On International Women's Day this year, Mercedes-Benz unveiled a short film, "Bertha Benz," which told the incredible tale of the brand's co-creator.
Made by antoni garage, Mercedes' agency of record, the spot opens on the hard-knock life in 1888. On this day, we learn, Bertha Benz makes the first long-distance journey in an automobile.
This is a real thing: On Aug. 5 of that year, she took her two sons on a drive in a Model III from Mannheim to Pforzheim. The tour covered about 66 miles and was ostensibly made to visit her mother. The real reason she did it was because she felt that her husband—who had no knowledge of her doing this—wasn't adequately marketing the vehicle. She wanted to demonstrate that once people saw it in action, they'd totally buy in.
Bertha was right, which also makes her an honorary ad woman. The route she took became an industrial heritage site in 2008.
The film takes place in Wiesloch village, where her carriage conks out and she needs to refuel. People freak at the woman-run horseless monstrosity, alternating between witch-terror and undisguised hostility.
Having complained that women-of-history revisits tend to be pretty thin, we found antoni's treatment of Bertha Benz—inventor Karl Benz's wife and business partner, though he got the founder credits—nuanced and satisfying. It's infused with emotion, from the frustration behind Benz's calm façade to the smaller arc of a village child who goes from head witch-crier to secret ally.
But we also learn along the way. The Wiesloch pharmacy that sold Benz 10 liters of ligroin is considered the world's first gas station, a title it holds to this day. And while certain narrative details reek of embellishment, they apparently happened, per memorial lore—like Benz cleaning a blocked fuel line with her hat pin, and using her garter belt as insulation material.
In fact, she solved a number of problems with the car over the trip, which took over 12 hours to complete: For example, when the wooden brakes failed, she bought leather from a cobbler, creating the first brake pads. It's also to her credit that we can now take her same trip in one hour, give or take. If not for her effort, mainstream Germany would perhaps never have embraced the automobile.
Creative director Alice Bottaro, who masterminded this whole shebang, chatted with us about everything we can't Wikipedia. That conversation is below.
Muse: I never knew about Bertha Benz. How did you find her, and what led to bringing her to life?
Alice Bottaro: The role of Bertha Benz is recognized by everyone at Daimler, the Mercedes-Benz head company, but somehow it never reached a broader audience before.
This is exactly why we needed to make this film. It was such a gem of a story, and we wanted to do her achievements justice. Also, given the broader social conversation, we felt Bertha's journey was more relevant than ever; it was a good time to talk about it.
Historical women can be hard to flesh out. What compass did you use to ensure you did Bertha justice?
It's been a process between us and Sebastian Strasser, the director. We started reading historical material to become familiar with the 1888 mindset, understand the impact of her journey and the way passersby might have reacted; they had never seen a car before, and definitely not a woman driving one.
We got some interesting bits—like the witchcraft and the scared horses—out of this research. Then it was all about figuring out her emotional roller coaster: the excitement of the first long-distance trip, the technical difficulties, the responsibility of keeping a brave face with her kids, and the need to be ingenious and relentless.
The main goal was to bridge the chronological distance and make her relatable. For example, the scene where she enters the pub and has to step in front of an all-male crowd is not dissimilar to what lots of women experience today at work.
What kind of feedback have you received?
The feedback was great. The two things that resonated most were the authenticity of the story—lots of brands are championing female-related topics, but not many can claim such an incredible figure as part of their heritage—and the quality of execution.
From the start, we wanted to do a real piece of entertainment. Reading in the YouTube comments that lots of people would like to see it as a feature film was a terrific response.
Any production stories we don't know?
Well, we shot in November in freezing Transylvania ... I really enjoyed the fact that the production company scouted a small village, and we could shoot freely around it, moving from street to street, like in a real-life studio.
What's your own hero's journey?
I am not a typical petrol head. I started in Italy and moved to Berlin in 2012, where I led the European accounts of Sony, eBay and T-Mobile at DDB. Then my former boss, Matthias Schmidt, asked me to join him at antoni, the new-founded European lead agency for Mercedes-Benz cars.
I was curious to work on a big car client—especially in Germany, as they are the most prized accounts—and also thought it might be interesting to approach the subject from a different perspective. I have been working for this iconic brand for two and a half years and am extremely proud of the work we've been doing so far.
Do you feel you share anything with Bertha?
A certain stubbornness, and the belief in a vision, despite the naysayers.
What's the big thing you want to make—your secret white whale?
Bertha Benz has pretty much all the ingredients I look for in a project—brand purpose, great craft, and a strong insight tied together in a piece of entertainment. Also, because of my involvement with the SheSays network, I feel very close to this project.
I would love in the future to explore the boundaries of branded entertainment, maybe with something that is not a one-off but has more episodes.
What's next for you ... and for Bertha?
Bertha just won four Lions in Cannes; let's see what happens next. My goal is to keep telling brand stories that people love to watch.
Agency: antoni garage, Berlin
Managing Directors: Sven Dörrenbächer, Matthias Schmidt, Jörg Schultheis
Executive Creative Director: Marcell Francke, Tilman Gossner, Veit Moeller
Creative Director: Alice Bottaro
Copywriter: André Santa Cruz
Creative Director Digital: Juliane Krause-Akelbein
Strategist: Alicia Gaworska
Client Service Director: Steffen Schumann
Account Director: Rebecca Otte-Sander
Account Manager: Yvonne Mielke
Agency Producers: Sebastiaan Peters, Marcus Wetschewald
Motion Design: Antonio Afonso
Production Company: Anorak Film
Managing Director: Christiane Dressler
Executive Producer: Christoph Petzenhauser
Producers: Christoph Petzenhauser, Bjoern Levy-Krueger
Director: Sebastian Strasser
DoP: Justin Brown
Post-production Supervisor: Christian Wegehinkel
Service Production: Icon Films
Editing Company: Trim Editing / Slaughterhouse / Berlin
Editor: Thomas Grove Carter
Colorist: Benedikt Hugendubel
Assistant Colorist: Romola Davies
Sound Studio: Slaughterhouse / Berlin
Producer Sound: Raife Burchell / Dirty Soup
Sound Designer / Mixer: Florian Kruse
Music: Steve Slides, Steffen Thum
Music Coordinator: Raife Burchell / Dirty Soup
Post Production: The Mill / London
Producer: Justin Stiebel
VFX Producer: Dan Williams
2D Lead: Carl Norton
Matte Painting: Can Y. Sanalan
Media Agency: AMQ