The day a director was born

Florian Cossen on his emotional debut movie, ‘The Day I Was Not Born,’ a personal and political history set in Germany and Argentina

Cossen 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
Cossen 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
When the ulpan teacher started singing ‘Ooga ooga, ooga [cake, cake, cake], it clicked,” says Florian Cossen, the director of the acclaimed new German- Argentinian film, The Day I Was Not Born, which opens this week at theaters around Israel.
He is talking about an experience he had in a Montreal Hebrew classroom that gave him the idea for the central moment in his film. Cossen, the son of a German diplomat, was born in Israel and lived here until age 4, when his family was stationed here. Years later, when he was studying Hebrew in Canada, his stubborn teacher insisted he must remember something of the songs he learned in preschool.
“But although she sang very, very loudly and I was embarrassed, I didn’t remember anything – until she sang that one song. And then I did know the words. I got to thinking about how the memory and identity can be triggered … The memory doesn’t come vaguely.
It clicks and it’s there.”
After a screening of the film at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, Cossen, 30, talked about how he got the idea for his film, which tells the story of Maria (Jessica Schwarz), a German competitive swimmer who by chance ends up in the Buenos Aires airport. There she hears a mother singing a Spanish lullaby to her baby and is shocked that she knows all the words. This brings on a panic attack and she feels she must spend time in Argentina. When her father appears in Buenos Aires, the secret of her origins – she was the child of two of the “disappeared” political prisoners in the late Seventies and early Eighties – is revealed. The rest of the film focuses on how Maria copes with this strange, bittersweet news about her identity and forges a tentative relationship with her biological aunt.
Cossen got the idea for the film when a trip he happened to take to Argentina coincided with an official day of sorrow marking the 30-year-anniversary of the coup that put a dictatorship into power.
“I became interested in this subject and I learned that there were more than 500 cases of the children of those who disappeared being kidnapped, and given for adoption. There were cases of those children ending up in Europe. What was interesting from my perspective was the thought of a person around my age, thinking he or she is European and then learning she has something to do with a crime she doesn’t even know about,” he says.
He doesn't deny that this is a subject that has particularly significant resonance for a young German.
“We grew up and learned to live with secrets,” he says. “A lot of German men are not emotionally that open.”
While Cossen’s own grandfather never confided in Cossen’s father, eventually he did open up to the curious young director.
“My grandfather was in a Russian prison during the war. When certain memories were too intense and painful he’d say, ‘It’s enough for today.’ ” He remembers how different his perspective on life was from his grandfather’s, a conflict that is mirrored in the schism between the heroine in the film and her father.
“My grandfather and I got into a fight when I told him about going to my first concert. It was a Bruce Springsteen concert with 52,000 people, I was thought it was so great. And he said it’s not cool to go to a concert with 50,000 people. He thought of a mass gathering like that as a big propaganda tool. What hounds my grandfather most is having believed in the wrong thing at 19.”
In the course of his research, he came across a young Argentine woman who learned that her own father had been a torturer for the military dictatorship.
“It was the opposite to the story I ended up telling.
But this woman changed her name. She couldn’t stand the idea that someone might hear it and remember torture. I heard so many emotional stories. There were cases similar to the one we described in the movie, but it isn’t based on a single case, but a combination of several. I heard of a guy who grew up in England and then found out he was from Argentina and went there.
He learned he was a year and a half older than he had thought,” says Cossen.
The ages of these adopted children were sometimes changed on documents to comply with bureaucratic rules, he explains.
“It’s a hugely disorienting experience, not just to learn you are not the nationality you thought you were, but to learn you are a different age. This guy said, I started this trip when I was 26, now I’m going back 28, but I was never 27.”
Cossen, who says his next film will be a black comedy, has lived all over the world due to his father’s career and got to know Buenos Aires well during the shooting of the film.
“It becomes this place full of light and personality. It isn’t just where the story takes place, but it’s also a character.”