I came across the story of Erna Petri whilst researching my feature film ‘The Victors’. ‘The Victors’ is a story concerned with the truth of becoming a soldier and going to war. By that I mean it’s anti nostalgic, less triumphant and honest about what happens when you accept that path. There is nothing wrong with becoming a soldier or serving your country. I do take issue with what the men and women we send off to fight are told about the realities. I’m also concerned with how this is represented in film. Time and again we see war films that glorify a kind of toxic masculinity without intelligence, relying on the visceral to carry its audience with little story depth. They’re also filmed through the veil of nostalgia. Full of daring do. War is far darker, more human and tragic than that. We deserve better films.
And so I was reading some background when I came across the story of Erna Petri, a housewife who committed murder to prove herself to her husband and their shared ideology, right wing fascism aka Nazism. It left a startling impression that a housewife would do this but then she’d been submerged in nazi ideology, allowing her terrible actions to feel easy for her. Almost required. Easy to carry out when you dehumanise other human beings.
Two weeks later the Manchester Arena bombing occurred. Like many in my home town, I was glued to the TV as the horror unfolded seven miles away. Days after, I was struck by the similarities between the Arena bomber Salman Abedi and Erna Petri. Two people of around the same age. Radicalised so far they will commit murder for the sake of a warped ideology. These people aren’t soldiers. They were ordinary people manipulated by others.
I wanted to make Erna’s story stand alone to make a point about extremism. Making films is an odd adventure. Finding the story can take time and rely on revelation to arrive at the final piece. Making Erna’s story would have been impossible and a tough watch for the audience to connect with. We’ve seen so many World War Two holocaust stories before and I wanted a modern audience to connect. Mid way through 2018 I realised that I was avoiding including Abedi and the reason I wanted to make the film in the first place, as a response to a terrible event that happened to my home town. I was being overly sensitive. Sometimes being a film maker you need to be brave. Like a cameraperson looking at a terrible news event, you have to kind of emotionally shut off and keep filming or no one else will ever see the very event you’re witnessing. I had to face reality and tell this story not to mention that it was driving me a bit crazy. Stories do this. Usually its the best ones that never leave you alone in your thoughts. Those are the ones to pursue. I read an article about creativity, that sometimes you have to let go of the thing you fear most to be creative.