Detsky Graffam: Creating Comedy

Detsky Graffam’s comedy 90 Grad Nord won Best Comedy at the Aesthetica Short Film Festival 2016. The story explores the notion that good Germans wait at a red traffic light. But what if the green man simply won’t appear? 90 Degrees North is a parable, taking a black-humorous look at our belief in systems. We speak to Graffam to gain an insight into this award-winning work.

ASFF: In 90 Grad Nord a stressed businessman is trapped by an evil traffic island – a bitter fight for survival follows. How did you come up with this storyline?
The core idea for 90 Grad Nord came to me when I moved from London back to Berlin. At that time I noticed again how diligently Germans wait at traffic lights. It’s 5 a.m., there’s no car in sight, everyone’s a bit tipsy, but we all have to wait for green. Moving to Berlin also meant I changed jobs. It was a shock to see how quickly I was replaced by another model back in London. The memory of the years I had spent working there eradicated by the new. I left, in part, because I was exhausted. The long hours had drained me dry. I knew the same would happen to my successor.

There was a kind of horror in that thought, the endless cycle of disposable employees obediently slotting into a system that slowly kills you. This feeling became intermingled with visions of compliant German pedestrians and a general angst that civilization is a highly precarious construct ready to collapse into barbarism any moment… and we will all be eaten by the evil system, our blood fuelling the monstrous machine of tyranny and… I woke up, wrote it down and the seed for 90 Grad Nord was planted.

ASFF: Your film has been screened at countless film festivals and has won many awards. What do you think are the key elements to a successful film?
If I had the secret recipe for a successful film, I would be a rich man. I can only really say why I think 90 Degrees North has been successful. The film takes a universal human experience – waiting at traffic lights – and spins it into a grotesque fairy tale. This mix of the common everyday with the fantastic resonated with audiences from all continents. Furthermore, we worked hard to honour a tried and tested element of the short form. To have a satisfying twist that is at once a surprise and a logical consequence of what has happened before in the world we created.

ASFF: How did you develop the style of your film in order to complement the storyline?
DG: I was insistent that, if the film was to have such an outlandish notion at its centre, the style in which it was shot and acted would have to be, let’s say, less out there. More conventional. So as not to alienate the audience with too much fantasticalness. It should feel real. Finally, our inspirations and filmmaking heroes are woven into the fabric of the film. I think one feels it. Around the corner from the traffic island you’ll find the butcher shop from Delicatessen. They’re showing Steven Spielberg’s Duel in an open-air cinema around the other corner. Terry Gilliam is fighting off Kafka’s beetle somewhere in the forest and HAL is a very important role-model for the traffic lights.

ASFF: You have worked as a filmmaker, director and editor on many film and television projects. What has been your favourite project to date?
Well, this film wasn’t as far as the production is concerned. The filming took place in remotest Brandenburg on a disused Russian airfield with wild boars, terrible weather conditions and gruelling night shoots. But the aftermath, the travelling around the world to all the festivals and meeting so many great filmmakers – especially at Aesthetica of course – has been brill. To date my absolute favourite shoot was in a remote east German village. Bar the two leads all the cast were locals. We just laughed all the time. The film is called Down Under and you can see it at

ASFF: What can we look forward to from you in 2017?
DG: I am tearing my hair out writing a ghost mystery feature film set in a Berlin courtyard a la Rear Window.

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1. Detsky Graffam, 90 Grad Nord