I suppose it really is high time that I told about how I ended up being a specter, and subsequently a zombie, in Berlin.
While I was on the streets of München, I met a guy who told me about a place near Berlin called Kesselberg. He hadn’t been there, but what he could tell me was that they got all their food through dumpster-diving, and anyone could stay there for a while. To get to Kesselberg you take public transit as far as you possibly can, and then walk an hour. So, it’s near Berlin, but far enough away that it doesn’t get completely swarmed by people.
I’m not going to dwell too long on describing Kesselberg, because I didn’t really like the vibe there too much. When I was in Kraków, I stayed with a woman who would talk about the “energy” of a place. “That place had strange energy,” she would say, and at first it sounded a bit looloo to me, but then I decided it was actually a good way of summing up your general feeling of somewhere. Kesselberg had bad energy. It’s been around for somewhere over ten years, but it still looked like they were just setting things up, with wood strewn everywhere and structures looking laughably haphazard. There were a few permanent buildings left over from the land’s previous inhabitants—who, get this, were the East German state security service, the Stasi—and these were the only things around that looked like they could withstand a strong wind. Since the land is zoned as forest by the German government, no one is technically allowed to live there, even though the land is actually owned in some way or other by the community. So the way they get around that is that they live in campers, or they live in such squalor that no official would actually believe they could be doing anything less temporary than a bit of an extended camping trip. It was a useful place to stay awhile, but I found myself almost immediately wanting to get out of it, into the city.
I got what I wanted thanks to an American I met, named Erik, who is gregarious and talkative but unfortunately a complete idiot. What drew me to him was that he knew about things that were happening. Specifically, he likes to cultivate connections with people who make movies, so he knew about a film that was being made that night and needed a few extras. The only catch was that filming started at 2:30 in the morning and might continue until 5 p.m. the next day. Even so, I decided I was in.
A company of about six of us went to the city and wandered around awhile, talking, eating, looking at the Festival of Lights. This is something Berlin had going on at the time. Buildings all around town had multicolored lights shining all over them, just to look pretty, and you could walk around downtown and see them all. We saw the Brandenburg gate this way, with a different color lighting up each of its columns, and also—not lit—a little section of the Berlin Wall that’s still standing in its old place in the center of town. As we passed by this way, one of our group, Patrick, offered to take us on a little detour to see the place where Hitler died, and where most of his ashes were. It was a nondescript little polygon of green grass with trees. You’d never guess it was anything, except that Patrick told us. I had to pee, but it was a rather exposed area, so I didn’t pee on Hitler’s body.
Erik didn’t know anything about the film shoot except the time and place and that it was for a music video. The place was a bar whose decoration theme was “everything is upside-down”. We got there early, and it was still busy being a bar, with a few last drunken patrons sleeping in a corner. At 2:30 the filmmakers came in and asked who was on the list to be an extra. Erik had told us beforehand that they had their six needed extras, and we might get a place if someone didn’t show up. We were lucky! Or at least, Erik was, and so was Ovi, a Romanian who was with us. They got places. I was left out because they already had four. “Man, I really wanted to do it,” I said, and right away one of the official extras said I could have his place, because he’d much rather go sleep. So it worked out okay after all.
The film crew briefed us on the video. Here it is: the band is sitting around playing cards. Then a group of dark, masked specters appears standing around them. They don’t take much notice of the specters, but then the drummer gets really edgy and finally transforms into one. They keep playing, but then the bassist transforms too, and so does the guitarist, and the singer is left all alone among them, looking severely uncomfortable.
So we, the extras—me, Erik, Ovi, and two Greeks and an English guy, none of whom we had met before—were the specters. The first thing I discovered about filming is that make-up can take forever. I was the last wraith to get made up, and I waited at least an hour and a half for the other guys. A Kiwi woman named Alateia with a fascinating life story put black paint on my face all around where my mask would be, and then I was given a mask, originally white but smothered in black paint. I was also given jeans and a hoodie, smeared with black paint while I was wearing them, which meant I was a little bit wet for a lot of the night. This added to the surreal, uncomfortable mood on set. I think it was pretty close to the mood that they wanted for the video. You have to really get into the mindset to act well.
The next thing I discovered was that there’s a lot of waiting. Each shot, all the lighting, all the places, has to be set up perfectly, and it takes a long, long time. But it was interesting. When all of us specters surrounded the band for the first time, the singer, who conceived the video, said it was bizarre to actually be living out the scene he’d hatched in his imagination. And it did feel a bit otherworldly. Here we were in a closed bar with everything turned literally upside-down, bright lights shining every which way, and this story slowly entering the camera.
Over the course of the night I ate lots of free unhealthy catering food (some of it smeared gently with black paint from my hands), got to know the band a little, and got really tired. One by one the band members became specters too, and after the whole night had gone by, we finally wrapped up around noon. And for my trouble, I got a whole €20.
As I write this, I’ve discovered that the music video is now finished and released! So here it is: “Uniformed & Black”, by Antimatter. If you stop at around the 14-second mark, that’s probably the clearest view you’ll get of all the specters together. I’m the one in the back, third from the left. Ovi is the gangly one on the far left looking off to the side instead of straight ahead. I think Erik might be the specter between us, but it’s hard to tell, what with the masks.
I returned to Kesselberg for a day or so and then went out into town with Erik again, this time with my backpack, not planning on coming back. It was just us two this time, aiming to go to a show by Vic Anselmo, a girl we’d met at the shoot. Erik reported that she was really good. After that, there was another 2:30 call for extras at a zombie movie, this time paying €100. Erik slept all day and we left at 6:00, only an hour before Vic was due to be onstage. On the way Erik got himself a lot of liquor and drank a bunch on the train to the city. We didn’t get to town until 7:30. Then Erik had no idea where he was, and blamed Berlin for changing too quickly—apparently they’d totally changed this neighborhood since he was last there eight years ago. I got split up from him at a döner kebab place, and found my own way. Vic was done, but she got me a place to see the next band. Erik turned up half an hour later, clearly drunk, and embarrassed Vic by being drunk in this quiet little arthouse-style venue that she’d invited him to. I decided to go about things a different way: I got him to tell me everything he knew about the zombie shoot, then called Alateia, who’d be there, and clarified what else I needed to know, then left him behind and went off on my own. What a load off my back.
From more clearheaded sources, I found out that the call for extras wasn’t until 10:00 the next day, and also that those €100 were a figment of Erik’s imagination. Still, it seemed like a pretty good time, so I camped out near the set and got up in the morning to get to work. The set was a hospital that was abandoned three years ago. I walked in through the gate and looked for the main entrance. I found it; in front there was an exploded car, with a skeleton on the ground nearby. This was going to be interesting. That door was locked, but I went around to the back of the hospital and found a line of camper-trailers in a parking lot. Some guys from the catering trailer were the first to wake up, and told me they could certainly use me, but 10:00 was an irresponsibly early estimate of when the day would start, and sometime in the afternoon was far more likely. Movie making: hurry up and wait.
While I was waiting, I got to talk a little bit with the stars, and heard some reverence and awe for Olaf Ittenbach, the director, whose claim to fame seems to be his ability to create maximum realistic gore with a tiny budget. Later I got made up with two big slashes down my face by a heavily tattooed makeup artist from Moldavia. His name was Crudelia, and he was highly opinionated on how a zombie should look, and how much other makeup artists have to learn.
In this undead state, I was given free rein to explore the hospital, just as long as I was kind of careful, if I felt like being careful. Above-board urban exploration! It turns out that some of the thrill of urban exploration is in sneaking around and making sure not to get caught, and some of it is in being alone and a pioneer in a new place, and in broad daylight with a movie crew around not caring, both those factors were rather diminished. But that’s not to say it was boring, because I got to do some great climbing and see an abandoned children’s ward with cartoon paintings all over the wall, and the patient rooms were sometimes highly creepy in a terrific way. Plus, every once in a while there was zombie gore all over the floor from a previous day of shooting, so that spiced things up a bit.
I ended up only being in two scenes. In the first one I’m in a group of zombies trying feebly to get in through locked doors, and someone on the roof is idly sniping at us but then gets yelled at. The guy doing the yelling was repeating his lines all morning with different intonations and emphases: “Quit fucking around! They want you downstairs. …I’ll take charge here.” In the other scene, Alateia plays a pathologist explaining to a SWAT team member that the corpses piling up around the city are behaving in a highly unorthodox way for corpses, and when the SWAT guy tells her, “Did you get your fucking job on eBay?” she shows him a bunch of zombies restrained to gurneys in a hospital room next door. I’m one of those zombies. For this slight amount of work, and much greater amount of hanging around waiting, I was given pizza and other food, and had a fun time with the other zombies. In fact, one of them even took me home. This was Maria, the favorite extra, who achieved this status by being willing to play a naked corpse who gets carved up for meat. Yeah, this movie won’t be the kind you show to the kids. Incidentally, it’s called Godforsaken, and though it’s being made in Germany, it’s filmed in English and they’re aiming to sell it on the American B-movie market. It’s super low budget, so not only do the extras get paid nothing but pizza, the actors hardly get anything either. That made me feel less gypped. People are hoping it’ll get them exposure and get their careers off the ground. We’ll see… the world isn’t exactly hurting for zombie B-movies these days, but maybe this Ittenbach guy has the magic touch that’ll get a certain audience watching (for example, people who really like gore).
All that filming done, I took a day to explore the city like a tourist might, climbing the Reichstag and looking at the buildings along the Spreebord, stuff like that. And then it was time to get out of Germany. I had more Europe waiting.