Sunday, April 12, 2015

The State We Are In: Christoph Hochhäusler Interview

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One of the leading figures in Berlin School (Berliner Schule) movement, Christoph Hochhäusler (I am Guilty, The City Below) is known for creating psychologically complex characters in an imposing environment. His new film, The Lies of the Victors, a taut conspiracy thriller in post-Snowden era, then, can be seen as the director charting a new cinematic territory.

He is in town for KINO! festival and I was lucky enough to snag an interview. I have to mention that the interview took place in Silversalt PR office in Soho to give the context in part of our conversation.

The Lies of the Victors plays part of KINO! 2015 which runs 4/9 - 4/16. For more info, please visit the festival's website.
After directing THE CITY BELOW and ONE MINUTE OF DARKNESS  for DREILEBEN TRILOGY, you decided to make a political thriller, THE LIES OF THE VICTORS. What made you to do this film?

I have a relatively complicated back story about that. But I can tell you. You can choose to use it if you want to. Long before the two films you mentioned, I wrote a thriller centered around a journalist. But I never really found the right approach. The level of realism and obstruction was shifting due to what was happening at that time. Eventually I never used the script for anything. But I showed it to my co-writer, Ulrich Peltzer (co-writer of The City Below), who is at the moment doing a writer's residency at Cornell by the way. We decided to keep only the name of the main character. (laughs)

Fabian Groys?

Yeah and his profession - journalist, everything else changed. But I always liked the idea of journalists as heroes in films. That's a genre that is especially well developed in American cinema. There are not so much in European films dealing with journalists.

You mean ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN and so on?

I mean also from the 30s. His Girl Friday is a favorite of mine and in all Howard Hawks films. The Lies of the Victors is pretty much a hardboiled detective story but a detective with a different agenda you know.

It does play out like a film noir without any gun play or car chase scenes.

And no explosions. (laugh) Yeah, that's what hooked me. And then I was searching for the ways to deal with what you could call modern problems. I mean like media industry and lobbyists and things that are not really personal stories but more about structures and so on. So that's how it got started.

What is your working process like with your co-writer, Ulrich Peltzer?

Usually I approach him with broad suggestions for a story. And then we write it together, meaning we seat in the same room and discuss everything. and usually he types. It's typing reading correcting typing reading correcting... it's a beautiful process.

The film struck me in very similar way as Costa Gavras' Z, probably because of its bleak assessment of what's going on around the world. But unlike THE CITY BELOW or ONE MINUTE OF DARKNESS where antagonists or antagonistic presence were kind of hidden, in THE LIES OF THE VICTORS they are more pronounced. Why is that?

It's probably because out of all my films, The Lies is the most typical 'genre' film I've done. I'm not saying that conspiracy genre is a very hard genre to do. There aren't a lot of rules that need to be established. It's a pretty blurry tradition. So it's not very limiting. But at the same time, there are some expectations in it that I tried to respect them more than in my other films. I'd say from all my films, this is the closest to a genre cinema I've done.

But it's also the nature of the story that antagonism plays a big part- there is no antagonists in The City Below other than the people themselves.


The worlds that resemble our world in both THE CITY BELOW and in THE LIES OF VICTORS are very dystopic in nature. Do you share this bleak assessment of our world in real life?

Yes and no. Of course I'm not trying to be someone else when I make a film but I see life with a lot of optimism actually. (laughs)

Of course there are a lot of things I worry about. But I doubt that our time is worse than others. You know what I mean? Probably it's always the same shit all over. (laughs) But as always, there are possibilities for goodness, beauty and grace, you know. Then I have to agree that it's pretty bleak. If you look at the headlines of last couple of years, it's really a mess.

Then again what era was ever a good era? It's always the past we are fond of for some reason.

Another thing that interested me was that characters in your films often deal with being admittedly guilty or perceived as guilty but it's not clear in Fabian's case. I am wondering, if anything, what Fabian is guilty of?

Well I'm not sure if guilt is such a big theme for me personally, but of course it is in German culture in general. What he is guilty of is the same as we are all guilty of, carelessness. For example how news are being made, you know. Fabian is obliged as a journalist to question everything, that more skepticism is needed. He is an easy prey for those in power.

I mean old school journalism is quite unprepared for the possibilities of surveillance and new technologies. It's amazing what they can do now. They can even change source material without you ever knowing about it. It's really easier to get away than ever. And of course we are so concentrated on the state surveillance but we all know the companies do it. Discussions that have been going on so far post-Snowden, there have been too much focus on the state surveillance. NSA is a state organization, but there is enough proof that NSA contractors, like the one Snowden was working for, are working for other powers including the US industries.

All the telecommunication companies that all complied to the government since the Patriot Act...

They comply to the government but if you want to know what your competitors are doing, there are ways to find it out. The thing is it's being done already. They do it and there is not enough attention getting paid to it.

Following up Berlin School conversation I had with Christian Petzold and last year's MoMA coverage by Ben Umstead, how do you feel about being grouped in this kind of movement?

I don't have any problems with it. I think it's a critic's job to describe what's happening. There is a certain... family of filmmakers so to speak. We are in touch and there are discussions taking place and there is no money attached and there are no rules. I don't want to define who's in and who's out. But it's true that there are unusual amount of solidarity and interest for each other. So why not call it a name, Berlin school or otherwise.

Of course the implication of the label is sometimes harmful. For example, when it comes to financing a film I've heard many times that they say 'we don't want to finance Berlin school films'.

Wow, really?

Because the industry is full of expectations - 'they (the berlin school films) are too slow' or call it  whatever else you can think of when you don't like something. So there is always a problem being labeled like that.

I see.

It's probably the same in journalism. You are labeled as someone who only like this or that.

'You only cover genre films' or something like that.

Yeah exactly. It's limiting.

You mentioned in an essay that Berlin School is not limited to Germany but you see it happening everywhere.

I wouldn't say that Berlin school is everywhere. I think it's the same spirit in filmmaking whether it's Argentina or Korea or Austria or Portugal. It's international interest in certain tropes and modes of state it's on. I'm not saying that we influenced them.

Where do you think this similarities in spirit comes from?

It's the reaction to having too much formulaic. Every wave in film history is trying to regain a certain believability or to refresh things, you know. Every wave tries to regain something that is lost - if you look at neo-realism or nouvelle vague or free cinema, it's all about getting over the cliché of what's come before them.

For us, we are gunning beyond formula, beyond what's become as a commodity. There will be a lot of movements after us and there are already, I'm sure, with very different stylistic approaches. But I don't believe in stylistic revolutions. I really don't think it's about style. The style is what follows.

Do you still watch a lot of works of other filmmakers and follow what they are up to?

Of course. but I don't watch as much as I used to. I have two kids now. (laughs)

You used to be a film critic, no?

Yes and no. I co-founded and edit a film magazine called Revolver. We founded it in 1998. It's a magazine that mostly publish interviews. I'm still doing that.

So who do you like?

I mean one of the directors I admire the most is her (pointing at a La cienaga poster on the wall, by Lucretia Martel).

This is La cienaga, her first film and which might be her best film overall. But when it comes to form I'm a big fan of La mujer sin cabeza.

Headless woman. Yes, of course.

She is now making a new film and I'm very excited.

It seems that's where things are happening right now, Latin America.

Yeah, there are many. Lisandro Alonso, and few Mexican directors too.

What's next for you?

Among other things I am preparing a French film set in 1941, a period picture. It was initiated and starring Isabelle Huppert. But the financing is not there yet. As you can imagine, it takes a while. I don't know if it will happen.

Let's hope it does because it sounds awesome.

Thanks. And the other project is some sort of a gangster movie. I have ideas for all kinds of films. I'm also writing a new Dr. Mabuse film. so we will see what happens.

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