Let Me Go is a feature film based on the true life of Helga Schneider (Juliet Stevenson) - whose mother was a Nazi war criminal. The film deals with intergenerational trauma, mother-daughter relationships, and the revelation of truth. Broadway Baby’s James T. Harding met the writer-director Polly Steele after the European premiere in Edinburgh to talk about adding fictional characters to real-life stories, the influence of therapeutic techniques on her work, and women in film.
We unconsciously pick up stories that are relevant to us and that we need to mirror ourselves in some way.
The granddaughter, Emily, has a romantic fling with an older man (Stanley Weber) - a frivolous story compared to the others.
‘A lot of people have said to me, why have you put Emily in the story? Three is a better number than four. Why four generations? Three would be simpler, more linear, less paraphernalia round the edges,’ says Steele. ‘But I was absolutely determined to keep Emily in the story because she is light and hope at the end of the trauma. She is a bit frivolous because she's twenty and she didn't live through the War.
This optimism comes from time Steele spent away from the film industry training as a NLP therapist and life coach, and then working with young people aged 18-24. ‘Eventually a younger generation comes along and can be free of that guilt and shame and whatever else.’
Steele’s time as a therapist influenced her directing process also, inspiring her to get the actresses together to workshop the story of the film using Family Constellations Therapy. ‘Basically you work in a group and other people partake in your story as pawns. They can represent quite big topics: somebody might be the War, somebody the guilt you feel towards your mother.’ The objective distance this lends gives you a ‘lightbulb moment’ where you see the story outside yourself.
‘It was established by Bert Hellinger, a German man, after the second World War to try and help both sides to rid themselves of guilt and shame. It felt very relevant to Let Me Go.
Traudi (Karin Bertling), the now-aged Nazi concentration camp guard, ‘could be perceived as an utterly monstrous, purely evil character. In this workshop, we brought in her parents. Suddenly, you understand where she's come from.’ After the First World War many Germans were literally starving. ‘You get this emotionally driven perspective on history.’
Actors Jodhi May and Juliet Stevenson ‘were very sceptical for the first hour or so, but they will tell you they had an extraordinary day.
‘Juliet talks about how in that moment she suddenly had empathy for this character. In a second, it drops into your body. You feel it all over. It gives you a depth of understanding, on a cellular level.
Steele’s passion for Helga Schneider’s story was similarly cellular. ‘We unconsciously pick up stories that are relevant to us and that we need to mirror ourselves in some way. There was a story of abandonment in my family - that’s why I'd picked it up’ initially.
The main characters of Let Me Go are all women, a politically driven choice ‘in an industry where there are not that many stories about women being told centre stage.’
‘For many years, I thought the best thing I could do is just get on with my work. I left the industry for a while because I was frustrated, I didn't seem to be able to get the stories out there that I wanted to tell. I didn't want to become bitter and twisted.’
Working outside the film industry for a while was hugely refreshing, giving Steele more time to work on her own writing and video art. Nonetheless, the script for Let Me Go ended up sitting in a filing cabinet for two years.
But then Steele went to a Directors UK event announcing new statistics about women in film and television. ‘I was so shocked by the figures. I was in a room of 250 other women and I realised: I'm not on my own. This is a systemic problem. It's not just me.’
‘It made me feel a lot better, actually, and made me feel impassioned to come back and carry on. I knew’ Let Me Go ‘was worth telling, so I just went and found people who believed in it’ to raise the production costs.
Steele is currently working with Irish writer Niall Williams on an adaptation of his novel Four Letters of Love. It’s ‘an utterly beautify love story, and he's the most exquisite writer,’ she says, her enthusiasm attesting to the fact that, now revitalised, her passion for filmmaking is going nowhere.
Photo credit: Bruno Martin