The German director’s second film is an honest, awkward portrayal of girlhood that takes place in the summer streets of Berlin – here, she talks filming first period scenes and the brutality of teen years
Before writing and directing Cocoon, Leonie Krippendorff hadn’t seen a lesbian coming-of-age romance quite like it. “There are lots of queer films set in Berlin,” the 35-year-old German filmmaker says over a WhatsApp video call from a writing retreat in Sicily. “But I found it very strange when I realised there were no German films about two schoolgirls falling in love that had had a theatrical release. 14 is the age you first fall in love with people and have your first experiences. Internationally, a film with this story isn’t new, but in Germany, it is.”
Cocoon, indeed, is about two schoolgirls falling in love, but that’s one of many layers. For much of its running time, Krippendorff’s poignant, richly felt character study delves into the loneliness of Nora (Lena Urzendowsky), a 14-year-old who’s unsure of who she is or if she even matters. Among classmates, Nora receives little attention, except for when she’s roundly humiliated; with her older sister, Jule (Lena Klenke), and Jule’s friend Aylin (Elina Vildanova), Nora tends to be the third person walking slightly behind because she’s been shut out of the conversation.
What changes for Nora in this torturously hot summer in Berlin is a chance meeting with Romy (Jella Haase). Noticeably, this life-altering moment – well, at the time it seems life-altering – occurs around half an hour into film. Before then, Krippendorff invites viewers into Nora’s world: living with an alcoholic mother; expressing her creativity via video diaries; and also the high-stakes drama of getting a period at school.
On screen, it’s riveting; as a logline, perhaps it’s not quite Tenet. For that reason, Krippendorff struggled with investors. “What’s special about Cocoon is how it’s done,” Krippendorff says, occasionally interrupted by a dog leaping into her lap because it’s waiting to be fed. “For financing a film, it’s good to have interesting topics no one’s talked about before. But my elevator pitches aren’t exciting! Topics about normal life don’t seem exciting at first, but I think they’re the most important thing to talk about in films, because they’re what really move us.”
“If you pitch it as a young girl finding herself in one summer, it sounds like a typical coming-of-age story. But I’m making it a different way. How Nora gets her period is more realistic than in other films, and I dig deeper into the feelings that teenagers have.”
As it’s so rare to depict a girl’s first period in a film, surely that’d make a fantastic elevator pitch? Krippendorff shakes her head, saying, “I had to fight for having six scenes showing Nora getting her period, and then meeting her friend, and then this other girl washes the blood, and then she’s falling asleep, and there’s blood in her bed, and she has to wash it.” The director rejected requests to cut this sequence down to one scene. “It’s not just ‘stick a tampon in, problem solved’ – it’s a process you go through.”
“If you pitch it as a young girl finding herself in one summer, it sounds like a typical coming-of-age story. But I’m making it a different way. How Nora gets her period is more realistic than in other films, and I dig deeper into the feelings that teenagers have” – Leonie Krippendorff
Another suggestion was for Nora to meet Romy within the first 10 minutes. Cocoon, though, deviates from this genre trope, and also explores the subtleties of coming out. No declarations are fully made yet and there’s no pressure in any direction. Nora, at a party, wonders if being in love with a woman automatically makes her a lesbian, or if it’s more complicated than that, and a supportive stranger responds, “Well, I think it’s cool.” From scene to scene, Nora’s evocative facial expressions are as if we’re watching her cogitate her new identity in real time. “Many films about coming out show so much discrimination from the outside, but Nora’s not going through that. She’s very much in the process of dealing with herself.”
Like Nora, Krippendorff grew up in Berlin and later attended film school at Potsdam. Her graduation feature, Longing, earned positive reviews in 2016, and Cocoon premiered at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. Regarding how autobiographical Cocoon is, Krippendorff refers to small details such as Nora injuring a limb during a game of cards. “In four years, I had four broken arms,” she giggles, “and I had loads of summers with this big cast, and being so sweaty underneath.”
Perhaps that identification with Nora is why Cocoon feels nostalgic despite its present-day setting. The colours are warm and hazy, the soundtrack includes bursts of David Bowie. When it intercuts to Nora’s smartphone videos, they resemble time capsules of a bygone era. Well, 2019 is a bygone era, but you know what I mean. “I thought this was going to be the summer Nora will always remember,” Krippendorff explains. “I wanted the film to feel like a memory already.”
That said, Cocoon deals with contemporary issues in a refreshing manner, and arrives a few weeks after VICE published a thoughtful, Ammonite-inspired article entitled “Why Are All Lesbian Films Set In The Past?” Krippendorff has never used social media but felt it was integral to Cocoon. “For me, being a teenager was brutal, because I found it disturbing to have a body that was changing. I was questioning if those feelings are changing for a generation growing up with social media. But I think the heart of it always stays the same. They’re just confronted with other ways of expressing themselves, and have another kind of pressure growing up.”
Lena Urzendowsky, Krippendorff tells me, only signed up to social media recently as she’s become too famous to not have an online presence. Before Cocoon, Urzendowsky had only done smaller TV roles; next year she’ll be leading Amazon’s big-budget miniseries remake of Christiane F. As Nora, Urzendowsky embodies the character with such ease you forget that it’s an actor. “The tension in Lena’s body changes when she’s performing,” Krippendorff enthuses. “We would rehearse how Nora talks, how Nora walks, how Nora moves, even what was Nora’s favourite meal. We knew everything about Nora.”
“For me, being a teenager was brutal, because I found it disturbing to have a body that was changing. I was questioning if those feelings are changing for a generation growing up with social media” – Leonie Krippendorff
Although there are numerous exceptions, many canonical lesbian movies in the arthouse sector are directed by men. Todd Haynes’ Carol, Lukas Moodysson’s Fucking Amal (which beat Titanic at the Swedish box office), and – though it’s no longer fashionable – Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Krippendorff grew up with these films and says she isn’t so bothered about what is or isn’t the male gaze. “Lena was nervous before the masturbation scene, so I showed her scenes from Fucking Amal and Blue Is the Warmest Colour. I love maybe not every part of these films, but I have been influenced by these films. Not so much as a filmmaker, but as a person.”
“I wouldn’t say that the view of those characters are from a gaze that I wouldn’t see myself in. But I think with topics like how you deal with a woman’s body, a woman can tell it in a different way, and go deeper, and be more intimate, and know better what is important to show.” She pauses. “But filmmaking is about empathy. Everyone says Cocoon is for young girls, but I’ve seen so many old men touched by the film, because they feel so connected to Nora.” So they identify with the social awkwardness? “Yes. At the heart of it, we’re all confronted with the same doubts and insecurities. Maybe one day I’ll write a film and you won’t think a female did it.”
During the November portion of lockdown, Krippendorff has swapped Berlin for the Sicilian island of Lipari in order to pen her next screenplay. The active volcanoes around the landscape are fuelling her imagination. “I’m writing about an intersexual child who has to decide on a gender, and is confronted with these amazing volcanoes,” she says. “You see the smoke. It’s a magical fairy-tale world here.”
As we are speaking in November, it’s just before Cocoon has a UK release in both cinemas and on VOD. Krippendorff doesn’t shy from naming her preference. “I write from the stomach. It’s so much about feeling what Nora feels, and you can have a bigger feeling if you see it on a big screen. There’s a point where Nora is finding herself, and she needs more space, and the screen is opening. It’s one of the most emotional moments if you watch Cocoon in a cinema, but if you watch it on a laptop, 90 per cent of people don’t even recognise that it’s happening. It’s really made for cinemas.”
Her dog is barking to indicate it’s hungry, so I sense I should wrap it up. A final question: if you’re writing from the stomach, what’s it like to watch your stomach-inspired story on a cinema screen at the Berlin Film Festival? “No matter what I write, it will always feel semi-autobiographical,” she says. “Cocoon, especially, because it’s set in a world I grew up through, and that I know so much about. I was terrified before the premiere, and I’m always hurt if someone says even a little, bad sentence about the film. With critics, it’s really disturbing for me, the whole process of showing it.
“But on the other hand, it’s so beautiful to share so many feelings that you had, and to then discover that so many people had the same feelings – people you wouldn’t expect. Some of these people don’t share your reality, and you would never connect with them in another situation. But watching a film together, you can, because it’s such a beautiful way of communicating.” Especially if it’s semi-autobiographical and from the stomach? “It’s both terrifying and very beautiful.”
Peccadillo Pictures will release Cocoon in select UK cinemas and on VOD on December 11