INTERVIEW WITH JESSICA HAUSNER
C.P.: Originally, AMOUR FOU wasn’t even planned as a film about the joint suicide of Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel. Where did the project start?
Jessica Hausner: About ten years ago I wrote a draft script about a double suicide for love. But I felt that what I had written was in some way not close enough to life and was too constructed. Then about five years ago I got it back out of the drawer and worked on it again. I still didn’t like it, but then I stumbled upon an article on Kleist and Vogel in a magazine. What interested me about it was that Kleist had apparently asked several people whether they wanted to die with him – his best friend, a cousin and then ultimately Henriette Vogel. I found that a little grotesque. He gave this romantic, exaggerated idea of double suicide for love a banal, slightly ridiculous side. And that was what was missing from my old drafts. The ambivalence of that which we know as love.
C.P.: You mean: is double suicide an act of love or rather the expression of two egoistical situations? Could you say it like that?
J.H.: Yes, the image of a joint suicide for love is generally a very romantic one. I was interested in bringing things back to the shaky foundations of reality, in which even dying together is in fact each person dying separately. A pair, but not together.
P.B.: So what interested you wasn’t the historical figure of Heinricht von Kleist, but rather the double suicide, and you wrote a free adaptation of that. Could you tell us where the freedom started and where it ended?
J.H.: The love portrayed in the film is relative and actually based on misconceptions. In that respect, the key part of Kleist’s biography which interested me most was the fact that his partner in death was somewhat coincidental. For me, that’s the hook of the whole film, and I have changed some of the details which may have been different in the biography a little accordingly, based on this point of view.
P.B.: That also includes the fact that Henriette was ultimately not ill?
J.H.: The 1811 autopsy report was analysed again by modern doctors, and from a later perspective it is possible to say
that at the time they believed it was a malignant tumour, but from a modern day perspective that may not necessarily have been the case. It may also have been a cyst or a benign tumour, at the time they wouldn’t have known. So the assumption that what she had wasn’t even terminal is a justified one. So she wouldn’t necessarily have died as a result. In that respect, I condensed the facts to form a particular truth. What I wrote or showed in my film isn’t false, it’s just exaggerated.
P.B.: What was the reason for her ultimately not being ill at all in your film?
J.H.: To bring the entire situation to the extreme. It’s about a chain reaction of misconceptions.
C.P.: Ten years ago, as a very young filmmaker, what made you consider making a film on this topic?
J.H.: To me, it’s a paradox to think that you can “die together”. At the point at which you die, you are inevitably alone, and death will always separate you from the other person. Like many others, this paradox interested me. It has to be said that AMOUR FOU is not a naturalistic story. It’s not about about a specific “case”, but rather it’s more a reflection or an “essay” on the subject of love as an ambivalent feeling. In one moment you’re close to another person, you’re one with that person, you understand one another, and in the next moment you notice how misleading that is. The fact that at the same time you can have the opposite feelings for the person, who may not have loved you any more for a long time anyway.
C.P.: Reflection or “essay”. That fits with Heinrich von Kleist in every respect. An author who frequently used real occurrences to determine the emotional and societal consequences. You just have to think of “The Marquise of O.”, “The Earthquake in Chile” or “Michael Kohlhaas”…
J.H.: Exactly. A specific example is used to showcase a general human situation. But for me, in all my films actually, but this film in particular, it’s not so much about a specific historical case but rather about the various different variants of an assertion, in this case love.
C.P.: In AMOUR FOU, the highly elaborate dialogue borders on the absurd. It’s absurd if a man simply turns to people and says “would you be interested in taking your own life with me?”
J.H.: I was looking for a form that also had something artificial about it. So the story doesn’t stick to the biographical facts – it’s not a biopic – but merely based on an example. Geraldine Bajard, who worked on the script with me, and I developed it together in a sort of ping pong system. Dialogue, linguistic cascades which continue to increase. For example when Henriette is hypnotised and formulates a deep insight into herself in the most beautiful, complicated German, at the same time that’s also a joke. Clearly almost nobody would speak in such an elaborate way under hypnosis, right? I was also inspired by the great scene in Woody Allen’s film ‘Zelig’ in which he is also hypnotised, and in response to the question of why he always takes on the shape of others says “I wanna be liked”. He really hits the nail on the head. He simply tells the truth without beating about the bush. It’s the same with us and Henriette Vogel, she just says what’s wrong: she’s worried about daily life.
C.P.: Obviously you’ve also studied texts from Kleist’s time extensively to get this special tone right.
J.H.: It was reasonably lengthy and meticulous research, we read a lot of correspondence from the period. Diaries and so on. Obviously spoken language is not passed on, and with a diary or letters you’re as close as possible to dialogue. I transcribed some of the sentences I liked to practise the language. I also took some full sentences from Kleist’s letters. Only a few stayed in as we worked on the scrip, but the linguistic style influenced it.
C.P.: As well as the linguistic ‘corset’ which comes with the conventions of a certain era, in this case there were also the constraints which are typical for period dramas such as external appearance, set design, costumes and so on. At what point was the ‘set’ for AMOUR FOU finally decided?
J.H.: Yes, ‘set’ really is the right word. As in my last film, LOURDES, the eponymous pilgrimage site was the set, in this case it was ‘the historical film’. That was definitely one of the reasons why I ultimately chose the Kleist story. I felt that if I set the story in the past, it would naturally get a much greater, ironic distance, which would also provide the opportunity to include the reflexive moments I value so highly in films. The design of the room was also very helpful for this. For me, it’s less about designing a naturalistic image and more about designing a realistic one. To do this, I base my work on visual arts, where you can make this difference. In film this difference is not so significant. We studied images from the period for a long time, also so that we could design the inner rooms. Almost everything is built in the studio – not only because it’s simpler and because we don’t have such beautiful palaces like that any more these days, but also to design the whole thing in a distinctive way, so you can actually feel the will to present in every sense of the term.
C.P.: What did that mean in terms of working on the set? Did the actors do a lot of rehearsing? At first glance, the composition of AMOUR FOU doesn’t leave much room for manoeuvre, except in terms of getting the right tone that you had in mind. How often did scenes have to be filmed?
J.H.: We filmed most of them around 15-20 times. But this was actually only because of all of the “theatrical” detail. I sometimes see it as space for the soul. The people who are in a scene don’t show psychology, they are elements in the room, like a sofa or a table. The whole thing is, as it were, an image, and everyone has their own place in it. The staging is like choreography; the parts that are spoken are text; and the whole thing is effectively like a tableau vivant. This meant that working on set was therefore easy, because everything was clear from the start: we drew a storyboard, the actors knew their roles and their lines. In my films I mostly work very hard beforehand during the casting and try out a large number of scenes with the actors. Once I have chosen an actor, everything is normally sorted. We’ve done every scene during the casting anyway, then we simply go to the set and do it.
C.P.: This is very specific to this film. The characters express themselves not via a form of mimicked virtuosity, but rather through the fact that they function in an almost cold manner alongside language, like in a text by Heinrich Müller.
J.H.: Yes, and actors react to that very differently. Some find it very easy, some find it very difficult because they would prefer to shape their own character in a more differentiated way. But that in itself is also good. That fact that I have very clear guidelines in terms of image detail, choreography and text which cannot be breached makes it really difficult. Where is the tiny gap where an actor can bring life to the role? And that’s why I’m actually always very happy when an actor resists the corset, when they try to bring something else to the role, because otherwise the whole thing would be too dry. I am most pleased when somebody surprises me and opens up a new character style for me. Then it gets really interesting.
C.P.: Henriette Vogel – what do you think is special about this female character?
J.H.: Not a lot of material about her has survived. A few letters, a portrait or two of her. But I had the impression that if a woman allows herself to be seduced, under whatever circumstances, into committing joint suicide with a man, that indicates at least a certain passivity – that she may be easily led or swayed or at least that she appears to be. I am particularly interested in female figures who appear to be good at the start and then as the story develops you notice that they are contradicting everything you thought about them in a relatively stubborn, obstinate manner. At the start, a woman like that appears to be soft and nice, and then you figure out that she’s squeezing her hands into fists in her pockets. Henriette Vogel was probably one of these types of women.
C.P.: AMOUR FOU is probably your most comic film to date, as strange as that sounds based on the topic. Could you see yourself making a real comedy in the foreseeable future?
J.H.: Well, what is a ‘real comedy’? I like laughing about a realisation. You laugh because you suddenly understand…
C.P.: A laugh of enlightenment?
J.H.: You laugh because you suddenly understand what a tiny speck you are in the universe, or how laughable some things are, and significant things suddenly crumble into the banal. It’s also liberating in terms of coming to the conclusion “okay, I recognise that I’m part of a big, fat nothing. What of it?!”
C.P.: A laughing grain of sand
J.H.: Yes exactly, something like that.