OCTOBER NOVEMBER tells the apparently simple story of a father and his two daughters who come together in the family hotel, which is no longer in business. However, at the same time the film deals with complex subjects such as dying and death. How can a film narrative do justice to such existential questions?
You do justice to the big questions by posing them with the greatest possible precision. That's a passionate, life-affirming act. Simply posing the decisive questions of life is in itself comforting and empowering. Only suppressing them is pessimistic. But I also think the important thing for a story – for art in general – is not to provide answers, because the answer is personal and must be provided by each individual member of the audience. In the end we’re talking here about questions that can only be answered at a level beyond the intellect. And that's the power of questions that are put with precision: they leave a space for the answer which goes beyond language and thought. When you've taken that step, life with these questions – which are existential, as you say – becomes very lively. It becomes vitalised.
OCTOBER NOVEMBER is a very precise film. The dynamic is developed less by the narrative than by means of the form. You have the impression that what motivates the characters is expressed predominantly in the images.
In terms of the images, the form, I have three aims: I want to tell the story as precisely, as simply and as intensively as possible. This is the source of my filmic language, the images, the rhythm, the montage. In narratives it's always a great challenge to achieve intensity, density. In that sense OCTOBER NOVEMBER wasn't an easy film, because the story has so little dramatic action on the surface. What we perceive as normal lives seems unspectacular, if you're accustomed to drama and "suspense films" – the traditional narrative structure in the cinema. In order to provide intensity and tension for our story every single moment of the film has to be structured with all the more precision and vitality. This affects the acting and also the precision of the form. And after all, that's the real utopia in art.
In OCTOBER NOVEMBER there are interesting relationships between locations. On the one hand there is the contrast between the big city of Berlin and the Austrian village. But then again there is tension in the village between interiors and exteriors: the father's room, the countryside outside, where Sonja roams: the lake, the mountaintop with the cross.
Yes, I like all that about the film as well: the multiplicity of locations, of living spaces. It all represents different aspects of the characters: the city, the little village. Confined spaces and open spaces. Streets and forests, rooms and squares. The closed and the open spaces. And they're all aspects of our lives as well. Which makes them part of a narrative. One of the great opportunities inherent in cinema is that it enables rooms and landscapes to be more than mere settings for action. They can reveal their own poetry, they can themselves become narratives.
These places of refuge seem to be more like part of a "natural" unity which the characters also strive for.
For me, civilisation and nature aren't opposites: they define and complement each other. And the countryside isn't presented as idyllic in the film, any more than the city is depicted as a den of iniquity. I try to do justice to the different spaces and locations in filmic terms. They are the locations of the story, which then makes them poetic places. The poetry of an apartment is of a different nature to the poetry of a mountain lake. Perhaps I increasingly have the need to link these different poetic qualities. Not as opposites, but as syntheses.
Nature also seems to be a place where memories return, linked with a claim of ownership. When they are walking by the lake Sonja says to the doctor something like: "That's my bench."
She says that more like a joke, or in a flirtatious way. Even when she was a child Sonja didn't really feel secure in her family. So she constructed a place – this mountain lake – as her own place of childhood, and kept it in her memory as such. This place in nature is a kind of mythical home for her.
The different locations are also linked to one another by means of the language the characters use, which has a major role to play in the film. So that when Verena comes home after her clandestine, passionate meeting with the doctor, the next moment we see Sonja in Berlin, in the make-up room, learning her lines: "We must now be patient, and then we will no longer have to conceal our love."
In this case the linguistic bridge is more like a joke, a wink of the eye from the writer. Incidentally, the scene that Sonja is learning her lines for here was one of the most difficult I have ever written: a major, emotional scene in a nondescript TV film. It's not at all my narrative world. But I didn't want to make the scene descend into parody, because that would have compromised the main character as well. Getting it right was really hard. However, the language in the film is secondary for me – which doesn't mean it's unimportant. Dialogue has to sound natural, and it can be an interesting supplement, but not more than that. Language, text, dialogue… it has to fit with the narrative and the characters, augmenting them perhaps on a linguistic level, or playing around with them. That's the sense in which language is important to me in a film: as a way of complementing what is narrated in filmic terms. Film has the great power to be a visual and rhythmic art form. The image and the rhythm move away from linguistic description, because they operate on a level beyond language. And that's the real fascination of cinema: the visual, rhythmic sensuality and intelligence which goes beyond understanding.
One recurring theme of your films is alienation. In OCTOBER NOVEMBER, just as previously in ANTARES and REVANCHE, relationships are reconfigured or brought to an end, while characters attempt to come to terms with themselves. Is this because the lives we lead are not at all the ones we want to lead?
I wouldn't call it alienation: I'd choose a more positive formulation. It's a search for true identity, the longing for an authentic life. You could also say the search for true vitality. That's what drives my characters. It's not just suffering from things they miss in life; that would be boring, in fact. I'm interested in longings and the struggle for the right life. My films aren't driven by criticism of the conditions someone lives in, or the life a person leads. That always has to be a compromise. And it would be banal. I'm looking for the energy and strength that is required in order to change existing conditions or, if that's not possible, to fulfil your needs within those conditions.
Is the idea of rectifying things also present here? In OCTOBER NOVEMBER the idea of seizing one last opportunity is of considerable importance, especially for the dying father. This is interesting, because the title of your previous film, REVANCHE, also includes within the title the concept of a second chance like this.
Those are interpretations that I like to leave to the audience. Rectifying things… isn't really an important idea for me. To rectify things would mean wanting to have things the way they used to be. That's not the way I think. The idea of rectifying a situation, for me, is too closely associated with the past, with restoration. Making amends is enough.
One noticeable feature of your films is the inter-dependency of the characters. Often somebody is indebted to another person. "Perhaps I didn't try hard enough," says the father to his younger daughter in OCTOBER NOVEMBER - and that's perhaps the most honest apology he can make.
(Laughs) Again I see things differently. I don't see any dependency there. When I was young and really started to think about things, I was quite preoccupied with the ideal of solitude, also in a painful way. I regarded solitude as an existential precondition of human life. Of course I wasn't the first to do so – it's a common theme in philosophy and art. The realisation that solitude is no more than an illusion – an illusion of thought and consciousness which proceeds from the idea that the self is an enclosed unity – was very liberating for me. This belief in the individual is what enables the concept of solitude to be constructed, along with the feeling that goes with it. But I don't believe in the independent, closed self; I think every person is part of an immensely complex network of relationships. For me, that is more real than my ego. At least in my wiser moments. I devoted a whole film to the subject: ANTARES started off with that basic concept.
I tell stories about characters who have links to others, relationships. That can perhaps be dependency, but it's also affection, love, willingness to help, and many, many other things. I show characters who might perceive themselves as alone, but I hope the story shows that in fact they are mistaken. That they are interwoven in a whole range of relationships, and that this is what constitutes real life for them.
That's connected with self-awareness. You have to perceive your surroundings in a different way, from a new perspective, in order to complete that step. Or is the movement in the opposite direction? Perhaps the environment changes when that self-awareness comes?
Both are true. A different mode of perception produces another way of thinking, and another way of thinking leads to a different mode of perception. In the end perception and thought – or the interpretation of reality – always form one unified whole. After all, the word "theory" really means "observation", so perception is already included in the idea of thought. When we change the way we think, we also change how we perceive things. When the eyes open, the understanding opens.
To what extent do religious questions have a role to play in your films? The metaphysical issues that your films raise are those that every religion poses as well. Is that connected with a "silence behind objects" that interests you as a filmmaker?
The silence behind objects interests me a lot. Well, when I say interested – it inspires me. The empty space around objects as well, incidentally. But they aren't really religious issues; fundamentally, they are spiritual ones. Religions provide answers, while I tell stories and raise questions with them. In that sense religion isn't the starting point of my work. Although I do hope that answers will be released for the audience, by means of the film, by means of our work. If they turn out to be religious answers, I don't have any objection to that.
Your films are often described as realistic. The French film journalist André Bazin, the "father" of Nouvelle Vague, once said realism isn‘t a matter of the subject, but the style. "We are moved not by the actor or the events, but by the sense that we are obliged to derive from them."
A wonderful sentence, quite right. I’d add to that: it's not an obligation that makes us derive sense from what happens; there is a strength and quality in it that makes us do so. And the sense that we derive expands us. I want to tell stories in a way that has a decidedly personal approach but at the same time leaves the audience the freedom to deal with the energy that comes across in the way they want. Which is also why my films are perceived and interpreted in very different ways, which pleases me, incidentally. I'm bored by every form of art that forces a particular interpretation. That's banal, even if it has a high intellectual level. Art that has within it a forced, particular interpretation doesn't make me more alive: it restricts me. I'm looking for greater vitality. It's the utopia of art to make people more alive, by reconciliation, by realisation, by passion, by whatever means necessary.
Talking about greater vitality reminds me of John Cassavetes …
One of my guardian spirits.
… who once said: "Making a film means pouring all the feelings and thoughts of a whole lifetime into a capsule, and hoping that the audience will forget everything for those two hours, and the celluloid will change their lives." Is OCTOBER NOVEMBER also a time capsule like that?
That's a fine, passionate sentence. One of the great things about Cassavetes is the passion that he put into making films. It's a good image: the film transporting energy, the spiritual, emotional and artistic energy that you put into it as the filmmaker, an energy that can then be released again by the audience. I‘m a bit more modest than Cassavetes; I hope the film can enrich the audience‘s lives. Change – that's not really necessary. Although every enrichment is a change in itself. So yes. He's right.