Hot Air: In Conversation with Filmmaker Regina Schilling
Modern life is full of anxiety. We are constantly worrying, comparing ourselves, floundering, reaching. PRESENT wants to demystify the creative process by speaking to outstanding creatives about their path, philosophy and creative process; to make space for real talk about discipline, fear, career paths and confidence. Filmmaker Regina Schilling is a great person to talk to about all of the above. An unusual voice in film, she had her first child aged 18, then pursued a big career in publishing — only to give it all up in order to become a filmmaker at 35. Regina’s widely celebrated and very personal essay film Kulenkampffs Schuhe (2018) revisits the repressed post-war traumas silently present in German game shows in the 60s and 70s. In this issue, Regina speaks candidly to Jannik Schäfer about her work, her process, and her creative struggle.
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Jan 9, 2024
Jannik Schäfer
Issue 1
Photography by Marina Hoppmann


Jannik Schäfer: Today you’re a well-known filmmaker, but you started out in literature. You got a degree and had a real career going in publishing. Start us off at the beginning, how did you end up here?

Regina Schilling: I definitely come from language, from the word. I always wanted to work at a publishing house and the most interesting one at that time in Cologne was Kiepenheuer und Witsch. After graduating, I began working my way through the departments, starting as an intern and later becoming a temp. I really threw myself into it — you could say I clawed myself into the company. In the beginning, I could only picture myself as an editor. I thought that’s all there is in publishing. After a few detours, I ended up working in public relations. That was when I started thinking in a journalistic way, through stories. The idea of directing and making films wasn’t really on my mind back then.

Before we talk about why you left , would you do anything differently today?

If I had a second life, I would try to study film. I was actually still at school when I became a mother. Then I finished school and studied literature at university, in order to become a teacher. I was being very pragmatic. With small children at home, I thought it would be better to be able to spend afternoons with them. I never tried to make my big creative dreams come true back then because I slipped into the realities of motherhood at such an early age. I just kept postponing the other dreams. I got there in the end – despite having taken detours, despite not having believed in myself. I think it’s important to know there are alternatives to the straight path.

You did get there in the end — what led to the late change of career?

After eight years at Kiepenheuer und Witsch I felt this urge for more freedom. I didn’t want to have to go to the office in the mornings. When you’re in PR, you’re made out of glass. You’re a medium. You have a really strong connection to writers and journalists but they all pass right through you. I enjoyed doing the work a lot, but at a certain point I felt burned out. I wanted to create something for myself. There was this creative calling inside of me that became so loud I started feeling unhappy, in 1996, ’97.It took me one or two years to actually leave because it was such a sought-after job. Everyone told me: “You’re crazy.This is a well-paid job. And now you want to start working as a freelancer!?”


So it was burnout, but combined with a mysterious creative calling?

There is this book, which I am actually a bit embarrassed about, but this what we are here for. It is called The Artist’s Way, by the American writer JuliaCameron. A huge bestseller. This book really found me. I strongly believe that if you are engaging with something, then something will come along. This book addresses the fact that many who would like to work creatively but don’t dare to, often work closely with artists.It’s professions like editing or PR, the mediating professions. But if you feel unfulfilled, maybe the reason lies else-where. The book suggests exercises and teaches you to engage with yourself, to find out why you believe you can’t work creatively. It’s an entire three-month-program. Which I actually did and it did change my life, as silly as that sounds.

Your will for change and the books’ appearance in your life seem to have coincided quite miraculously. You found your way to television.

Exactly. I quit my job, got unemployment money, and started working for magazines and newspapers and writing book reviews. A friend of mine, Corinna Belz, who was doing culture features for TV, asked me one day if I could help her research.I enjoyed doing the work right from the beginning and we ended up doing two films together. This was one of those famous coincidences.

You said you approach your films from the word; your life is full of literature. Why didn’t you become a writer?

I loved to read as a kid and wanted to become a writer when I grew up. It’s something all kids who like reading want to do, I think. And when I started studying I would compensate my not being a writer by reading an awful lot. But this is also when the doubts kicked in because I couldn’t write like Franz Kafka or Virginia Woolf. We all tend to set our benchmarks so high from early on that we don’t even get to start writing. But I wasn’t unhappy during this time at all. I was working with and within the field and would approach literature as a mediator and just forgot about it a little bit. It’s part of what being or becoming an adult means. To face reality and accept life as it is.

I didn’t expect you to pitch us restraint against inner desires! (laughs)

No, if you feel the urge to work creatively, you should take it very seriously. I call out to anyone out there:try it out yourself. Some people feel confident right away. They apply for film schools and think of themselves as film-makers. But a lot of people only dream of becoming something. They think they need to know everything before they even start studying. This is something I see in a lot of young people who don’t have high self-esteem, but the truth of the matter is, you study in order to learn! If I see young people doubting themselves, hesitating, I say reach for the stars. Never ever start out thinking about practical issues. That comes second.

“I didn’t even try to make my big creative dreams come true because I found myself facing the realities of motherhood at such an early age.”

Do you think The Artist’s Way would have had the same effect on you when you were 20?

No, I don’t think so. You have to be ready to read the signs. At 20 the wish was buried somewhere in my sub-conscious. But if you open up and let things happen, then things actually do happen. What do you call that again? Synchronicity. It’s something I experience strongly when working on a film. I embark on a topic and it becomes my primary focus. Then the most amazing coincidences start to happen. If you take your topic seriously and engage with it very, very thoroughly, then things do fall into place. While I was working on my last film, Kulenkampffs Schuhe, so many incredible coincidences happened. I don’t know what exactly changes, but it does. Perception shifts.


You are involved in curating the renowned book fair Although the literary industry can be quite dry, you sometimes manage to get some interesting guest pairings together to discuss relevant themes. How do you go about that?

I read a lot of manuscripts, invite writers. I come up with ideas for who could meet whom. It’s creative work, imagining who might match well. A meets Z. Our most interesting encounter was Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller meeting Ai Weiwei. Art meeting literature in order to talk politics. It was a bit of a miracle that it took place, with both agreeing to come and all. But the meeting itself didn’t work out as well as I had imagined.

Ah. How do you deal with that, when expectations and reality don’t line up?

At a literature festival, it is of course quite different than when I’m working on my films. When I imagine Herta Müller meeting Ai Weiwei, I assume it will be very interesting. I don’t really know either of them – I mean, I do know Hertha Müller a bit and can tell how she is going to react. But I don’t know Ai Weiwei. They both have very strong personalities. They were looking forward to meeting each other but that doesn’t mean that they actually have something to say to each other in front of an audience. This is something I can’t control and I am not there to moderate.You plan it on the page and then you just have to go with it.


Generally speaking, do you have to deal with anxieties and doubts a lot?

Creative work often comes with feelings of anxiety. You set a goal and then you’re afraid you won’t be able to succeed — that’s where blockades show up. You don’t start working or writing, you put everything off and procrastinate. I will give you a quote from the book The Artist’s Way — this is getting embarrassing again. “Take care of the quantity and let God provide for quality”. God can be replaced with something else of course. It means: just go ahead and do it. Do it. Whatever the end result, it’s not entirely up to you. You can’t control it. And the more you try to control it, the tenser you get and start developing fears. If you just start working, the anxiety will fade.

Did you suffer from this creative anxiety when you were in publishing?

No, I wouldn’t allow my dream to surface. My inner censor was too strong. Today I know that writing alone is actually not that good for me, even though I do have to write treatments, exposés etc. I don’t have the strength to sit through it. I get tense, it’s tedious and exhausting. I am much better if I can work in different contexts and processes. That’s what is so great about filmmaking – research, networking, filming, writing, montage and post-production. I need the change of pace. Writing just means sitting in front of a computer every day – and writing. That’s the hardest part for me even though I come from language, from the word. Filmmakers who start with the visual have an even harder time. In the end, you can always tell from my films that I start with the story.

“Now I say: If you feel the urge to work creatively, you should take it very seriously.”

How would you describe your process in terms of filmmaking?

Generally speaking, I am not very structured and I put things off. I don’t have rituals but I do have a certain routine. In the beginning, I just really engage with the topic: I read a lot, watch movies, lis-ten to music, and write down thoughts. I am always busy thinking about the topic – typically this takes at least a year as I’m usually also still occupied with old projects. During that time, I begin to work with the production company and the editors as their feedback is important to me. Then I write the exposé and treatment, which takes four to six weeks.

How do you manage to stay focused for such a long period of time?

I’m focused because the topic stays with me, but also because I feel responsible for the other people involved. I actively look for people who want to make things happen with me.

So you build in commitments to keep yourself on track?

Yes, absolutely. I always say I can only think straight when I am on a deadline.There are people who find other ways in my field. Some of them agree on deadlines with friends, but I can’t tell whether they can take them as seriously. In my case, it is always about money as well. It is my profession. I don’t just work creatively into a void or an empty page.I have to deliver and that is good for me.

How do you find your topics?

It was a bit different this time around but until now I have always just come up with an idea while working on a project — usually while editing. There is something about the work process that makes me want to follow up on things in a different way.

At which point in the process do you feel the most pressure?

Writing the treatment puts a lot of pressure on me because the funding depends on it. That’s when my inner censor shows up again. Each time I worry whether it will it be good enough for film funding institutions or whoever I am sending it to.It can feel pretty violent.

Have you ever failed because of that?

I actually did fail with one topic. I couldn’t see it through. I had support of my production company and a TV editor, but in the end the TV stations didn’t want it. That still hurts even though it happened at least 15 years ago.


How did you develop your essayistic film form?

The form evolved while working on my last film, Titos Brille (2014). I used a lot of archival material – Super8 footage from Adriana Altaras’ childhood. While sitting in the cutting room, I was fascinated by how much we don’t see when an image rolls by, how many details we miss. For example, we had this footage taken in a public pool where the father

is sitting on the left, the mother on the right. The little girl in the front jumps up and runs to the basket, takes something out and sits back down. I only realized after watching the footage 10 or 20 times that it was a little container with NIVEA cream. Later in the film, Adriana talks about the Holocaust; how it weighed on her that her mother and her aunt were interned. But then she says that her father used to say “Passera, it will pass. In the end, the only thing that helps isNivea. For any wound: Put Nivea on it.” And I see this in the material, but I have no way of showing it. I would have to bring the scene to a halt which I couldn’t do because the form I had chosen wouldn’t allow me to go back in slow motion, or to point out that it’s a NIVEA container the girl is holding. So I decided that I would do that in my next film which became Kulenkampffs Schuhe.

Right. You speak to your audience in much more direct ways in Kulenkampffs Schuhe. What does that change for the viewer?

I was trying to give the viewer the opportunity to experience these former times. If you are of my generation, you enter a different state of mind when you watch this footage. You saw it on TV when you were a child, you remember.What did the living room look like? How did it smell? What would you have for Saturday dinner? All these things comeback and are triggered because you remember things differently as a child. I was aiming for a mesmerizing effect. I realized fairly early on that I wanted this film to be a compilation, an essayistic layering, in order to draw the viewer in with a voiceover. I did that so I would be able to point things out explicitly.

Did you know what the result was going to be like when you finished scripting?

There was a very, very detailed script. I was working with cards on a wall, and I would put together the situations I wanted to show–the different levels, times, what I was getting out of them respectively. My childhood biography, my father’s biography, the history of the Republic of Germany. And then I sat down and started writing using a mixture of voiceover and archive material. Then I added the Interviews, some transcribed, others not. I ended up with 80 pages, and it was like a stone quarry. I thought I could just sit down in the editing room and actually cut it together. It didn’t work at all. But I had lived and worked through it. During the writing process, I felt for the first time that I was able to understand this generation of men a little bit.

Was the writing process easier this time, as you had a personal angle?

In the very beginning of writing, there was a moment in which I thought: “Oh, this is going to be be good, this could work well. I had a flow. And next thing you know, it was all gone. I was actually looking forward to writing it because I had really freed myself up. But two days later, I was complaining about how terrible everything was and had to struggle to keep going. (laughs)

How long does this period of intense fear last?

It lasts the whole time for me. But there was this enjoyable part of the process, too, researching in the archives. For example, I went to the Hessischer Rundfunk and would find so many little fragments. One of the first things I discovered was this game show from 1959 in which a show candidate says: Yes, I learned this from Jews. And Kulenkampff just replies: censored. The shiny surface of the show briefly ripples. I found it among the very first tapes I put into the recorder in the archive room with its tiny monitor that was hanging two meters in the air. I sat there looking up and my neck and throat got all stiff, and I thought to myself: Amazing. The material was waiting for someone whois looking for these traces of war. But during the edit, I was very much afraid to fail. That wasn’t a great time.

What does this fear of failure look like exactly?

It happens inside of me, but I don’t let it get to the surface. It’s a mode of doing — working every day. I would sit with Jamin Bennazzouz, my editor, for eight hours almost every day, shuffling text, image, text, image. I would record my voice-overs into my iPhone and Airdrop them over to him. “No, that doesn’t sound right. I’ll try it again.” This happens all the time in the editing room. You reach a dead end, turnaround and take a different path. Jamin was amazing. He was incredibly sensitive and extremely patient with me because it was my own personal story, a family story.

“In my case, it is always about money as well. It is my profession. I don’t just work creatively into a void or an empty page. I have to deliver and that is good for me.”

Did you ever stumble during this process because you wanted to live up to something or because you felt you had to do it differently?

My greatest concern was that it would seem vain, that I was putting myself and my family history in the spotlight too much. It was difficult for me because the film basically begins with a close-up of me as a child. And I say: Yes, then my father died, but the questions remained.It took an awful lot out of me to put this right at the beginning. I eventually man-aged to overcome those fears, thanks to the editor and the dramaturge. They did a great job at supporting me and asked the right questions, while also telling me: You have to show yourself here and then it will work.

You’re not fond of the spotlight. Why?

I prefer to work on stories about others. Maybe it’s because of my post war upbringing — be humble and stand in the back (laughs). I’m even too shy forInstagram or Facebook. I find it embarrassing to put up a picture of myself.

Embarrassment came up earlier when you spoke about the book as source of your enlightenment. Is it the lack of rational justification for selfies and self help books that makes them hard to stand by? Exactly, it is not intellectual enough (laughs). I am not focused on theory. I didn’t study film theory either. It was all very learning-by-doing. I don’t have a problem with it but it took me some time to come to terms with this. It’s just the way I am. I am a practitioner, I do things.

But couldn’t you just say that this book – The Artists Way – that inspired you so much is amazing and show it to everyone with pride?
Yes, that’s true but it is American-esoteric. And like all these lifestyle guides, I find it embarrassing. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I’m one of the 20 Million people who read the book. Not special.


And yet, you have managed to speak about the war with several generations of Germans – something very few have accomplished. Did you realize that this could actually happen while working on the film?

No, and I think that is for the best because I would have felt more pressure.I think it was self-preservation. I distanced myself from the idea that the film would be shown on television, and that 800.000, eventually two Million, people would watch it. Otherwise, maybe I would have treated this very private story differently. My father died a very long time ago and I have come to terms with that, as far as that’s possible – so it is not a therapy film. There is a distance, and I believe that the viewers can feel that distance and they find it pleasant. I offer my story so that others can see reflections of themselves or find them-selves in the story.

Did you receive a lot of personal feedback?

The film seems to access a certain cultural memory. I received over 700emails. People feel addressed by the movie, they thank me and then they start telling their own stories: “I am born in such-and-such, my father this, my grandfather that, my mother this, I have never made peace with it and had to cry through the whole movie and I don’t know why.” A lot more men wrote letters than women, which could have something to do with their fathers but maybe also with the fact that men of my generation don’t seem to be able to access their emotions.

Is there a reason you didn’t make this film earlier?

That is certainly because of the sense of distance I have now. Before, I would have been more unforgiving when it came to the question of guilt. Years earlier I would have been shocked by the discovery of my Dad’s school stuff –discovering that he was a Hitlerjunge and was really into the propaganda. I wouldn’t have understood. Now that I have a son, I can retrospectively see how a 16-year-old could have found this attractive. In addition, we were the generation who couldn’t even talk to our parents because there was always the accusation: How could you let this happen? And we didn’t ask: how old were you? And we didn’t ask: what kind of propaganda machine did you end up in? This walking away from black and white and towards shades of grey comes with getting older.


Kulenkampffs Schuhe addresses the TV game shows of the post-war era. Is there a current type of show you think could be looked back at in a similar way?

Today it is more about collective experiences, Joko und Klaas or Dschungelcamp. This has to do with the adrenalin level, it is about excitement. Back in the day, it was more about lowering the blood pressure. What strikes me right away is, of course, the narcissism.

People seem to agree that everything is diverging at the moment. In the course of the digital revolution, a lot of things are happening and changing. People are busy with levelling out their systems of reference and orientation, and people are going overboard all over the world.

Yes, I completely agree. But I keep coming back to the idea that young people might not be perceiving the world as chaotic, that it seems natural that way. I have noticed my own concentration span change a lot. I used to read books for hours on end, but I check my phone at least every half an hour now. If I’m being honest I have to say that I read less these days because I can just watch a TV show instead. As everyone knows there are lots of good shows out there now you can watch any time you want.

Why are there so few good essay films?

It is hard to sell them. Programmers find essay films difficult to place. They want content on popular or very specific topics. In the 1970s it was very different. You could produce much more experimental work for television. Nowadays decision making in the industry is dominated by viewing figures.

How do you still manage to make them?

Because of the themes I choose. Programmers are interested in Kulenkampff, Rosenthal and Peter Alexander because they know who the audience will be. I can’t approach her with a topic where she thinks the target group is too small.

Not even now, after your huge success?

Not even now. It’s always about the topic.


Has anything changed in your life?

I receive more offers. But I decline most of them because there is no way I can do a similar film again. I also suspect that my next film won’t have the same kind of power. I think this is something that only happens once in a lifetime. Which brings us back to our spirituality, I guess (laughs.) My next project probably won’t have voiceovers or archive material because I have to free myself from that, and from the pressure of delivering what people expect from me. But as I have mentioned before: the content comes first and the form follows.

I would like to talk briefly about your film Leben nach Microsoft (2001). How did you find these first-generation startup-guys, who have grown lonely and are hiding away in their gigantic houses?  

The topic came to me through a American friend I had lost contact with for about seven years. We suddenly got back in touch and I asked: “And what are you doing now?” And she answered: “Nothing at all. I worked for Microsoft for seven years, got payed in shares and now I have a million and don’t work anymore” (laughs). I thought that was interesting and then made the film together with Corinna Belz.

“In my case, it is always about money as well. It is my profession. I don’t just work creatively into a void or an empty page. I have to deliver and that is good for me.”

Does the film coincide with your own life?

I worked for Kiepenheuer for eight years. That gave me a strong sense of work identity. I was Regina Schilling from Kiepenheuer & Witsch. It’s what makes you important, it provided for me. As a freelancer you have to take care of everything yourself, but being in a company like this it feels like having a super-mother (laughs). To learn how to structure your life and so forth is similar to what the Microsoft-people experienced. I mean, that is the dream of any person who goes to the office everyday and hates their job and to be able to say one day: Ok guys, I’ll take off, I will never have to work again. But this is where it gets interesting. What is work after all? What happens when you stop? It’s becomes a question of identity.  

So you made the film at a point in your life in which you had to come to terms with your life as a freelancer?

Yes, but with an unwitting delay of two years. Perhaps that is why I was so fascinated by the topic.


We haven‘t talked at all about the conflict and stress that accompany creative work.

While working on a film you are constantly dealing with problems, catastrophes, and moments that don’t live up to your expectations. You are constantly dealing with failure. The actual creative process then happens in the cutting room. If you’ve captured everything, then there is peace. Then you have to start thinking: What am I going to do with the material? What can I get out of it? If you’re working with another person then it is like throwing the ball back and forth. I would always think about the structure of the film together with Jamin Benazzouz. What comes first, where do you start and so forth.

Does music help you to concentrate?

I either listen to Bach’s Goldberg-Variations in order to clear my head and for structure, or I work in complete silence at an empty desk. And I do a lot of washing (laughs). The most important and creative ideas find me when I am riding my bike. There are studies which suggest being in motion is good for creativity.

Do you work with your phone in flight-mode?

No, unfortunately not. I do switch on Freedom for work now and then, but then I also cheat on myself. There are people like Miranda July for instance, who say that they would never have accomplished anything without Freedom. Or Jonathan Franzen, who writes in an office without his phone or an internet connection. I don’t manage to put my phone into flight-mode for some reason. I think you have to make peace with the fact that you’re sometimes distracted. And when you’re really sucked in you maybe won’t be distracted that easily.

I’d like to return to the book that changed your life, The Artist’s Way. At PRESENT we are, of course, very interested in the stigmatizing of esoteric and individualistic self-help literature. You did not find your inspiration with Adorno?

I think, especially if it comes to creativity, Adorno is poison (laughs). To me it is all about doing, actively switching off the censor who sits on your shoulder and says: This is not as good as your role models. So as cheesy as it is, I got that from The Artist’s Way and it set me on my path, late – but never too late!

One day after receiving the Grimme-Prize my husband Helge and I said to each other: Who would have thought (laughs)? Remember, back in the day, how hard I was struggling?

This content was originally published in PRESENT
Issue 1

Jannik Schäfer is a script writer, comms strategist and creative producer working out of Cologne, Berlin and London for media outlets, institutions and brands. I've massively enjoyed working on progressive concepts and ambitious content for tv shows, podcasts, exhibitions, marketing units and artists.

I met Dennis back in Cologne through Hermes Villena, Béla Pablo Janssen and the rest of the ComeTogether gang we used to run. Good times. I collaborated with Dennis many times before and it was a no-brainer to have him on board!
I was always fascinated by his mix of professions and passions, notably writing (fantastic) poetry and travel books and being a Jiu-Jitsu fighter and teacher. Also, shout-out’s to Sergio for the great layout!