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When filming Stalingrad, the 1992 World War II epic that looks as if it cost at least $50 million more than the $8 million it did, the director found himself trying to recreate the bitter Russian winter in a Czechoslovakia where it was refusing to snow. Fortunately, Vilsmaier explains during a promotional visit to Washington, he had the insurance money from an automobile accident that had recently fractured one of his vertebrae. He used the cash to lease a Russian cargo plane, load it with Soviet-bloc tanks, and fly it to Finland for some snow scenes. There was a scandal in the local newspapers, the director laughs, when it was revealed that a Russian plane full of tanks had landed in Finland without the defense authorities noticing.

Then there’s Brother of Sleep, his latest film. It was shot in a remote area of Austria where avalanches are a constant hazard. High in the mountains, Vilsmaier’s crew reassembled some frame buildings from a nearby village, including a church that was a crucial location. A “dust” avalanche—dry snow rather than the usual, more predictable wet type—came from an unexpected direction. It “went right through the church,” knocking down several of the church’s walls and completely destroying several houses, says the filmmaker with great enthusiasm (and through an interpreter who sometimes is clearly paraphrasing). This happened “one week after shooting was completed,” adds Vilsmaier, whose close-cropped gray hair and beard are set off by a shirt of gold, black, and vivid blue.

The director, who also photographs and produces his films, needed such luck to complete Brother, which is based on a 1992 Robert Schneider novel that was a European sensation (and has just been published in paperback in the U.S.). Schneider himself wrote the script, producing several drafts in consultation with the director and dramaturge Jürgen Büscher. Schneider continued to reshape scenes as the camera rolled. The novel is “so dense,” Vilsmaier notes, that “even the author would go on different trails on his third or fourth version. He said he would be happy if there were just one scene that captured the novel.”

The lead role of Elias Alder went to the intense, idiosyncratic André Eisermann, seen here recently in Peter Sehr’s Kasper Hauser. Vilsmaier recalls that his wife—Czech actress Dana Vávrová, who ended up playing Elias’ romantic interest in the film—answered the phone when the actor first called. “I’m Elias. God sent me,” Eisermann insisted before finally revealing his name.

Ultimately, Vilsmaier was persuaded by Eisermann’s approach to winning the role. Of the contenders for the part, the director remembers, “There’s 31 nice people, but only one is crazy. Let’s take him. I don’t know anyone as mad as this actor in all of Europe.” The casting makes at least as much sense as Vilsmaier’s original choice. “Johnny Deep could very well play this part,” the director thought, but his attempts to interest the American actor’s agent were inconclusive.

Madness was important to Vilsmaier, who delightedly describes the physical deformities caused by mountain villages’ limited gene pools. Still, the director rejects the notion that Brother is limited by its location and, specifically, that it is kin to the quintessential “German mountain films” made in the ’20s and ’30s by Arnold Franck and his protégée, Leni Riefenstahl. “Germany’s not the important thing about it,” he argues. “Mountains are everywhere and this film could be made anywhere. People in the mountains have the same mentality everywhere. They’re so friendly, so hearty.”

That judgment, it could be argued, sounds rather German. Vilsmaier, however, cites the novel’s success throughout Europe as proof that the story’s themes are universal. “Even in a thousand years, they would be as contemporary as they are now,” he insists. “Mankind will not change in the next thousand years.”

—Mark Jenkins