He was busy in the cutting room, they told us, when we asked for an interview with Thomas Grube. Preparations for the anniversary film Grube is making for BASF are in full swing. A chat with the documentary filmmaker in the ARRI studios in central Berlin.
Creating Chemistry: Mr. Grube, your reputation as a freelance documentary filmmaker derives mainly from your recent portraits of artists. What is it that interests you in a company?
Thomas Grube: To me, films are always a kind of expedition into the unknown, into areas that I don’t know anything about. I knew that BASF is the world’s largest chemical company but not much else. And I rated the audio cassettes very highly in my youth (laughs) … but apart from that, the associations I had weren’t positive in the first instance: a chemical company – dirty, destroys the environment. But that’s too simplistic. Our world is a much more complex place and a corporation is not a dark force. During my research I have met a lot of people, every single one of whom is passionate about their specific area. It’s about the big issues of the future that affect us all: our future energy supply, food, urban living. The BASF anniversary film gives me the opportunity to explore these issues.
What criteria do you apply in selecting material for your films?
I am looking for a good challenge. It works best if the mountain is almost too hard to climb. I need a bit of a struggle and to be able to discover something new. That’s where creativity comes from for me. If the going is too easy and the destination seems too close, the final product tends to be nothing special.
Can you tell us about your approach to documentary filmmaking?
I don’t try to convey objective information in my films. I want to create subjective emotion. I want to reflect and make the audience relive the emotion I felt during the filmmaking process. In the case of the BASF film, it means letting them re-experience the adventure all of us who are involved in this anniversary project are now going through together.
In your films, such as "Rhythm is it" and the one about the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, you invariably succeed in showing how people develop in the course of a project. Is this also your goal for the BASF anniversary film?
Yes. Absolutely. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is a pretty special organism, as they elect their boss themselves. At the same time, each individual member is responsible for the quality of the whole. There are Harvard Business School studies on how a structure of that kind can have succeeded for more than 130 years. You can apply the same principle to an organization like 150-year-old BASF: How do systems manage to maintain quality as times and traditions change? How do you perform at your best while at the same time integrating your ego within the community?
One important aspect of the film is co-creation, creating things together. What do you think of this approach?
In my view, it has a lot to do with a highly sustainable corporate culture: it’s not easy to manage 150 years with a short-sighted focus on shareholder value to the exclusion of everything else. In the anniversary project, BASF consistently looks to the future. Anyone who does that needs to be honest enough to face the facts: finding answers to the challenges of the next 20 to 30 years is so complex, that it would overwhelm any individual BASF specialist with his expertise. So it’s good to be open and admit that we will find better answers by looking at problems from different angles – with the joint involvement of critics and NGOs. The film is a communication tool to reflect that co-creation process and to show that BASF has the confidence to take this path.
Do you think filmmaking is co-creation per se?
That’s exactly it. Each individual is an expert in their particular area. And it takes the input of each individual to create the ‘big picture’. Even as a child I loved watching the credits after a movie, the list of names scrolling from top to bottom for minutes at a time: somebody has a vision, a hundred people come together and add their skills – and a concrete product is created out of a fleeting thought.
The activities marking BASF’s anniversary year are being captured in short video clips along with a documentary of the year’s happenings. Thomas Grube’s film work shows different sorts of people – experts and non-experts alike – in common pursuit of answers to the challenges of the future. Grube looks into what motivates them personally to pursue particular issues and documents the impact of the challenges on each of the people concerned.