Speaker: Lorenz Knauer

Overcoming Transgenerational Personal and Collective Trauma

"Each and every one of us can make a difference every day – working for animals, people and the environment!"

Lorenz Knauer is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and founder and board president of the Jane Goodall Institute for Animals, Wildlife and the Environment in Germany. He made the award-winning feature-length documentary Jane's Journey (about Jane Goodall), along with many other documentary films in his 35+ year career.

“Real life and real people interest me much more than fiction – the ‘small’ stories often more than the big ones,” Lorenz says.  “As a child I witnessed the building of the Berlin Wall and understood very early that people will risk their lives so they can live in freedom, choosing to follow their inner calling instead of doing what other people tell them to do. That was an experience I have never forgotten and it laid the foundations for my deep dislike of dictators and ideologues of any kind. Many people I make films about are ‘outsiders,’ non-conformists.  More often than not, they are self-taught individuals who live out their dreams against all odds.”

Lorenz was born in Munich in 1953 – “only eight years after the end of World War II, when Germany was a traumatized country on all levels.”  His father had been an anti-Nazi drafted against his will into Hitler’s army in the final phase of the war, a man Lorenz describes as “a very, very angry and violent man with a very short temper – his was reign of terror.”

“It took me decades to even begin to understand where my father’s anger had its roots,” he notes.  “In fact, I was early in my forties, my own life had fallen completely apart at that point …it was then that I began years of therapy which eventually helped me understand that it was not just my father who was so angry – it was the entire generation of my parents and of their parents too: they had gone through WW I, lost that war and Germany’s honor, lost family members, lost their fortunes during the inflation in the 20’s and the Great Depression in the 30’s… and then lost WW II on top of all that! Those generations never had the opportunity to heal or to even talk about what had gone wrong and why they were so angry! It was all swept under the carpet and ‘forgotten’ because everyone was so busy rebuilding the country, making money and fighting communism during the Cold War which erupted more or less directly after WW II had ended and continued on until 1989 when the Berlin Wall finally came down and the communist system collapsed.”

Lorenz grew up in West Berlin, London, and the United States, frequently shuttling among the 3 countries as his father pursued an academic career in the classics. “13 schools in some 13 schoolyears,” he notes, “so I was used to always being the ‘other,’ the foreigner, the ‘Kraut’ when in America or, when in Germany, ‘Der Ami’ or the ‘American.’”  He stayed in Europe to study law, Italian and French literature, linguistics and History of Art at various universities in Italy, France, and Germany.

Lorenz’s first big break in making documentary films came in early 1989, when Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Malcolm Clarke invited him to the United States to write and direct a film about the crisis caused by more than 200 million guns in private hands in that country. HBO had commissioned the film about all the deaths by gun on a randomly chosen date in the summer of 1989. It was to be a strong statement against gun-related violence in the US. 

“It turned out to be the most difficult and painful documentary I had made,” Lorenz says.  “It was heart-wrenching to hear the stories from husbands, wives and children who had witnessed their dear ones being shot in front of their very eyes in 60 cases on that fateful day. But it was even harder to experience how our film was basically censored in the end thanks to the powerful lobbying of the National Rifle Association. The film did air in 1990 with the title ‘Guns: A Day in The Death of America,’ but the final version was by far not as powerful as our original rough cut had been. I often think today how sad it is that nothing has changed in the 30 years since I made that film – the number of annual casualties has not changed, on the contrary, things seem to have deteriorated even more.  The devastating experience of having ‘Guns’ more or less destroyed by the very people who had commissioned a powerful anti-gun-film made me decide to return to Germany and continue to make documentaries there.”

Though he had been inspired by reading Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in high school, and had become concerned about dying forests and the environment since the 1970s (leading him to give up owning a car!), it was a chance meeting with Jane Goodall in early 1990 that led to a shift in his film projects. Knauer’s documentary Jane’s Journey (available for streaming), developed in 2009-2010 and debuted in 2010, explores Jane Goodall’s life from her childhood in England to the Gombe National Park in Tanzania, capturing Goodall’s journey in communicating to the world about ecological and humanitarian issues. Jane’s Journey was shortlisted for an Academy Award and invited to festivals around the world, winning the International Green Film Award at the “Cinema for Peace” festival in Berlin. 

Knauer hopes to film a sequel to Jane's Journey.  "Ten years after my first visit to the Gombe area I traveled again to all the locations where we shot Jane’s Journey and the positive changes completely blew me away, inspiring me to go back and make another film as soon as I have found the funds to do so."

After filming Jane's Journey, Knauer founded the Jane Goodall Institute for Animals, Wildlife and Environment in Germany with a small group of volunteers.  The Institute is “committed to comprehensive nature and species protection, education in sustainable development, and global development cooperation. Jane Goodall realized very early on that because of the multiple and ever-increasing threats to chimpanzees and other primates in modern wildlife conservation, it is absolutely necessary to include social and economic aspects of people locally and globally.”

After a peripatetic childhood, Knauer has re-rooted himself in the land and soil of Germany.  “It is a great gift for me to make films about people ….   It is also a great gift to make films about the landscapes in which they – and we – live; to understand more and more about how much we are shaped by the land we live in – how closely our concepts of "home" and "land" are linked, and how important it is to be aware of our roots,” Knauer realizes.  “It was not so long ago that I realized how true this holds for my own life – it happened while I was working on a portrait of the wild and lovely alpine river that flows through my native city of Munich. Until then, I had always imagined that I was ‘free’ and ‘at home’ wherever I happened to be living and making films – but the River Isar taught me something else: My true home is only where she is…and that is where I belong. Embedded in a network of friends and people I love to work with, colleagues and producers who are open for these thoughts, thus enabling me to make my kind of documentary films.”

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