Often considered a junior member of the one dozen directors or so associated with the Berlin School, Valeska Grisebach has left, with a mere three features, her own distinct imprint on the much-celebrated realism of this counter-cinema.1 Her 2001 debut, Mein Stern (Be My Star), a 65-minute film school graduation project about the coming of age of two Berlin teens, announced the arrival of a talent with a distinct voice. What at first sight evokes a sense of the documentary reveals to be, on closer inspection, a finely calibrated portrait of the lives of others – the proverbial folks next door who turn out not to be that different from ourselves. Grisebach’s breakout feature, Sehnsucht (Longing), a minimalist drama about a fated love triangle, screened to much acclaim in the Competition of the 2006 Berlin Film Festival. With Western (2017), a major critical success at Cannes and a film that made many 2018 top-ten lists in the English-speaking world, Grisebach has broken into the top tier of European auteurs. A trademark of Grisebach’s approach to realism is her casting of non-professional actors whose social background resembles that of the characters they play on screen, even if their respective performances are often remarkable not for what they reveal but for what they hide. Both with her casting and with her choice of locations, the director seeks out the marginal and the less-travelled. The Berlin Mitte of Be My Star, even though located smack in the centre of the city, eschews the postcard motifs and hipster locations of many Berlin-set films, following her young protagonists to non-descript apartments, parks, and fast food restaurants. Longing is set in a hamlet in rural Brandenburg, a place that, though a mere ninety minutes by car from the German capital, feels like a different planet. Completely avoiding discourses generated outside of the village, the film adopts a mostly observational stance that neither ironises nor idealises village life. At the same time, Grisebach’s realism is suffused with moments of heightened symbolism that point towards something outside of time, and that moves the film closer to the realm of legend, fairytale, or even Greek tragedy. Her most ambitious project to date, Western invokes narrative tropes and characters typical of the classic Hollywood genre while also keeping them at bay, not unlike the way in which Longing toyed with variations on romance and melodrama. Recalling the censored 1966 DEFA film Spur der Steine (Trace of Stones, Frank Beyer), Western uses a construction site to explore macho behaviour over women and alpha status. As in many of the films of Kelly Reichardt, with whom Grisebach shares an eschewing of sentimentality, the frontier here has a geographic, political, economic and psychological dimension. Western is set in a rural area near Bulgaria’s border with Greece, which during World War Two was an important battle ground for the German Army. For many years, this border formed part of the iron curtain between the East and the West. Today the two neighbouring nations remain divided by historical memory even though they share the fate of being two of the poorest members of the EU. Western is a unique exploration of a classic genre, of a social microcosm, and of cultural difference, presented in a story about the latent rivalry and shadowboxing of two males, whose exposure to a dramatic, seemingly unspoiled landscape evokes dreams of freedom and a different form of existence. While not exactly a feminist revision of the genre, the “sharp yet understated feminist perspective to her alternate survey of the genre’s well charted territories”, Haden Guest has aptly observed, provides a completely fresh take on a male-dominated environment.2 “It is amazing,” Molly Haskell has added, “for a woman filmmaker to get that far into a male group.”3 While Western is one of several recent Berlin School films to be set outside their directors’ native Germany in order to explore notions of self and other from a different angle, and to revisit constructions of national and cultural identity against the background of a neo-liberal “pan-European” vision – among them Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (2016); Angela Schanelec’s Der geträumte Weg (The Dreamed Path, 2016); Thomas Arslan’s Helle Nächte (Bright Nights, 2017) and Christian Petzold’s Transit (2018) come to mind – none of them is as radical as Grisebach in taking up the recurrent concerns about the lingering ghosts of the (former) East.
The following interview took place on 8 November, 2018, at the dffb (Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin/German Film and Television Academy in Berlin), with a follow-up conversation at Harvard University on 18 November, 2018. I want thank Haden Guest, the Director of the Harvard Film Archive, for the invitation to participate in the Q&A with the director.
When you develop a new project, what comes first – the place, the characters, the story?
It is very much a process of association, during which different themes begin to speak to one another. With Western, for example, I realised at one point how fascinated I am with westerns, something that dates back to when I grew up. I have a real longing, or a nostalgia, for that genre. It was a fascination with the genre and its themes, but also with these male heroes, and what they tell us not only about masculinity, but also about society, and the question of law – namely, which law: the law of empathy or of the fittest? It’s of course the genre of white men, and I was particularly interested in the intimacy of the duel. Beyond that, I was interested in how these men want to have one foot within that society, but at the same time, they want to have one foot outside of it. They are looking for a different place. And there are certain norms they are expected to follow: that you cannot show your feelings; that you have to be a German. But what does being German actually mean here? For my earlier films, I conducted a lot of interviews, and in these interviews I heard a lot of stories from families about what German history meant to them. Often these private stories or anecdotes contradicted the official history we are taught. I am always interested in hearing what kind of desires are being articulated. What does it mean to be German today, or European? I often notice that there’s a longing to regain a certain recognition, or status, that has been lost. This was a very important point of departure for this film.
Meinhard, the protagonist of Western, in particular seems to embody this sense of wanting to be part of a group and at the same time not wanting it. Even though he can’t really articulate it, one can sense that he wants more, or something different.
Meinhard is of course a fictitious character. There’s a lot inscribed in his physical appearance, his face, and his body language. For me, it was a marvellous discovery to find the very character I had envisioned suddenly standing around at some flea market. He’s a true movie icon. And it was very exciting to meet him and then develop the story further by having him in mind.
Does he actually have something to do with horses? I read you found him at a horse market.
Yes, that’s true, but he has nothing to do with horses, he was just selling antiques. The film was his first contact with horses. But to come back to the story of Western – writing the script was a tough nut to crack and it took me a long time. I wanted to stay in close contact with the genre, including creating moments of suspense, even if nothing comes of them, in order to have a certain scaffolding. At the same time, I always wanted enough space to hint at subtexts, to create ambiguities. How close does Meinhard really want to get to this foreign terrain? There’s a sense that an adventure awaits these men, but there’s always also a certain lack of trust. The challenge for me was to translate this into scenes that convey an atmosphere but still add up to something larger and that make a certain point. This tension between a narrative that is obvious and that you can follow, and other, more hidden stories, was very important for me. And Meinhard’s story is exemplary for that. Finding this actor [Meinhard Neumann] was very fortuitous for me because you look at him with fascination; there’s a certain transparence to him but at the same time he’s also a projection screen.
There is a great curiosity in Meinhard, he is adventurous and wants to explore, while the other men prefer to stay among themselves. They mark their territory (they even plant the German flag), and they believe in the superiority of German engineering and see no need to venture far. Yet in the end, it seems that Meinhard is not that different from his nemesis, Vincent.
Yes, despite their differences both share the expectation that life still owes them something, even if they have different strategies for making contact with the Bulgarians. Vincent is more aggressive, life for him is a competition, and there’s a certain colonial attitude in him. But even though Meinhard wanders into the village rather innocently he still remains a part of the work brigade – he is different and yet not entirely so.
There’s a certain trajectory between your three features. Be My Star revolves around teenagers at the cusp of adulthood; they are at that point in life where one makes important decisions: What profession should I learn? Who should be my partner? Should I find my own apartment and move out of my parents’ place? When you jump to Longing, you see adults who have made the most important decisions in their lives – where, with whom, and how should I live. They may well wonder, “is this it?” And with Meinhard, in Western, it seems very clear that he expects that another chapter of his life should open up.
Yes, I always find this an interesting topic to think about – these very concrete biographies and situations. Like Markus, Meinhard is someone who thinks life still owes him at least one more adventure.
What role does the script play when you work with non-professional actors? How much of the script, or lines of dialogue, do you share with characters such as Nicole (Be My Star), Markus und Ella (Longing) and Meinhard and Vincent, who are all fictional characters that also draw on real life experiences?
It’s important for me to first and foremost see them as fictional characters. But even with professional actors, studying the text can create some mental blockage, so the general question for me is how to make sure that characters stay nimble when they work with text, so that they don’t carry it around as if on a silver platter. In this context of over-interpreting a text I’m reminded of what Heiner Müller once said: that dealing with a text should be like dancing with a coyote4 It is a question of how you can appropriate a text and make it your own. With Longing, I once made the mistake of giving in to Ilka Welz (Ella), who had pleaded with me to show her the text. Now there’s a particular scene in which you do notice it – she became totally fixated on the dialogue and had difficulties to let go of it. For me, memorising a text it’s like switching off common sense, especially if you don’t have acting experience.
How must we imagine your actual script to look like?
It’s a written book that is rather open and loose, a statement of intent that sometimes describes what we’re looking for, or a subtext. It can be very detailed in respect to dialogues. During the actual shoot, it is very important for me to put this script aside and only remember it. And then I tell the actors what I remember and together we then rehearse the dialogue. This then takes the form of trial and error, a process through which the characters make the lines of dialogue their own, and I find that works very well. I found it very inspiring to read an interview with Miloš Forman in which he explains that for his film Černý Petr (Black Peter, 1964) he gave the actors the script and then a week before shooting he demanded of them to return it. So they had a general notion of the story and the dialogue, but they were forced to work only with what they remembered – this process I found fascinating, so I stole it! Yet I still provide the actors with the basic dialogue, and certain sentences are of course very important and need to be there, while with others there’s a certain leeway and there is room for surprises. What matters is understanding the mechanism of a particular scene, both on paper and on the set.
What role does improvisation have for you? In all three of your films I have the impression that there’s a finely calibrated balance between the planned and the found – that whatever unexpected elements the non-professional actors or the settings may contribute, there is a sense of precision and of the films being of one piece.
In all my films there is an atmospheric dimension; there are things that I cannot imagine, that happen out of the moment, which are then combined with the ideas that I had established. I also talk to the actors during shooting, prompting dialogues, because I myself am searching at this moment. So the structure, or the scaffolding, is very important, but equally important is that I can react to what is happening on the set.
Can you say something about the language of your characters? Particularly the language of the construction workers in Western is really striking. (Full disclosure: I worked on construction almost every summer during my teenage years, and the language of this German work brigade in your film really resonated with me.) It never feels scripted.
Yes, this language used on a construction site really fascinated me. It’s actually an intriguing form of language, which I would not have been able to write. It is very touching, in a haptic sense, and it provides an interesting counterpoint to the story that is happening, because it resists the story. A conversation for these workers is like sparring with words, you always need to be able to top the opponent. There always has to be yet another twist or twirl. There is a lot of imagination at work here, as well as humour, and you’ve got to be fast.
How does your work with children differ from the work you do with adults? Children, or young adults, are the main protagonists of Be My Star, and they are crucial in the very important coda to Longing.
In certain ways it’s not that different from working with adults. I remember when we were shooting Longing and when it came to the last scene, with the young adults, we were quickly running out of daylight. I actually did not know them that well, because due to time constraints someone else had casted them. And the speed with which things then happened was truly impressive. The youths spoke very fast, one had to react very fast – and still create a sense of enjoyment – and in the end we wrapped it up in record time. The girl we had planned to lead the scene at first had a mental block, and we used a different girl in that role, and only when we gave it one more try in the end did she really deliver. This mixture of the tedious and of a joyful playfulness was also present during the shoot of Be My Star.
I would like to come back to your interest in genre. Western announces its fascination with genre even in its title; what role did melodrama play for Longing?
With that film, the connection to a certain genre entered through the backdoor, after we had done a lot research and preparation. As I mentioned, we conducted a lot of interviews in Brandenburg with people in their mid-thirties in order to find out what their vision of the future was – what they still expected from life, what they might still yearn or hope for. It was very moving to speak with adults who are firmly settled and to learn from them what life look likes now and what possibilities might still exist. And I noticed that the most dramatic events took place on the level of romance; that’s when you show your real face, and that’s when you express your emotions through dramatic gestures. And that’s when it occurred to me to use Brandenburg as the location for a story about a big melodramatic moment.
It’s interesting to hear you speak about the unfulfilled promises of life in the province. When I saw the film, I was completely taken by surprise (as was the character, it seems) when Markus wakes up in the bed of Rose after a night of drinking. There’s nothing in the first half hour of the film that hints at these hidden desires. Ella und Markus’ life seems rather idyllic, as we know it from German Heimat movies: she sings in the choir, he volunteers with the fire brigade, they dance around a bonfire, or embrace on the shore of a lake at sunset. Nothing in Markus’ psychology reveals any of this!
It was very important to establish this contrast. There are no logical reasons, be it that he’s unhappy or bored, or that the woman at his side is the wrong one. There is nothing that explains this kind of behaviour, only perhaps the “blackout”.
You consciously wanted to avoid the kind of psychologising, of providing a backstory, that most films employ?
Yes – even though I do find psychology very interesting! But for this story it was important that the two juxtaposed elements carry the same weight. His love for Ella does not rule out his love for Rose. Psychology can easily become very jelly-like, which makes you wonder if within a story you can reduce a character to a certain psychology. Yet at the same time psychology is crucial when thinking about relationships. It pertains to the subject of the film, to how a character thinks, and to working with the actors so as to explain a situation or a feeling. Yet when telling the actual story, I find it more interesting to do this with ellipses or with blank spots, which leave more than one plausible possibility.
Let’s turn to how you work with your crew, most notably editor Bettina Böhler, who worked with you on Longing and Western, and Bernhard Keller, your cinematographer on all three features. I noticed that the camerawork is very different between Longing und Western: in the former, you have very long takes, intercut with close-ups and extreme close-ups of faces or parts of the body; in Western, panoramic shots of the landscape dominate, but those never appear touristic – the camera never lingers long enough to indulge us (in contrast to John Ford’s use of Monument Valley, for example). There are only glimpses of the mountains. The cuts are somewhat disorienting too, as if to undercut the linearity or causality of the genre. Is there a certain concept you and Keller developed before shooting?
Keller and I do have detailed discussions during preparation, but I’m not somebody who has each shot of the film in her head. It always amazes me when a director says that. What we do discuss are which lenses to use, and a general attitude towards the image. With Western, for example, we did not want to create a reference by using Cinemascope or extreme wide angles; the connection had to happen on the level of the story. Showing the landscape was fine, but I did not want to spread it on too thick. For both of us, it’s always important that the camera is not too intrusive, and does not convey intention; there should be no pressure on the camera. Things should be simple and colloquial, with an inconspicuous tableau now and then, or a panorama that suddenly opens up onto a western scenario. Characters have their own focal lengths, too. Vincent did not look good in a close-up, so we showed him mostly in a medium shot so as to highlight his physical presence, whereas Meinhard’s face really can tell a story. When I go on my research trips, I already travel with a camera, and I take footage during casting, of locations, and capturing images that may serve as specific motifs. During the actual work on the set I often begin the day by sketching the breakdown of a certain scene, which harks back to the conversations Bernhard and I had had earlier about lenses, and then we try it out and see if it works, making adjustments where necessary. A guiding question always is how to make the camera move, and how that movement corresponds to what’s happening in front of the camera.
About your work on the set – I’ve read that you describe yourself as a control freak. How do you deal with situations when you experience a certain loss of control?
Yes, that does happen, and sometimes that’s a good thing. For Longing, for example, we also had a certain concept for the camera, but it was a difficult shoot and I was glad that Bernhard and I had had detailed conversations beforehand, which meant that even when we suddenly had to change things – for example, we used a lot more handheld camera than planned – we knew we were moving in the right direction. And shooting in Bulgaria was indeed a very positive experience of losing control. It involved a foreign country, a foreign language, a bigger crew, a bigger cast. I think that most directors, including myself, are probably control freaks, but I do seek out situations in which this may not be possible. And it actually makes me nervous when everything goes perfectly according to plan. Confusion really stimulates my imagination, and uncertainty can be truly productive.
Can you comment on your frequent collaborating with other directors. You had an advisory role in Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, while Austrian director Jessica Hausner worked on Longing. What form does this collaboration take?
It’s mostly a form of mutual consulting. It’s simply wonderful when you’re writing or editing to have someone you completely trust that you can turn to, especially in moments when you’re a bit uncertain. This is a completely normal aspect of filmmaking for me. In the class I just taught before meeting up with you, I actually did this with the students: we were thinking together: What is the mechanism of a certain story? Which story do I actually want to tell? How will this be depicted? It’s important to discuss this with partners who you can rely on. Maren and Jessica are such partners for me.
Another aspect of your work that stands out is your use of music, which you use sparingly and there’s never any non-diegetic music. In each of your three features, there is a scene in which the protagonist, be it Nicole, Markus or Meinhard, gets totally absorbed by the music, begins to dance by him- or herself, and becomes completely oblivious to the many people around them. What function do such scenes serve, and what’s your overall take on using music?
I think I share a fascination with these kinds of dance scenes with many directors. Barbara Albert has some interesting dance scenes, and Claire Denis has some truly amazing ones. Lars Eidinger, in Alle anderen (Everybody Else, Maren Ade, 2009) also has a wonderful dance scene. Music is full of myths and legends and conveys what we imagine love should be like. It’s also a treasure trove for stories. And it’s always a very exciting moment when someone begins to dance – when they step up on that little podium and disrobe, so to speak. It’s a very personal moment, a moment of staging the self. When I first wrote the scene in which Meinhard dances, I wasn’t sure if it rang true, but in the end I think it worked very well. Even though he dances by himself, it’s more about mingling with the other village people than about being by himself.
We are meeting here in the dffb, where you’re currently teaching. Even at the risk of asking you something you’re probably tired of hearing: What does the term “Berliner Schule” mean for you today?
I am actually the only one of the directors assumed under the term who is from Berlin [chuckles]. The term conveys an outside perspective. And as that, it’s really great. It has helped to put a spotlight on a group of directors. The term gets less interesting for me when it becomes ideologically loaded. For me, “Berliner Schule” conjures up a shared and private moment, of young directors meeting in person when everyone was making their first or second film. That was very exciting. And that was also very helpful in a practical sense, as I noted earlier when commenting on collaborating with Jessica or Maren. And it has indeed been interesting to see what resonance the Berlin School films had in the United States and the English-speaking world, where interesting texts have been published and where the term was taken seriously. In Germany, in contrast, it was quickly put into a cubbyhole: Is it good? Is it bad? First it was hyped, and then it became a derogatory term. I find this very strange; it actually escapes my comprehension.
In reviews of Western, or, for that matter, of Transit and of The Dreamed Path, the term rarely appears any more – do you consider that a good thing?
Yes, I think the term has run its course, and that is indeed a good thing. But just to be clear: the term itself is legit, it has a meaning, because it was coined in the exchange about, or in relation to the films. What has subsequently happened to it is a different matter.
- Cf. Marco Abel, The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School, Camden House, Rochester, NY, 2013; Roger F. Cook et al, eds, Berlin School Glossary: An ABC of the New Wave in German Cinema, Intellect, Chicago, 2013; Rajendra Roy and Anke Leweke, eds., The Berlin School: Films from the Berliner Schule, MoMA, New York, 2013. ↩
- Haden Guest, “Strong Silent Types,” Film Comment, January-February 2018, p. 32. ↩
- Molly Haskell, Film Comment Podcast, “The Best Movies of 2018,” 12 December, 2018 ↩
- Grisebach here references Joseph Beuys’ 1974 performance “I Like America and America Like Me,” in which the artist had himself locked up for three days in a cage with a wild coyote, wrapped in a felt blanket and holding a walking stick. ↩