Interview with Screenwriter Ivan Toth (The Man Who Didn’t Exist)

1. What is your screenplay about?

The screenplay tells the story of Bruno Balz, who went from being engaged in the nascent gay rights movement of 1920s Germany to being the biggest writer of hit songs in the Third Reich. He had to write all his songs under false names, because he did not officially exist, even though his hits played non-stop on German radio throughout the war. The Nazis wanted to use his undeniable talent for entertaining the masses while keeping him personally under wraps, as homosexuality became a crime once Hitler took over. For that purpose, Balz had to marry a Nazi woman and refrain from any public exposure. The movie follows the steps of his evolution from young idealist in the gay cause to compromised entertainer of the Third Reich and tells the story of the rise and fall of the Nazi dream from the perspective of the gay man who – reluctantly and under threat of death – helped write its soundtrack.

2. What genres does your screenplay fall under?

Biography, History, War Movie, Musical, and even the occasional Comedy. It’s the story of an unusual life in unusual times, of a man who wrote beautiful and dreamy lyrics in a time that was anything but, and in its epic scale straddles many genres.

3. Why should this screenplay be made into a movie?

We tend to think of Germany in the Third Reich as a completely different culture in a completely different time, but lately people in the English-speaking world have realized that history can play tricks on you even in our supposedly progressive era. Balz is a relatable character whose dreams and ideals are instantly familiar to us, but who found himself in an environment that was the pure opposite of what he aspired to. This could happen to us, after all, Donald Trump became president much to everyone’s surprise. What do you do when forces come to power that threaten your destruction? How do you continue to live? What compromises are you willing to make to survive? How do you hang on to your dreams? Should you hang on to your dreams? These are not abstract historical questions, but questions that we may have to answer for ourselves one day. This makes this story relevant and essential to us, here and now.

4. How would you describe this script in two words?

Hope against history.

5. What movie have you seen the most times in your life?

Any James Bond movie. Not much to do with this script, but as a boy I wanted to become a secret agent. Well, life doesn’t always turn out as planned, so I guess that connects with my script.

6. How long have you been working on this screenplay?

I worked on it on and off for about a year. Since it’s both historical and biographical, a lot of research was required. I had to become an expert on the Nazi era in general and its entertainment industry in particular besides finding out as much as I could about Balz as a person. The story is told from the inside of the Third Reich, and I had to find out how that felt, how people who were living in a propaganda bubble held on to a sense of reality. Imagine Donald Trump was still president and Fox News and its pundits were the only source of information in the United States. That’s how it was, only much worse. I spent a lot of time mentally in that world and must have listened to every important Hitler speech ever. I understand if you don’t envy me.

7. How many stories have you written?

4 screenplays and a 10-part science fiction thriller series that no one has really read yet. At the moment I’m working on a six-part miniseries that will hopefully be produced here in Switzerland (I’m waiting for word). It combines thriller elements with the human drama arising out of a Swiss woman’s lesbian relationship with an African refugee.

8. What is your favorite song?

“Under the Influence of Love” by The Love Unlimited Orchestra. Also “The Boss” by Diana Ross. I actually saw that show live with my dad in Vegas when I was young and beautiful, or young anyway. As I like to say, when your teenage son’s favorite experience is seeing Diana Ross in Vegas, you better just make your peace with it.

9. What obstacles did you face to finish this screenplay?

Balz was an intensely private man, his experience of being detained and tortured by the Gestapo scarred him for life, and so he remained highly secretive until his death in 1988. That made researching his life very difficult. Still, I managed to meet his surviving partner in Berlin and get quite a lot of info out of him, even though he wasn’t interested in a cooperation in the end. Too bad, it would have been easier that way and I certainly tried to change his mind. I wasn’t going to let that stop me though, because this story has to be told. With all the work I put into it and the firm intention to respect Balz’s memory and struggle and be as true to him as I could, I pressed on.

10. Apart from writing, what else are you passionate about?

Well, my first love was acting, but after I went to film school and concentrated on screenwriting that kind of fell away. Luckily though, it came back to life lately and I’m working as a paid actor in Switzerland now. I had almost forgotten how much it meant to me and how much I love it. Contrary to many writers I am not an introvert who likes to spend his time in contemplative solitude. I need to balance the time I spend in my head creating stories with active social and physical endeavors, be it acting, travelling, working out or clubbing. Otherwise I get very sad.

11. You entered your screenplay via FilmFreeway. What has been your experiences working with the submission platform site?

Simple and easy. I’m also glad I had the opportunity to submit a screenplay that goes over standard length. I’m perfectly capable of writing regulation length fictional screenplays, but stories of an epic scope such as this one need some extra space, none of which I wasted, according to the festival reader. I’m grateful for every chance to showcase this script.

12. What influenced you to enter the festival? What were your feelings on the initial feedback you received?

Well, it is a story of an especially interesting gay man in especially interesting times, and while the questions raised are as far as I’m concerned of general interest, submitting it to LGBT Festivals seems natural. Also, as I said in the last answer, I’m really glad that you would accept a 160-page epic screenplay. Your reader praised the efficiency of my writing, the fact that I don’t waste the reader’s (or audience’s) time and kept him or her on the edge of his or her seat throughout. This helps me enormously, as I can quote this in the future, when the suspicion arises that I wrote something bloated or boring. I didn’t, and I’m happy that I have witnesses now.

Watch the Screenplay Reading:

Bruno Balz is a German songwriter, who rose to fame during the Nazi regime, and was found guilty of boosting morale during the war. Bruno navigates his lifestyle as a closeted gay man and gets married to a woman, in order to maintain his image.


Narrator: Allison Kampf
Herbert: Steve Rizzo
Bruno: Geoff Mays

By matthewtoffolo

Filmmaker and sports fan. CEO of the WILDsound Film and Writing Festival

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