Helene Hegemann’s Axolotl Overkill

The German author and director’s latest film premieres at Sundance Film Festival

  • Interview: Bianca Heuser
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: 2017 Constantin Film Verleih GmbH/Mathias Bothor, Lina Grün

Helene Hegemann is German literature’s wunderkind terrible. On January 20th, the 24-year-old’s movie Axolotl Overkill will premiere at Sundance Film Festival. The icing on the cake: the film is an adaptation of her own debut novel, Axolotl Roadkill, which was published in 2010. Helene was 17 then. It tells the at times grisly story of 16-year-old Mifti, who explores Berlin, its nightlife, and herself after the death of her mother—and was a huge commercial and critical success. Within nine months of its release, it sold 120,000 copies and translation rights into 21 languages. Its success was only amplified by the scandal that unfolded around it. Hegemann was accused of plagiarism. Several passages had been lifted from the lesser-known novel Strobo by an anonymous writer working under the synonym Airen.

While she apologized for a lack of transparency regarding her sources of inspiration, the writer defended her technique. Few teens can write a novel and get it published, but surely even fewer could stand up for their beliefs the way Helene had to. The New York Times, reporting on the scandal, accurately described how Hegemann “presented herself as a writer whose birthright is the remix, the use of anything at hand she feels suits her purposes.” If the controversy proved one thing, it is that Hegemann has got sass to spare. Her reply to the accusations: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” Within Germany, neither side of the discourse surrounding the scandal was an attractive one. While some critics refused to take Hegemann seriously at all, the rest couldn't help but patronize her in attempts to defend her. “I just wanted to rid myself of this stupid project and do something else,” she says today.

The humor of the situation is not lost on her. The occasion for our meeting is the imminent release of Axolotl Overkill. Seven years on, Hegemann has a second, published novel entitled Jage Zwei Tiger under her belt, and has yet to rid herself of her breakthrough story and its protagonist Mifti. Instead, the two have grown and transformed together. Now, Helene takes her to Park City, Utah. Ahead of the film’s premiere, Bianca Heuser spoke to the author and director about the process of adapting your own novel for film, the possibilities of love as a plot line, and the challenges of portraying a young woman for a mass audience.

Bianca Heuser

Helene Hegemann

Do you prefer filmmaking to writing?

After Torpedo, I would actually have preferred to continue making films. But you can’t really compare the two. The difference is that while you’re sitting at your desk writing a screenplay, you don't hold direct responsibility for the final product. That’s what’s so fun about it. It would probably kill other people because it means a certain loss of control, but I like it. The fact that your precise vision of a film goes through the hands of so many people who make it into something completely else that it develops a life of its own—it removes you from it, and I quite like that.

What is it like to direct the adaptation of your own novel?

I hadn't planned this—had someone suggested this to me when Axolotl Roadkill came out, I would've thought it was complete bullshit. But since—for reasons that remain inexplicable to me—the book became a bestseller, some rather big production companies were interested in buying the movie rights. They mostly do this so their competitors can’t and not because they are passionate about it. Not all the people you encounter have an amazing vision. As an author, you can’t rely on the sale to mean that the movie will be in theatres at some point. Most of the time, it’s a strategic move first. If the movie was in fact made, I knew that it’d be a catastrophe if it mirrored the public reception of the book. Meaning, that it’s about a pretty standard 16-year-old girl who is somewhat rebellious but in the end still goes back to school. I was so scared of this misunderstanding continuing that in the end, I realized I had to keep the rights and make the film myself. It took six years for this idea to turn into a finished movie.

What was it like rewriting Axolotl Roadkill for the adaptation?

It was extremely difficult to turn this experimental stream-of-consciousness novel into something that would make an okay filmic narrative. In the end, only two or three dialogues from the novel made it into the film. The basic structure of the story still exists, but not really. Watching Axolotl Overkill is just as hazy as reading Axolotl Roadkill was. The book somehow represents the inner life of the movie, which shows the story from the outside.

It’s interesting that rather than the story or dialogues, what you consider important to transport the core of the book is the feeling it evokes.

Exactly. A concrete feeling, but also theories, and how these people interact with the world, how they are meant to be seen. In a way, the story became more concrete. It’s still about a 16-year-old who observes the world and describes her view on it, but the audience watches her from the outside rather than through her perspective. Also, the movie features a more prominent love story.

Love is an extreme situation.

That’s funny—it’s such a film industry cliche: “Looks good, but we need a love story.”

It’s just really helpful! Of course it’s absurd to degrade love to an interesting plot point, but it’s just so helpful. As soon as someone feels like the movie is too boring or something’s wrong with the flow, the first suggestion is always: “Make the love story bigger. It needs to be more emotional.”

Of course, love stories also are a great way of getting to know your protagonist.

Because you see how this person behaves in an extreme situation. Love is an extreme situation.

And love stories transport the protagonist’s idea of love, which tells the viewer a lot about the idea of love this person grew up with, and in that way tells you a lot about how they grew up. Mifti’s parents are disturbingly uncaring. In one scene, her father goes on about Stalin as an artist and completely fails to recognize his daughter’s attempt to have a moral and social discussion – not the abstract and theoretical one he engages in.

I think these situations are even more pronounced in romantic relationships. When you purposefully miss your partner’s point to annoy them and at some point there’s nothing to do but to tell them to fuck off. I find this very cathartic. But this film’s love story also isn't too conventional. My 16-year-old protagonist falls in love with a 46-year-old criminal who deals with stolen art. But the fact that she falls in love with a woman isn't a very big subject of discussion in the movie. A lot of movies have their gay protagonists end up in despair and all alone or at least stigmatized. That’s of course meant to be a critical portrayal of a hostile reality, but these are horrible movies for every child who sees them and thinks to themselves: “Oh my god, I might be like that. No way! No matter how great and nice I am, I’m going to end up this way.” Which is why it’s important to treat these stories as normal, as they are.

Right, the gay protagonist is mostly a tragic figure. I mean, it’s representation, but I wouldn’t call it helpful.

Right. What do you represent? Are you portraying reality to critique it or are you trying to build an ideal world to give people a different narrative for once? Feminist movies—or movies that are meant to be feminist—have a huge problem with this, too. Have you seen American Honey? The director is great, and so are her movies, but they’re problematic as feminist films. These are cool girls who do their own thing, but they’re always tricked by some guy, they’re raped, all these horrible things happen to them, and they all have to do with them submitting to some guy. Of course this is addressed critically, but it’s a huge problem. Because it’s the only thing you see in these movies and only these images remain.

Are you portraying reality to critique it or are you trying to build an ideal world to give people a different narrative for once?

I often think this “critical portrayal of reality” is an excuse for accidentally having created something misogynistic. It’s lazy, too: as if life as a woman is a tragedy!

Of course, if something terrible happened to you and you got the chance to make a film about it to share your experience with the world, that is completely justified and sound. But at a certain point, it might not be as politically valuable as other types of portrayals. I do think it’d make a difference if girls only saw TV movies in which women insult men in sexist ways and those men break down crying in the shower. Needless to say, nobody would make this because that’d just be straight satire. …

And impossible to get financed. When is your premiere again?

On the 20th, the same day as Trump’s inauguration. It’s absurd. The inauguration is at noon, and shortly thereafter, we’ll be sitting in the theatre…

On the one hand: wouldn’t you rather be protesting? But on the other, don’t you believe in the subversive or political potential of art? I do.

So do I.

What is your relationship to Berlin like?

I came here when I was 14. It’s still great. So much is possible in Berlin because people can just live here. People get so upset over other people not getting much done here—which I think is so shitty! That’s precisely what’s so great about Berlin. It’s possible to live here and not work your ass off the whole time. You’re not going to die if you make a few economic mistakes here. I like that. It’s the only city of this size that I know that isn’t that elitist yet, and still works, and has a lot going on. In Paris, New York or London, you have to work your fingers to the bone to be able to afford half a garage. People who are unlucky or don’t work in a certain way are weeded out inexorably. Here, there still is a middle class.

  • Interview: Bianca Heuser
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: 2017 Constantin Film Verleih GmbH/Mathias Bothor, Lina Grün