Jean-Jacques Annaud is the most celebrated French director in the world, since three decennials. He is well-known for his big-budget movies set in remote locations (Seven years in Tibet, The Quest for fire) or for his historical tone (Black gold, the name of the rose) or his pick of challenging subjects (The Bear, The Lover). A great traveler and amateur of wildlife, he also directed some definitive movies on animals (the bear, two brothers). More than ten years ago, he directed Enemy at the Gates, a daring project on legendary siege of Stalingrad, shot in Eastern Germany. We then assisted the shooting and published a book on his work: Jean-Jacques Annaud, un cinéma sans frontières. We interviewed him while he was embarking to Beijing, in quest for his next movie.
Mr. Annaud, why are your subjects set in the past and the exotic landscapes of great adventure? Are you bored in our world?
I live pleasantly in the contemporary world. The city, airports, cinemas are my everyday world. When I go to the movies, I like going out of the daily travel in time and space. I like films that take me somewhere else, in a world more beautiful, stronger, more dangerous, more exciting and different than my kitchen.
How did you get the idea of a film about Stalingrad? How dared to you take the part - in Hollywood - of a Soviet soldier and Red Army?
I wanted since a very long time to deal with Russia. I am very touched forever by this vast country, the painful and talented soul of its great people. I wanted to share this drive with audiences who do not spontaneously see works from the Russian cinema. And soviet films were decisive for me, thanks to one of my school teachers of cinema, Georges Sadoul, great communist before the eternal and fabulous connoisseur of the 7th Art in the Soviet Union.
Given Hollywood, riding a big-budget movie about a non-American hero is a challenge pretty crazy. I was helped by one of the "executive" of the production company with which I was under contract and who was himself a descendant of Russian émigré. I am known in Los Angeles for preferring atypical subjects. I decided to shoot in English to not be confined to the world of film "art et essai" circuits. I chose to let interpret 'the Good', the Russians, by English actors (Jude Law, Jo Fiennes, Rachel Weiss), and 'the bad', the German, by an American (Ed Harris). Paramount followed me in this challenge.
What was your interest in this war? Where did you find the documentation?
I bought as usual one hundred books. On the battle itself, on the Russian front in general, Stalin and his entourage, Hitler on the arms of each side, the snipers and technique. The book which impressed me the most is "Life and Fate", the masterpiece of Vassili Grossman, former correspondent for Pravda at Stalingrad.
I also watched a many documentaries of all nationalities. I got projected in Moscow all unpublished documents held in the archives of the Cinémathèque; same in Germany. I spent a week in Volgograd museum and archives where I found the book of my hero Vassili Zaitsev with his daily notes. I enlisted the services of a historian at the University of Moscow.
Have you studied Russian historians to prepare your film? If yes, which ones?
Addition to the text of Grossman, I was captivated by the books of Simonov. And of course the book of interviews with veterans, published by William Craig, "Enemy at the Gates" in which my writer Alain Godard, also of Russian descent, had tracked down the three pages devoted to the uplifting story of the sniper Zaitsev.
A few months before the release, an English historian published a big book entitled "Stalingrad". He denied the historical reality of the character Zaitsev. He gave considerable harm to undermine the credibility of the film. Soviet veterans gave me a hard time too. They regretted that I did not give more to see the large number of Germans who had perished under their bullets.
You are a great traveler. Which regions of Russia and the former Soviet Union you know best?
I came numerous times in Moscow. St. Petersburg is one of my favorite cities in the world. I went there already when she was called Leningrad. South, I have a wonderful memory of the region near Latvia, especially the fortified monastery in Pskov.
As a filmmaker, you're an avid moviegoer and an amateur of the Soviet cinema: what are the masters that have the greatest impact, if not inspired?
My work is often inspired no doubt by the work of Pudovkin, Dziga Vertov, of Donskoi and obviously Eisenstein. I fed a great passion for his powerful films, Potemkin to Nevsky, Ivan, October. It goes without saying that I adore scores of Prokofiev. I am a fan of Russian music, Russian literature, Russian painting.
You praise and illustrate a cinema of epic adventure: Can you explain this choice?
I grew up in the suburbs of Paris, a place at that time gentle and kind where nothing happened. The tree-lined street only gave nowhere. I loved the neighborhood cinema, when the screen is opened wide, with the breath of space, a larger than life-life in all cases greater than mine.
When I joined the film school, the "New Wave" would not stop being new and getting caught up in sterility pedantic repetition. I was furious that France, the country of the invention of the Lumière Brothers, a nation that had given decades of stunning beautiful movies, specializes in dramas cramped on maid-rooms problems.
What films or filmmakers do you appreciate today? Do you remain a cinéphile? What do you think of all-digital film American public?
I am very attached to a meaningful narrative cinema. I admire my colleagues who were able to add a spectacular dimension, and the good sense of the word "fun." I think of the great works of Milos Forman, Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley Scott, Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee. One day, the first sent me a letter after the projection of one of my films. "You make me jealous" it was written. This is the greatest happiness I can personally have from the output of a film. Thanks to God, I've got often.
American cinema, and everyone knows and says that in New York or Hollywood, loses its soul, thanks to globalization and the growing piracy, instant success, the numbers of the first session. Therefore the only mobilized public, immediately available the day of the release, is that formed by the Internet and video games and spends more time watching digital life than life. This public goes to the cinema to see the same stuff, but bigger. Somehow, I am delighted that tastes move, as the world changes.
Digital replaces the traditional media. I have no nostalgia for the paper tape and 35mm silver layer. I was the first in Europe to adopt the dematerialization of the image (Two brothers). Digital projection provides greater definition color rendering spectacular and makes disappear wear copies.
The generation of the computer generated image frightens those who had the habit of fiction filming of "true". But is an actor the "real" character? The decor built in a studio, with landscapes photographic background, is it "real"? The cinema is engineered from the beginning to manufacture likely falsehood, recycle hocus-pocus magicians, overlays, blue backgrounds, false perspectives, makeup, wind fans and rain ramps water. The computer is only the new tool, easy, cheap, one more tool available to the authors. Should they still are, they have something to say.
Finally, your projects are in China. Can you give us some details about it?
I shoot in Mongolia, in Mongolian and Mandarin, a film adapted from the autobiographical novel large Chinese "Wolf Totem," the greatest publishing success ... from the little red book of Mao. What an honor!
The Russian forces destroyed a column of NATO armoured vehicles that had been delivered to the Ukrainian army.