In a review of Club Zero, Jessica Hausner’s1 latest feature, which premiered in Competition at Cannes this year, Charles Bramesco calls the director “Austria’s most fearless button-pusher.”2 Given that her compatriots include Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl, neither of whom is known for going easy on their audiences, this is no small claim. Indeed, Hausner’s trademark style of manipulating viewer expectations and keeping them on edge was on full display again in her latest film. Set in posh English-language boarding school, Club Zero exploits issues ranging from teenage confusion to parental neglect, the failure of the education system, and the appeal of false prophets to a generation desperately seeking ways out of a future darkened by climate change, food insecurity, and inequality. One particular scene, which provoked comparisons to Triangle of Sadness, even prompted walkouts in Cannes; ironically, that film’s director, Ruben Östlund, served as the Jury President this year. Yet while Club Zero’s subject matter was clearly meant to push buttons, it’s the director’s idiosyncratic use of actors, costumes, set designs and, new in this film, a minimalist musical score that makes the film unique.  

Hausner is a Cannes regular by now. Except for Lourdes (2009, which showed at Venice), all her feature films premiered there, including Lovely Rita (2001), Hotel (2004), Amour Fou (2014), and Little Joe (2019). In 2021, she served on the International Jury. With Club Zero she further expands an already impressive oeuvre that spans numerous genres, settings and languages. Here, the director uses the confines of a boarding school to hone in on a handful of youths who fall under the spell of their charismatic new nutrient teacher, Ms. Novak (Mia Wasikowska), whose curriculum transitions from ‘conscious eating’ to a ‘mono-plant diet,’ only to culminate in the titular ‘Club Zero,’ whose members vow not to eat anything at all. Over the course of the film, which is loosely based on the medieval tale, “The Pied Piper” (“Der Rattenfänger von Hameln”), we witness the slow formation of a cult whose members blindly follow their mysterious leader. Several of the students are primed for the picking: Fred, a non-binary ballet dancer, hopes to be able to abandon his diabetes medication; Elsa is already bulimic, like her mother; and Ben, the only working class student in the group, needs to achieve good grades in Ms. Novak’s class so as to qualify for a scholarship. Yet Hausner’s penchant for ambiguity spreads the responsibility for the students’ decision-making equally, pinning blame on wealthy parents eager to delegate their children’s supervision, as well as the shortcomings of the education system as a whole. Bright, even garish, yellows and greens dominate the colour scheme, creating a surreal mise en scène in which actors in outlandish costumes behave like mannequins, adapting a deadpan diction in stilted dialogues. Markus Binder’s rhythmic percussion-heavy score slowly drums the action towards the abyss – or is it paradise? Like most of Hausner’s films, the ending of Club Zero withholds a conventional sense of closure, leaving viewers somewhere between shock, bewilderment or a quiet smile.

Club Zero

An adolescent in search of an escape from a controlling environment was already at the centre of Hausner’s first feature, Lovely Rita. That film was also the first to be produced by Coop ’99, the independent production company Hausner founded with her fellow graduates from the Film Academy Vienna, the directors Barbara Albert and Antonin Svoboda, and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, who has become Hausner’s longtime collaborator. Based on a true story, which Hausner researched in the archives of a Vienna court, the film tells the story of 15-year-old Rita who shoots both her father and her mother in what must be seen as a desperate attempt to break out of the confines of her middle-class home and drab suburban environment. Non-professional Barbara Osika plays Rita as a disaffected young woman whose act of violence seems unmotivated and random. In lieu of a psychological portrait that allows insights into Rita’s feeling, the film takes stock of a number of forces that (mis-)shape her, without really explaining their impact. As Hausner explained with reference to her unconventional use of close-ups, which she first developed in Lovely Rita: “In my films, close-ups are not the window to the soul. Instead, someone is closing the window.”3 Along the same lines, Hausner’s portrayal of casual cruelty refuses any clues to a “why?”, thereby contrasting significantly with Haneke’s Benno’s Video (1992), a film on which Hausner worked as a script supervisor and which depicts the murderous teenager as a callous sadist.4

Lovely Rita

The realism of Lovely Rita’s social world gives way to altogether more stylised, even surreal surroundings in Hausner’s second feature, Hotel. Hotel engages in what might be termed “art genre” – the self-conscious use of popular genre mechanisms, and even a broader generic grammar, to explore art-cinema themes. The latter aspects first: Hotel’s thematic constellation is one largely familiar from early 2000s central European cinema, including from the “New Austrian Cinema” and the “Berlin School.” In Hotel, a young person, Irene (Franziska Weisz), is starting a job in an inhospitable workplace, via relocating to a new town, with a less-than-welcoming older generation seemingly beholden to inscrutable procedures and long-standing myths. Irene has landed a position on the staff of the “Waldhotel,” a modest and old-fashioned hotel-resort in the middle of a forest, with both her bosses and co-workers officious and cold to her, even as they are notably – at times strangely – warm to one another. As a non-local member of the hotel staff, Irene is given the former room of another young woman, Eva S., who was recently employed at the hotel and who has disappeared. The investigation of Eva’s disappearance hangs in the background as Irene learns about the hotel, its procedures, and her prickly co-workers. Combined with painfully awkward efforts to socialise with the other young people at the hotel and in the nearby village, the plot lines and themes parallel a number of German and Austrian films around this time. A series of those films also focus on the job market and economic re- and dislocation that often intersect coming-of-age stories (Christian Petzold’s Innere Sicherheit [The State I am in, 2000], Gespenster [Ghosts, 2005], Yella [2007], and especially Dreileben [2011]; Christoph Hochhäusler’s Falscher Bekenner [I am Guilty, 2005] and Milchwald [This Very Moment, 2003]; Ulrich Köhler’s Bungalow [2002] and Montag kommen die Fenster [Windows On Monday, 2006]). 

Reception desk uncanny in Hotel

In fact, many of those other films also feature hotels as symptomatically depersonalised, privatised, mildly uncanny “non-places.” But with Hausner’s Hotel, the stylistic language the film speaks – even screams – is the horror genre. Hotel, openly and throughout, deploys the suspense and shock mechanisms of horror, especially via the latter’s constitutively uncanny spaces. It recalls above all The Shining (1980), with Stanley Kubrick’s now classic visualisation of the notorious Overlook Hotel and the outsiders who fall prey to it: a somewhat insecure employee is onboarded amid highly eerie spaces that become terrifying when emptied of (the regular) guests. For Irene, the nighttime Waldhotel spaces become initially dreamlike and then increasingly nightmarish, as they had for Jack, Danny, and Wendy Torrance, right down to the Waldhotel’s red elevator, ominous staircase, and abrupt silent scream. The carefully cultivated uncanniness of David Lynch seems another key touchstone, from the first images not of a hotel exterior, but the almost abstract geometry of an elevator’s wood panelling and a crackling speaker choking out saccharin muzak. By deploying canonical mechanisms of horror (Kubrick) or horror-inflected noir (Lynch) – with both filmmakers themselves practitioners of a kind of art-horror – Hauser created a cinephilically delightful work that also manages to be socially sensitive and critical at the same time.

Hotel’s Eerie Corridor looking like The Shining

The Shining-Like Hotel Interior

Hausner’s next feature, Lourdes (2009), moves in a remarkably different direction from Hotel, constituting a surprising career arc about which we inquire in the enclosed interview: Lourdes is shot in France, in French language, with a primarily French and Swiss-French cast. The film is difficult to categorise in terms of genre, but it is also highly unusual for art-house cinema, for it engages themes of which they would normally steer well clear: Christian faith, pilgrimage, and the possibility of (literal) miracles. If one considers the importance of such matters to billions worldwide, it is a notable lacuna in the traditions of art cinema, with a few noteworthy exceptions (notably, Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson). Lourdes takes its title from a pilgrimage destination in the southern French Pyrenees, where, in 1858, a girl recounted how the Virgin Mary had appeared to her 18 times, primarily in a grotto. Based on these visitations, and around this now famous grotto, the Catholic Church built a soaring church in the scenic leeway of a mountain, to which c. 500,000 people per year make a pilgrimage. Believers attribute to this venue and its spring water, to which Mary had allegedly directed the girl, various healing powers. Set in the present, Hausner’s Lourdes follows the pilgrimage of Christine (Sylvie Testud), a sympathetic young woman who, suffering from severe multiple sclerosis, is a wheel-chair bound quadriplegic. She is only able to visit the holy site as part of a group accompanied by nurses and knights from the Order of Malta, a medieval movement whose members still, as the film shows, don uniforms adorned with the distinctive Maltese cross.


Despite the clearly Christian iconography throughout the film, Hausner’s approach to these topics also evades any facile categorisation. The film’s perspective on these religious rituals seems surprisingly neutral, a gentle observer of these goings on that seems suspended above one side or the other – being, therefore, neither for nor against this faith in miracles. Some scepticism about the holiness of the site and act of pilgrimage is voiced by Christine herself, who gently complains to her nurse, Maria (a young Léa Seydoux), that Lourdes is a bit touristy – a scepticism that the film seems to second with lingering shots of what might be construed as kitschy tchotchkes in stores hawking religious relics to the masses of pilgrims. And yet Hausner handles the faithful very gently: the film observes the vanity and/or self-importance that motivates many of them while nonetheless also affording them repeated acts of surprising kindness, even (near) pure altruism. And a miracle does occur – or does it? The film proves deceptively simple and finally elusive, with a clear narrative conclusion held, like its miracle, in a kind of magical abeyance.



With Amour Fou, Hausner’s oeuvre again takes a sharp turn, returning not only to shooting in German but also to a rather conventional genre, the bio-pic – or so it seems. The film revolves around the famous German Romantic poet, dramatist and short story writer Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811), who ended his life on the banks of the Wannsee, on the outskirts of Berlin, by double suicide with Henriette Vogel, with whom he struck up a platonic relationship, eventually convincing her of dying with him. 

Amour Fou

Kleist’s work and person have long exerted a strong fascination for readers and artists, who have used it and him as a projection screen for their respective imaginations. In the 1970s, Kleist became, in the words of Thomas Elsaesser, “the patron saint of the New German Cinema,” because a whole generation of emerging filmmakers took to him in unprecedented fashion, recognising the poet’s struggle as their own.5 Nothing could be further from Amour Fou, which, instead of exploring the tragic or rebellious dimension of a genius, hones in on the absurdity that underlies his double suicide. As the director explained in a detailed interview, the notion of Romantic love that can overcome the loneliness of death by deliberately dying together felt strange to her. “Dying is precisely the one experience one has to have by oneself. To think that you could do so with someone else is the climax of absurdity and of human hope and longing for love and unity.”6 Accordingly, Hausner’s Kleist, memorably performed by Christian Friedel (The White Ribbon, 2009), is a comic figure who elicits ridicule and laughter rather than empathy, making Henriette Vogel (Birte Schöinck) the actual centre of the film, because in her resides the story’s mystery – why agree to this outrageous plot? Hausner’s critique of a misguided faith in romantic ideals is of a piece with her critique of Catholicism in Lourdes, (and, to a lesser degree, also in Lovely Rita), as well as an unchecked faith in scientific research, as we see in Little Joe

Amour Fou

Amour Fou

Little Joe accomplishes a similar dismantling of shibboleths in its evolving elusiveness, although its apparent genre parameters seem more similar to Hotel than Lourdes. What might seem at first a rehash of the sci-fi horror Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956) turns, slowly and subtly, into something much more difficult to comprehend. Horror, as Noël Carroll famously argued, builds on cognitive curiosity and confusion – the monster as a kind of epistemological disturbance – but the Little Joe “monster” here would seem fairly easy to understand. The title refers to an unusual flower created by a young scientist-plant breeder, Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham, in a performance that won her the Cannes Best Actress award). Alice is a leading breeder at a futuristic plant company, imagined in minimalist, muted pastels except for the plant she breeds, which has a garish bright red. Through its pollen the Little Joe flower seems to be able to affect human consciousness (rendered happier) and people’s interpersonal behaviour (more and more curious, even suspicious). The cognitive confusion is not so much around what the plant does as around who has already been afflicted by its pollen, since the behavioural shifts are quite subtle – and its initial impact is to produce an apparently cheerier human being. For a telling example cutting close to her personally and professionally, Alice’s coworker Chris (an uncanny Ben Whishaw) proves almost impossible to read – is he attracted to or threatened by Alice? Or both?

Little Joe

Little Joe

Hausner has attributed Little’s Joe’s premise to a combination of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Frankenstein. But here the genius scientist operating dangerously beyond the bounds of science, codified and not, is Alice, a single mother struggling not only with suspect inventions, but also with her teenage boy, Joe. The warm colour palette of the home that Alice has created for her son contrasts starkly to that of her greenhouse-laboratory, imaged in straight lines, gleaming surfaces, and key-coded glass doors as big as walls. Replacing Dr. Frankenstein with a young, single mother richly crosses the conventional codes of genre, like Hotel, yielding unexpected plot sparks and stylistic twists. One might recall that the 1816 Frankenstein – one of the earliest and most famous stories in horror history – was written by Mary Shelley, née Godwin, the then 18-year-old daughter of the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Shelley had, at the time of penning the famous tale, already struggled with difficult pregnancies and deferred motherhood. Little Joe’s female protagonist, as with Hotel and Lourdes, seems to invoke canonical master narratives – be they Kubrickian or Christian – but in a way that foregrounds the principal place of young women in the familiar generic grammar, something also discussed in the interview.

Little Joe

*   *   *

Jessica Hausner

We’d like to begin with a quote about your work from the critic Charles Bramesco. In reviewing your new film Club Zero after its premiere at Cannes, he wrote that you are “Austria’s most fearless button pusher,” and we were wondering if this is a phrase, button pusher, that resonates with you. Does it do justice to what you’re doing with this particular film or what you are up to in your recent films like Lourdes, Amour Fou, and Little Joe? Or is that off the mark?

It does resonate with what I want to do – maybe not exactly on purpose, it’s not my primary aim just to push some buttons, but I think the way I show certain things is provoking. We are used to a kind of filmmaking that generally offers explanations, especially psychological explanations. So, in most films, the main aim is to make humans explicable and to show things that we can understand emotionally and intellectually. In my films, I do the opposite. I try to suggest that maybe we can’t understand – maybe there is no satisfying, final explanation to something. I think this can be annoying to some viewers. I have had some reactions of audiences and journalists suggesting that what is on screen is not understandable, asking what does she want to say, etc. And then others who say, oh, I understand, that ambiguity is the point. 

One of the unusual terms that you use in discussing Little Joe – but it is true of Club Zero, too – is irritation. This is something, it seems to us, that you’re definitely interested in achieving, a certain irritation in the viewers. Could you elaborate on that term a little bit? Is it disorientation or a general breaking with expectations that, for example, genre cinema creates – or does it even entail something like Brechtian distanciation (Verfremdung) that causes theatregoers or moviegoers to think differently about certain issues?

Yeah, I would say irritation is the most important tool any artist has. What sense would it make to just repeat what has already been said? So, I think to be irritating just means that you’re trying to show certain things in a different light. And to convey this, I have started to mention Brecht, because it’s easier for people to understand, given Brecht’s notoriety and influence. Some even might remember his notion of a distanciation effect (Verfremdungseffekt). I like Brecht’s idea of not just showing things as they are, but rather using the distanciation effect by way of weird moments. For example, in my films, I might use costumes to activate such effects. You add one element that shows that what a scene offers is not an everyday reality, but rather something else. Brecht might use singing in a scene, that suddenly the characters in a scene start singing – Lars von Trier also used singing to this end as well. I think such an approach encourages the audience to see life, or our reality, with different eyes, to suddenly think, “Oh, maybe it’s not the way I thought it was.”

To come back to the costumes you just mentioned, the costumes in all your films stand out – particularly in Club Zero, but also in a film like Little Joe. And it is not only the costumes – one would have to include the whole production design, which is of a piece with the costumes. Overall, it strikes viewers as highly artificial, as obviously constructed and deliberate. But it also adds up to something, including the uniforms that the students all wear, the architecture of the school, the furniture, even the many costumes of Mrs. Dorset, the head of school, who never wears the same outfit twice – she has a different outfit in every scene in which she appears. Where does your process of creating a film begin? From where do you derive the original idea? When, in the process, do you begin writing and when do you start envisioning what the characters will look like so that the story will make sense?

Club Zero

So, I’d say that I go around with ideas in my head pretty much all the time, and I am always taking notes on those ideas. You could say that I have something cooking in the oven all the time, and sometimes there is then one topic where I have the feeling: OK, there’s a concept around which more and more ideas are congealing, so that I begin to believe that that is something I can develop into the plot for a new film. 

But the important thing for me is the setting – it’s not enough to just have a plot idea, for example, that a girl kills her parents [as in Hausner’s first feature, Lovely Rita], but I need the setting, too. The setting is important for me because I always want to depict that kind of microcosm – I need a setting in order to be able to show the hierarchy of a certain system. This is what I’m interested in: to show that we are not so much individuals, but every one of us is part of the system, and we have to function well within the system – otherwise, we’re going to be cast out. So, the setting in my films is very often a place or an institution or family life – in that way, it does not really have to be a place per se. For example, in Amour Fou, it was the idea of a period film that was the setting, in which, again, I can uncover a certain microcosm of hierarchies. So, that is basically where I start, and it is at that point that I start to have ideas for the shoot, not least because I very often find settings where people wear uniforms. I immediately start thinking about the uniforms: what will they look like? What will the colouring and the choreography of the scenes be?

We just wanted to follow up on your last point about choosing a setting, but also on the notion that a setting could also be a genre. You’re suggesting that part of the milieu you choose could be a genre and then you decide, based on that genre, how to irritate the film’s viewers and also distance them from that genre. Could you talk about choosing the genre and how you decide which parameters of the genre you will end up exploring?

Well, for example, if I think about Little Joe, the idea was to make my own version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it was very clear at the beginning that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is interesting for me primarily because the basic premise is that people become confused. The characters in the films don’t know any more if the person they thought they knew well is actually that person or not. That is a funny moment for me: Who is crazy? Am I crazy? Or is the other person really an impostor? The idea was to make a film where we leave that question in the balance, and then we don’t have a definitive moment where we make it clear if they are right or wrong – instead, we leave it confused, unclear right through the end. It is that sort of idea that really interests me when I start on a project. I don’t generally say, “now I take a turn with this or that genre” – it is usually a more specific story that intrigues me.

Could you describe the process of creating a script: How do you first conceptualise a film? Do you first think of a core idea that will be the heart of the film? To whom do you first show a script? Who gives you your first input?

When the script is ready, I discuss it with Tanja Hausner, my sister, who is also the costume designer; with Karina Ressler, the editor; and also with Martin Gschlacht, the cinematographer. That’s the core group when we plan the mise en scène and what the film could look like. Then Tanja comes up with some ideas about the visuals by collecting images from archives and books, including photography books or fashion books. We look at her copies and begin to figure out the style of the main character and what the colours could be. So my creative process is actually rather unusual, because after the script is completed, I start with the costume design and from there I move on to the set design. 

Storyboard designs from Club Zero

Before the script is completed, I talk to Philippe Bober, who is also the co-producer and world sales agent of my films. He knows my films well, but he also has his own ideas, and through our discussions I often get a completely different point of view. That game of ping pong is very important, and it also informs my collaboration with Géraldine Bajard, my co-writer for the last four films. I always work with the same people and their input is obviously very important. At the same time, it’s important for me not to lose track of what my original idea was.

How, then, did the story of Club Zero originate? The press kit mentions the Pied Piper of Hamelin and how he leads away all the children in a town. In the legend, he is actually hired to rid the town of the plague, and then they renege on payment, so it is an act of revenge. Obviously, that is not what interested you here, but it is a group of impressionable young adults who follow the call of somebody who looks benevolent, but then it all turns into a kind of cult.

I think there is also a question of guilt in Club Zero, because you do ask yourself, maybe in the second half of the story: could the parents have done better? This is an important topic for me in this story, namely, as a parent, how do you connect to your child? Can you avoid a tragedy like that? Can you stay connected? And this is not only unfolding on a personal level – I also think that the younger generation in my film have very important issues to raise with the older generation. They are very rightfully saying: we have to stop the consumerism or else we’re all going to die. It might all sound like a crazy exaggeration in Club Zero, but let’s be honest: they are right. Where does the radicalisation come from? It comes from a moment where those young people feel neglected by their parents and by the whole society. After all, I don’t have the feeling that the governments of the world are really trying to achieve the goal of ending climate change. The younger generation’s lives are spoiled. It’s weird for me to say this because I know that the tone of the film feels as if I don’t take it so seriously, but I think we do, and have to, take it seriously.

Club Zero

Yes, the climate movement and some of its radical approaches do come to mind when watching the film. All over Europe we have people gluing themselves to the street to protest the lack of action on climate change, etc. It is very serious, and we take seriously what our generation is passing on to the younger generation, not least because we teach students. But the film, which we really thought was interesting and provocative, does seem to be critical of that kind of radicality – it refuses to establish a middle ground in any way that could offer an effective activism or effective self-disciplining, which is certainly provocative. 

Yes, that’s the provocative thing about the film. It was interesting for me when I was talking with journalists about Club Zero, and I saw just how provocative the film was. Basically, we don’t know which position the film wants to take. Is the film making fun of the climate activists? Or is the film saying the parents did wrong? Because what Ms. Novak says is actually quite understandable, and she’s not at all depicted as stupid or evil. She’s actually a person who wants to do good, so we the audience are constantly confused in a moral way. Even people who want to do good are sometimes only following the lead of someone who tells them what to do. Not every hero is a brilliant hero, and this is the interesting thing for me: even if someone is right, they might also be ridiculous. Those contradictory things can live together in the same scene, in the same situation. 

It reminds us of what you have said about Kleist and dealing especially with German actors on the film, as they consider Kleist a genius, but you hit a nicely ambiguous note about his absurdity combined with genius – they’re both in operation throughout the plot. Our impression from reading reviews of Club Zero was that certain critics couldn’t live with ambiguity about something like eating disorders – that’s a serious topic, so they want to know, where does the film come down? They couldn’t quite deal with that, whereas others lauded the ambiguity and the open-endedness, while also acknowledging that the issues are very complex and do not necessarily need to be resolved. 

Yes, it is interesting for me to learn that it is becoming more and more difficult to say something difficult. There is a strong wish that the director should make it clear: are you against me or are you for me? That is a division in our society that I have experienced in a wide range of situations. As an artist, I also hear that I’m expected to give advice and to know the answers and just say “this is the reason that this is wrong and this is right.” I honestly can’t do it. And I also enjoy being a bit bold in declaring that I don’t have an overarching ideology or a lot of political answers, as many films pretend to have.

Coming back to the question of genre, there’s a whole genre of films set in boarding schools, but it struck us that Club Zero employs very few of the conventions associated with boarding school tropes, that is, it brushes against the conventions of this genre almost everywhere. And the private school culture in Austria and Germany is quite different, culturally speaking. Did you think about culturally specific issues around schools?

I did not intend to portray any specific national school system. That’s why I chose this building, the college in which the film takes place. It’s a Scandinavian design by Arne Jacobsen, and although it is in Oxford, it’s not the typical British architecture of what you might imagine a boarding school to be like. It’s more in our imaginations, not the reality. But generally, I adhere closely to reality. Normally, I try to investigate a lot before I shoot my films, and the astonishing thing is always that reality is not as most films present it. Things are not the way everyone says they are: if you take a closer look, it’s not so easy to say Austrian schools are like this, while German ones are like that. My way of looking at things is not to find the general explanation, but to look at the details, and, in examining the details carefully, assumptions often fall apart. Take one single issue, and the prevailing theory falls apart. 

Club Zero

Let’s come back to your point about realism and how that approach is based on your deliberate research. Even though it looks like a very artificial kind of setting, including the costumes, it nonetheless has a lot to do with reality. One of the issues that struck us about the film concerned socioeconomic class. Ben comes from the only working class family that the viewers see – all the other students’ families seem affluent. One, for example, has a servant, and another couple works in Ghana and farms out their son to the boarding school. But Ben has to do well at the school to keep his scholarship. And it is Ben’s mother who is really the first to sense that something is wrong, and she quickly goes to the head of school, Ms. Dorset. What role does class play within these institutions, and what role does it have in your film?

Yes, I would say that it is very important. I remember when I made the film Lourdes, I’d been traveling there to explore the location a few times, and I thought it’s so depressing here. I knew I would be spending time there because I wanted to make a film about the topic, but I couldn’t find the right approach to the story. I wondered: what is this film going to be about, anyway, about people, rather fantastically, hoping they might be healed? But then on one pilgrimage, suddenly, I was part of a group from the Order of Malta. Those helpers with the uniforms in the film are part of an order – generally, very affluent people who might belong to the aristocracy, might be bank managers, own castles, or are young people wearing pearl earrings and sporting perfect skin. These are privileged people who, once a year for a week, go to Lourdes to push around relatively poor people in wheelchairs. When I saw these affluent people pushing around the poor it was clear how these rich people clean their consciences by pushing around wheelchairs for that one week. Suddenly, I had the approach to the story, because I understood this is the way I can tell a story where there is a difference among classes, which is incredibly unfair. How can we believe in God as an intelligent creature in this kind of reality?

So, I always find in my stories some kind of class difference. In Amour Fou, for example, there is the household servant, a servant girl who is a mute observer – she is there in all the scenes, never says anything, but she sees it all. It’s so weird, what kind of life is that? In any case, I always show injustices via class difference.

About this particular servant you have stated, “The presence of the servant girl, who silently observes everything – that haunts me. I repeat that in all of my films. With my work, there are always silent observers who relativize what transpires.”7 In Club Zero, the very wealthy family also has a servant who never says a word. And there is one shot where Ben’s mother is paired with that servant, with no one else in the shot, a very revealing image. But that servant is only in the film very briefly.

Club Zero

Yeah, but the casting of that role is very important to me. I made it clear to the casting director that we had to find a very good actor for it. It’s not just some side character.

In addition to class difference, there also seems to be some racial or ethnic difference as well in Club Zero. There are African-British or African-American characters who are more sceptical of the first parts of the Club Zero plan or first steps on the Club Zero path. Is that a new element in your films? 

I have noticed that some people did see that, but, from my perspective, it was not a huge thing. This was actually a coincidence, I have to admit. During the casting those were the kids who were good for those roles. On the other hand, when I talked to the casting director, she said to me, “You know I don’t think it’s a coincidence because we did the casting in privileged schools in England, and they were mostly white students,” so actually it’s an accurate ratio reflecting a social reality: there are not many people of colour in these schools. In that way, it is possible that it makes sense that those are the students who don’t follow the club.

It felt that they might be more grounded in reality. Ben is more sceptical, but he has to participate to maintain his scholarship. If you do not belong to one of the many wealthy families, or you are excluded due to the colour of your skin, maybe you have a different way of reading reality and are more alert to the kind of Pied Paper that Ms. Novak turns out to be. And there’s something else that is really striking in the film: In the end Ms. Novak is dismissed because she takes Fred to the theatre – she loses her job for breaking certain simple rules, while her eating cult (or, really, her no-eating cult) is not what leads to her dismissal. Not many critics picked up on this. Why did you choose to make that theatre visit her career ending event?

This is what I like to depict, namely, that so much happens out of confusion. We would like to think that things add up, that one plus one is two, so because she did that, that’s the consequence of this, and it’s fair or it’s unfair. These causal mechanisms are something I cannot entirely deny, but I also try to invent a plot where we are astonished at how absurd it all is. Even if people end up laughing together, it could well be based on a total misunderstanding. This is what makes me laugh – and be able to comprehend life. We might think that we understand things, but, in fact, it’s completely different from our expectations.

The music also stands out in Club Zero. Your other films, if we remember correctly, have very little score and not very much non-diegetic music in general. But in Club Zero, you worked with a composer and the drumming really sets the rhythm of the film, including certain clearly audible caesurae. Why did you introduce this new element or, at least, use it more than in your previous films and how did your collaboration with your composer unfold?

In Little Joe I already used music that works like a score. That music was not composed for the film, it already existed. I had listened to that music before I made the film, and in a way I made the movie with that score in mind. I knew which music would go with which scene, and I used it as if it were a score. I noticed then that I can use the music as a very independent element, and it can have a very strong impact, just like the costumes, the set design, or camera position. Sometimes I used the music in ways that are perhaps annoying, and that mixture of emotions works well. For Club Zero, I worked with Markus Binder, who is a composer and a drummer in a Punk band, and I asked him to invent music that would be reminiscent of a cult, with its own rhythm. We wanted to create music that is not too pleasant. My goal is to not create a score that just emphasises the emotions but instead has a character of its own.

Has your understanding of using music as another important element to create a certain irritation changed over the course of your career? It seems that in films like Hotel or Lourdes it is not as present. In those films, the diegetic music, which originates in the plot, seems more important.

Yes, exactly – but even with the diegetic music I tried to find music that is awkward. I once shot a scene of two people kissing, and on the television screen in the background there’s a fistfight, and you hear the sound of hitting together with the sound of kissing. I’m interested in these weird contradictions.

One of the aspects that make your cinema unique among German-language filmmakers, particularly those of the Berlin School (with which a film like Hotel is sometimes associated, and also because of your close collaboration with Valeska Griesebach) is your success in transitioning into foreign-language films. This transition has helped create a profile within global art cinema that many of your peers can only dream of. In particular we’re wondering how the transition worked between a film like Hotel, which is very rooted in certain Austrian or German traditions, to Lourdes, which is far more expansive. What led to that decision and what are the challenges and possible pitfalls?

I remember when I made Hotel, in 2004, that there was a certain irritation (there’s that term again!). Some people criticised the film as being like Jaws, but without the shark – to which I replied, exactly, you got it. Audiences were disappointed, they lacked an answer, and it took me a while to understand why. In fact, it took me two to three years to recover mentally and artistically; I needed to figure out how to make the audience understand that I’m doing something intentionally and not because I couldn’t come up with a different ending. I had to find a topic and a style where I can articulate this more. And Lourdes was a story where the characters themselves could talk about something not making sense – why is the attractive woman being healed and not the old curmudgeon? This craziness of injustice and the absurdity of life could be articulated in the dialogue because that’s what the film is about.

What is also really interesting in Lourdes is the casting – and this also goes for your other films – which seems crucial when participating in global art cinema. Sylvie Testud is really brilliant in that film, but so is Léa Seydoux, who was only 24 at the time, and who has gone on to a truly exceptional international career. Is working with an international cast particularly challenging?

When I first started out, I actually didn’t reflect that much on casting. I started out with non-professional actors. This involved getting to know people and to trying out scenes with them. Their expression and charisma (Ausstrahlung) is very important, as well as their physicality. I need to believe the body, the shape of the face. When we first meet someone, we have a first impression and we form a judgement. It’s often very prejudiced, but we nevertheless form this idea about someone. And I like to cast people because of their appearance, even if that sounds politically incorrect. This feeling about a person is very important, and that makes it international, because the language becomes less important.

But how about working with established actors who already have a certain star persona, such as Ben Wishaw or Mia Wasikowska? Is the casting process different with such stars?

It actually isn’t. I still try foremost to see the person. Mia Wasikowska, for example, I saw first in the series In Treatment (2008), when she was only 17 years old. She basically was a non-professional actor back then. And I was really blown away by her; the strength of her appearance shocked me, as well as her craziness – someone being so thin and delicate but also having the power to kill someone. So when we cast her, I remembered that that was in her, no matter what she had been doing since then. You could also describe it as a secret, which certain actors have in them. As an audience, you want to know more. Along the same lines, I was totally impressed when Léa Seydoux came to the casting for Lourdes. Every intonation, every movement was right. She didn’t have to “do” anything, she simply knew.

Are you planning to continue in French- and English-language films? Do you think about your next project in those terms, or do you go wherever your next ideas take you?

I enjoy working in the English language. It allows me to distance myself from feeling too much at home. Shooting in a language that’s not my native language is better for me. It gives me greater freedom to work on the style. And English is a language that comforts me – the brevity of the sentences is more conducive to my sense of rhythm and timing.

The English spoken by the students in Club Zero seems very refined and artificial. Ms. Novak has an accent, but it’s hard to pin it down – there’s something mysterious about her, how she suddenly appears and then disappears. This heightened sense of artificiality makes it very hard for us to root the film in a reality we recognise. And the large cast of non-native speakers also seems to contribute to creating a de-naturalised environment. Is that by design?

Yes, that’s what we had in mind. Along the same lines, we don’t know exactly where the school is. There are people and families from different countries. It’s an international school. There are a number of places where such a school could exist, not just in England.

The Great Beyond in Club Zero

Another important and effective aspect of your work is that you often have female protagonists who are trying to work through relationships in their lives and in institutions. Do you think about any recurring parameters in their representation?

I enjoy choosing female characters who defy the image of strong, beautiful and cool women. My own take on being a director is showing that women can be weird and awkward, but also intelligent and looking for meaning in life. I grew up with a lack of female characters in film. I could choose between Katherine Hepburn, who is intelligent but will never have a man, or Brigitte Bardot, who is super sexy but obviously stupid because she is blonde. Those were my options. So I realised, there’s a lot to do – there is a relative desert! I enjoy creating female characters who are sometimes weak, or stupid, or intelligent, but they have all the absurd issues that everyone else has.

That comes across in really interesting ways in Amour Fou. Whereas Heinrich von Kleist is such a famous figure, most viewers will most likely not know that much about Henriette Vogel – and she turns out to be the more interesting character in the film.

What made her interesting for me is the fact that she doesn’t know anything about herself. My favourite part of the film is when she says, “I’m the property of my husband. I would never dare to claim my freedom.” And we think, as viewers, that she doesn’t realise how horrible that sentence is – but perhaps she actually does? And this ambiguity, this half-consciousness is what interests me about her.

This is a very strange experience for contemporary viewers who think everyone owns their freedom.

Yes, and this is also true for the discussion of democracy. Researching the film I read a lot of political texts from the period, and I learned that parts of the intelligentsia were really against democracy. And I used that for the dialogue.

Let’s transition to an altogether different issue – the rise of streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon. These streaming services have greatly impacted the production and reception or consumption of films, and the pandemic has further consolidated the strength of these platforms (as has the recent six-month strike of the writers in Hollywood, even if this has not directly impacted European art cinema). Over the last few years, the landscape for independent cinema has really changed. From German producers, we’ve heard very negative things about the streaming services when they purchase locally produced films made for the theatrical release . In light of these developments, how do you see your own role as director and as a founding member of a production company, Coop99? 

I can really only speak about the funding system within Europe, and about films that are meant to be shown in a cinema and only then go on to a streaming platform. But from my perspective, I am longing for a streaming platform to produce my films because it’s incredibly complicated to find the money from all those funds. And the system of how films are funded is also in danger today. The release of one’s film in the cinema is no longer the climax of your work; on the contrary, it can be quite disappointing. So as a filmmaker, I’m actually waiting for the moment when my films are on a streaming platform, because then there’s a life for those films, and people watch them. And even in producing a film, I would actually like to have the chance to work with a streaming platform that finances my film. Of course, you have to be lucky – I don’t want to make the films that fit into the program of a streaming platform, but rather continue making the films that I want to make. Some arthouse filmmakers have been lucky and streaming platforms are producing their films, such as Maggie Gyllenhaal and her film, The Lost Daughter (2021). She had complete artistic freedom and only had to fight a bit to get a festival release in Venice, but in the end it worked out. And that’s the route I’d like to take. Truth be told, I want my films to be seen. I’m not a cinema fanatic – it’s fine for me if people see them on their enormously large home screens, or even their iPhones.

We had one concluding question about your experience on being on a festival jury. In 2021, you served on the Jury at Cannes. This a rare achievement for a German-language director and yet another example how you have found success in the world of global art cinema. Can you speak about that experience in Cannes?

There are limitations to what I can say, of course, but what I can share is that it was a very positive experience. The members of the Jury were very diverse, and I respected all of them, and their respective achievements. Yet when we began discussing the films, I realised that everyone saw a different film. And that surprised me, because it meant that even when you like someone or respect someone you cannot expect the same kind of reaction to a film. It was a process for me to understand and accept that. In hindsight, it was astonishing that we came up with one prize for the best film – Titane, by Julia Ducournau, very bold and unique.


  1. The editors would like to thank Gavin Walsh (Dartmouth ’24) for his research on Jessica Hausner; Marlene Lethmayer (Coproduction Office) and Michael Krause (Foundry Communications) for facilitating the interview; and Jessica Hausner for taking time out of a very busy schedule.
  2. Charles Bramesco, “Jessica Hausner Mines Straight-Faced Body Horror From An Eating Disorder Cult.” The Playlist, May 23, 2023. https://theplaylist.net/club-zero-review-jessica-hausner-mines-straight-faced-body-horror-from-an-eating-disorder-cult-cannes-20230523/. Accessed July 14, 2023.
  3. Quoted in Aus der Werkstatt: Jessica Hausner, eds. Kerstin Parth, Laura Ettel, Jana Libnik and Nicolas Pindeus (Vienna: Sonderzahl, 2021), 63. Hausner here also plays on the German saying, “The eyes are the windows to the soul,” attributed to Hildegard von Bingen.
  4. While the film’s title alludes to both Thomas Brasch’s play from 1989 and the song by The Beatles included in the album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in 1967, the film has ultimately nothing to do with either.
  5. Thomas Elsaesser, New German Cinema: A History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989), 87. As Elsaesser goes on to explain, the attraction of Kleist after 1968 in West Germany was part of a “general rediscovery of Germany’s literary response to the French revolution following the student protest movement” (87). Among the directors of the New German Cinema who adapted parts of Kleist’s works are Volker Schlöndorff, Helma Sanders-Brahms, and Hans Jürgen Syberberg, while Eric Rohmer came to Germany to shoot The Marquise of O. (1975). Even Werner Herzog’s work is profoundly influenced by Kleist’s notion of futile Romanticism. Sanders-Brahms returned to Kleist for her 1977 bio-pic, Heinrich. The difference between that film, which uses particularly tragic and despairing episodes from Kleist’s later life, contrasts strikingly with Hausner’s absurdist and comical portrait of the poet.
  6. Parth, Ettel, Libnik and Pindeus, 118.
  7. Parth et al, 124.

About The Author

Jaimey Fisher is professor of German and of Cinema & Digital Media at the University of California, Davis. Fisher has written four books: German Ways of War (about German war films), Treme, Christian Petzold, and Disciplining Germany: Youth, Reeducation, and Reconstruction after the Second World War. He has also edited and co-edited several books and special issues.. Gerd Gemünden is the Sherman Fairchild Professor in the Humanities at Dartmouth College, where he teaches in the departments of Film and Media Studies, German Studies, and Comparative Literature. He is the author and editor of ten books, most recently Lucrecia Martel, forthcoming this summer from the University of Illinois Press.

Related Posts