A young German woman finds herself in the disaster zone surrounding Fukushima in Doris Dörrie’s Fukushima, mon amour, and strikes up a friendship of sorts with an elderly geisha who refuses to leave her home.

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The international title of Dörrie’s film points to Alain Resnais’s classic Hiroshima mon amour. Just as that film attempts to come to grips with the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Dörrie shows the fallout – both literal and metaphorical – of the 2011 disaster at a nuclear reactor in Fukushima. ” I was there six months after the disaster, because I wanted to see it for myself, not just on TV”, Dörrie says in an interview with German broadcaster NDR. “I’ve felt connected to Japan for a long time. What I saw there really upset and saddened me: this complete breakdown, with people living in emergency housing and this feeling that nothing would ever be right again. That’s where I started to feel I should tell a story about this.”

Dörrie’s connection with Japan dates back to the early eighties, she explains in an interview for the Goethe Institut, which invited her to Kyoto for a residency in 2014. “I was invited to the Tokyo Film Festival with one of my films in 1984. Since I didn’t want to spend all my time sitting in the cinema, I got on a train and just headed out. And then I liked it so much that I kept going until I didn’t know where I was. I couldn’t speak to people, naturally, but communication worked wonderfully nevertheless. It was like an awakening: I realized that I didn’t need language at all. After that, I always wanted to return to Japan.”

She did so many times, and made the film Cherry Blossom (2008) there in the process. But Fukushima, mon amour may be her most personal film about the country yet, diving into the cultural differences between East and West through the two main characters: a German clown and a Japanese retired geisha.

The sense of loss felt after the Fukushima tragedy permeates the film. “It’s awful”, Dörrie tells Deutsche Welle. “Nothing has really happened at all, except for the fact that the area has been tidied, and debris has been cleared. Five hundred kilometers of completely ravaged landscape remain. The first time I visited, I met evacuees living in temporary housing. They were there then, and they are still there now. That, too, hasn’t changed.”

For filming, Dörrie and her cast and crew lived and worked among the workers who are attempting to salvage the area. “That was really bizarre. Our ‘hotel’ was the collection of containers where the day laborers lived, too. They had come from all over Japan to remove the top 15 centimeters of soil over 500 kilometers. Apart from this ‘hotel’, there was a crematorium, two brothels and a supermarket – that was it, there was nothing else. It was like a lunar landscape. We were thrown together during our seven-week shoot, and that was very bizarre: in the morning, the workers would leave with their power shovels while we headed out to the next film location.”