«Architecture is our structure.»

In her class Miss Novak warns her students against eating without awareness. Every morsel on a fork should be examined closely, every bite considered carefully. At some point, her students reach the stage where they can regard intake of food as a dispensable ballast on their journey to a better world. In CLUB ZERO, Jessica Hausner observes how power creeps up silently, and how faith quietly eats away at reason.
Is the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin a good first prompt underpinning the story of CLUB ZERO?
Yes. I am interested in the theme of manipulation and faith. The two are very close to each other. I have focused on belief and delusion in my previous films. Often without being aware of it, we carry around certain creeds that become yardsticks for the judgments we make. With CLUB ZERO, I was interested in making a story about young people signing up to a creed that really does appear crazy. I wanted to take it to the extreme and show how far people can go for their faith.
Like Little Joe, CLUB ZERO has a timeless relevance. Your works are never a direct commentary on the current situation but provide a polyphonic echo of it. Was the recent past, in the form of the Covid years, incorporated into your process of reflection?
I think so. Certain events in recent years have made it clear to us that society is radicalizing in some way, including at the political level. I need only mention Donald Trump. My impression is that radicalization is fueled by the Internet, that social media encourages people to join groups which then come out powerfully for or against something. This is especially true for the younger generation. But not only for them: I think that as humans we look at things through a lens contoured by everything we've experienced. My background studies for Little Joe were an interesting experience for me. I did a lot of research in the field of science, and I was amazed to discover the extent to which strongly different and contradictory opinions exist there as well. We have to be clear about this: there is hardly any objective truth.
For Miss Novak's students in CLUB ZERO it’s not just that something positive – conscious nutrition – becomes part of themselves (like sports or music); they become a splinter group within the school community. Does it seem to you that today there’s a tendency for attitudes to lead much more quickly to people differentiating themselves from others? 
When it comes to nutrition, it also has a lot to do with the exercise of power. Restricting your food intake creates a sense of control over your own body and also gives you the feeling that you can exert power over your environment, especially between children and parents. For young people, it is a way of showing parents that they are more powerful. Eating disorders enable them to demonstrate that they are making decisions about themselves. The terrible thing is that it can become an addiction. You get caught up in a progression that builds steadily, and you can't just say: OK, now I'm going to eat a little something again. At some point it is very difficult to find your way back. An eating disorder is one of the most difficult and most serious diseases.
The concept of the boarding school as a talent campus is employed here to convey not only the optimization dynamics imposed on young people but also the alienation between children and parents. What prompted you to put school and family in this tense relationship?
For me, this theme is very much linked to the motif of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. In the fairy tale, the town folk cheat the Pied Piper; they don't pay him the money they had promised him for getting rid of the rats. He takes revenge by leading away their children. The worst nightmare for every person in a parent role is fear of losing their child. It’s a primeval, elemental fear which I also have within me, as a mother. As an adult, you have to spend time doing things to earn a living, and you’re constantly wondering where the child is during those periods, and what he or she is doing. The caregivers, the teachers, have a huge responsibility. Socially speaking, it is a problematic issue: we are all working more and more, and the pressure is not only on the children but also on the adults. How much sense does that make? Are the people who take care of our children valued enough? They should actually be the most respected and highest-earning members of our society. Considering that our children are the most important thing in life to us, teachers and caregivers aren’t respected or remunerated enough. There’s something wrong. This aspect also preoccupied me a lot while I was writing.
The only mother who is clear-sighted enough to perceive Miss Novak’s manipulation comes from a more modest background than the other parents. Does CLUB ZERO convey a clear social commentary?
There is social commentary in my film in the sense that I want to show how adults have to work a lot, so other people have to look after their children, and these caregivers aren’t appreciated. I don't want to hurl any accusations at rich people in my film. I don't think love of your children decreases when people become more prosperous. In fact, I show that Ben's mother's clarity of perception is of no use either. Ben also fails to withstand the pressure; he too is incorporated into the group around Miss Novak.
Miss Novak is a bland individual without any charisma who nevertheless manages to captivate the children. Why did you sketch her in that way? What was the significance of Mia Wasikowska acting with such restraint?
I think the power of persuasion lies in what is restrained. A person who blasts out his opinions is more likely to repel people. It’s interesting to observe people who wield power and see how they behave. They’re not the people who shout the loudest. It’s much more about inner conviction. And that's what I worked on with Mia in role preparation. It’s the people who seem friendly and sincerely eager, who really convey that they want the best for you, who gain most power over others. Because, from their own point of view, they genuinely don’t have any bad intentions.
You shot CLUB ZERO in English, like Little Joe, and the cast is very international, with British, French and German actors. How did the casting come about?
The main setting, the international boarding school, prompted the decision to shoot in English again. The decision to cast internationally also has to do with my determination to avoid the story being seen as a critique of the English, French or Austrian school systems. At most, it is a reflection on our European society. In this respect, I found it interesting to include families from various European countries, also so that the thought-provoking element could be extended, at least to our European world.
Where did the filming take place?
We shot most of the film in England. Much of it in Oxford, in the very beautiful St. Catherine's College, which was designed by the Danish architect Arne Jacobsen in the 60s. It has typical Jacobsen features such as exposed concrete, brick and wood elements. It was also an important decision not to choose a typical old-fashioned, British boarding school location. That would have been too reductive. I wanted to make it European.
CLUB ZERO takes place almost entirely indoors, in communal areas such as the school and an opera house, as well as in private homes. What does this lack of exterior spaces tell us?
Only in the course of my filmmaking work have I begun to understand more clearly why almost all my films are set mainly indoors. I couldn't have answered that question before. In my conversations with the costume designer and the set designer, it has always come down to the structure of our society. That's what I'm really interested in. I don't show individuals in my films but people who play certain roles in society, which are bound up with particular expectations and obligations. These roles can often be recognized by the clothes a person wears. The ultimate symbol of this is the uniform. I believe I can depict this better in the architecture we humans have created than in the "free" world of nature. Architecture is our structure. After all, our society is reflected in the buildings and spaces we have designed. It often happens in my films that a room is empty at first, then the characters come in, and finally they leave again. In CLUB ZERO, for example, you see this in the school principal's office. The space itself tells us something about us and our structures. Nature, on the other hand, does what it wants, so it doesn't help me tell my stories so much.
We didn't shoot anything in the studio. The task of our set designer, Beck Rainford, was to find places that couldn’t be clearly classified geographically: not only for the school but also for the private homes, Ben's mother's housing estate and Miss Novak's apartment. Hence the designer houses; design is often international, which helps in this context.
Color and colorfulness have a determining function in all your films. This time, the screw seems to have been tightened again in terms of richness, clarity and monochrome. Color as an attractant, perhaps also as a substitute for unconsumed food? What considerations were there about the use of color?
The location was already decided before we went into costume design in detail. Together with costume designer Tanja Hausner, we thought about how we should design the colors of the costumes against the background of the dark brown to dark gray of the dominant architectural elements, the concrete, wood and brick. We finally decided on lemon yellow as the main color of the uniform. Also due to its association with small butterflies or small flowers. And the yellow of the flowers attracts the bees. The students with their yellow T-shirts are like little flowers that attract evil.
In our conversation about Little Joe you said about the music that “it underlines the film on the one hand and at the same time opposes it completely as a soloist”.  The same could be said about the film music for CLUB ZERO, composed by Markus Binder, which is sometimes very present and even goes against the grain. What ideas about music have you incorporated into CLUB ZERO?
The approach was certainly similar to Little Joe, where I already talked a lot with Markus Binder about the music, which came from Teiji Ito. For me it was the first time that I used film music, and I felt the only way was for the music to take on its own role. I also work with Martin Gschlacht in such a way that the camera plays its own role. In my films, the camera doesn't always do what follows the story; instead, it has a quite distanced position on what is happening. The visual aspect of my films doesn’t always entail depicting everything as comprehensibly and credibly as possible; it’s more about establishing distance to emphasize the absurdity of what we do as human beings. Especially in CLUB ZERO with the high-angle shots, that are also called God's Eye: I always liked that a lot. When applied to music, this means the music also plays its own role within the film narrative. The first percussion sets were created in the summer, when we were still filming. We had also talked about the ritual aspect, about cult drums and voodoo drums, and it was important to Markus to have not only European drum rhythms but also Asian and African ones. In this way, the music acquires an independent function in the story: it is captivating but also provides a commentary.
God's Eye is an interesting clue. You arrange the final parents' meeting like a Last Supper; Miss Novak prays to the Almighty Mother. To what extent does concrete religion resonate here? Or is it because so many things these days take on religious dimensions?
Maybe that's not a contradiction. Many views, political and otherwise, take on a religious character. You can also call it ideology. Just today, a politician said in a radio interview that the answer to a question he’d been asked had become a question of faith. Interesting. He put it in a nutshell. Recently, many things have led to factual topics becoming questions of faith. With everything that goes with that. People become absolutely convinced of something and no longer permit other opinions. And it is the continuation of radicalization to add an enlightenment and rescue scenario. Nutrition is just one example, but it offers promises of salvation, such as long life and eternal youth. Other people believe in the British royal family and camp on the streets for days, so they’ll be there when the new king ascends the throne. Others go to Lourdes, hoping for a miracle...

Interview: Karin Schiefer
May 2023

Translation: Charles Osborne
«Recently, many things have led to factual topics becoming questions of faith. With everything that goes with that. People become absolutely convinced of something and no longer permit other opinions. And it is the continuation of radicalization to add an enlightenment and rescue scenario.»