«Suppress, suppress, suppress!»

There is no escaping normality. In Once Were Rebels Johanna Moder takes a subtle look at the process by which even the beautiful lives of urbane people in their mid-30s are infiltrated by petty bourgeois attitudes. Her second feature film is another witty portrait of her own generation, struggling doggedly for alternative lifestyles as well as optimal versions of themselves… only to end up creating selves which are crippled by insufficencies.
The opening sequence of the film features detached houses on an estate: an image of uniformity which is no doubt the very lifestyle that the generation of the protagonists in ONCE WERE REBELS is determined not to reproduce. In this film are you focusing on the issue of whether a lifestyle is possible which doesn't betray the committed attitudes of youth, which doesn't inevitably plunge people back into the hard grind of normality?
JOHANNA MODER: My generation simply strikes me as particularly lost: I perceive it as a generation that is insufficient for itself. In his Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari describes our epoch as one of "romantic consumerism", which I regard as very apt. In Ancient Egypt having one’s tomb in a pyramid was considered the highest goal a person could strive for. Today instead we are constantly struggling to buy a nice apartment or a spacious SUV, and of course to achieve romantic love. At the same time we know that fulfilling these aims will never bring the contentment we long for, so we are in a permanent state of not being happy and being driven to achieve something that will not make us happy - and we can't escape from this treadmill. After all, capitalism itself demonstrates the futility of seeking happiness in consumer goods: if it were possible to achieve that happiness, capitalism would have died out.
Previously, in High Performance, you took a wry look at your generation, with protagonists in their early 30s who were trying establish themselves in life. Five years later your protagonists have settled down. How would you describe the stage in their lives that Helene, Jakob and Volker have reached?
JOHANNA MODER: I would compare the place they are in their lives at the moment with the experience of driving into a garage. You've just managed to park your car in the garage, only to realize that it isn’t as exciting as you had hoped – and on top of that, it's dark in here.
Distancing oneself from the lifestyle of a previous generation eventually produces new conventions. This generation has also established a consensus about "the good life", the sophisticated taste and subtle status symbols required to prove you’ve made it. How difficult is it to create a critique of this?
JOHANNA MODER: It is hard, actually, because I can no longer be sure exactly who I am addressing with this critique. That was clearer in the past as well. Now it's so diverse, and everybody is attempting to go his own way, even if it means abandoning role models. And these days travelling to India to find yourself or collecting vinyl can also be a status symbol. You choose a social stratum and then do everything you can to blend in, with all the pros and cons that entails. It's a way of adapting to an invisible code only understood by the people who are part of that social group, as with the super-rich. When I say that my generation strikes me as so desperate I should emphasize that it's my perspective. There are certainly plenty of representatives of my generation who are happy. But when I look at the world out there in the light of the climate crisis, for example, it's a completely catastrophic situation, and the prospects for the future are extremely bleak. It has become very difficult to see where you could find happiness. One solution would be to withdraw into a little world. The house in the countryside, representing the idea that you can create a place where the world is in order, so you can find happiness there. But if you do that you end up only focusing on yourself. I had the feeling that in High Performance my characters were desperate, and that certainly hasn’t changed. It’s just that these days they keep themselves so busy, you don't see it so clearly.
Are you also trying to suggest that helping people in distress or sharing material goods with them are ideas that have less to do with humanitarian motives and are instead features of the perfect image of themselves that your protagonists want to create?
JOHANNA MODER: This is a group of people who are educated and positioned on the left of the political spectrum, which also means they want to be perceived as being on the "right" side in moral terms. And that means they do help people in need. But the concept of this kind of aid is determined by a Western perspective. The person who is being helped is supposed to behave in line with certain conventions. Pavel and Eugenia, the Russian activist couple, live according to principles which the others used to believe they would also practice. That's probably one reason why these two Russians are so difficult for Helene, Jakob and Volker to bear: because they show so clearly how the protagonists could be and how much they have failed themselves.
You chose to depict political activists from Moscow rather than a refugee family from Syria. Why?
JOHANNA MODER: There were several reasons. One was connected with my personal life, because some people I know brought a Russian family to Austria. Above all though, I didn't want to end up riding the wave of clichés which was of course very evident at the time I was writing. In addition to that, I think Russia represents a country we should keep an eye on, for the sake of Europe, in view of the way democratic institutions are being infiltrated there – something we also see now in Hungary and Poland. Just as we should keep an eye on political developments in Austria. There is increasing opposition to non-profit organizations, and I regard that as a dangerous development for all of us.
The three couples Helene/Jakob, Volker/Tina and Pavel/ Eugenia – who were previously involved with one another in different configurations, in the backstory – create an interesting combination of relationships, with alliances constantly shifting and borders being crossed. Did the screenplay develop originally from this network of characters?
JOHANNA MODER: The three couples were there from the beginning. It was a new experience for me, and it was fairly complicated, to construct a story with so many characters and ensure a strand runs through it which is emotionally satisfying for the observer. The two leading actors, Manuel Rubey and Marcel Mohab, were closely involved in the writing process, especially at the beginning, when the basic structure of the two couples – one with two children, one without children – began to emerge. It was very quickly apparent which of them should play which character, with Manuel playing Jakob and Marcel playing Volker. Their involvement in the screenplay meant that the male characters always had a powerful advocate, while other characters didn't have anybody behind them and had to fight for themselves. I find writing with other people very inspiring, even when the material develops in a completely different direction from the original idea. Ideas emerge that one person alone could never have come up with. The story attained a multi-faceted aspect that I wouldn't have been able to create by myself.
Even without "advocates" during the writing process, the female characters have become very strong: Helene, who ensures that the family has a comfortable existence with her job as a judge, and Eugenia, a political activist. Tina, who is more open, more human and more empathetic, because she isn’t yet tied down in life. The male characters seem less mature in that sense, which therefore gives them more comic potential. How important is the comic tone of the film to you?
JOHANNA MODER: As an observation that may certainly be right. Fundamentally I have an ambivalent attitude towards comedy. I find it harder to identify with, and quite possibly that's why the female characters I write are stronger. During the final phase of the writing process Barbara Albert was our dramaturgical consultant, and she's in a sense the "advocate" for Helene, sharpening the character in particular with regard to the stress and conflicts with job and family that she is exposed to. Actually, I'm conflicted myself about how to manage this balancing act between comic and non-comic. My inner feelings tend to push me towards pure drama. But I do very much enjoy staging comic scenes. Perhaps it's a case of being attracted to drama when one is alone but finding comedy more appropriate in a group. The discrepancy might be due to the fact that drama comes easier when you're writing, but when you're directing something you realize that the purely dramatic also has an element of the ridiculous and can easily drift into self-pity. And I'd rather stick to humor than find myself sliding away in that direction.
In the end the attempt to help the Russian family is abandoned, they are elegantly dropped, and nobody cares what happens to them. The film ends with everyone returning to the cocoon of the family. You use music and a firework display as a very subversive way of embedding the disturbing indifference in an atmosphere of gentle forgetfulness.
JOHANNA MODER: For me, Once Were Rebels ends very bitterly. But I think it's good if people have the opportunity to adopt different interpretations. Volker's line "Suppress, suppress, suppress!" is a very significant idea, expressed by a successful psychotherapist; it could apply to all of us. Otherwise we wouldn't be able to exist. There aren't any solutions. For the characters or for us.
Tina could be seen as an expression of hope. She leaves on a train and could end up somewhere completely different. Or will she be living in exactly the same way five or ten years from now?
JOHANNA MODER: Precisely. Tina permits the audience to continue believing in people's goodness, to some extent at least.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
September 2019
«I would compare the place they are in their lives at the moment with the experience of driving into a garage. You've just managed to park your car in the garage, only to realize that it isn’t as exciting as you had hoped – and on top of that, it's dark in here.»