Christoph Hochhäusler’s noirish Bis ans Ende der Nacht (Till the End of the Night) premiered on the final day of the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival, capping a Competition that showcased an unusually high number of German films. In addition to Hochhäusler’s sixth feature (and first inclusion in the Competition), fellow Berlin School filmmakers Christian Petzold’s and Angela Schanelec’s latest efforts, Roter Himmel (Afire) and Music, respectively, also vied for the Golden Bear, as did Emily Atef’s Irgendwann werden wir uns alles erzählen (Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything) and Margarethe von Trotta’s Ingeborg Bachmann.1 While Petzold won the Grand Jury’s Silver Bear and Schanelec the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay, Hochhäusler’s film was recognised with a Silver Bear for Best Supporting Performance for Thea Ehre in her first part in a feature-length filmto be sure, a curious choice, considering that hers is a leading role. Yet Ehre’s much-deserved recognition for her brilliant performance of one of the film’s two protagonists directly speaks to our cultural moment in that the International Jury clearly felt compelled to lend its support to a genre film that dares to centre a trans woman protagonist (Leni) played by a trans woman (Ehre) without either idealising the character or casting her transgender status a “problem.” On the contrary, the film itself is quite literally organised around the notion of transitioningand, furthermore (and perhaps controversially), around the idea that it is only this ongoing state of transitioning of which it can be claimed that it is an “authentic” state, an identity: being (authentic identity), that is, can be said only of becoming (that which is in constant, never-ending flux or transition), i.e., of difference.2

Lest I give the impression that Hochhäusler’s film is a heady philosophical art film rather than an experiment in genre filmmakingan attempt at filming through genre conventions rather than merely applying themI hasten to translate the Deleuzean point above regarding transitioning by putting it in the film’s own, more streetwise terms. To give a sense of the film’s overall narrative logic, cinematic texture, and philosophical and political disposition, I’ll focus on one extended moment that occurs about a third of the way into the filma moment that in classic noir-like fashion liquifies any stable sense of truth and lies, authenticity and acting. 

Robert (Timocin Ziegler), the unkempt and not entirely stable queer undercover cop, is in a car service with Leni, with whom he was in love when she was still Lennard. Also in the car are Victor (Michael Sideris), whom Robert’s planned drug sting is targeting, and Victor’s girlfriend, Nicole (Ioana Teodora Iacob). Leni and Robert used the pretext of taking couples dance lessons to befriend Victor and Nicoleand Victor, as planned, recognises Leni, for prior to the action of the film, Victor had once employed Leni, as Lennard, in Frankfurt when working as a DJ. At this stage in Victor’s life, however, he makes a killing by providing anonymous internet platforms for drug traffickers. Though habitually suspicious of his surroundings, Victor is unaware that Robert is using Leni’s previous acquaintance with him to infiltrate his inner circle. When their car is stopped by the police for, allegedly, a drug test, Robert quickly and rather aggressively begins to argue with the officer. Impressed by Robert’s belligerent attitude towards the police, Victor begins to trust him.

And why wouldn’t he? After all, most people wouldn’t challenge the police by barking, as Robert, who is a German of Turkish descent, does, “Are you a racist?!” in response to being asked in a belittling way whether he understands German. (Robert angrily replies with a few words in Turkish.) But in actuality, the entire scene was staged for the benefit of Victorso that Robert could prove to him that he is trustworthy. Indeed, Robert performs his act so well that not only Victor and Nicole but also Leni and we believe him: although both Leni and the audience already know, unlike Victor and Nicole, that Robert is a cop, neither Leni nor viewers are aware that this drug test is staged.

In the following scene, at “home” in their apartmentthis apartment, as the film’s opening scene shows in time-lapse photography, is not their real home but a stage constructed as part of the sting operationLeni muses about the previous night’s incident as a “strange coincidence.” Only when Robert, hungover and on edge, sarcastically apes her (“Sure, a complete coincidence”) does Leni realise that their run-in with the police was not a coincidence at all. Complaining about Robert’s lack of trust“Why didn’t you tell me? […] I have to know this, Robert”she finds herself once again at the receiving end of Robert’s condescending and often aggressive attitude towards her, which is expressive of his confused feelings for Leni (“I love the guy [Kerl], not…,” he despairingly tells Victor a few scenes later, stopping short of saying: the woman): “You’re so naïve,” he tells her. It is this naïveté, Robert implies, that makes it impossible for Leni to lie convincingly: “Du kannst nicht Lügen. Dir glaubt man nichts” (“You can’t lie. You’re not believable.”). To flip this around, then, Robert, with an air of superiority, holds that one must lie with conviction (and skill) for one’s interlocutors to feel that one is authenticas he’d just demonstrated the previous evening. The appearance of authenticity, in other words, is posited here as an effect of a convincing performance; or better yet: authenticity is performative all the way down.

In classic noir fashion, however, Robert’s air of superiority comes to bite him, as he fails to notice that Leni is in fact quite capable of lying; indeed, she turns out to be the better liar. For she affirms the fact that her entire beingher identityis constituted by the ineluctable logic of performativity, whereas Robert chooses to perform when he needs to but otherwise asserts a different, biologically grounded sense of identitya sense he begins to question only gradually and when it is already too late. In contrast, although firm in her belief that she was meant to be a womanthat she is a womanLeni nevertheless also understands (and acts according to) the famous Butlerian argument that “being” a woman (or a man, for that matter) is the effect of a series of actions that are ceaselessly performed, actions that have to be iteratively reinscribed from context to context, time and again.3 

We can say then: Robert claims to be a subject. Leni, in contrast, knows that (her) subjectivity is nothing but the effect of a never-ending processwhat Butler controversially theorised as “performativity”that at its core is about transitioning. The gerund, here, marks the point that even the “outcome” of a transition (let’s call it the achieved “state” of being a “woman,” in Leni’s case) “is” merely a representational node in, or territorialisation of, what is always an ontological process of becoming. This process is necessarily ongoingand that it is ongoing is not a matter of subjective choice precisely because the logic of performativity constitutes performance and thus “being” or identity. Robert’s (fatal) mistake, then, is his belief that he, as a (male) subject invested with the authority of the state, gets to choose when to be his “authentic self” and when to merely perform authenticity. And thus, he ends up being played by Leni, falling prey to a logic of identity he only belatedly recognises as problematic, if not flat-out wrong-headed.

The brilliance of Till the End of the Night lies in the fact that it cinematically works through what is a notoriously difficult (and to many, to be sure, troubling) philosophical and political notion. Rather than offering the audience some theses about identity (to support this or that side of the debate), the film takes seriously Joss Whedon’s argument that contrary to the idea that a genre has specific boundaries (an identity) that innovative filmmakers occasionally explode, “each expansion of the narrative horizon is already contained in the genre.”4 Nothing can explode a genre, that is, as this would presuppose that a genre is something stablesomething that has an identifiable, authentic, essence. But each genre filmsuch as a (neo-)noir, for instanceis the outcome of an iterative process, i.e., of a logic of performativity, that becomes a momentary node in the genre’s immanent transitioning.

Hochhäusler finds many means to “implement” this performative logic, whether at the narrative level (the film braids multiple genresmost prominently, the noir and the melodrama); at the level of dialogue (in addition to the scene I just glossed, several other, similarly crucial moments of dialogue occur later, as discussed in the following interview); or at the level of the film’s cinematicness, whether in form of the repeated use of the “scan-cam” technique the interview below mentions or at the moment when Robert calls out Leni’s (alleged) naïveté without realising that she is already a step (or three) ahead of himsomething he cannot see precisely because he’s too invested in his belief in an authentic subjecthood about which he can momentarily lie in a successful performance

Take the scene under discussion: 

Leni realises Robert deceived her

Like so many images in this film, the mise en scène is darkly lit (Robert is barely visible screen-right), heavily framed (with the edge of a window separating not only the kitchen from the living room but also Leni from Robert), and full of reflections that render opaque what should be transparent: the reflection infuses the dark interior with outside light so that our visual access to Leni at this moment is in transition, moving from utter opacity that blocks the right side of her face from our sight to a medium, darkly-lit and in-focus appearance of the left side of her face and body. This immanently transitioning image renders sensible for us Leni’s desire (for the outside, for freedom). This desire is only in the process of becoming clearer to her, as we gather from her pensive look in response to her sudden realisation that Robert’s prowess as a performer not only deceived his target (Victor) but also heran uncomfortable insight that might at this moment also remind her of the possibility that Robert has deceived her even more profoundly some time ago (a possibility the film ambiguously raises a few scenes later). 

In so many ways, Till the End of the Night can be regarded as the next step in Hochhäusler’s ongoing experimentation with genre filmmaking. For example, as he mentions in our conversation, this film can be considered a continuation of his second film, Falscher Bekenner (I Am Guilty aka Low Profile, 2005), in which he already pushed on the relationship between reality and the imagination (or dreams), essential(ised) identity and performativity, while questioning what authentic sexual desire might possibly be. This time, though, he dramatises these issues in the context of a genre framework (noir) that is uniquely equipped to pose challenges to arriving at epistemological certainties. But there are many other connections between Till the End of the Night and Hochhäusler’s oeuvre at large. Intriguingly, for instance, his previous film, Die Lügen der Sieger (The Lies of the Victors, 2014), essentially ends with an image of the de-construction of an office space that served as the temporary stage for a covert operation of which the film’s protagonist never learns. It is as if Till the End of the Night literally picks up where the director left off nine years ago: with the de/construction of reality. 

De/constructing space in The Lies of the Victors

De/constructing space in Till the End of the Night

Also noteworthy in this context is that the last line spoken by the protagonist in Unter dir die Stadt (The City Below, 2010)“It is beginning” (“Es geht los”), a claim that mysteriously insinuates the possibility of a socio-political rupture about to occurrecurs in The Lies of the Victors, where one of the film’s minor characters uses the same sentence to remark to his nervous interlocutor that lunch is about to be served. That interlocutor is played by Gottfried Breitfuss, who, as a not-so-capable cop, complains in an early scene in Till the End of the Night that he has been spending most of his life waitingwhether in school for the bell to ring or in a car while trailing bad guys, but always waiting in vain for some real action to happen.5 All three filmseach a crime thriller of sortsalso dramatise a tension between, on the one hand, the protagonists’ desire for holding on to a sense of a physical, indeed: bodily, reality as a potential anchor of authentic experience and, on the other hand, the reality of the conditions of existence in an age defined by increasingly disembodied (digital and virtual) capitalist economic processes. In The City Below, a top banker gets off on voyeuristically gazing upon a heroin addict shooting up; in The Lies of the Victors, the journalist protagonist needs to give himself daily diabetes injections with a medical instrument that is vulnerableprecisely due to its digital natureto remote manipulation; and in Till the End of the Night, as discussed below, the body itself is centred time and again as a (questionable) locus of the various characters’ experiences of themselves and what they do as authentic. As well, the emphasis Hochhäusler puts on flares and the relationship between reflective surfaces and how seeming transparency (windows) can not only be opaque (and thus hide in plain sight socioeconomic processes by allowing beholding subject-consumers to appreciate themselves in the reflective surfaces of postmodern architecture) but also literally bar one from physical contact in a sexual act (one of the most indelible images in Till the End of the Night occurs when Leni locks Robert out of his car, and the two proceed to have sex, visually close but physically separated by a window pane) stylistically continues what he began exploring with The City Below and intensified in The Lies of the Victors.

Leni and Robert having sex

Leni and Robert having sex

Leni and Robert having sex

Leni and Robert having sex

Hochhäusler’s ongoing experimentation with genre filmmaking over two decades is defined less by a repetition of sameness (stylistic or otherwise) than by a series of transitions from one film to the next that reflect a restless, curious mind of an auteur who always rejected the facile binary of arthouse-versus-genre (or commercial) filmmaking and instead has consistently advocated for a “pluralistic cinema” that does not shy away from being “impure,” as it werefrom, that is, transitioning not just from one film to the next but even within one and the same film.6 This might not please every viewer, as we often derive great pleasure from seeing our genre expectations fulfilled; but to my mind at least, each of his films has proven to be among the most interesting and thought-provoking (German or otherwise) films of their respective years of releaseand Till the End of the Night is no exception.

The conversation took place via Zoom on April 22, 2023.

Christoph Hochhäusler

MA: This is our third interview. The first time we spoke, we focused on Milchwald (This Very Moment, 2003) and Falscher Bekenner (I Am Guilty aka Low Profile, 2005). In our second conversation, we discussed Unter dir die Stadt (The City Below, 2010) and Die Lügen der Sieger (The Lies of the Victors, 2014), respectively.7 Between these last two films, you made Eine Minute Dunkel (One Minute of Darkness, 2011), which was part of the Dreileben project on which you collaborated with Christian Petzold and Dominik Graf, as well as the short film Séance, your contribution to the omnibus film Deutschland 09 (Germany 09, 2009).8 So: 2003, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2014and now, at long last, your sixth feature, Bis ans Ende der Nacht (Till the End of the Night) premiered in the Competition of the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival. What caused this significant gap in your filmography? What did you do in the interim?

CH: My films were probably not successful enough to sustain my career. I had to work myself back in some way. But I don’t know if that’s the whole story. For example, I pursued a very ambitious project in France, which took me four or five years to develop. In the end, it didn’t come to fruition. I also worked on a few other projects that I couldn’t get off the ground. But I don’t think this is so unusual, regrettable as it is: across film history, there are many filmmakers who have huge gaps in their filmography. So, while trying to get one of my projects off the ground, I mostly taught. For five years, I was a Senior Lecturer for Directing at the dffb (Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie/German Film- and Television Academy). My hope is that this “long winter” is over so that I can make films more regularly again. For me, success is to be able to work.

MA: Do you care to elaborate on your French project, which involved Isabelle Huppert?

CH: Isabelle, like any intelligent film star, encourages people to develop projects for her. She contacted me around 2012 and asked whether I’d be interested in making a film with her. I was, and so we met. We got along very well. I basically wrote a French-language project for her that’s set in France during the Nazi occupation. I thought the story should involve both Germany and France, given the many ugly conflicts between these two nations. But this project was ultimately not green-lit, mostly, I think, for political reasons: the combination of my being a German director and the topic of the German occupation was a hard sell in France.

MA: In our first interview, we talked about your time as a student at the Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film (University for Television and Film) in Munich. You said that this was not the happiest of times for you because you had hoped to experience a more intellectually rigorous engagement with film history and film aestheticsa more intensely critical reflection on film. What, then, was your experience as a teacher at the dffb, which historically has been Germany’s most intellectual, politically engaged, and aesthetically adventurous film academy, even if this reputation is perhaps less justified in more recent times. Given your commitment to a deeply reflective engagement with cinema, I wonder how you negotiated this intellectual disposition towards filmmaking and the actual teaching of burgeoning filmmakers?

CH: Although I held the title of Senior Lecturer for Directing, my power was too limited to change or interfere with dffb traditions. But I wouldn’t say that the dffb is today oriented more towards a commercial or conventional cinema than it was in the past. The real issue is that this institution is hampered by its structures: there are many issues relating to the governance of the academy that prevent it from being the excellent school it has been at times and could still be. 

But during my time there, I had wonderful encounters with talents from around the world. One of the great things about the dffb is that its student body is truly international. They come from virtually every corner of the world: from Japan to Brazil, from Mexico to Ukraine. German students are in the minority, at least in the directing department. This lends the dffb a unique spirit. Being there is really about having an adventure. This is terrific, yet it also causes problems, as students there are somewhat sheltered from the world: they get to make very interesting films during their time there, but they often discover too late that the world outside the confines of the dffb has no real use for this kind of talent. The dffb is quite separate from both the real German film industry and especially also the wider world of filmmaking in Europe: the internationalist spirit they experience at the dffb clashes with what at the level of the actual film industrywhich is often dominated by and dependent on television is still a rather national affair.

As for the degree to which I could bring my intellectual curiosity to the place: I had the chance to curate a few symposia and events, and I organised discussions, but mostly I would counsel students on scripts, on editing, on concepts. Of course, I also taught seminars (on directing actors, etc.), but my daily bread was providing mentorship for student projects.

MA: If you think about your five years of counselling students, teaching seminars, and talking with students about craft matters, would you say, now that you have been able to make two films back-to-back, that you see a change in terms of your filmmaking practice?9

CH: I think there’s definitely a link, but it might be too early to assess the effects teaching had on my practice. In a wayand I don’t think this is really linked to my experience of teachingI feel that I’m becoming more a director as opposed to a filmmaker. I don’t know if this is a good thing or not [laughs]. With Till the End of the Night, I directed a script by Florian Plumeyer, whom I had met before I taught at the dffb. I was his mentor for a script that eventually turned into the one I made into this film. At the dffb, I saw films by students that really changed something for me. I was so in awe of them, especially a film such as Katharina Wyss’s Sarah joue un loup garou (Sarah Plays a Werewolf, 2017), which is a masterful, astonishing first feature with an inspiring approach towards performance. I think that’s where I’m moving now: these days, I feel I care more for acting than for ideas and images. 

But it’s difficult for me to assess this influence. I was a bit worried about what being at the dffb might do to me. I imagined that seeing the students being able to make films while I would not be able to shoot might depress me, but the opposite happened: I was so inspired by some of them because there’s something very invigorating about being around talent. Being there definitely brought me in contact with new ideas and a new generation of filmmakersone that’s more invested in the politics of representation than I was, so I had to deal with this more directly than I would have had to had I not been at the dffb during these years.

MA: We will return to the issue of the politics of representation, but first I want to ask you about your relationship with cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider, with whom you already worked on The Lies of the Victors.10 One can detect similarities in, for instance, the use of what in our second conversation you called the “scan cam”i.e., a camera that scans space as if it were searching for something that cannot be seen, for the centre of the action that somehow cannot be located. In The Lies of the Victors, a film set in the journalism milieu, the scan cam expresses the journalist protagonists’ attempt to uncover a potential conspiracy between big business and government; in your new film, a genre hybrid of melodrama and neo-noir, the scan cam renders sensible for the viewer what the protagonists themselves experience: the inability to know who is playing whom. Did you experience working with Vorschneider as a continuity of your collaboration a decade ago, or was the experience different this time?

CH: In many ways, it really felt like a continuation. While we would not exactly replicate anything, the interest in a broken imageone that is divided by light and that assumes an eccentric attitude towards what is important in the sceneis something present in both films, as is the camera’s gliding and scanning as a major ingredient of the film language. I think with this new film we could be somehow bolder. Shooting The Lies of the Victors was a very happy experience for me; but at the time, I hoped to find a crossover between an advanced film form, on the one hand, and a popular genre, on the other. This time it felt from the get-go like a film maudit, something from the underbelly. Although the shoot was very tough because we had so little time, it was very liberating. In a way, Till the End of the Night is very closely connected to what we found out about our interests in The Lies of the Victors: what we discovered shooting the latter we now developed in a rougher, dirtier way. Of course, this has also to do with both the topic of Till the End of the Night and my intention to make a film that’s not so much rooted in genre conventions than in a feeling.

Leni (Thea Ehre) and Robert (Timocin Ziegler)

MA: The overall darkness of the film’s visual designtellingly, the first sentence the film’s transgender protagonist, Leni (Thea Ehre), speaks is “Turn on the light”puts pressure on everyone’s ability to see what’s what, who’s who, and who does what to whom and why. That’s obviously very much in line with the noir plot. But there’s a stark tension between this noir-like darkness and the clarity of the yearning expressed in the German Schlager songs that you intersperse throughout the film.11 Could you talk about why you chose to use songs that at least to my mind are not associated with noirexcept that I experienced listening to them while growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s as rather hellish. To be fair, there are many examples of this very Germanto me all-too-Germangenre that are much worse than the ones in your films, which are actually quite beautiful and in some cases, such Esther and Abi Ofarim’s “Schönes Mädchen” (Beautiful Girl, 1964), Heidi Brühl’s “Eine Liebe so wie du” (A Love Like You, 1964), and especially Hildegard Knef’s amazing “Ich erkenne dich nicht wieder” (I Don’t Recognize You, 1971), even classics.12

CH: Unlike you, I didn’t grow up on those songs. I almost boycotted German popular music or at least didn’t know much about it. But I was always fascinated by the fact that this music is incredibly successful, yet as far as “official” German culture is concerned it doesn’t exist. We all know the clichés about Germans: the last thing that anyone would say is that they are an emotional people. And yet, Schlager music testifies to a very emotional side of German culture, which I found quite interesting. Schlager songs are fascinating because they are simultaneously enchanting and threatening, for they all express a sense of feeling that is absolute, yet our protagonists’ emotions are characterised by fragility, rather than these songs’ unwavering certainty. I thought this contradiction could open an interesting filmic space. But I looked for all kinds of music for the film, and the soundtrack includes music from almost every period, from the 1930s to the present. The use of the music in the film is not grounded in the story but in the characters’ feelings or lack thereof.

MA: I think it’s fair to say that in Germany the Schlager genre was historically, in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, thoroughly associated with the petty bourgeoisie. Since then, however, more contemporary German musiciansI’m thinking of bands such as Blumfeld and Die Sternehave appropriated this music, maybe ironically, maybe not. And, of course, queer and trans culture has embraced this kind of music, some of which harkens back to the chanson tradition, perhaps precisely because of its affectively rendered sense of “purity” that might strike marginalised communities, which have historically been barred from openly enjoying such experiences, as almost utopian. Inserting this music, with all these associations, into a film that depicts the underbelly of contemporary Frankfurt creates a fascinating tension: on the one hand, the seedy side of Germany’s banking capital that is bound to be unfamiliar to most viewers and, on the other hand, the anachronistic presence of these songs that are nevertheless part of the deep DNA of Germanysongs with which people instantly feel familiar even though they may not actually know any of them as such.

CH: I totally agree. I was interested in exactly this tension. This might be a continuation of the usual relationship music and image has in my films: while this is the first time that I used only music that already existed, I always preferred the quality of music to serve as a counterpoint to the image, to challenge it. Of course, it can’t be only one or the other: there must be some connecting points between image and music.

But as you say: there is this link to a certain queer culture where kitsch plays an important liberating part. The extremity of feelings is considered something that gives them the license to do what they do. This is at least my interpretation. In that respect, it’s funny that the enfant terrible [Bürgerschreck] likes to listen to the music of the people [Bürgermusik]. It’s no coincidence, because they identify with this longing for “living the feeling”and the one group does it, whereas the other only dreams of it. So, we could say that a queer use of that music is cultural appropriation done right.

MA: A great moment in the film occurs when Leni is alone with Nicole (Ioana Teodora Iacob), her female friend in whose apartment she’s hiding. She’s playing “Schönes Mädchen” on the keyboard. 

Leni playing “Schönes Mädchen” for Nicole, with Robert secretly listening

Leni playing “Schönes Mädchen” for Nicole, with Robert secretly listening

Leni playing “Schönes Mädchen” for Nicole, with Robert secretly listening

Leni playing “Schönes Mädchen” for Nicole, with Robert secretly listening

It reminds me a bit of a scene in Valeska Grisebach’s Sehnsucht (Longing, 2006) in which the couple plays Grauzone’s German New Wave classic “Eisbär” [Ice Bear]. Not unlike what the performance of “Eisbär” accomplishes in Grisebach’s film, Leni’s playing of “Schönes Mädchen” crystalises her feelingsher beingfor us: it’s one of the few moments of tranquillity, of peace, that she experiences, just as in Longing the playing of the song marks a moment of pure, unencumbered togetherness for the couple.

CH: It’s her voice. She’s finding her voice. I really like the way Thea did this because the performance is pretty raw. She’s not a trained singer, yet it’s really her singing. What I like about singing in general is that it’s so close to the bone: you always feel who someone is when you hear them singing.

MA: Let’s talk, then, about your work with the actors. My sense is that you were not going for naturalistic performances, not least since the film itself is so much about performance. The effect of this is that it’s harder to identify with the protagonists, whether with Leni, let alone with Robert (Timocin Ziegler). Their performances are too actorly for us as viewers to just forget that we are watching performances.

CH: From early on, I felt this is a film about performance, that to a certain degree it’s about make-believe on part of every character. I really like a performance style in cinema that is not naturalismacting that, while perhaps not unnatural, has a degree of self-awareness. For example, I really like the films from the 1930s and 1940s where today’s realism fetish didn’t exist. For me, the important thing about any art, and especially film, is really the audience’s active role in transforming an experience. To accomplish this, there must be a visible and palpable difference between reality and your experience. The whole point is that you transform it while you watch it. That might be the reason why I’m a sucker for this artificial style of acting.

MA: How did you prepare for the shooting? 

CH: As many directors have said before me, the most important thing is to find the right people to play the parts. But when I cast, I don’t try to find actors who are exact versions of my fantasy; rather, I look for someone who’s a bit different than my fantasy, so that I’m able to experience something anew precisely because of this difference. You can’t know in advance whether it works. But both main actors compelled me from the start: the way they performed these characters made them come alive, which really touched me. I was instantly taken by the very being of Thea and Timocin, so it was very easy to choose them: when I saw them together, I knew they were right for the parts.

Thea Ehre and Timocin Ziegler

MA: This was Timocin Ziegler’s first feature film. He reminds me a bit of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. As Robert, he’s very unkempt, but that’s also how he appeared at the Berlinale press conference: it seemed like he hadn’t washed his hair in a week, and he didn’t seem too keen on playing the PR game. Even his stature reminds me a bit of Fassbinder. I don’t want to push this association too much. But given the film’s topicthe relationship between a queer cop and an erstwhile queer man who is transitioning to become a womanand the fact that in German film history we don’t have that many films that centre trans people, it’s hard not to think of Fassbinder and especially In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden (In a Year of 13 Moons, 1978).

CH: In a Year of 13 Moons was certainly an influence, but not to that degree. For example, we didn’t rewatch it. This notion that Timocin is Fassbinderesque really came afterwards. I can understand it. It has also to do with his dialect because he grew up near Munich, like Fassbinder. It’s a dialect I grew up with. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I felt close to him.

I really think he’s a great actor because he’s very intuitive, very inventive. Many dialogue lines in the finished film came from him, and he would play every scene differently. He would sometimes drive the other actors mad because he was a fountain of ideas. He’s especially good at being bad, at being mean. He would invent all kinds of things that I really enjoyed. He’s very unusual for a German actor because he’s not concerned about how he looks on film or that people might hate him.

On paper, Robert could feel like the cliché of a hard cop. It was therefore important to find an actor who is also very soft and on the brink of a breakdown all the time. And when Timocin read the script, he said, “Oh, that’s me!” For he’s really not hard and in control; it’s an interesting mix with him. There’s definitely a part of him inside this character.

MA: What’s striking about his performance is that there seems to be a lack of vanity on his part. I think you might have mentioned in another interview that Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992) with Harvey Keitel served as a reference point for you.

CH: For Florian [the scriptwriter]. He wanted to create a new Bad Lieutenant, a film I really like, but I didn’t rewatch the film before shooting.

MA: Perhaps my favourite scene in the film is the one taking place on the boat, when Robert, who is undercover, meets with Armin, the henchman of one of the bigger criminals. Şahin Eryılmaz, who plays Armin, is an actor who speaks Kölsch, the dialect of my hometown of Köln (Cologne). The way he delivers the line, “Weißte wat de bis? Lästisch, sonst nischts” (“Do you know what you are? Bothersome, nothing more”), stood out to me because everyone else, perhaps apart from Timocin, as you pointed out, speaks high German.

“Do you know what you are? Bothersome, nothing more”

CH: It was something that Şahin brought to the film. He said that as a German of Turkish descent he grew up speaking Kölsch. I really liked this, both because we don’t hear this kind of dialect so often in German films and because it somehow enriches his character, making him more intriguing than the simple hoodlum he is on paper. For me, directing is about encouraging people to show what they have. In that respect, I’m a very liberal director because I’m happy if people come up with stuff like this.

MA: Let’s talk about Thea Ehre, who won the award for best supporting performance at the Berlinale. This must have pleased you, even though hers is hardly a supporting performance: she is the film, in so many ways. I’m curious about your experience working with her, not least given the current political context relating to questions of identity, cultural appropriation, etc. Can you talk about what drew you to making a film centring a trans woman?

CH: I think it’s two things. First, we needed an obstacle in this love story. Initially, Thea’s character wasn’t a trans woman, but the decision for her to be a trans woman gave us a dilemma to intensify the conflict. This is a mechanical reason, but I’m not ashamed of it. Many decisions in filmmaking are initially about trying to figure out which element would do what in the context of the story. This desire to boost the conflict started the idea.

We also felt it would be interesting to have a trans person as a protagonist because the whole film is about the question of identity, of who anyone really is. It would be interesting, we thought, to have a trans woman be the one person who really knows who she is. Of course, our conception changed a lot once Thea came on board. She’s a very smart, informed young person who really engaged in discussions. It was a very nice collaboration. She was only 21 when we shot the film and had never acted in a feature film before (she’d acted in a few short films). But she really wanted to be on top of the situation and took things into her own hands. She worked closely with her coach to prepare for each scene and enjoyed doing this. It was amazing to see how determined, motivated, and honest she is. 

In the end, however, we did not make a queer film simply because I’m not queer. I don’t identify as a member of the queer or trans community, even though I have great sympathies for and learned a lot from this movement. But for me, Leni is just a trans character in a crime film. Of course, when you do something like this, especially today, you want to do it right, so it was important for Florian and me to talk to people who know more about being a trans person than we do. We educated ourselves by reading literature and watching relevant films. But we found our way to this character because we played around with the script’s dramaturgic needs. At first, there was just this character, Robert, a self-destructive cop, and for quite some time, we were looking for a story that would challenge him. This is how Leni came into being.

MA: Given that you don’t make message-driven films, it makes sense that your decision to include a trans woman was largely guided by dramaturgical considerations. The cinematic correlative to this pragmatic attitude towards Leni’s character is that the film refrains from positioning her as a problem. Unlike many other (even well-meaning) films that condescendingly frame marginalised people, such as trans persons, as a problem that society has to address, Till the End of the Night meets Leni at eye-level, refraining from singling her out as somehow unusual for being a trans woman: just as the other characters interact with her without commenting on her body or identity (Robert, of course, is the exception, which makes him stand out for his unaccepting disposition towards Leni), so the camera refuses to offer her up to the viewer’s gaze as an object of voyeuristic interest.

CH: Thea said to me early on that she would not want to hide the state of transition she’s in. For her transition is not over. She was all in favour of playing a character who is in-between. Of course, Thea is clearly identifying as a woman, but it was important for her that we don’t present Leni as someone who passes perfectly, à la The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992). I really liked Thea’s attitude because, for me, to film is to film bodiesand bodies embody, or show, a history. In that respect, this role could only be cast with a person who has lived this part of the story. Of course, I’m not saying the film is Thea’s story, but there’s a physical parallel between Leni and Thea. I thought this is very interesting, and I was grateful to Thea that she wanted to be like this. This is reflected, for example, in the kind of costumes she wears in the film. While there’s a moment when she’s the super pink lady, this is really the exception; most of the time she is herself, whatever that is or means. What she is, in other words, is always changing.

Leni extra/ordinary

Leni extra/ordinary

MA: This, of course, is what Robert is struggling with, isn’t it? In one scene, when Robert feels the need to keep Leni’s and his cover story intact, he tells a suspicious Victor (Michael Sideris), the target of his sting operation who was Leni’s boss when she was still Lennard, that he betrayed Leni to the cops, as a result of which she ended up in prison. But does he spontaneously fabricate this story, or is he telling the truth? Leni clearly assumes the latter, i.e., that her erstwhile lover just revealed that he betrayed her. This is one example of the film’s noir-like tendency to repeatedly render opaque who does what to whom and why. But I think this moment also subtly hints at the possible motive for why Robert might have betrayed his lover to his colleagues for selling drugs: to prevent Lennard from financing his transition. In other words, if we are willing to accept that prior to Leni (as Lennard) going to prison Robert was in love with heror, rather, himthen putting Lennard into prison would have been Robert’s last-ditch effort to prevent Lennard from becoming Leni: Robert wanted to hold on to Lennard as a queer man.

I like how the film shows Robert struggling with Lennard-cum-Leni’s bodily changesa transformation that drives a wedge between his desire for Lennard-cum-Leni as a person and his desire for his/her body. Yet following the film’s premiere, reviewers reductively saw Robert as little more than a macho asshole. This seems wrongheaded to me. After all, at the end, he seems willing to take a risk and run away with Leni (with a duffle bag full of cash) to turn the fake vacation photo of him and Leni, to which the film repeatedly calls attention, into reality.

Fake Vacation photo

CH: Yes, he’s going for the dream ending, he’s really in the dream world, whereas Leni is a super realist. I think that’s an important difference between them. Maybe Robert must go to prison to become a realist too [laughs]. Not that I’m trying to advocate this: but in the logic of the story, it works a bit like this.

This dynamic is reflected in the casting: Thea is really a realist who had her fair share of terrible experiences, as many trans people do; but she came out stronger and is now amazingly realistic about what she can do. It’s obvious that undergoing this transitioning process made her mature faster than other people of her age. Whereas Timocin, aka Robert, is much more living in his dreams; he’s keeping his illusions alive.

MA: In our first interview, when discussing I Am Guilty, you said that you consider the question of how to define one’s sexuality as one of the limits of our freedomthat one can choose one’s sexuality only to a degree. It’s not that often that cisgender, heterosexual directors make films about queer or trans people. I Am Guilty also plays with the protagonist’s sexuality, causing the viewer to wonder whether the various sex scenes are merely his dreams or fantasies or whether they are real (within the narrative logic). And now you made a film centring a trans woman. I can’t help but feel that Till the End of the Night functions as a self-reflexive working-through of your statement that one’s sexuality might pose a limit to one’s freedom.

CH: Till the End of the Night felt in many ways like a companion piece to I Am Guilty, which was always one of my favourite films of mine. On the question if one’s sexuality is one of the limits of our freedom: I think most queer people would argue that they don’t choose gender nor sexual orientation, but that “it” chooses them. The wording usually is: someone “identifies as.” Is identification a matter of choice? Only to a small degree. The debate is never about “be what you want” (as the critics from the right often depict it) but “be what you are.” It remains to be seen if these lines will blur further in the future. 

I suppose the film is the result of me struggling with the question of sexuality and gender roles. I’m married and have two kids, and I don’t doubt my sexuality as such. But I still have many unanswered questions about desire because it’s so ancient and because it’s permanently in conflict with our management-like lifestyle today, where we try to avoid risks and failure and so on. I read about a social scientist at the Charité Medical School in Berlin, who argues that in nature desire is out of focus and that focused desire is to a certain degree cultural, that it is culturally informed. When I look at my interest in people, sexually and otherwise, I notice that it’s also out of focus. This might be why I’m interested in these characters.

MA: At one moment in the film, Victor tells Robert, who seems in despair (is he acting for the benefit of Victor or expressing his “authentic” emotions?) about his sense that he “loves so muchbut I love the guy [Kerl], not …”: “Perhaps just live. It doesn’t have to have a name. I mean, the whole shit comes from the fact that people need names. They need labels: I’m 100% this, I’m 100% that. That’s the shit.” 

Victor to Robert: “They need labels”

Victor to Robert: “They need labels”

This moment struck me as if you were almost pre-emptively addressing your critics because what some of them dislike about your work is precisely what is being affirmed here: fluidity, hybridity, a process where one thing transitions into something else and then back, or maybe into something else still. For example, Till the End of the Night toggles back and forth between being a neo-noir crime film, a Fassbinderesque melodrama involving a gay man and a trans woman, and a reflection on contemporary platform capitalism. One can see why some viewers might not like this, as this blurring of genres challenges the very expectations one often has of these genres (and the specific desires one hopes they fulfill). 

At the Berlinale press conference, you and Florian discussed your struggle to find the right balance between the genres. But this tendency to mashup genres is clearly something that’s dear to your heart: The Lies of the Victors falls into the newspaper film subgenre, but there’s also a gambling story in the background, which was more present in an earlier version of the script, as you mentioned in our conversation about the film; The City Below and I Am Guilty, too, evince this tendency to cross genres. Can you talk about the notion of finding the right balance, for this almost seems contradictory in relation to the notions of fluidity and hybridity?

CH: This is a good observation. Funny enough, yesterday I remembered that as a kid I always had the strong feeling that I’m waking up during the day, leaving the trance of your everyday world, and realising in what situation I’m in and feeling shocked that I must have been unaware of this before. I had the same feeling yesterday on set: suddenly I realised I’m making a film in French [see the end of this interview], and it struck me as something totally strange. 

What I’m trying to say is that we rarely live in the moment; I certainly don’t. I’m really daydreaming, or dreaming, all the time. When suddenly something wakes me up, there’s always this shock of the real. This is to say that my feeling of life and identity is very blurry. I have a firm feeling of progress, but then it turns out to be another illusion. I really felt that I had to be brave enough to endure the ambivalence of all the things that interest me and that you could be ashamed of, to let them happen. In that respect, I’m proud of the film because I think it’s more open than other films. You can of course criticise it for inconsistencies, but I feel that it’s closer to what I am, so I’m happy. This is not to say that I think it’s a perfect film. 

MA: You said that you didn’t rewatch In the Year of 13 Moons or Bad Lieutenant in preparation for shooting Till the End of the Night. Were there any films you had in mind, not as something to imitate but as a source for inspiration?

CH: We watched a couple of films but not together. With Reinhold Vorschneider, for example, Police (Maurice Pialat, 1985), which I really like. We also watched Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneuer, 1947) and Whirlpool (Otto Preminger, 1950). And Paris Is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990), which is so beautiful and which really changed my perception, especially in terms of performance, because it’s a film about performance as liberation. It’s really a great film. In general, however, I avoid looking for films to serve as models for my own. This is not how I work. I would send Thea or Reinhold or whoever bits and pieces of films I like, sure; but I didn’t do this to delineate a path for us, let alone to set up a model for us to imitate.

MA: You said that you are currently more interested in working with actors than in the ideas, but I want to try to connect Till the End of the Night to some of your earlier work. When we talked in 2015, you stated that This Very Moment and I Am Guilty were essentially about families, about family relations. Then you opened the aperture and focused more on capitalist institutions, such as banking (The City Below), big industry lobbying politicians (The Lies of the Victors), and the role of the 4th Estate in the digital age (ditto). In this context it’s noteworthy that Till the End of the Night is not really a film about the police: it’s not a policier

Yet at least at the subtextual level, there’s a connection to your previous films, not just because it’s set, like The City Below, in Frankfurt, the German city most associated with contemporary finance capitalism and, if you will, neoliberal crime. And it seems to me that the film’s crime plot stages a conflict at the level of capitalism, namely between old crimedrug dealing in the “dreckige Hinterhöfe” (dirty back alleys), as Armin puts it in his Cologne dialect to Robertand platform capitalism. But unlike in The City Below, which focuses on shedding light on the postmodern world of high finance with its successful, wealthy alpha-male power bankers and their bored wives, Till the End of the Night shows that city’s underbelly. This can be understood as a conflict between authenticity and inauthenticity. When talking with Robert (who is undercover), Armin claims that he and his crime buddies will still be here when Robert and his platform capitalist crime bosses are long gone, for the former engage in an honest game of giving and taking, whereas the latter are just taking. And Armin’s claim to a more authentic criminal behaviour is linguistically embodied in how he speaks, i.e., in his authentic Cologne dialect. Yet I don’t think the film wants to simply privilege the former over the latter, or for that matter the latter over the former, because the film is almost excessively about performativity. It’s clear you didn’t want to make a film about capitalism, but the spectre of capitalism is nevertheless woven into the film’s subtext.

CH: Actually, what I’ve really been interested in for a long timeand this surfaced in this film, toois the question of the body: in how far is the body replaceable, and in how far is the body the original place of identity? I think both notions are challenged in the film. Armin, in his simple words, is basically saying that his kind of old-school crime might be ugly, but it’s honest because everything has a price, and the price is imprinted on the body, so to speak. This is a valid idea, but it’s not the whole truth.

We did some research on internet crime in Germany. It’s amazing how far removed these people are from street crime. They haven’t learned it from scratch. They really commit crime in this aseptic way, just as we like to spend our time today. They’re operating based on the idea that a mouse click isn’t immoral. Eventually, however, the two worlds collide, which also occurs in The City Below. All these dealings that are happening in the virtual world of finance have real-life consequences. At some point, there must be a comeuppance. I think this is always interesting, though it’s nothing new, of course. In Fritz Lang’s films, for instance, there are initially separate worlds, but suddenly there’s this encounter, a conflict that connects them and shows that they are actually alike, yet incompatible, such as the gangsters and the police in M (1931), who operate in a very similar radius, etc.

MA: That the body is the location for one’s authenticity is a weird notion given that the body changes all the time, with billions of cells being replaced each day. The body gives this appearance of relative stability when it’s really defined by continual change, transformation. 

CH: Absolutely. In this context, a gender transition is very interesting because you essentially feel that your body must be altered, and then you must compare the new body to the old one and which version of your body is more real, etc. That’s of course a fraught, hotly debated question.

MA: Let’s move to the film’s conclusion. This is the second film (after I Am Guilty) that you end with a shot of a protagonist looking directly into the camera. (The City Below also has the protagonist turn around towards the camera, even if she doesn’t directly look into it.) Robert, who’s been shot, says, “I’m so stupid. I’m not really the type who likes happy endings,” in response to which we observe Leni, framed in a shallow-focused close-up, briefly ponder the matterit feels like we can really see her think about his declarationand then, with a smile, reply, “But I am.” And at this moment, she slightly shifts her head so that she looks directly into the camera, eyes open and taking a breath, at which point you cut to black. It’s as if in this last second she’s asking us: and what about you, dear viewer, what is your disposition to happy endings? This camera address interestingly returns to the film’s beginning, when Leni asks for someone to turn on the light: here, now, we have one of film’s clearest, least obstructed shots: we’re looking right into her eyes, into her being, if you will. It feels unfiltered, truthful, and yet there’s ambiguity in her look.

“But I am”

CH: During editing, we also experimented with a different ending. My editor, Stefan Stabenow, preferred an ending without the breaking of the fourth wall. The difference between the two versions consists of only two shots. Yet the one Stefan preferred would have been a much sadder ending. For without these two shots, one would have left the film with the impression that everyone is basically just fucked up [laughs]. Whereas with these two shots, the film offers a shimmer of hope. For a while, I was undecided. But Thea insisted that the film must end the way it now does because in her mind she, in her real life, has made it. I liked Thea’s determination regarding this question: it basically gave me the last impulse, if not the license, to go for this less sad ending.

MA: The film aesthetically affirms that she’s made it, or at least that she has an opening that she can step intoa future that is not yet foreclosed, even if there’s no guarantee how or that things will work out for her once she takes the next step. It’s clearly not a negative ending. And yet, you asked a few trans activists in Berlin to watch the film prior to its premiereand they didn’t like what they saw and even left before the end.

CH: As I understood it, the issue for a political movement such as theirs is that there are different times; and depending on your analysis of the state of the struggle, you have different ideas of how free art should be. From this point of view, it’s necessary to demand that a film take sides in the struggle and give advice, that it offer positive images and storiespositive representations. At the level of film art, however, this was not a very complex discussion. It was about the political struggle and whether one is on the right side or not. I completely understand this. Yet if I subscribed to the idea that art is or should be propaganda, then I think art would be dead. I can understand that if your goal is to change society you might want films to be like this; but I don’t really believe that producing propaganda helps in the struggle to create a better society. Of course, this is basically the old debate between the political left and the aesthetic left of the 1960s. 

MA: The ending we just talked aboutLeni’s gaze into the camerais followed by a second ending, a coda. After the cut to black, the credits appear, Heidi Brühl croons “Eine Liebe so wie du,” and we see how the photo of their vacation that they never really had was digitally rendered. It’s a perfect example of what the theorist of digital cinema, Lev Manovich, once defined as a new kind of (digital) realism: “something that looks as if it is intended to look exactly as if it could have happened, although it really could not.”13 In a way, we circle back to the film’s opening where time-lapse photography shows physical space being manipulated to create an apartment as a stage for a performance: Robert and Leni’s act as a happy couple in love. One of the props in that apartment is the vacation photo. By the time the coda appears, we already know it’s a fake. So, revealing that it’s a forgery can’t really be the point of the coda. What was your thinking? Had you intended to include this coda from the get-go, or did this idea occur during shooting?

Digital rendering of an impossible future

Digital rendering of an impossible future

Digital rendering of an impossible future

Digital rendering of an impossible future

CH: I really wanted it to be in the film, even though it initially had no clear place in the script: at first, it was in a different spot, but eventually it became the film’s coda. What I’m interested in is really the constructedness of everything: we construct dreams, ideas, and images, especially in cinema. For me, the coda fits the film’s overall topic: do you trust an appearance, and if not, what can you trust? In many ways, this photo is not false; it just never happened. It poses the question: what must change so that it can happen in the future? This is what Leni alludes to earlier when telling Robert: “We will have this eventually.” 

Recall the picture in Thief (Michael Mann, 1981) that Frank (James Caan) shows Jessie (Tuesday Weld) to woo her. It shows a happy family life that he constructed with the help of torn-out magazine photos. 

Collage of an idea of a happy life (Michael Mann, Thief, 1981)

 I’m interested in this process of image-making as a first step towards worldbuilding, which poses the political question: can you prefigure reality? In many ways, the answer must be yes, because if you look at the development of technology today, much of it is really science fiction: sometimes, they quite literally use ideas from SF.

We constantly construct pictures. Even in a naturalistic setting: if you look at family photos, for instance, you notice they are performances of what you want “family” to look like. Or if you compare the photos you post on social media and those you don’t: it’s almost like yin and yang. I thought ending with this coda that shows how the photo was constructed would be a good way to give the audience time to reflect on what they just saw.

MA: Your film is not a film about digitality. Yet within the context of what we already discussedthe clash between an older version of capitalism and this newer form of platform or digital capitalism and their respective criminal expressions that are, as per Armin’s comments, either tied to or disconnected from a sense of the body, of embodimentthe photo offers a final reflection on this conflict. By showing how it was digitally constructed, the film foregrounds the photo’s difference from a Bazinian ontology that is often understood (however incorrectly) to be tethered to the authenticity of the pro-filmic world, to the body of the world, so to speak.14 And just as there are many who seem to harbour nostalgia for this older form of capitalismi.e., for the alleged authenticity of embodied labourand oppose it to the equally alleged disembodied nature of immaterial finance (or communicative) platform capitalism, so there are many who harbour nostalgia for the age of analogue film, precisely because the latter seems somewhat harder to manipulate than the former. In the age of digitality, everything can be rendered as ones and zeros, as a result of which reality assumes an incredible degree of malleability, flexibility, fluidity. Your film is about this, but without exhibiting nostalgia for some prelapsarian moment of pure stability as the ground for an authentic identity: i.e., the film doesn’t take Armin’s side, nor does it take the side of platform capitalism.

Ironically, perhaps, Leni, who is in the middle of transitioning her body, has a firm sense of who she is and what she wants: she wants to be a woman, she wants to be free, and she wants to have a future in which her story can have a happy ending. The photoand her relationship to itstrikes me as a complex rendering of a sense of optimism, of a particular notion of futurity, precisely because it does not represent something that really existed. Rather, it affectively expresses a sensation of happinessan affect that Leni might be able to experience at a time yet-to-come. This actual experience of happiness has yet to happen for it to become representable. In other words, the photo renders sensible an affect of happiness of which it can be said, at this moment, only that at some time in the future it will have been experienced by Leni.

CH: And in that sense, it might be the better photo relative to one we can produce at the time: because it prefigures a reality that does not yet exist.

MA: Needless to say: it’s difficult to rally politically around such a complex notion of futurityone that cannot be represented in the presentwhen you are part of a group of people that is threatened all the time with real violence. Whatever utopian quality this photo might render sensible, it is different from the kind of utopian thinking that’s based on a clear image of what needs to happen. The latter isquite understandably, given historical realityguided by an image of a desirable future that it posits as obtainable. We just need to change the world to get there. But what is “represented” in the vacation photo is precisely something that never was and can never be at the representational level: Robert and Leni will never have a vacation together. Yet it does express a sentiment the right to experience of which is worth demanding.15 It’s in this sense that your film seems to align more with a position associated with the “aesthetic left” than with that of a more traditional “political left” that the trans activists who did not like your film seem to favour.16

CH: I’m on the side of the aesthetic left, no doubt about it. Because if a new image is possible, we can also think about the world in new ways. I know that for some this “new image” is too removed from political action. But isn’t form already action? Like in the above-mentioned Paris Is Burning: people need to perform the new form, to create space for a new kind of life.

MA: Let us conclude by briefly looking ahead to your next film, which you just finished shooting.

CH: It’s connected to a lot of things we talked about. It’s based on another script on which Ulrich Peltzer and I collaborated; we already co-wrote The City Below and The Lies of the Victors. At one level, it’s a crime story about the godfather of Brussels, who hires a contract killer to avenge one of his couriers who has been killed. But eventually, the film asks whether it’s possible for a powerful man of old to write his own ending. The struggles in the film are also about the body: the godfather’s challenger is arguing for a digital sex business with VR and puppets, without the hustle of real prostitutiona business that to this day is linked to crime and in the film is still a major source of income for the old gangster. So, there’s a parallel to Till the End of the Night’s conflict between the criminals that take advantage of the tools of the digital age (i.e., platform capitalism) and the old-school back-alley criminals that Armin claims will still be there when the former have long disappeared. The film is sceptical that this kind of “liberation” of the body really constitutes progress.

But unlike my other films, it’s rather classical. Reinhold Vorschneider, who is once again the DP, and I decided to keep the shot breakdown focused on storytelling. It’s much more moderate in visual terms than my previous films, and it’s in French. I also think there are a lot of great actors [among others: Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Sophie Verbeeck, and Marc Limpach] in it.

MA: Have you settled on a title?

CH: La Mort Viendra (Der Tod wird kommen; Death Will Come), but this might change. It refers to Cesare Pavese’s poem: “Death will come and will bear your eyes.”17 

MA: A promising title. I can’t wait to see the film.


  1. For more, see Daniel Fairfax’s festival report, “Sweet Madness: the 2023 Berlinale,” Senses of Cinema 105 (May 2023): http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2023/festival-reports/sweet-madness-the-2023-berlinale.
  2. Fairfax’s report hints at the criticism Ehre’s character received by some critics for the “less than wholesome (i.e., morally questionable if not criminal) sides of her character.” This kind of criticism is grounded in the belief of the necessity for film to offer ideal (I would say: idealised) representations of marginalised peoplesomething Hochhäusler and I discuss in our conversation below. I agree with Fairfax’s sense that this kind of criticism is “self-defeating”not just because, as he puts it, heeding this demand would create “cartoon cut-outs” but also, and perhaps more basically, because this demand is based on what strikes me as a problematic ontological idea of being or identity.
  3. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge, 1990).
  4. I’m drawing here on my interview with the great German genre filmmaker Dominik Graf, in which he appreciatively attributes this argument to Joss Whedon. See Marco Abel, “‘I Build a Jigsaw Puzzle of a Dream-Germany’: An Interview with German Filmmaker Dominik Graf,” Senses of Cinema 55 (July 2010): http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2010/feature-articles/“‘i-build-a-jigsaw-puzzle-of-a-dream-germany’-an-interview-with-german-filmmaker-dominik-graf”-2/#b57.
  5. I discuss the ending of The City Below in my chapter on Hochhäusler in The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (Camden House, 2013). For more on the use of the same dialogue line in The Lies of the Victors, see my introductory essay to my interview with Hochhäusler, “‘It’s a Battle of Stories: Christoph Hochhäusler’s The City Below and The Lies of the Victors,” Cineaste 41.1 online (winter 2015): https://www.cineaste.com/winter2015/christoph-hochhausler-interview. Joy Castro pointed out to me that destabilisation of any solid identity is built right into this sentence in that “it”something supposedly stableis equated (“is”) with a gerund-form verb (“beginning”) (Personal conversation, June 2, 2023).
  6. Cf. Marco Abel, “‘Tender Speaking’: An Interview with Christoph Hochhäusler,” Senses of Cinema 42 (February 2007): http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2007/cinema-engage/christoph-hochhausler/.
  7. See, respectively, Abel, “Tender Speaking” and Abel, “‘It’s a Battle of Stories.”
  8. For more on the Dreileben project, see Marco Abel, “The Agnostic Politics of the Dreileben Project,” German Studies Review 36.3 (summer 2013): 607-616. This essay is part of a dossier on this collaboration between Petzold, Graf, and Hochhäusler that had each director make a feature film in response to the same fictional crime. For a detailed discussion of Séance, see the introduction to my book, The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School.
  9. Hochhäusler started shooting his seventh feature immediately after the Berlinale premiere of Till the End of the Night. For more, see the end of this interview.
  10. Vorschneider is one of Germany’s best-known cinematographers. He has shot many films associated with the Berlin School, especially Angela Schanelec’s.
  11. Characterised by simplistic musical structures and often insipidly kitschy, sentimental lyrics, Schlager songs almost habitually animate German fans of such music to clap along in happy-go-lucky, mindless ways.
  12. Knef was also an actress. Her two most famous roles are as Susanne Wallner, the female lead in Wolfgang Staudte’s Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us, 1946), which is the first film made in Germany after the Second World War, and as Marina in Willi Forst’s romantic drama Die Sünderin (The Sinner, 1951), in which Knef performs the first nude scene in German film history, causing a veritable scandal.
  13. Lev Manovich, “What is Digital Cinema?,” Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film, edited by Shane Denson and Julia Leyda (2016): https://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/post-cinema/1-1-manovich/.
  14. For a compelling critique of the arguably reductive but persistent understanding of Bazinian realism in terms of “indexicality,” see Daniel Morgan, “Rethinking Bazin: Ontology and Realist Aesthetics,” Critical Inquiry 32/3 (spring 2006): 443-481.
  15. For more on this argument, see my chapter on Hochhäusler’s films in The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School.
  16. My argument, here, resonates with my lecture, “Political Cinema and the German Left,” given on November 12, 2019 at the American Academy in Berlin. Access here: https://vimeo.com/373122150. I develop this argument further in my book, Mit Nonchalance am Abgrund: Das Kino der ‘Neuen Münchner Gruppe’ (1964-1972), currently forthcoming with transcript Verlag (Bielefeld, Germany, 2024).
  17. For an English translation of Pevese’s “Verrà la morte e avrà I tuoi occhi,” see https://www.archiviomariogiacomelli.it/en/verra-la-morte-e-avra-i-tuoi-occhi-di-cesare-pavese/.

About The Author

Marco Abel is Willa Cather Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His third monograph, Mit Nonchalance am Abgrund: Das Kino der “Neuen Münchner Gruppe” (1964 – 1972), is forthcoming in September 2024 with transcript Verlag (Germany). He is also the author of The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (Camden House, 2013), which won the 2014 German Studies Association Book Prize, and Violent Affect: Literature, Cinema, and Critique After Representation (University of Nebraska Press, 2007). He is the co-editor of several books, including, with Jaimey Fisher, of the forthcoming New German Cinema and Its Global Contexts: A Transnational Art Cinema (Wayne State UP, January 2025) as well as The Berlin School and Its Global Contexts: A Transnational Art Cinema (Wayne State UP, 2018). Other books he co-edited include, with Aylin Bademosy and Jaimey Fisher, Christian Petzold: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2023); with Christian Gerhardt Celluloid Revolt: German Screen Cultures and the Long 1968 (Camden House, 2019); and with Chris Wahl, Michael Wedel, and Jesko Jockenhoevel of Im Angesicht des Fernsehens: Der Filmemacher Dominik Graf (text + kritik, 2010). With Roland Végső, he is the co-editor of the book series Provocations (University of Nebraska Press).Marco Abel has also published numerous essays on German cinema and interviews with German film directors in several edited volumes as well as journals such as Cineaste, German Studies Review, New German Critique, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, and Senses of Cinema. Together with Jaimey Fisher, he also co-edited a dossier on Christian Petzold for Senses of Cinema (issue 84).

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