«Democracy doesn’t exist because of some law of nature.»

In her comedies, Eva Spreitzhofer aims to make people laugh together in the cinema about things that are harming society. And the issues have multiplied: global warming, Covid denial, social media addiction, transgender discussion... The filmmaker has extended Wanda's patchwork family from What Have We Done to Deserve This? as well as enlarging the complex state of public debate, ensuring that in HOW DO WE GET OUT OF THIS? the ideological sparks fly on Christmas Eve and yet a joint celebration is possible.

HOW DO WE GET OUT OF THIS? is set in a patchwork family and also adopts a patchwork approach to themes as varied as Covid, nutritional regimes, gender & diversity, social media, the Bitcoin economy, climate change and the almost old-fashioned subject of relationships between couples. Was it precisely this currently very complex interplay of topics that formed the basic theme and starting point for this film?

That's exactly what interested me: not one theme in particular, but rather the fact that we are completely overwhelmed by this mass of themes. Knowing that every single issue requires complex solutions, and we can’t simply make it disappear by claiming it doesn’t exist. This applies to the pandemic, to man-made climate change, to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, to the Middle East conflict, to gender-neutral language. The world is changing, nothing is the same as it used to be, we are inundated with information – and on top of all that, we have to distinguish between facts and some sort of unspecific moaning. Since the pandemic, incredulity about science and facts in general has increased even further. People are no longer vaccinating themselves, and especially their children, against diseases that could have been eradicated and are now suddenly causing fatalities again. People glue themselves to the streets to advocate enforcement of climate targets that are actually law – and they get put in prison for doing so. Right-wing parties demonstrate for freedom of speech, which they immediately restrict as soon as they gain power. The abundance of themes currently raining down on us after a long period of peace and happiness was the reason I wanted to make this film. I wanted to use a comedy approach to all the themes everyone is getting worked up about, like the subject of headscarves in What Have We Done to Deserve This?.

How do you focus such a dense concentration of themes into channels you can use in a screenplay?

As always, first I did a great deal of research and talked to people who know a lot about the themes. Only then can I start on the screenplay, by working out what I want to emphasize or modify artistically. The big difference with this film was that I had to do even more research than usual, because I needed a sound basis in all the subjects.
Then I looked at the characters and considered who could have what opinion, in order to maximize the conflict and also ensure that all the approaches would be represented. In both drama and comedy, conflict is always the most important thing. If possible, what should always happen to the characters is the worst possible development for them; that makes everything most dramatic and most amusing – at least when you’re watching.

At what point did it emerge that Christmas Eve would be the optimal setting for this collision of worldviews?

I felt that the kind of claustrophobic experience we encountered during the pandemic was a good way to say something about dealing with conflict. And Christmas is a very claustrophobic situation; you’re locked up for an evening with people you haven’t usually chosen specifically. Everyone has different opinions, needs and expectations, and everyone has to handle them somehow. And that's exactly how it is in the world: we are all here at the same time, we haven't chosen each other, sometimes we have the same needs and expectations but sometimes they’re completely different – and we have to handle the situation somehow. And at Christmas, we also feel called upon to create a harmonious atmosphere – which makes everything even worse and the situation even funnier: we’re all very familiar with that. Christmas Eve seemed to me like a good opportunity to look at the world through the magnifying glass of comedy, to depict on a small scale what’s going on in the big picture.

HOW DO WE GET OUT OF THIS? is a family reunion which features some characters from your popular film What Have We Done to Deserve This? and some new ones. What were your basic thoughts about making a sequel? How important was the issue of generations in that concept?

Climate, transgender, Covid – the generation effect is very important in all these issues. Some people say we want everything the way it used to be, others say you people ruined everything and both parties say we know how to do this, and you don't. When I was doing cinema tours with What Have We Done to Deserve This? I would get feedback from a lot of people who said they’d like to know what happens with that family next. I did like that idea, but I also felt strongly that I needed a topic for a feature film that was politically relevant in a similar way; it's not a TV series where you just tell the story of the family. A feature film has to work by itself, also for people who haven’t seen What Have We Done to Deserve This?. During Covid I felt a powerful urge to make a comedy out of the period. And since the core cast of the first film included a doctor, an artist and a nurse who had been dealing with issues of faith – and not only since Covid – I thought it was the perfect arrangement. And there are the children too, who are interested in politics but are also very different. Since I didn't want to become too up-to-date, and what interested me about Covid was everything that happened alongside actually fighting the virus, I focused on the mechanisms that are triggered by an existential, global catastrophe like that. The book 1918 – The World in Fever by Laura Spinney, which was published before Covid, is about the Spanish flu and shows that the effects of that pandemic were exactly the same: denial, fear and anger, which are then transformed into rage against the measures recommended by the experts ... precisely what plays a major role in the topics of climate catastrophe and transgender.

Your characters resolve on Christmas Eve that Covid is taboo as a topic of conversation. Actually, a lot of topics are taboo that evening. Is it a symptom of our times that so many issues become a bone of contention and, as a consequence, are then ruled out of bounds? How do you perceive this mechanism?

On the one hand, it's a pretty good idea that we don't cause offensive any more by mocking all minorities or outsiders like we used to. At the same time, it is terrible when certain topics are no longer discussed at universities but fought against instead. The fact that disputes arise so quickly about so many subjects certainly has a lot to do with social media, because many issues are abbreviated so drastically. It becomes an argument about and with buzzwords. As in relationships, it’s difficult to compromise in politics. But nothing works without compromise. More and more people have the feeling that "politics" in general should be rejected, failing to comprehend that, as part of this democracy, we are all responsible for what happens, and that while people in politics can do their job well or badly, each of us should get involved. Democracy doesn’t exist because of some law of nature; it’s something we must work for on a daily basis. I think the idea that you shouldn’t start shouting about a subject until you know a little bit about it has also been lost. The tendency for everyone to start screaming right away is problematic. If I go on a demonstration, I should always know more than How do I wave a flag?

Was there a topic that particularly engaged, infuriated or challenged you?

What infuriates me on a long-term basis is that the pandemic affected us so deeply, but there is so little interest on the part of TV broadcasters to deal with it. It's almost like after the Second World War here, where there was also the attitude: let's just pretend that none of this ever happened. Now the principle seems to be that if possible, there should be no films featuring Covid, and certainly not in combination with the political right-wing scene. There should be no reappraisal of this in the fictional field. HOW DO WE GET OUT OF THIS? is a contemporary record, and I think that's great.

How should we picture the process of filming, which – apart from a few scenes – takes place in the kitchen and living room of a Viennese apartment? What was it like to be in charge of such a large ensemble?

We shot the film in the same apartment that we used for What Have We Done to Deserve This? That was a huge stroke of luck. It was like coming home. We were able to move on familiar terrain. That was nice. A lot of the crew were working together again, especially the production designers Kathrin Huber and Gerhard Dohr. This time we were in the situation of shooting day for night. There was a wooden structure just outside the window that couldn’t be removed; behind it was a view of the other side of the street. Even if you opened the window, it felt like it was dark outside. It felt like night from dawn to dusk, and that does something to you. We were a team of 40 people and twelve cast who were almost always all on set. Having 50 to 60 people in 180 square metres is difficult and requires a very high level of concentration. We always had a child on set, we were pushed for time, and Covid was still there ... My entire production team, my set design team and I myself all caught Covid during the preparation period, and quite violently. It was a very exhausting shoot, but on the other hand it was also very, very funny. My motto is: shooting time is life time, and I choose people on that basis.

What does it mean to create comedy less from dramaturgical devices than with a strong focus on language and dialogue, as you do in HOW DO WE GET OUT OF THIS? How do you put the finishing touches to a comedy that is primarily based on wordplay?

Of course, there was a lot more slapstick in What Have We Done to Deserve This? due to the scenes where Caroline Peters and Simon Schwarz dressed in niqabs to avoid being discovered. In a chamber piece like HOW DO WE GET OUT OF THIS? the focus is very much on dialogue. When I am researching, I listen very carefully to people and use some of their expressions. And I ask everyone I interview about funny situations involving these subjects, which often produces very bizarre examples. Life is so much funnier than anything you can think up. Then I use those things. Not one-to-one, but as a template. As well as that, I improvise with the actors, and I also get involved in the writing. Then I swap things around. So if a situation is funny, it doesn't mean exactly these two actors will say the same things in the film. Often comic incidents inspire me to create something else, and sometimes very concrete things that arise during improvisation go straight into the script. Basically, however, it is also very important that there isn’t too much freedom during the shooting itself, because then things can easily fall apart with so many characters and comedians. Channeling that was also a challenge for me as director.

The film has already been released in Austrian cinemas. How did audiences react?

It was a really great success, and it was so much fun to be on the road with the film. People were extremely happy at the opportunity to laugh about all these themes. And with this film, as well as with What Have We Done to Deserve This?, I really wanted to create a situation where everyone can sit in the cinema and laugh at themselves and at other people, no matter whether they have different opinions on some topics. Afterwards they can go back to arguing, of course. But at least beforehand they had a good laugh with each other. That's exactly what I experienced at the screenings.

How do you see the current situation: Will we get out of it again?

I have two daughters, so I will fight to my last breath to get us out of it. And I am convinced it’s possible. But of course, it depends on how clearly we all understand the concrete threats to the world – in terms of the climate and in terms of democracy. If we don't all really do something about it, then in a few years we won't have the opportunity to make a film about right-wing extremists being in power in Austria, and in Germany too. Because that might be the reality…  but then it won’t be possible to make films like that anymore.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
April 2024

Translation: Charles Osborne

«Christmas Eve seemed to me like a good opportunity to look at the world through the magnifying glass of comedy, to depict on a small scale what’s going on in the big picture.»