Food for thought

Filmmaker Christopher Grant Harvey talks about Lunch With Hitler, his SAFTA-winning short film

 

At first glance, few people would think that the short film Lunch With Hitler is a South African production. Not only was the eight-minute movie shot entirely in German with English subtitles, but the actors, set design, wardrobe and direction all have an international look and feel.

However, the piece was written and directed by Johannesburg-based filmmaker Christopher Grant Harvey. The cast and crew are South African, and the film was shot at a boy’s school in Tshwane.

What is this film about?

Lunch With Hitler was inspired by accounts of the young women who were compelled into service as taste testers for Adolf Hitler during World War II, after rumours circulated that the Allies had plans to poison him. In 1942, 15 young women were selected to taste Hitler’s food at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia to confirm that it was safe, after which time members of the SS transported it to the main headquarters for Hitler and his entourage to enjoy. I condensed the number of women from 15 to three in an attempt to tighten the narrative scope.

Where did the inspiration for the film come from?

A few years ago, I came across the story in an online piece based on a German woman named Margot Wölk, who, in 2012 and on her 95th birthday, recounted that she’d been one of Hitler’s tasters during WWII. The story struck a chord with me, and I immediately started work on building a story around the article. It took several years for the film to get off the ground and finally be released, but despite the prolonged development period, the story’s poignancy never left my mind.

How long did it take you to write the screenplay?

I spent about three years sitting on the concept without putting pen to paper, but once it became clear that the film would get financing, the scriptwriting process took a week.

Can you tell us about the cast and your casting process?

I was fortunate to have gathered such an incredible cast for the film, and I am grateful that each one brought their best to the table. I did a few videotaped casting sessions where I looked for a range of emotions, with my primary goal of finding the nuance in the performances. I was not on the lookout for overly flamboyant or fussy dramatic takes on the material. Even though I had worked with Deborah Lettner years before and had written the role of Maria specifically for her, we still recorded a casting. I knew she had the resolve and grace to hold the trio together onscreen. Through my casting director, Thorsten Wedekind, I was introduced to Briony Horwitz, who is an absolute gem of a human. She brought such a command and majesty to her performance as Karen. Mila Guy as Hanna was a keystone performance. Mila is one of those actors with a deep well she can draw from, especially in this physically and emotionally draining role. I feel bad because we made her cry and cry for hours on end, but she never missed a beat. The casting of Andre Odendaal as the titular character came about after a quick coffee meet-up and discussion, and his few seconds of screen time helped cement the omnipresent threat these women would have faced.

How long was the shoot?

As with all my film shoots, our money train dried up quickly. We crammed in everything over two and a half days, and this was only accomplished because of solid planning by my producers, solid recces and a professional crew that pushed between each setup to get the following setup prepped so we could save time. We were further aided by having a basic storyboard for the big ‘eating scene’ and a detailed shot list for the setups. 

Where did filming take place?

We shot everything on location at Pretoria Boys High School with the gracious efforts of John Illsley, who helped facilitate a crew running around the halls of the school grounds.

Has Lunch With Hitler been invited to play in any festivals?

So far, we have screened the film at the Cleveland International Film Festival 2023 and Dances With Films in Los Angeles, with hopefully more festivals to be announced soon. We also recently won a SAFTA (South African Film and Television Award) for Best Online Content, which is very exciting!

When and why did your interest in film start?

It began as the opening credits of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves sprawled across a massive screen, and Michael Kamen’s score filled the cinema! It was my first time seeing a movie on the big screen. My love of film was further solidified by regular movie-going experiences at my grandparents’ house during weekends and school holidays. I was introduced to a veritable treasure trove of cinematic delights. My grandfather Rudy had a vast collection of films on VHS, BETACAM and eventually DVD, and I have many memories of discovering something new each time I visited.

Your last film was Tears In The Rain, which was released in 2017. Why did it take so long to make your next short?

I am slow to get the filmmaking process going because I need to be sure the stories I choose to tell are worth watching for the audience and that I have a sufficient emotional investment in them to dedicate years of my life to them. I hope to reduce the time between projects as my network of industry folk widens.

What are you working on now?

I am working on more genre projects currently in the horror realm. After film school, I had a plan: three shorts and a feature. I am one short away from tackling the feature, which will also be a horror movie.

Watch Lunch With Hitler on YouTube

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