By Deborah COLE
Ten-year-old Nathaniel squeezes his eyes shut, straightens his back and sucks in his breath as he plunges backward from the reinforced steel roof of a stunt car.
The stacked blue mats that catch his fall release a loud hiss as two burly men give the blond primary school pupil high-fives for his successful first attempt at being an action hero.
While the actors’ and writers’ strikes in Hollywood freeze up film production around the world, stunt performers in Germany are biding their time putting on “adrenaline-packed” workshops for kids.
Nathaniel, who dreams of working on a James Bond movie one day, signed up for the class with his six-year-old sister Amelia at the Filmpark in Babelsberg outside Berlin, a mecca of the film industry for over a century.
“When you fall you need to tuck your chin into your chest, make your back stiff like a board, tense everything up, cross your arms over your chest and then just let go,” Nathaniel said, summarising what he learned in the lesson.
Seventy-five children between the ages of six and 16 are allowed to take part in each workshop, which are held in the crater of a mock-up volcano.
Stuntcrew Babelsberg managing director Martin Lederer said the sessions have fortunately been booked out this summer as the industry grapples with the impact of the strikes.
– Boom to ‘pause button’ –
The Writers Guild of America (WGA) walked off the job in May and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) followed suit in July in a conflict over wages and other conditions.
Countless film productions have ground to a halt and the Berlin region, one of Hollywood’s choice destinations in Europe, has felt the body blow from the industry’s worst labour dispute in more than 60 years.
Lederer’s team, who have worked on blockbusters including the Matrix, John Wick and Hunger Games franchises, can use the work generated by stunt shows and tutorials.
“It’s a lot quieter right now — after the pandemic people were making up for lost time and we were seeing a boom but now it’s like someone hit the pause button,” Lederer, 40, told AFP.
“The two sides seem really dug in so the strike could go on for quite a while.”
On the grounds of the amusement park near the legendary Studio Babelsberg, kids queue up to learn the basics of theatrical fist-fighting and body rolls. The workshops are included in the children’s admission price.
Katja Pickbrenner, 44, a stunt woman for nearly two decades, said the work with youngsters during the summer holiday marked a nice change from the usual derring-do of her job.
“I watch to see that everyone’s taking part, having a good time, isn’t too scared to join in,” she said as her pupils levelled fake blows at each other, winced in mock pain and practised their battle cries.
While she kept busy with stunt shows and workshops, Pickbrenner said many of her colleagues who worked mainly on movies and series were in dire straits due to the strikes.
“It’s really sink or swim,” she said.
– Building courage –
Stuntcrew Babelsberg works for many German and international production companies as well as Studio Babelsberg, which calls itself the world’s oldest major film studio, founded in 1912.
After boasting big-budget productions by the likes of Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino in recent years, Studio Babelsberg has fallen on hard times that have been exacerbated by the Hollywood strikes.
Business shortfalls led the studio to announce subsidised part-time work schemes known as “Kurzarbeit” from September 1 to avert mass layoffs. Forty percent of the workforce is affected, according to its works council.
“We are optimistic that the Kurzarbeit can be shortened as soon as production is resumed,” co-CEO Andy Weltman told AFP.
Back at the Filmpark, mother of four Kathleen Richter said the workshop helped keep her children from climbing the walls at home during the long school break.
“My kids are pretty sporty and were really looking forward to it,” Richter, 41, said. “It’s great for them to learn how to fight and fall down without getting hurt or hurting each other.”
Vivian, 10, looking exhilarated after her third go at tumbling from the car roof, said she’d love to be an actor when she grows up and that playing the daredevil was a good start to building courage.
“I can jump off the three-metre (10-foot) diving board at the pool backwards but this was still a bit of a shock,” she said.
“As soon as you see that a lot of kids ahead of you have done it though, and some of them smaller than you are, you can calm down and enjoy it.”