Boys and Persecution: Interview with The Little Broomstick Rider director Matteo Bernandini

Boys and Persecution: Interview with The Little Broomstick Rider director Matteo Bernandini

The Little Broomstick Rider by Italian filmmaker Matteo Bernardini caught our attention at the recent (and online) Slamdance festival, when it had its world premiere and also won the Audience Award.

Between puppetry and animation, talking about the 17th century Bavarian past and the present at the same, a brainchild of the covid times from a director whose resume includes big, live-action productions, the 37-minute TV series is based on the story The Little Pitchfork Rider by 19th century German fairy tales writer Ludwig Bechstein, a collector of short fairy stories, like the Grimm Brothers.

Linhard, a 9-year-old peasant child in 17th century Bavaria, is put on trial for witchcraft. Instead of defending himself against the accusations, he wholeheartedly (and merrily) admits his devotion to Satan and to the Dark Arts.Made almost exclusively by a single persons with paper cutouts, scissors and glue, the story is a morally ambiguous, but still irreverent and funny fairytale about a historic fact (the persecution and execution of children as wizards and devil followers).

Watch the trailer for The Little Broomstick Rider

The whole thing started during the March 2020 lockdown in Turin, Italy. "I tend to work on live-action and I had been working on various projects as a director", Matteo Bernardini tells Zippy Frames, "but I found it all coming to a halt because of the covid. I didn't know how and when I would resume such projects. So, I started thinking "Could I do something from home, decent and on my own?; "

Interestingly enough, the technical and aesthetic style of the film came before the content itself. Matteo Bernardini being a self-taught illustrator since his early years (aside from his film directing stydies in Italy and in the UK), he thought he could combine both illustration and directing at the same time. " I have never allowed my work as an illustrator and my work as a director actually come together in a project -except for a commercial I directed a few years ago", he explains. "Since I couldn't rely on a cast and crew in flesh and blood, I started drawing my own cast."

With the illustrations coming to life concept now being secured as a creative premise, the next step was to find the content: Ludwig Bechstein and his own Witch Tales collection followed suit. "I had bought the book a few years ago, but had not read it.  Bechstein was contemporary of the Grimm brothers; while they were alive, he also outfamed them as a boy. During that time in Germany, his collection of fairy tales was more famous than the one collected by the Grimm Brothers".

Bernardini made his own research about Bechstein himself, who worked in Bavarian libraries at the time; "he got access to documents depicting the horrors of what happened in the 17th century in those very towns in terms of witch hunt."

The stories he finally put together come between fairy tales and actual historical events retold in a fictional form. But how to pick up between all those stories the one that can actually do the work? "Interestingly enough" Bernandin adds "the Little Pitchfork Rider [the Little Broomstick Rider in the film]  has a different tone from the others. In a way, this stories put all elements of the other stories (historic criticism, the gothic, the fantastic and the horror) together, and filters them through a different kind of lens, using irony and political criticism. It's a very political story, and that's what eventually drew me to it; the great irony in a very tragic context".

Making a slightly different ending from the story itself, Bernandini was guided by the structure of the story itself (the trial of the boy takes place within different days), and proved to be another creative challenge for him, who hadn't himself experienced before as a director. Still, he came up with a whole new episode [episode 4] and a story within the 37-minute story (the nightmare of the judge), a humorous orgy of Satanic creatures dreamed by the arch-persecutor. This is the episode that premiered at Slamdance Festival as well.

With the style confirmed and the story ready, Bernandini started out to make the series. Yet the pipeline structure of script-storyboard-shooting-editing was not always observed in its rigid details. "I was writing the script as I was going along and shooting. I wrote an episode and it was too long, so I thought I may divide it into two episodes. So, the whole process was very organic and it kept being fresh".

Before shooting itself begun, the cut-out figures had to be themselves designed. References came in from 17th century German and European engravings, but also from the Medieval and Baroque iconography of devils, angels and saints. A large period indeed. "That's exactly the fairy tale element" Bernandini will note. "At a point, I wanted to give it some specific historic references, like the clothing fashion of the time and the architecture. but I also invented elements that are not very historical - just to provide the fairytale element that I thought the story needed".

Scissors, glue, tape and paper and a couple of desk lamps became the tools of the trade for The Little Broomstick Rider series, shot on a mobile phone. "It was a great learning curve for me. If I wanted to do something, I would actually have to create and build it from scratch. As a director, I create stories, but I also rely on already existing locations, actors etc. In this case, everything that I wanted to show I had to come up with.".

Matteo's father, Cesare Bernandini, was the helping hand in constructing the sets and fundamental engineering based on Matteo's drawing. The theatricality in The Little Broomstick Rider is inspired by 18th-19th century paper toy theatre (another field of expertise for Bernandini); characters are manipulated by hands, and title cards are used as pop-ups to create a silent, but potent impression.

Linhard is the only character whose expression changes throughout the series.

What this series taught me is that whatever you put in front of the camera it has to be there for a reason. So, I ended up making some very specific artistic decision at the very beginning. I decided he was the only character who was going to show a different range of emotions, as opposed to the persecutors. Because I moved the title cards in front of them, sometimes people have also the impression that the other characters also change expression, although they really don't. It's more of a Kuleshov effect; only Linhard changes his expression. I wanted to create a big divide between him and them. Innocent youth and youthfulness as the rigid religious rigour that the jurors represent - Matteo Bernandini

Watch our interview excerpt with Matteo Bernandini

The absence of dialogue, on the other hand, was also Bernandini's idea (an idea he used in his own film, like Music Lovers on silent cinema) was put out in the beginning and was confirmed after positive feedback from animation luminaries such as Luca Pisanu and Donato Sansone. The choice of music (from public domain tracks of early 17th century German music) was also Bernandini's work, who is a Musicology graduate as well. "Some of those tracks were not religious music, and these I used for the opening and closing titles of the episodes. All the other tracks that I used are pagan, festive tracks from that time or religious music".

Even Bach's cantatas were here used, written after the events the series depicts, but their text are based on 17th century litanies. "The gravitas of such religious composition could create a nice ironic counterpart to the events that we were telling" Bernandini aptly denotes.

This contrast between tragic events and fictional ironic representation comes back in every creative stage of the film, including of course, the character of Linhard himself, a very direct and fearless person, but still morally ambiguous.

"That very complexity is the very reason I ended up adapting this story",  Bernandini confirms. "I think some of the greatest stories being told are shrouded in ambiguity. Here, Linhard is quite uncanny; he keeps looking and sounding like a very innocent child till the very end. But the way he responds to the accusations and not denying anything (he confesses to be a proud Satanist) while at the same time he is cute and nice makes it very hard for the audience to make decisions".

So, the standpoint of good vs. evil here needs to be qualified: yet the audience loves Linhard ("it's drawn to him") because of his irreverence. Bernandini will not identify with his protagonist ("I'm not a Satanist at all", he's quick to add jokingly. Yet the disruption of power is what Linhard does and endures throughout the film.

One of the things that this series underlines is fighting against power, and also exposing the powerful and the rich against the harmless. This child might be a Satanist, but he's still a 9-year-old child. In the end, he's very different from what the inquisitors think (or hope) he would be. This was a way for me (simplistic as it may sound) not to rewrite history, but somehow to avenge all those poor children who perished so senselessly -and I think this was Bechstein's intention as well. And, for thatI'm glad - Matteo Bernandini

The 4th episode (the inquisitor's nightmare) sums it up, the use and the abuse of religion as a tool of power, and in the director's own words "secret desires masqueraded beneath an appearance of rectitude".

The Slamdance audience appreciated the film, a one-of-a-kind experience, as Bernandini attests. "Their famous motto 'by filmmakers for filmmakers' is very true. Everybody involved in the organization of the festival are filmmakers themselves. And that makes a huge difference. They are all people directly involved in the actual filmmaking process, from the selectors to agents and managers, and they really crafted a family bond"

Being online helps festivals reach out their audience, and in an ironic way helped Bernandini himself to create (in just 3 months) the complete series. The Little Broomstick Rider now starts its festival run, eventually reaching out TV broadcasters. Its fairytale element make the series well-suited to international audiences. Future projects on this style are on the cards -including a feature film project. "I'm thinking of having fantastic literature author E.T.A. Hoffman as a lead; so it might still involve fantastic literature, creatures and a love for the absurd, which are things I'm very fond of artistically. But it wouldn't be the same series, even though I wouldn't mind giving a sequel to this Little Broomstick Rider story or adding material, if necessary."

Watching The Little Broomstick Rider, you get the feel of a well-orchestrated plea for personal freedom couched in an enchantingly ironic setting of a 9-year-old boy with Satanist affiliations. Bernandini doesn't want to blow his horn against religious persecution -even though this is more than evident in his series. He asks us to consider, via his hand-made paper characters and sets, our own individual moral stance. We are constantly and morally tested throughout the 6 episodes of The Little Broomstick Rider, in a cinematic artwork which, above all, poses in a theatrically direct way, the questions where no easy answers are available.

About Matteo Bernandini

The founder of Neverbird Productions, Matteo Bernardini is an Italian award-winning filmmaker and artist. Matteo has taught Directing at Scuola Holden in Turin and at Hamburg University; he has worked as an assistant director on both Film and Opera productions, working with directors such as Christopher Nolan,Matthew Vaughn, Peter Greenaway, Robert Carsen, Cristina Comencini and Michele Placido, as well as for studios like Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox and Hulu. Matteo has been identified as "The Next Big Thing" by Wired Magazine and was chosen by Microsoft to be a European Brand Ambassador for their Windows 7 launch campaign.

Bernardini's short form work includes music videos for noted American musicians like Moby, and narrative pieces like An Afterthought –– the only faithful adaptation of the denouement of JM Barrie's original Peter Pan novel ever committed to film. Bernardini has previously dabbled with the occult on projects like Vampyre Compendium, which starred Game of Thrones' Oona Chaplin ("The Red Wedding"), and Treated – a viral, Halloween-themed comedy short. His work has screened (and been laureled) at international film festivals all over the world including: Venice, Chicago, Rh ode Island, Giffoni, BIFAN, and the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. The Cinergia Forum of European Cinema in Lodz, Poland organized a retrospective dedicated to his short narrative works.

About Neverbird Productions

Neverbird Productions is an upstart multimedia production company based in Turin, Italy. Developing, executing and releasing content varying from Cinema to Theatre, to Literature to Opera to Illustration and Animation, as well as Commercial and Music Video projects. The company has screened worldwide, including presentations and selections at prestigious festivals and venues such as Slamdance Film Festival, Rhode Island International Film Festival, Giffoni Film Festival, Chicago International Film Festival, Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival, Cinergia Forum of European Cinema, Festival de Cine Italiano de Madrid, Pordenone Silent Film Festival, Toronto Silent Film Festival.

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