Redemption Impossible (Unter Menschen), and an interview with director Claus Strigel

It's an unfortunate fact that animals have often borne the brunt of, and paid the price for, many of humanity's advancements, especially in medicine. Animal experimentation is of course not unheard of, despite how easy it is to stick one's fingers in one's ears and ignore the sad commercials about abused dogs, or rush past the unpaid PETA worker handing out flyers on the street. Slowly, slowly, the global consciousness has awakened and shifted toward accepting responsibility for the care of all living things on earth. To spread this awakening we need to keep talking about it, and film is always an excellent place to start.

Redemption Impossible (German: Unter Menschen) is a documentary about the 40 chimps released from AIDS and hepatitis lab testing conducted by the Austrian pharma company Immuno. While it is a powerful and sad story, the film also focuses on the relationship between the chimps and their carers at the Gut Aiderbichl Sanctuary for Traumatized Chimpanzees and other Primates, two of which were once employees at the research lab. The film is at once complex and brutally straightforward, revealing the guilt and tangled emotions around the imprisonment of animals, and also shows the inner workings of the pharma industry's cruel machine.

Rest assured, this is not a "snuff" film, as some animal cruelty/rehabilitation documentaries can be. There is no blood, no hanging body parts, no beatings, electrocutions, or live throat-slitting. The look in the chimps' eyes, though they are now in better conditions, is enough.

After a successful presence at the Berlinale this year, the film has continued to get attention around the world, and is hopefully inspiring a lot of change. It takes us through the daily lives of the chimps in the sanctuary; the thoughts, traumas and dedication of their all-female team of carers; the shady details and deals carried out between animal trafficker Franz Sitter in Sierra Leone and Klaus Bieber and Abbas Buntu; the brave whistleblower Josef Schmuck; and the often frightening rationalizations put forth by Eugen Ruffingshofer, Immuno's lawyer during the time of the chimps' captivity. The best moment in the film is where the chimps are introduced to the newly built addition to the sanctuary -- an expansive, outdoor space where they are once again reunited with nature -- outside.

I am very happy to bring you a mailterview with one half of the directing team of Claus Strigel and Christian Rost.

Celeste Ramos: How did this project take shape as a film? Had you had a previous relationship with Gut Aiderbichl, or had you learned about the chimps through the news/other outlets beforehand?

Claus Strigel: Christian learned about it via the newspapers about a sanctuary with 40 chimps coming from a lab. As he already had contact with Gut Aiderbichl because of a previous film, we had the chance to obtain the exclusive shooting rights (this was very important). But the situation in the sanctuary is not (enough for) the movie. When we began investigating, we got wind of two important points that make the situation into a story: two of today's keepers where already (as young women) jailers in the lab. Fascinating. The second point was the crime story about the illegal importation of the chimps. There you have it: it could be a great film.

CR: Was it difficult for you to find support to get this film made? How long did it take?

CS: Oh yes! It was horrible: Imagine -- you have the exclusive rights on a unique story, but only one broadcasting company confirmed one third of the costs (Jutta Krug at WDR fought for the film like a lioness). All the others had more than 10 different arguments for not wanting to get involved, like, "I can't watch animals suffering ..." The Austrian broadcaster ORF confirmed after a long while a minimal contribution. But thats the problem with documentaries: reality doesn't await financing. We had to begin shooting before the work on the outdoor area, and so we did. We had, at the end of the one year shooting period, two thirds of the costs confirmed -- until today.

CR: What thoughts went through your mind when you first went into the sanctuary with Christian Rost?

CS: We thought we were in the middle of a revolt in a jailhouse. The chimps are not familiar with foreigners, they had bad experiences with humans, and they wanted to show who was the boss. They welcomed us with a real inferno. But they also are very curious, and so we began to get accustomed each other. Our first impression of Renate's [one of the carers] behaviour was: She is trained by the chimps... But it's important to note: You don't see suffering animals! You see a great power to live (together), to play, to learn, to fight, to be tender, to screw ... well, they are like us.

CR: What did you think when you interviewed Josef Schmuck, with all his once-secret documents about the Franz Sitter/Klaus Bieber/Abbas Bundu trading arrangements?

CS: We were so grateful! The problem was that nobody wanted to say anything in front of the camera. We had top information but no faces. There is even today a big fear to speak about Immuno and the importation of the chimps. Mr. Ruffingshofer sued everybody who criticized Immuno, the importation, or the conditions in the lab. As you learned in the film, the pharma industry holds positions even in WWF and other NGO's.  And some people who fervently opposed the importation still feel guilty today for not having stood their ground. It is still a tender subject. Only very brave people were ready to speak in the film. Mr. Schmuck was the bravest!

CR: How did you feel listening to Dr. Ruffingshofer’s reasoning for why it was okay to keep the chimps in those conditions, because of what he observed as their tendencies toward routines?

CS: It's unbelievable! Mr. Ruffingshofer was the only one who had no problem with the interview. He didn't  even ask what the purpose of the interview was.  A nice old man who doesn't see any problem about Immuno's activities. Thirty years and he had learned nothing. (It's one good reason for the connotation behind the title Untermenschen.)

CR: Was there a particular reason for why the carers are all female?

CS: (Women are brave!) It's not easy for new male keepers to work with these tough women. We met new male trainees, but we met them only once.

CR: What was it like to get to talk to Jane Goodall about the chimps and the sanctuary?

CS: Well, Jane does interviews daily around the world, and often she tells the same stories; how the chimps are intelligent, our nearest relatives, etc. But we hit a nerve when we showed her the video [a clip from the 80s where she got into one of the lab cages]. She had never seen it before and was very touched and became very emotional. This was a wonderful basis to talk about the chimps and the keepers' trauma.

CR: How did this film change you as a filmmaker?

CS: The strict border between humans and non-humans began to weaken. If you are looking deep into the eyes of the chimps (and they look back!) you wonder what they think about you. You feel very close to them, but nevertheless there is something very alien, very primitive. But you are sure that you are not supposed to harm them, just as you are not supposed to harm your friends.

CR: Will you center more projects on animals in the future? what are you working on currently?

CS: Maybe with animals -- maybe with humans. You can't go out looking for a story like this. Here I have 40 chimps, 4 women, two with lab-history living together ... You have to leave room for coincidence. That's the work we are doing. Okay, sometimes you have to face subjects like "Money" or "Labour" ("in WHAT we TRUST" or "REleased"). But it all makes for good film. Maybe the next one will be about a German-Iranian Secret-Service-Crime-Story. (Following the trace of "Moon Sun Flower Game".
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About Claus: Born in Munich in 1955, he filmed enthusiastically on Super 8 between the ages 11 and 18. Claus later studied psychology, pedagogy and communication. In 1976, to the disadvantage of his studies, he founded DENKmal–Film together with Bertram Verhaag.  As part of this team he worked on about 70 productions as director, author and producer. (from Claus' CV bio)

For more on the story of the 40 chimps at Gut Aiderbichl, including personalized profiles for each one, and background information on the Gut Aiderbichl estate, check out this informative PDF. You can also read this article from the 20 October 1983 issue of New Scientist discussing the importation of the chimps. 

Fore more on Gut Aiderbichl and how you can get involved with continuing to save and protect animals with lab histories, visit the Gut Aiderbichl website

My deepest thanks again to Claus!

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