“Although my parents weren’t wealthy and worked hard for their business, we had all that we needed. We lived in the Bavarian Hobbitland, next to a beautiful lake – a very privileged place to spend a childhood. I believe my creativity blossomed from a combination of boredom and curiosity, as well as my realisation that there is always a shadow cast by the sun and an underlying dramatic narrative. Even when everything seems serene, like a calm lake at sunset – just perfect – it’s not, trust me on that.”
When she wasn’t building dams in the brook of her garden, Manuela was buried head first in books, her inseparable companions. As she took herself into fictional worlds, in the garden outside, cats, dogs, horses, ducks and frogs were abundant and she took the time to train and look after them. She says, “Apart from that, I started to tell stories by taking pictures of my toys which I placed in different settings – like the flower pot, the dangerous balcony railing or the bridge over the river – true masterpieces.”
“I always had the desire to create something, and when there wasn’t an outlet for my ideas and creative energy, I would get frustrated and annoy people around me.” This childhood frustration was something Manuela learnt to combat and work in her favour, rather than against her. “Fortunately, my parents taught me how to create and how to keep working on a piece until I liked it. If a picture I painted didn’t turn out the way I envisioned, and I felt like destroying it, my mum taught me how to find new ideas, colours, or subjects that would ultimately make me like it.”
[Shadow by Shadow Trailer]
After getting through school and passing her Abitur (final year school exams), Manuela decided to embark on a journey through India for an extended period. “The experiences we had there greatly influenced the subsequent years of my life,” she says. “The realisation that a human life often holds little value, and witnessing the discrimination faced by women in Indian society deeply affected me, prompting me to seek a deeper understanding of the culture.”
Coming back to Germany, she studied art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. “I believe that dedicating time to painting allowed me to develop my visual thinking skills,” she reflects. In the back of her mind, however, was the passion she had for being behind the camera and visually telling stories. So, she ended up returning to India to shoot a documentary about a female self-defence group in the north east and that’s where her filmmaking journey began.
Sending her self-defence project to the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg in Ludwigsburg, it became her first success story, her opportunity to study directing and meet key members of her team. It was at the film school that she began writing and shooting ‘Where to, Miss?’, centred around a female taxi driver in Delhi. She describes the experience: “My talented cinematographer Jan David Gunther and I truly learned how we wanted to capture the essence of this film while shooting it. Every year we got better and better which we could also verify by the shooting-to-screen ratio that got better and better.”
[Still from ‘Where to, Miss’]
This experience combined with her learning at the academy proved to be a match made in heaven. “While the classes and workshops during my studies at Filmacademy Baden-Württemberg also contributed to my growth, they were most impactful when combined with the process of creating the film and receiving constructive feedback.” The piece went on to garner award-show success and became Manuela’s most significant piece of work to date.
She says, “The film had a great festival tour and a cinema release and that made it technically possible for me to apply for film funds later on. It still is my reference project even though I would do the same film very differently today – but that’s part of growing and developing as a filmmaker.”
As she continues to create films and work on projects, it’s the variety of each piece that keeps her on her toes. “I really love writing, the deep dive into the world and how the characters start speaking to you. At a certain point, scenes start to write themselves as you begin to type,” she explains. “Shooting itself is wonderful because it finally brings the idea to life. Editing is great because new ideas can influence the story in a precise way that I have not thought of before. I think the saying [by Robert Bresson] is true that films are made three times, in writing, shooting, and in the edit.”
Taking on feature films and long form content does however have its challenges, especially when it comes to timescales. “My documentary took four years to complete, but I was able to control it myself as it still was a student project and it could be made with a small budget. The fiction features I am working on are very different. Long development and long financing processes make it necessary to work on different projects parallel.” Due to this, Manuela is keen to start on shorter projects, specifically music videos and commercials in the coming year.
“My goal is to write and direct feature films and series. First, I want to bring my own features and series to life, which I am currently co-writing. However, if an opportunity arises to direct or write features that resonate with me, I will go with the flow,” she says. “Regarding commercials, I would love to focus on strong storytelling, as it aligns with my experience and expertise, particularly when combined with female leads and relevant topics.”
[Still from ‘Where to, Miss’]
It’s in the fiction film sector that Manuela finds some frustration. She says, “There are many issues concerning the types of films being made. It’s almost like a lottery whether your film gets produced or not. In my opinion, it’s the wrong approach for TV channels, which are obligated to meet certain quotas, to be crucial stakeholders for debut films. Debut films should be bold and daring rather than trying to please everyone. Additionally, there are only a limited number of broadcast slots that allocate budgets for debut films, which presents a huge problem.”
This plays into her belief that media should incorporate a diverse range of perspectives to accurately portray the differences in society and culture. “Diversity should be embraced not just as a trend, but as a necessity to break away from the repetition of the same old stories and provide opportunities for inventing new role models,” she explains. Keeping herself in tune with the people around her, checking social media for trends, reading newspapers and immersing herself in events and workshops, Manuela does her best to tune herself into the latest debates.
With routine being important to her wellbeing, it’s yoga, healthy eating, swimming and being in nature which top her list of things to do. “Playing guitar and singing gives me a lot of joy. Travelling and experiencing art and culture is my inspiration – besides observing people. Being with my friends in Berlin and Bavaria and spending time with my family and my partner brings me back to the things that are most important in life.”
As a filmmaker, she finds solace in film, sharing the experience with others and also getting to experience these moments in the comfort of her own home, watching TV shows and indulging in storylines. “The attention the movie gets and the common experience as an audience to watch an exciting story and to share some feelings while doing so is still the best,” she says. “However, I also watch a lot of the great shows available on various streaming platforms. Most of my favourite shows are made by HBO which almost guarantees exceptional entertainment and a unique cinematic or storytelling approach.”
In particular, the TV shows ‘Big Little Lies’, ‘Top of the Lake’, ‘Fleabag’ and ‘Killing Eve’ come to Manuela’s mind. The first for the idyllic scenery and dark stories, the second for the “tense story with compelling characters” and the final because she’s generally a fan of Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
There’s so much that Manuela is inspired by and wants to convey. But it does come down to a few things in particular: “By trying to understand human nature and expressing it through creation – be it a song, an image, or a movie – I find a sense of relief and peace in my mind, even if it’s just for a moment, until I have to search for something new that excites me.”
She finds comfort in the small things: “In the end, we are all alone but we can all connect by sharing something – if it is a good wine, a beautiful sunrise, the rage about injustice, laughing together about our human faults in a good movie. And I think it drives me to find and create those moments in my life and by sharing experiences through art – just because it gives me joy.”