Ahead of the British premiere of two new films by up-and-coming Austrian filmmakers Sebastian Meise and Christoph and Stefan Brunner, Meise is interviewed about his film Still Life (Stillleben), screening on Wednesday 4 December.
How did you come up with the idea for this film? What interests you most about the subject?
The screenwriter Thomas Reiter came up with the original idea. His inspiration for the story was a project at the Charité, Berlin’s oldest hospital, which offered therapy to individuals with paedophilic inclinations, who haven’t yet committed a crime. Within a week of the project starting, all the places on the programme were taken. I found this high demand unsettling. Before this point I wasn’t aware that there are so many people who for moral reasons don’t want to act on their inclinations and therefore suffer because of their fantasies. And I asked myself why this issue is being ignored in public discourse. There are scientific theories that claim this inclination persists for life and that the cause of its development remains unclear. But if we are to believe these theories, then it begs the question of how to deal with these people and what place they should take in society, since the problem won’t just go away.
Stillleben is about a family in which the father has fantasized about his own daughter as a child. This gave us the opportunity to examine the question in depth. If a family mirrors our own society, then the way in which the father’s tendencies affect the family, and how the family deals with this situation, partially represent recurring symptoms on a societal level. The father tries everything to keep his daughter a child in his imagination. He hates himself for it, but at the same time he cannot help it. For us, that was the most fascinating thing about the character.
Your first feature film takes on the rather controversial task of telling the story of an individual written off by society in an objective way. What was the motivation behind this?
The basic question in the film is ‘where does guilt begin?’ and so paedosexuality, a sexual attraction to children, has become synonymous with criminal intent. At what point does society have the right to deny a person free will, and so the possibility for self-determination, and when does it have the duty to intervene and regulate? In our free and liberal society, thought is fundamentally free from moral judgment; no one can be punished for what he or she thinks. But what I found fascinating about the topic of paedophilia, was the way in which this principle suddenly starts to crumble in certain circumstances.
Ask the hypothetical question, 'should a paedophile be allowed to work in a nursery school?' - you won’t find many people in favour, even amongst the most liberal-minded. The verdict seems to be unanimous that however sincere a paedophile’s intentions and behaviour, he really does have abnormal urges and so poses an unmanageable risk. Where should the line be drawn? Should paedophiles avoid children altogether? And is it really possible to do so without completely withdrawing from society? Would it also mean that a father who indulges in sexual fantasies about his daughter should lose his right to fatherhood? At the end of the day, he poses a long-term risk to his child, since – at some point - he may be unable to control himself any longer. Of course, such a father would probably keep these fantasies to himself, given that he’d be aware of the consequences otherwise awaiting him. But presumably his silence makes him an even greater danger. This is a difficult dilemma and I think that in our society, where the Big Brother state is no longer a fiction and everyone is being monitored, the question of how we go about dealing with these punishable thoughts is becoming ever more urgent.
How did you find working with the actors? Were there any reservations about the film’s theme?
We frequently had intense discussions about the individual characters, but spoke very little about the issue in its social context. We wanted to preserve a personal and intuitive approach to the topic and develop attitudes that were not dominated by theoretical discussions. All of the actors dealt with their characters in a sincere way and, in so doing, put a lot of themselves into the role. Of course that wasn’t always easy, particularly for Fritz Hörtenhuber in the role of the father. He approached his role with great care and attention and wrote his own fictional letters. He was always perfectly prepared and wanted to make sense of every detail, every expression and every posture. That probably helped him to distance himself without denying the man behind the role; this brought him a lot of respect from the actors and the crew. This respect was also crucial for Daniela Golpashin in the role of Lydia. I didn’t want her to be stylized as a victim whose only role is to provoke pity. It wasn’t easy to find the right degree of strength and determination for her without losing the shock that this discovery triggered for her character. The same was true for the mother. Christoph Luser probably had the hardest time in the role of the inhibited son consumed with self-reproach, who has difficulty showing backbone. But he never doubted his character, on the contrary showed great respect for the role. This appreciation, which the characters also had for one another, was important to us in general. We wanted to create the kind of intimacy, where – like in a family – you can sit around a table and not feel uncomfortable during a long silence.
Stillleben has an incredibly muted narrative in which there is hardly any dialogue. The film observes individual family members’ reactions and their mechanisms for dealing with one another. One of the underlying things they have in common seems to be a mechanism of repression, which is brought to the surface by this situation.
I believe that familial mechanisms of repression aren’t necessarily related to this issue, since I personally know of hardly any family whose dynamics aren’t determined by repression. At the same time, we wanted to work from the assumption that repression is inherent to normality, something that only becomes clear in exceptional circumstances. What comes to light in Stillleben is suddenly so frighteningly plausible for the members of this family, that they can’t immediately find adequate words. Rather than being unwilling to communicate, family members often find it difficult to identify existing feelings of affection, hurt and guilt. I believe that when something like this surfaces in a family, it can take years to come to terms with. For this reason it was necessary to avoid – as far as possible – explicit accusations, explanations and scenes of reconciliation in order to narrate the story in a plausible way. We wanted to allow the conflicts to take place between the lines and so give viewers the chance to witness a situation, anticipate events and interpret these in their own way. One of the issues dealt with in the film is the way people are thrown back on themselves when forced to evaluate the actions and attitudes of others.
Translation by Katie Sharp, Erica Zou, Jenni Sutton, Lydia Smith, Isabelle Neumand, Hayley Ferguson, Maxwell Jones, Marie Schwall & Áine McMurtry
Department of German, King’s College London