Daniel Nocke is something of a rare bird on the German short film scene. Born in Hamburg, Nocke has made a name for himself in the last ten years both as a creator of animated films and in the role of screenwriter for feature-length films for cinema and TV.
His career is remarkable not only because of the unusual dual trades of animation and screenwriting, or for the fact that Nocke has established a reputation both in the short and feature film arenas; also of note – regardless of whether he “only” contributed the screenplay or is in charge as director of the entire production process, as in his animated films – are the multiple layers in Nocke’s stories and the complexity of the characters he creates. Despite these features (or perhaps because of them?), he is highly esteemed by industry insiders and very popular with the wider public.
His most recent animated film, “No Room for Gerold” (2006)”, has been extremely successful at international short film festivals. His two cinematic releases, “They’ve Got Knut” (2003) and “Summer ‘04” (2006), which Nocke developed with his longstanding partner, Stefan Krohmer as director, received kudos from both critics and audiences.
There are not many short film makers who enjoy such broad-based acclaim in the various sectors of the film industry. In Germany especially, filmmakers right out of film school are often pigeonholed into a specific genre for the rest of their careers, whether it fits them or not. The formula: “Once television, always television!”, repeated with a menacing undertone, still rings in the ears of many film school graduates today. Not to mention the admonishment to opt for one specific genre and format and stick to it (e.g. long or short film, animation, documentary or fiction). Every up and coming director is familiar with the same old advice to concentrate on developing a clear profile.
Daniel Nocke knew even before taking up studies at the Film Academy in Ludwigsburg what his future profile would look like. In the late 1990s he applied first for the animated film department, but he planned from the start to also train as a screenwriter. If you ask Nocke, this combination makes perfect sense: both occupations, that of animated film maker and screenwriter, are in his view basically “lonesome” jobs, which, although integrated into the typical division of labour in film production, nonetheless require that one works alone for the most part during the creative process.
The fact that this marked preference for working in isolation is not attributable to an incapacity for teamwork is demonstrated by Nocke’s close and continuous co-operation for several years now with various colleagues, especially Stefan Krohmer, whom he already met in his first semester at the film academy. Following their first “forced co-operation” (“We were assigned to each other”), the two soon realized how closely their interests matched. Both Nocke and Krohmer are fascinated by stories about how ordinary people deal with the major and minor catastrophes of life, how they fail, get back up again and proceed to bang their heads bloody against the very same wall. Both have an unmistakable penchant for stories from the educated middle-class milieu, and it is great fun to watch them break down the well-guarded facades of decency, intellectual aspirations and arrogance and carry them off piece by piece – with great relish, but without a trace of malicious glee.
In “Family Crisis” (2002), one of their first joint TV films, the congenial diplomat’s son Christopher, who has come home to help settle a family crisis, gets tangled up bit by bit in an impenetrable web of lies and betrayal. And all he really wants is what’s best for everyone. Rarely has the terror of selflessness been so meticulously dissected and so deliciously satirized. We can’t avoid recognizing again and again in the members of this well-off middle-class family our own neighbours, friends and parents – and sometimes even ourselves. In “They’ve Got Knut” (2003) and “Summer ‘04” (2006), to date the only cinematic releases by the duo Nocke/Krohmer, it is the steadily smouldering dejŕ vu effect that sets their work apart from the majority of German-language film production.
Nocke’s carefully framed dialogues reveal an author at work who must be an almost manic listener with a fantastic memory. Every new screenplay begins with the attempt to express specific moods and to help viewers empathize with them; the actual stories are then laid out around these core emotions. Nocke finds inspiration in everyday life – although only rarely are the plots themselves transposed one-to-one from reality; instead, a certain tone of voice, a characteristic gesture or a prototypical dialogue between a quarrelling couple that later find their way into a script.
This working process functions similarly in his animated films. The focus here as well is on the dialogues, which are meant to convey a certain feeling. The decision in favour of a certain animation technique, on the other hand, is secondary for Nocke, unlike for many other animators. For him, the material dictates the form and not vice-versa. Apart from a few exceptions (for example, his visually extremely reserved self-drawn black-and-white film “The Fisherman’s Widow” from 1994), he has made most of his animated films up until now using models made of clay, which is quite work-intensive but can be accomplished with a small team.
Daniel Nocke already burst the bounds of classic (short) animation with his first clay animation, “The Whip Master” (1998). Made at the Film Academy Ludwigsburg, the 59-minute film is almost feature length and required a large team, including composer and film orchestra. Nocke stages here a drama of politics, revolution and justice in the style of a musical, with a story that takes place in the Middle Ages but whose dialogues could have been taken directly from the year 1972.
At the centre of the story is whip master Carlos, who puts his heart and soul into guarding enslaved workers. Soon, though, even he begins to harbour doubts about the system. But it’s too late, for the workers have long been planning in secret to stage a revolt. After the revolution, Carlos has no choice but to flee to the mountains (naturally – how could it be otherwise? – with his beloved in tow, the daughter of the prince, who has not yet deigned to give him a single glance).
Meanwhile, the revolutionary mob has taken control of the castle, passing summary sentence on their tormentors (“Let’s get going, we have other things to do!”) and managing in no time to carry out their own noble goals ad absurdum. Viewers become witness to a blueprint of all revolutions since 1789. In the course of events, every possible revolutionary alternative is parsed – at the highest linguistic level: from a march through the institutions on the way into the underground and then on to the question of whether it is a betrayal of one’s own revolutionary goals to adopt the structures of the old system.
Although “Whip Master” boasts a coherent visual concept, an unusual musical format and beautiful, detailed character animation, this quality “craftsmanship” is not what makes the film so extraordinary; what sets it apart instead are the incisive dialogues, with absolutely realistic speech issuing from the mouths of almost cute potato-nosed clay figures, which we would sooner expect to hear burbling baby talk than spouting sophisticated revolutionary phrases with three relative clauses. Theoretically, Nocke could have enlisted professional actors to speak the dialogues in his screenplay, something that in most other animated films would have resulted in slapstick. But it is exactly this clash between the very precise, fiction-film dialogues spoken as naturalistically as possible and the childish-looking animation technique that lends “Whip Master” its special character.
In the ensuing years, Nocke has refined this confrontation technique even further, in “Comforter’s Crisis” (1999) sending up the species of well-meaning but in actuality completely insensitive do-gooder who – equipped with a large dose of egocentrism – wants only to help all those poor creatures who evidently don’t have it as good as he does. Here, Nocke succeeds with the help of a minimalist set made up of five clay figures both in illuminating relatively comprehensively the issue of the emotionally crippled amateur psychologist, and unleashing a few laughs, which get stuck in our throats, however, as soon as we trip over a phrase we have used ourselves once or twice.
In this and many of his other films, including live action, Nocke plays one of the roles himself, lending the comforter-by-occupation equal amounts of arrogance and true dedication, so that viewers find it just as hard to find a place in their hearts for the guy as they do to simply laugh at him.
This filmmaker is not one for painting things black and white. We are almost never seriously tempted to identify with one of his characters. Even if here and there a few promising candidates do turn up, it usually doesn’t take long before they wind up thoroughly discrediting themselves. Actually, there is only one member of the clay universe who is really likeable …
The archaic protagonist of Nocke’s 2002 film “The Modern Cyclops”, a present-day figure who earns his money posing as a tourist attraction in a Sicilian cave, is given only the best of attributes by his creator. Nocke’s one-eyed giant is a modest poet and thinker, who always has a polite answer at the ready for even the most impertinent of tourist questions, and who is interested in agriculture, poetry and expressive dance. Of course it doesn’t take long before one of the female package tourists decides that she likes this sensitive, well-muscled, two-meter-tall man a lot better than her own pocket-sized macho. Fortunately, a solution can be found even for this problem – completely in keeping with how the story has been passed down through the millennia. Nocke’s up-to-the-minute excursion into the world of myths and legends was a hit with viewers. “The Modern Cyclops” became an international perennial, which is still shown regularly at festivals today.
Daniel Nocke is an enthusiastic cineaste and loves to get feedback, even when viewers are usually more interested in the technical details – an area that he prefers to delegate to employees. At the heart of his films – whether animation or live action – is always the content. Only once the theme has been settled comes the question of which form is best for conveying it. And although many people by now have come to think of Daniel Nocke as a clay specialist, he is always open for alternatives.
A good example of this is the flat-sharing comedy “No Room for Gerold” (2004), the second-to-last animated film to come out of the House of Nocke. In this film he explores for the first time the possibilities of digital computer animation, aided by specialists. Together, they created animal characters and made them talk according to Nocke’s specifications. Everyone who has ever shared a flat will be familiar with the situation sketched here: the crisis summit at the kitchen table. Here, the flatmates criticize crocodile Gerold for several minutes about coming too late and therefore showing a lack of respect for the group, until someone finally gets to the point of what it’s really all about. They want Gerold to move out, the sooner the better, and if possible with no further discussion. And as if that’s not already bad enough, the flatmates also tape each other with a video camera so they can later prove that they didn’t actually kick Gerold out, and that they acted fairly.
Nocke uses the trick with the home videotape not only to dramaturgically heighten the absurd airs assumed by the roommates even further, but above all to strip the oh-so-smooth computer-animated images of something of their perfection. In the end, the crocodile, at his wit’s end, cedes the stage and the viewer is forced to think back on his own negative flat-sharing experiences.
It would be completely meaningless to try to stage the same chequered dialogue with real actors, because this would merely duplicate reality – and who wants to watch that? It’s just the opposite from the bizarre story of the last Cyclops. Just for fun, the multiple Grimme Award winner offered this script to the very same editors who usually produce his live-action films – without telling them that the story was planned as animation. He still hasn’t received a reply …
The conclusion Nocke draws from their silence is a simple as it is correct: Some stories can be told better as animation, while others demand “real” people who can neither be formed out of clay nor computer animated.
Daniel Nocke is thus destined to remain one of the few who can successfully straddle the world of short and long film with his fantastic stories, always demonstrating a sure instinct for selecting the appropriate format.