Stille Liebe

Christoph Schaub 2001 90'

In order to be able to do her work in a centre for the homeless, Antonia, a deaf nun, has to make the daily journey from her convent to the city by train. She encounters Mikas. A new exciting world opens up for Antonia because, like herself, Mikas is also deaf. These two people, so different from each other, are able to converse in their common language – sign language. Antonia and Mikas fall in love. However, what Antonia is not aware of is that Mikas is only pretending to be a circus artiste and has in fact come to Switzerland to make some ready cash as a pickpocket. A victim of his pickpocketing catches Mikas red-handed. In his attempt to escape, Mikas loses his life. Antonia is confused and disconsolate. What she went through with Mikas has had a deep effect on her and she now has the feeling that the world has once and for all opened up for her too. She resolves to start a new life and goes off to Washington DC to study at the Gallaudet University for the Deaf.

A conversation with the director Christoph Schaub

How did the idea for the story come about?
Peter Purtschert, the scriptwriter, and I had two interests that we were able to combine - that of a dramatically intense love story, as well as an interest in the sign language. I've always been terribly interested in sign language, seeing it as a visual language in space. The sign language can be used to explain Einstein's Theory of Relativity just as well as it can be used to make a sophisticated declaration of love. It does just the same thing as an oral language. Moreover, sign language is international. Even though there may be over 50 different idioms, deaf people from all over the world can very quickly understand each other with the help of the 'International Sign Language'. So why not tell a love story between two deaf people? A story that could happen to anyone - except that the main characters don't speak German, Chinese or French. The speak in sign language.

What was behind the idea of a love film?
Antonia yearns for one thing. She wants to lead the sort of life that she hasn't been allowed to up until now, or a life she hasn't allowed herself to lead. She's in the wrong place, wearing 'the wrong clothes'... . Love arouses this interest in her and gives her the courage to make a complete break in her life. Although Antonia's love for Mikas ends in tragedy, even that cannot stop her from taking her life into her own hands. You can perhaps say that true love is really only true if it becomes the cause of something and when things happen as a result ... .

How long did it take to find the right cast for the film?
As soon as I saw Emmanuelle Laborit acting, I knew immediately that she was right for the role of Antonia. Then, when I first met her personally in Paris, I was convinced that she was a stroke of luck as lead in the film. And her deportment is so beautiful - almost musical.As far as the part of Mikas was concerned, I also had very fixed ideas about what he should radiate. Apart from anything else, the script is relatively precise about his appearance . I searched throughout all European theatres for the deaf, but there was no actor who fit the outward appearance of the character of Mikas. It was finally the deaf director, Shan Mow of Santa Fe (USA), who tipped me off about Lars Otterstedt. I met Lars in Sunne in Central Sweden. After coffee together and a walk around a tiny lake, as well as a couple of camera tests, I knew that Lars was right for Mikas.

Was there anything special about preproduction arrangements?
Both leading actors, Emmanuelle Laborit and Lars Otterstedt, are deaf. They come from France and Sweden and use relatively diverse sign languages. So we needed two interpreters. For Emmanuelle we managed to find Christelle Feig of Strasbourg, who can speak German and French and has mastered the French sign language. For Lars we found Michel Dominick, a Swedish translator who also speaks English. We'd managed to arrange things so that I and all the others could communicate with the actors precisely and with no difficulty. Though it should be said that SECRET LOVE is a German language film. So Antonia also has to speak in the German sign language. During shoot preparations Emmanuelle Laborit worked with a deaf person from Berlin and learned the German sign language and how to shape certain German words on her lips.
Renate Becker plays Mother Superior Verena in the film. Since she's supposed to have accompanied Antonia for quite a number of years, she needs to know bits of sign language that she can use to help out in conversations with Antonia. So she took lessons in the German sign language.
Whenever Antonia and Mikas meet they use the International Sign Language (ISL). This is the language deaf people use when they come from different countries. ISL can be easily learned by deaf people and they can very soon communicate with each other in it. During two weeks of rehearsals in the run-up to the shoot Emmanuelle and Lars worked on their dialogue together in the International Sign Language (ISL).

What was it like to work with deaf actors?
Before the shoot I had two weeks of intensive rehearsals with Emmanuelle and Lars and very soon realised that I was dealing with two highly professional actors. The only noticeable difference was the presence of the two interpreters who made communication possible. The rehearsals removed any feelings of anxiety I'd had that there might be some sort of a 'Communication MCA', because we were able to converse and understand each other fast and efficiently in a precise manner. Emmanuelle and Lars were used to working with interpreters, and both were very quick to adapt to circumstances.
During rehearsals it only took me a few days to realise what an advantage it is to work with deaf actors. Emmanuelle and Lars concentrated on each other and their gentle manner also had a considerable effect on the set in general. Both of them had no difficulties in keeping calm and being concentrated despite all the hustle and bustle going on at times. I was also full of admiration for the way they dealt with even the most complicated communicative situations on the set and, above all, coped with things so well. Even though there was a continual cacophony of German, French, English and sign languages, there was hardly any free-wheeling.
Usually the interpreters stood next to me and watched what was going on closely. Whenever I wanted to say something to the actors they would try to get eye contact with them. After that, arms, hands and fingers moved around translating what was asked for. That resulted in the gratifying feeling that we weren't just working in words but on a 'hands-on' basis!! In the course of the shoot Emmanuelle, Lars and I found a direct means of communication. We worked out a wordless system of gestures, touches, movements and facial expressions that resulted in great understanding.
Another interesting thing was that Thomas Hardmeier, the camera man, and I often discussed cuts when we were setting up a scene. When two people talk in sign language, what is being said moves in space. So in no way do you have the opportunity of having parts of or even whole sentences in 'off'. Sign language that can't be seen can't be heard either! So we also used rehearsals to work out frames and dissolves that would give us maximum freedom in editing and so create an interesting rhythm.
When we were shooting close-ups of Lars and Emmanuelle we had to find a way of reducing the spatial scale of their sign language with each other. This was especially strange for Lars because it was the first time he'd ever acted in film. Using sign language in a confined space, close in to a face, gave Emmanuelle and Lars the feeling that they always had to speak quietly and intimately with each other. It's the same process that a stage actor has to go through, who's standing right next to a camera speaking, and no longer on a stage where he has to project his voice so that the people in the back row can hear.

Is SECRET LOVE the first film in which sign language is used?
There are a few other films in which someone with the power of hearing meets a deaf person and a story develops out of it. But, as Emmanuelle Laborit told me after reading the script, SECRET LOVE is the only feature film that actually tells the story of two deaf people and where sign language gets to be used as a matter-of-fact way of communicating in daily life.

The History of Sign Language

In the mid-18th century the Abbot of l'Epée had been observing deaf-mute beggars in Paris, who spoke to each other on the streets in gestures and signs. To begin with, he believed he had come across a "universal language'. It soon became clear to him that this language of deaf beggars could be a basis for educating deaf children.

In 1755 the Abbot of l'Epée founded the first school for the deaf. There, under his supervision, they developed a language made up of the 'sign language of the gutters' as used by deaf beggars, and French grammar. This sign language was to become very popular and soon spread quickly throughout Europe. The Abbot of l'Epée died in 1789. By that time there were 21 schools for the deaf.

In 1816 Laurent Clerc, a deaf teacher of sign language, met the American, Edward Gallaudet - also a man of the cloth. And in order to do some research into sign language he, in turn, travelled across Europe.

Laurent Clerc resolved to travel to America with Edward Gallaudet and work for the deaf there.

In 1817 Laurent Clerc and Thomas Gallaudet founded the 'American Asylum for the Deaf' in Hartford. The American Sign Language' (ASL) was developed. The sign language and education for the deaf that went along with it became very popular.

In 1864 the American Congress issued a decree that bestowed the status of National College on the 'Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Blind'. The first university for the deaf had been established. This institution would later become known as the 'Gallaudet University'. Its first Rector was Thomas Gallaudet, son of Edward Gallaudet.

From 1870 onwards it became the overwhelming opinion that the deaf should be taught how to speak, The so-called 'oralists' - all of them with hearing - fought with all their might against sign language. It was considered to be the language of the apes and unworthy for humans.

In 1880 a congress was held in Milan. Devotees of sign language were defeated by the 'oralists' thanks to the influence of their greatest supporter, Alexander Graham Bell. The deaf were prevented from taking part in the final decisive vote. As a result of this congress use of sign language was forbidden in various countries. Even today sign language still does not enjoy that same degree of acceptance as it did in the 18th and 19th centuries. In France, for example, the law preventing the teaching of, and speaking in, sign language was first lifted in 1991.