The idea was fantastical – most would say impossible. In 2008, Danish astro-scientists Kristian von Bengston and Peter Madsen announced their intention to send a manned rocket into space. Their heroes were the NASA controllers and astronauts who, more than five decades before, had responded to President Kennedy's call to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.
But while NASA's dollar budget ran into the hundreds of millions, Madsen and von Bengston were working within somewhat narrower confines: a budget of just $56,000. Director Max Kestner charted their development over the next six years for his feature doc Amateurs in Space, world premiering in IDFA's feature-length competition.
While the film is highly cinematic, replete with great launch footage, pertinent NASA archive shots of the likes of pioneering US astronaut Alan Shepard and JFK, as well as many passionate and articulate speeches about the science of propulsion, it is the complex and fragmented relationship between the protagonists that powers the film forward.
"There had been signs of conflict all along," director Kestner says. "But I had the feeling they were two halves of something that couldn't really exist without either of them. The uniqueness of the project was that it was these two characters who found one another, and because of that combination we felt they could succeed with something very big. They are to me extraordinary characters, even though they call themselves amateurs."
Von Bengston and Madsen may be brilliant in their own ways, but it is Madsen who ticks all the Alpha boxes, at least initially, playing Simon to Von Bengston's Garfunkel. He is passionate, he is dangerous, he is exotic; swift to anger and possessed of a particular talent for invective. "You're right, but I won't acknowledge it, as a matter of principle", he tells his partner. He is one of those types who operate within the dark margins where genius resides.
Von Bengston, on the other hand, is a family man with two kids and a desire to spend the weekends at home; in the film, his fire burns less brightly than that of his colleague. Until, that is, Madsen's excesses become too much for everybody to bear.
"I had two main reasons to make the film", points out Kestner. "One was that I really liked the characters and their way of being together, the way they talked and acted together. But the other reason is that as a director you want your protagonists to have problems, and I knew that these problems would generate great scenes of discord. You want them to have problems so they can overcome their problems, and they had chosen the biggest problem you could have – putting a man into space without any money… The gap between what they actually had and what they wanted to achieve was so big, and it was in that space that the film evolved."