Bunker is out on DVD, BluRay and Vimeo in the US on August 23rd 2016. Chryssos currently has several projects in development, including a science fiction drama set on a Greek island.