‘Spagat’ Director Christian J. Koch on Sans Papiers, Injustice and Inequality in Switzerland

In “Spagat,” his feature film debut, Swiss director Christian Johannes Koch tells the story of a high school teacher whose double life begins to come apart while also examining the difficult life of an immigrant laborer with no papers.

Set in rural Switzerland, the film follows Marina, a married mother and teacher who is having an affair with Ukrainian immigrant Artem. Their secret relationship is threatened when the man’s daughter, Ulyana, is arrested for stealing — an incident that has far-reaching consequences for all of them. “Spagat,” a German and Russian word that means both “balancing act” and “the splits,” reflects the situation Marina finds herself in as she tries to find a solution to an increasingly growing problem as well as that of the ambitious Ulyana, an aspiring young gymnast.

Speaking to Variety about the film, Koch, who wrote the script with Josa Sesink, said several factors led to the making “Spagat,” including a desire “to return to an environment that was entirely familiar in all aspects of everyday life” after living in Germany for 12 years, including a lot of time in Berlin.

“The question of how it’s possible, as an individual, to find a place in this world, in a community, in a society, between the need to belong and at the same time to have the desire for independence, this is something that has a lot of influence on all my works,” he added. “At the same time I was and still am very concerned by the parallel presence of injustice and inequality in Switzerland.”

The current number of people living in Switzerland without valid residence documents is estimated at between 90,000 and 250,000, according to Koch. The people are known as “sans papiers.”

“It’s an issue in Switzerland like everywhere. It’s absolutely not a Swiss topic, it’s a universal one. There is no justice if it comes to your own origins, you can’t decide where you were born and who your parents are. This is like destiny but it has a huge impact on your life.

“What is very typical of Switzerland is that on the first level, you can’t see the whole inequality and the injustice. It’s hidden, it’s behind the façades — for example, compared to Berlin, where it’s obvious.”

Koch found the ideal actor for the role of Artem in Russian thesp Alexey Serebryakov, who he had discovered in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s acclaimed film “Leviathan.”

“I saw him, I was deeply touched and I found he had exactly the good mix of tenderness and aggressiveness.”

Rachel Braunschweig stars as Marina and newcomer Masha Demiri plays Ulyana.

“I think I always focus on people who employ self-empowerment to breakout of a social or economic system, [stories] that revolve around the issue of identity, social and economic systems and dependencies.”

“Spagat,” which screens in San Sebastian’s New Directors sidebar, is produced by Rajko Jazbec and Dario Schoch of Cognito Films. Koch is re-teaming with the Zurich-based shingle on his next project, the documentary “Once We Were Pitmen,” which he is co-directing with German helmer Jonas Matauschek.

Koch and Matauschek are also working on a screenplay for a documentary-like feature about art and morality. Tentatively titled “Nie Paris” (“Never Paris”), the film is set in the German city of Leipzig and focuses on the life of a young painter amid the growing political divide afflicting the New Leipzig School movement, which has seen a clash between left-wing and right-wing artists.

“Leipzig I think is the most interesting city at the moment in Germany regarding all these different aspects coming together,” Koch said. “The starting point was that well-known artists from the Leipzig School are now taking positions of the new right-wing from Germany. I was quite perplexed as I heard this the first time. This is a huge topic.”

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