‘Cocoon’ Director Leonie Krippendorff on the Disturbing —and Beautiful— Realities of Adolescence

Leonie Krippendorff

There are as many coming-of-age dramas as there are experiences of growing up; of learning one’s space in the world, finding a first love (and heartbreak), and realising that your body can do some seriously unnerving and gross things just when you are already overwhelmed with the hormones and emotions. Cocoon, Leonie Krippendorff’s second feature, which premiered at the 2020 Berlinale and reaches UK cinemas and VOD release on 11th December, follows Nora, a shy teenager who sees the world through the butterflies she raises and the video diaries she makes on her phone. During one summer spent tagging along with her older sister’s wilder crowd, she begins to find her place —and a crush on the effortlessly cool new girl. While her relationship with Romy may not be lasting, the world-expanding confidence that comes with this queer awakening finds an ample metaphor in the insects Nora cares for.

Screen Queens’ Carmen Paddock spoke with Krippendorff before Cocoon’s UK release, covering the apt central imagery and the film’s strong sense of place to what we think might happen to the characters after the credits roll. 

*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.*

Salzgeber & Co. Medien

CP: Let’s start from the beginning: there is so much butterfly imagery throughout Cocoon, like Nora’s pets are mirroring her own growth and transformation! Can you tell me more about how this came to be such a big part of the film? 

LK: Thank you! When I was writing Cocoon, the setting was partly autobiographical. I grew up in a community in Berlin where one of our family friends raised butterflies. Several times throughout the editing process, I thought I might have to cut out or make the butterflies less prominent in the story, they might be too heavy-handed as a metaphor for Nora’s life, but I kept them in, and they ended up being a very organic theme.

When I was watching the film, the metaphor definitely came across very organically! But something else that felt very natural were the young performers —could you tell me a little bit about casting Nora and her companions?

So I worked with Jella Haase (who plays Romy) on my first feature film Looping, and I gave her the script, just out of curiosity, because we are friends outside work, and asked her what she thought of it. She said she really wanted to play Romy. And I thought, I don’t know if that is going to work since she is already in her twenties and Romy is seventeen, so I was afraid that she would be too mature. But she asked me if I’d let her come to the casting, so I did, and she ended up being in the first combination I invited into the casting room —I had her read with Lena Urzendowsky, who plays Nora in the final film. I had not worked with Lena before but I kind of fell in love with her face. They were beautiful; I really believed the love between them and with two young actresses that real belief in the love can be difficult to find. I saw lots of actors after them but I stayed with them because it was so beautiful to watch them. 

Then I started looking for people who bring something inside them to add to the script —for example we did a big street casting to find the boys with little acting experience. I wanted actors who had some experience who could maybe lead the scene a little bit, and then also have the rawness of actors without any previous acting experience, to make the scenes new and alive. And that worked very well —I had very much fun!  

And I looked for people who could also help me with the project. I know the Kottbusser Tor area because I grew up pretty close, but of course I am a different generation and I don’t really know much about growing up nowadays with social media and stuff. So I wanted to have them as correctors on set, because they would say stuff like “okay, we would never use that word” and “we would never say it that way” and keep it real. 

That’s great to hear! And I want to dig into the sense of place in the film, because it felt very vibrant. How did you capture this local Kottbusser Tor feel and did you film on location?

Yes, since Kottbusser Tor is a place that everyone in Berlin knows! It’s a very vibrant place, it’s a cultural spot, but it also has a high crime rate, and I love it, there’s so much coming together. There’s also a strong queer culture —so many intersecting queer spaces and bars, and I just love to be there. And it’s not an easy place to shoot, if locals see a film crew, they aren’t always the most welcoming, but we found several spots that were very supportive “safe spaces” to go back and hang around. It was very intense and very different. I know the area quite well, but I didn’t grow up there directly, so I worked very much with the locals because I wanted to have this almost documentary element inside of the film. I didn’t want to be the white girl from outside going into the world she doesn’t really understand, so that was very, very important to me that I had the actors helping me and showing me their world. 

Thank you for telling me about that! On the side of capturing life truthfully, one thing that stands out in Cocoon is that it doesn’t glamorise growing up —you see Nora get her first period and it feels very tangible and real. How important was this messy side of growing up to you? 

That was actually my first thought when I wrote the script’ I wanted to make a film that shows how it really felt to have this development of your body, because I feel a lot of coming-of-age films don’t really touch this topic. Because it’s really early on in your life when you really have an idea of how disturbing it can be to get your period and have your body developing —and also how beautiful it is. I think the first thing I wrote was that scene between Nora and Romy in the toilet when Romy washes the blood out of Nora’s pants after her first period, I thought that would be a good way for them to meet. From that scene on, I started to develop characters. That was important for me because I found it so incredibly hard when I was Nora’s age to have this “transformation” from girl to woman.

Salzgeber & Co. Medien

I wanted to ask how you chose to frame your scenes. The perspective changes quite a bit —the opening is the party of girls drawing on a sleeping boy, filmed through someone’s camera. How did you choose what to show very immediately through the teenagers’ devices and what was shown a bit further removed, through a more traditional cinema lens?

I had a little bit of a problem in that it was difficult to keep Nora central to the film when everyone around her was so alive and loud, it was a bit difficult to make the quiet one the protagonist, so that led to the decision to use her video diaries. So from the beginning of the film, you can understand that she is the one present to the story and the story is being told out of her eyes. And that helps us get closer to Nora and see through her eyes. And then also there is a change in the format in the middle of a film… the screen opens up into a wider screen format, which you can see very well in the cinema, and the idea is that there will be a point when Nora will need more space on screen, because her personality has developed so much, and she takes up more space in her body and her world. So I wanted to show this in the way she showed up on film. 

I know this is beyond the scope of this film, but even though not everything works out in the film, do you think Nora will be happy and successful if we saw her again in ten years based on her journey in Cocoon

Yes, everything she is going through can make her richer as a person, and also the grief, and getting her heart broken, and if you recognise that it can be a very powerful feeling to overcome the hard times, you’re so much more yourself afterwards and it’s so worth it. I think that she will be able to be the person she is and not to have an idea of how she is supposed to be by society or by her surroundings. 

On that, and just going back to the film’s central relationship between Nora and her first love Romy, do you think they will ever come back to each other?

I thought about that during casting! Lena Urzendowsky had a very deep feeling for Nora —it was amazing to work with her, she had such great insight into Nora’s secrets, and the tension in her body comes through so concretely when she is playing her on screen. And she was adamant —“No, Nora would never go back to Romy!” She thought that Nora was looking so much for real love that she kind of got over [this relationship] as she developed through the film. She took from that relationship what she could and then carried on with herself in a positive way. She’ll look for someone who really wants to stay with her for a long time and who won’t be looking around at other people as well. 

I don’t know, actually, I imagined scenes of them meeting when they’re a little bit older. I can’t really say.

Cocoon is available in UK cinemas and VOD on December 11th

by Carmen Paddock

Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie

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