Saturday, November 11, 2023

Protecting stuntmen: Not for daredevils

 How do stunt people actually protect themselves against the risks of their profession? That's what Cash talked about. with two experienced stuntmen and with the German Stunt Association.


By Kim Brodtmann


     [Steve Szigeti (center) as Santer in the finale of "Winnetou I" in Bad Segeberg]

With a torch in his hand, the villain Santer flees up the rocky backdrop, his assistant Rattler at his side. They are pursued by the "blood brothers" Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. Arriving at the top of the cliff, Santer and Rattler find the long-awaited gold of the Apaches, which they (of course) want to steal. But Winnetou and Old Shatterhand catch up with her. At dizzying heights, a life-and-death struggle breaks out on a suspension bridge. The villains have only one escape route: they try to abseil down into the valley on 30-metre-long steel cables. At lofty heights, they race across the stage. But only one of them makes it to the bottom alive: while Rattler crashes and dies, Santer manages to escape.

For Dr. Steve Szigeti, this is the end of the evening performance. The Hungarian lawyer, who has lived in Germany for decades, took over the stunts at the Karl May Games in Bad Segeberg for the 14th time this year with his company Stunt Operations. In the finale of "Winnetou I – Blood Brothers" he fights against the titular hero as a double of "Santer" actor Wolfgang Bahro. Szigeti, born in 1959, has been in the stunt business for 40 years and has worked with directors such as Ridley Scott ("Kingdom of Heaven") and actors such as Brad Pitt ("World War Z"). "I started doing stunt work in film on the side during my studies, but I was soon able to make a good living from it," says Szigeti. "A lot of movies and TV series with action have been made in Hungary, as well as costume films with horses, with former pentathletes and sports students like me being warmly welcomed. Stunts have always been a cool thing for young athletic guys, and students are basically poor suckers everywhere who need money, recognition and female admirers."

In addition to his work at the Karl May Games, Szigeti works as a stunt coordinator for film and TV productions and as a lecturer for fencing, stage fighting and riding at the Bonn Drama Academy. In Bad Segeberg, six stuntmen and one stuntwoman are part of his team. "I get about 40 to 50 applications a year. However, I usually only accept one or two applicants," says Szigeti. To applicants who like to look into the eye of danger, he immediately shows the door and says: "Go home, we don't need you." Many applicants overestimate themselves: "It's important to have done a lot of sports, to be able to assess yourself well, to be versatile and to be able to think along. These are the good stunt people. Not the daredevils." He also calls them "the young hotheads", instead of sporting discipline they only have bragging rights in their heads. They have to be reined in – or thrown out. "Good stuntmen are characterized by the fact that they have gained an incredible amount of experience and experienced all possible facets of the stunt. They have an idea of what to look out for," emphasizes Szigeti.

     [Steve Szigeti took over the stunts at the Karl May Games for the 14th time this year.]

But even experienced stuntmen can get injured in the course of their work. "Accidents happen because you didn't calculate things beforehand or neglected them, or because you approached the stunt too routinely. Routine is the stuntman's deadliest enemy," says Szigeti. You have to take every single stunt seriously. "If I see a colleague holding on to a suspension bridge with only one hand, I tell him to take the other hand as well. You can't underestimate the danger, because that's where the accidents start." He himself had suffered many injuries in the course of his career, but all of them were manageable in terms of severity. "I had several broken ankles and ribs and a few cruciate ligament ruptures. This happens quickly and has nothing to do with unprofessionalism. That could happen in the gym as well."

As a stuntman, you therefore absolutely need occupational accident insurance from the Administrative Employers' Liability Insurance Association (VBG), according to Szigeti. "I make sure they have everyone in my team, let them show me. In addition, public liability insurance for stunt people is also important. The monetary contribution depends on how often you crash or not. With me, thank God, it's pretty low," he says with a laugh. But what about his professional colleagues?

The German Stunt Association (GSA), the Federal Association of German Stunt People, currently estimates that there are 160 to 180 professional stuntwomen and stuntmen in Germany. They are self-employed artists who are covered by the statutory pension, health and long-term care insurance through the artists' social security fund. There, the costs are divided: half are borne by the artists, about 20 percent come from the federal government, and the rest is borne by those who exploit the artistic achievement through the artists' social security contribution. "As with employees, the coverage of pension insurance, for example, will not be sufficient, so that further insurance or investments will be necessary that will have to be paid for by the employee," explains GSA Managing Director Pamela Gräbe. "With the employers' liability insurance associations VBG or BG ETEM, stunt people can insure themselves against the consequences of an occupational accident or disease through the voluntary entrepreneur insurance. There are also private accident insurance policies from other institutions, but they offer fewer benefits." Professional liability insurance is also indispensable. "We worked with two brokers to develop offers tailored to our needs. However, there are other insurance companies that cover our minimum standards. Accident and liability insurance are to be paid by us self-employed persons," says Gräbe.

 [Meeting for an interview at Kalkberg (from left): Kim Brodtmann, Steve Szigeti and Jörg Droste]

According to GSA, Howden Caninenberg GmbH and A. Huber & Co. Internationale Assekuranz-Makler GmbH. "Both brokers are active and well-known in the film, TV and media industries, so they know how the industry works as a whole. They designed the contracts specifically to complement our needs and production insurance," says Gräbe.

The association does not keep accident statistics. "We don't see every damage or injury, so a statistic would be very incomplete. However, if we become aware of accidents and their causes, we evaluate them in order to learn from them," emphasizes Gräbe. "Insurers give us good indications of the frequency of accidents. The insurance premiums for the two liability insurance companies mentioned above have remained unchanged since 2011 and 2012. In the case of statutory accident insurance, this can be seen in the hazard class: with the risk class 3.26 for the VBG and 3.6 for the BG ETEM, we are significantly below, for example, roofers (15.12)."

According to Gräbe, there are no areas of the job that are generally not insurable. "We are very well positioned, with exceptions in small details. Of course, liability insurance excludes claims whose occurrence is the subject of the script. We think that's a shame, otherwise there would be a lot more action in German movies or on TV," she says with a wink. Even your own equipment that is damaged is not covered.

      [Stefan Zürcher (left) with Pierce Brosnan on the set of "The World Is Not Enough"]

Stefan Zürcher knows a thing or two about damaged equipment. As a stuntman and location scout, the Swiss has worked on eight James Bond films. In the spectacular motorcycle stunt in the opening credits of "Goldeneye" (1995) alone – Bond jumps after a crashing plane on his motorcycle – eight brand-new Cagiva motorcycles were destroyed, which were "thrown down" the mountain, he says.

Zürcher, whose autobiography "In the Secret Service of James Bond" has just been published by Weber-Verlag, was born in 1945. His career as a stuntman began in the sixties. After his apprenticeship and military service, he qualified as a ski instructor and emigrated to the USA in 1966. It was in Vermont that he first came into contact with ski acrobatics. He became an extreme skier and was soon hired for commercials due to his special skills. So he came into contact with the medium of film at an early age. "In the autumn of 1968, my father called me and told me that a James Bond film was being shot in Mürren, Switzerland, and that they were looking for 'crazy skiers' to pursue Bond. I got in touch with production manager Hubert Fröhlich, and with my references and film skills, it was no problem for me to get a job there," Zürcher recalls. As part of villain Blofeld's ski team, he finally chased Bond actor George Lazenby down the Piz Gloria in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service". His Bond career continued in 1977 in "The Spy Who Loved Me": "In the opening sequence, I'm one of Bond's pursuers. I'm the first pursuer to chase him through the crevasses and then get shot by Bond."

Later, he became a "snow consultant" in the Bond family. "Whenever there was snow, ice or mountains in a sequence, Bond producer Barbara Broccoli would say, 'Call the Snowman!' And by that she meant me," says Zürcher, not without pride. Using storyboards, he created feasibility studies of the action sequences. "When we agreed that you could do a stunt, I looked for the motifs and created a budget for the action sequence. With the Bond films, you've always been very proud of the fact that you're doing real stunts. You've always spent a lot of money on that."

[During the preparations for this action scene from "The Breath of Death", Stefan Zürcher almost lost his life.]

Performing the stunts himself had become too risky for him. "When you start to be afraid of certain stunts, the time is there to stop. Then you should look around to do something smart," says Zürcher. "When you're young, you think you're invulnerable and immortal. But then you get older and you've got one or two things. Then your brain starts working and you think: Life is so beautiful, I don't want to get stuck somewhere on an ice wall and then crash into a crevasse. When you're in hospital for the first time, you have a lot of time to think about things like that. For me, that was the case in my early 30s." There is always a certain residual risk.

As a stuntman, Zürcher had accident insurance and had to tell his insurance agent exactly what kind of stunts he was doing. He was then insured for medical and hospital costs up to a certain amount. This limit could be increased at short notice for exceptionally dangerous stunts. "I then called my agent and asked him to increase the limit to, for example, two million Swiss francs. At the end of the year, the premium was adjusted accordingly," explains Zürcher. "I once had a case where my insurance only wanted to go up to a very specific amount and not higher. Then you just have to go to Lloyd's. But these are huge bonuses that are out of proportion to what you earn with the stunts. Then you have to say: I'm not going to do that. I turned down stunts that were brought to me because they were too risky. Money isn't everything."

In one situation, he almost finished with life, says Zürcher. It was during the filming of "The Breath of Death" (1987), a car chase on an icy mountain lake in Austria. "It had snowed very heavily and we had to clear the snow from the ice on the lake during the night. We have hired all the farmers from the village to clear the ice surface with their tractors and snow ploughs. At the edge of the lake, huge mountains of snow have formed. We wanted to use a large snow groomer to remove these mountains of snow. But no one wanted to drive it. That's why I did it and drove around the lake with the snow groomer," he recalls. "When I put the car in reverse and started abruptly, I broke into the vehicle. I was trapped in the cabin, the ice floes blocked the doors. The water was already so high that I still had maybe ten centimeters to the roof of the vehicle. But then, at the last moment, the ice master from Weissensee jumped into the water and pulled on the door with all his might, so that I could get out through a crack." Later, he often had nightmares about it at night, says Zürcher. "I've used up most of my guardian angels."

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