Date: May 06 2012
THE audience at the Berlin midnight screening of Iron Sky had come from all over Europe. Already an online phenomenon before it was shot, let alone shown, this camped-up, crazy mash-up of science fiction, comedy and very bad wartime B-picture could be summed up in one irresistible line: Nazis are living on the moon. Yes, real Nazis in those snappy uniforms, holed up on the dark side (where they belong, obviously) after escaping the Allies at the end of World War II. And - of course! - they are goose-stepping across the craters, building a fleet of space-going Zeppelins and awaiting the moment they can invade Earth and get back to working on that tiresome concept of the thousand-year Reich.
Only slightly less wacky than a story about a rump Nazi force in space, however, is the fact that this film is a co-production between Finland, Germany and Australia. The director, Timo Vuorensola, comes from Finland, but the film was shot near Frankfurt - where there were blizzards - and in Queensland during the floods.
The Nazis are played by Germans, but the African-American astronaut sent to investigate what's making NASA's radar blip is Chris Kirby, who has lived and worked in Melbourne since 1999, while Australian actor Peta Sergeant plays one of the film's comic-strip vixens.
The editor, first assistant director and art director were Australians, working with a largely German and Finnish crew. ''Any time there was confusion on set,'' says Kirby, ''people would start speaking their own language. It took a few weeks to get through that.''
Vuorensola was clearly feeling the love in Berlin; normally reticent, he stomped the carpet in front of the screen telling the assembled fanboys how great this film was going to be and how, for him, about the best thing in life is a spaceship battle. Everyone was ready to agree; the buzz around the film was huge. In part, of course, this is down to its stratospherically high concept, but the fact that buses were rolling in from Poland to see it was a direct result of the film team's trailblazing use of social media.
According to the film's Australian producer Cathy Overett, Vuorensola was batting ideas back and forth with his fellow sci-fi geeks even before the internet was invented. With cyberspace as his stamping ground, however, he has been able to build an unprecedented bond with his audience, 6 million of whom have downloaded his first short film made in 1992, a Trekkie satire called Star Wreck. In the latter months of 2011, when Iron Sky was in the throes of post-production in Finland, Vuorensola was blogging about the production as often as every second day. Each week, says Overett, around 600,000 new followers signed up to the readership clan.
So it was entirely natural that when he needed money to finish the film - all that weather sent them well over budget - Vuorensola should turn to his virtual homeys for help. ''We turned to the community and started asking people for money,'' he says. ''That involved a fight against big financial entities because it's all complicated investment and they were hard on us but, eventually, we were able to make it work. Had we not needed the money, we probably wouldn't have done it because we were a bit afraid of how it was going to be taken - are people going to feel it's a rip-off? Is the industry going to think we're just a bunch of amateurs? But for the fans who invested, it was a really great way to be part of an artistic project.''
What they didn't get, he adds with due emphasis, was any real say in what he was doing. ''No! It's really important, whenever I work with the community, that they understand this has nothing to do with democracy. This is a pure dictatorship.'' He gives a Finnish hoot of laughter. ''I've seen people try to democratise the process of filmmaking on the internet and it always ends up really horrific.'' They were allowed to contribute, though, in some strikingly satisfying ways: the imaginary movie posters seen posted outside a cinema when the invading Nazis go to see Chaplin's The Great Dictator, for example, were designed by fans. According to Overett, online crowd-sourcing for the film raised about €1 million ($A1.28 million) through a combination of direct appeal (''crowd-investing'', in film parlance) and selling merchandise ranging from T-shirts to €50 ''war-bond'' certificates (''crowd-funding''). About 50,000 people put in hard cash. ''Just to belong,'' says Overett. ''You can't underestimate the lifestyle side of it.'' This also meant that they gained a virtual army of supporters for whom it barely matters what Iron Sky is like: it already belongs to them. The film has accordingly sold to 70 countries.
Finding funds by crowd-sourcing is by no means unique to this production; half the films at Sundance have a string of supporters' names in the end-credits. Films funded by contribution, however, don't usually cost upwards of €7 million. ''Where this is different from what anyone else is doing is that most of those people are doing very low-budget films,'' says Overett. ''We've funded the film conventionally and fans have provided gap funding, so they have a prospect of getting a return on their investment.'' Simply asking people for money works fine if you are making a film about an issue people want to support, she says, but it doesn't measure up as a business model.
Her own involvement in Iron Sky dates back to the Berlin Film Festival of 2010, when Vuorensola was putting his budget together. From his point of view, the attraction was Australia's world-beating 40-per cent tax offset for co-productions. For Overett, it was the opportunity to do a genre film in a climate where straight drama is very difficult to finance. Of course, it was a weird idea, she agrees cheerfully. ''But that's what makes it fascinating. I love quirky and we've always loved sci-fi, but never dared do it ourselves as it's not easy to script and I'd not been pitched anything I loved.''
Not that she's a fantasy anorak, but she clearly has a soft spot for the breed. The fact that Vuorensola brought his collector's model of Captain Picard to Australia as his good-luck charm, for example, delighted her. Even better, he had dropped and broken it just before he left, but brought it anyway. ''So there was half of Captain Picard set up to watch everything on set. I love that devotion to the genre.''
Vuorensola says his quirky idea sprang from the alembic where all good Finnish ideas are generated: the sauna. ''One of our writers, Jarmo Puskala, had a dream. He told me when we were sitting in this sauna: 'I had a dream, and in this dream I was riding a bicycle, and on my shoulder was a little Hitler who was yapping at my ears, really angry. And then I woke up and thought: let's make a film about Nazis from the moon!'''
Of course they were aware that any film about Nazis still touches a deep nerve of fear and guilt in Western countries. This is particularly true in Germany, obviously, but Finland was allied with Germany for part of the Second World War and arguably has never come to terms with that Faustian moment in its history. Vuorensola says, however, that he never had too many doubts about taste. ''I had a pretty clear idea of what we can't do and what we can do. Bad taste can be funny, but we didn't want to be stupid or outrageous.''
Nazis are good fodder for a film, he says, because they are as bad as baddies can be. ''It's like the ultimate evil … but I also think it's about time for the more comedic approach. The sinister side has become maybe a little bit like aesthetic noise. With the comedic approach, I think you maybe unearth something that makes you realise what this was all about.'' Current parallels, for example: it is not for nothing that his invaders land in the US.
''But it's not just modern-day America. In Finland we also have the super-right wing, the True Finns, they win big time in the election. It's happening all over Europe, because financial crisis has always been a great breeding ground for fascist ideologies. They use the same language every time. Nobody learns.''
During the years he has been swapping badinage with the fans, there have been a few far-right crackpots who have momentarily latched on, assuming they are a bunch of Anders Breivik's fellow-travellers. ''But it always dies really soon because then they realise it's a comedy and they start hating it. Then they go nuts about it.'' No death threats yet, he says cheerfully, but he is fully expecting them.
For whatever reason - perhaps it's something to do with living in extreme environments - there is a surprising match between the Australian and Nordic senses of humour. Vuorensola describes Finnish humour as dark but rough around the edges. ''We don't have too many things that we hold sacred, so basically we can make fun out of everything,'' he says. That sounds familiar enough.
Chris Kirby, who grew up in the very different atmosphere of south-central Los Angeles, says he took some time to adjust to Australian humour, which he found very laid-back while being acutely observant. ''The whole thing is from an underdog stance, not superior or greater-than-thou, and from that perspective there is a similarity between the Finns and Australians. Once the drink starts flowing and they let their guard down, I feel, 'Oh why do I feel I haven't left home yet?'''
The inspirational Finnish sauna, on the other hand - often mixed, with total nudity always non-negotiable - was more challenging. When he first found himself sitting with cast, crew and not a stitch between them, ''as an uptight Westerner I'm thinking, 'OK, I'll breathe through this'.'' But he came around; now, he says, he's looking to install a sauna in his own house in Melbourne. ''I'll have the rules on the outside and people can enter at their peril.''
Iron Sky topped the box office when it opened in Finland over Easter; it has also opened well in Germany and won two medals at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, including the audience award. It is not, admittedly, much favoured by critics - at a midnight screening, I confess, the space hardware battle sent me into a sound sleep - but it doesn't need to be.
In Brussels, said Vuorensola in one of his regular dispatches, ''the crowd cheered, laughed, applauded, booed and screamed jokes and comments during the screening. It was a unique experience''. It's not true to say you can't ask for anything more from the cinema: you can ask for a lot more or, at least, for very different things. Still, to be among the screaming and booing of an audience that is completely committed: that is an experience worth having.
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