The members of Depeche Mode take a backseat in Anton Corbijn’s new concert film, “Depeche Mode: Spirits in the Forest.” Instead, the director shifts the spotlight to six fans, whose personal stories are woven throughout footage from the final night of band’s Global Spirit Tour in Berlin. Originally, the Dutch director simply wanted to create a document of his stage design for the tour, but the band felt that there needed to be a more impactful reason for the film and took inspiration from Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker 1989 endeavor on the group, “101.”
“I don’t like to watch concert films, myself,” Corbijn tells Variety. “[This] was initially very narcissistic for me. But it ended up being a great way to do it.”
The six fans, who come from all over the world — including Los Angeles, Romania and Mongolia —were selected from a massive pool of possible subjects. After Depeche Mode ran a contest to take over their Facebook page in 2017, the band’s manager Jonathan Kessler already had a collection of thousands of fan stories and was able to make a shortlist for Corbijn. Each selected fan, introduced with intimate footage inside their home, has a distinct story connecting them to the group (the woman from Mongolia, for instance, learned English with the help of the songs).
“Before you come to the concert you first have all the individual lives and reason why they feel they connect so much to the music of Depeche Mode,” Corbijn notes. “The depth of dedication for Depeche Mode and what it means in their lives — that was new to me. I don’t see that so much with a lot of other bands. There’s a sense that Depeche Mode is still a kind of cult club that you can become a member of. It’s not open to everyone. That’s what, I think, brings them together.”
Corbijn sent crews to shoot each subject in their home country last spring before the six fans arrived in Berlin for the concert in late July. To capture both his stage design and Depeche Mode’s performance, the director set up over a dozen cameras, focused both on the stage and on the fans themselves. German privacy laws dictated that no other audience members could appear in the crowd footage, so the shots of the fans are done in close-up, and Corbijn wanted everything have the feeling of a home movie, where the camera is constantly moving.
“You feel much closer to the people on stage,” Corbijn explains of the approach. “You feel much more how they feel than if you do it just perfect and looking good. I think you really get a sense of what it is to be Dave [frontman David Gahan] on stage. You get very close to him, I think.”
Rob Stringer, the head of Depeche’s U.S. label Sony Music, said, “I am constantly amazed by the incredible stadium shows that Depeche Mode perform, 40 years into their career. The love and devotion of their fans is testament to the band always communicating their craft so beautifully. This moving film is a reflection of that.”
Although the director did shoot some footage of the group’s Martin Gore meeting the fans, Corbijn and the band ultimately decided to keep the two separate, since the film is ultimately about what drives an individual’s connection to a particular musical artist. “They come into the church and see the service,” Corbijn says, making an analogy, “rather than meeting the pastor.”
Corbijn has been working with Depeche Mode since 1986, when he directed their music video for “A Question of Time.” The director, who also has worked with U2 for decades, previously turned the band down twice (they were too teenybopper and he was a serious filmmaker, he says), but the eventual collaboration has resulted in a decades-long partnership that sees Corbijn creating videos, photos and stage design for the band. He’s currently in the process of finishing a book of his work with Depeche Mode for Taschen, which will be released in 2020, and a complete version of the Berlin Global Spirit Tour concert will arrive as a physical release following “Depeche Mode: Spirits in the Forest.”
“It’s special,” Corbijn says of his relationship with Depeche Mode. “It’s not applicable to a lot of other people — I can’t have ten bands I work with. It’s difficult to give every band an identity that’s true, and Depeche Mode is the most integrated I’ve ever been with a band.”