«It is an extremely melodramatic tale ...


... which depicts the global dimensions of our catastrophic downfall - a fate which awaits us all.» Peter Kern’s gloomy and satirical gaze on Vienna’s society will be presented at Panorama Special at the 65th Berlinale.

In your previous films you have always concentrated on one sector of society, while in DER LETZTE SOMMER DER REICHEN you take a much more global perspective. It's a grim, sinister vision of a situation that has completely degenerated.
Peter Kern: I have been working on this story for the last 10 years. It took a long time to get the film made, because for quite a while nobody had the courage to come near it. And once again we worked with the bare minimum of funding, which was finally provided by the Austrian Film Institute. For a film like this you really need 2.5 million, and we had maybe a quarter of that. That had disastrous consequences, because everybody was exploited, and I pushed myself to the very limit of my strength. Day and night. That's probably also why I fell sick.

What was it ten years ago that prompted you to create this image of society?
Peter Kern: I wanted to develop a story on the idea "a man is trying to find his murderer". He's looking for someone to kill him, because life isn't liveable any longer, but he can't bring himself to commit suicide. A German journalist drew my attention to the fact that Aki Kaurismäki had filmed something similar in I Hired a Contract Killer. But in fact my inspiration dated back to Jack London‘s The Assassination Bureau, which I read when I was a youngster. The basic story kept on developing in my head. At some point two women became my main protagonists. But it isn’t a lesbian story; it's a love story. A melodrama about the desperate realization that love can't be bought - any more than death can.

At the same time as writing DER LETZTE SOMMER DER REICHEN, over the last few years you have made a number of feature films in a burst of activity. Maybe too many in such a short time?
Peter Kern: Scriptwriting comprises about 10% of my overall activities, and apart from that I'm always busy filming new works. Last year was the first year in my life when I did nothing, because I couldn't do anything; I didn't have any strength. I was closer to death than life. Nothing mattered to me. Burnout, everything together. I just sat there and did nothing except watch television. The worst thing that can possibly happen to a workaholic like me, who is always telling stories and trying to motivate people. I don't ever want to go through a year like that again. I'm still not my old self, in the familiar situation of working on two or three projects at the same time. I'm still a bit crippled. But now I am preparing for the Berlin Film Festival.

Although the basic idea of DER LETZTE SOMMER DER REICHEN can be traced back to the literature of the early 20th century, you have transferred the story to contemporary social conditions. Have the things you notice 10 years ago become more amplified these days?
Peter Kern: More amplified and more concrete. The character of Hanna von Stezewitz goes to the heart of the matter in an extreme way. All the viciousness, the rapes – that an individual can behave like that in a society simply because she is unhappy. I don't want to say too much. I’m just convinced that a person has to bring about changes in himself. And I think that's a problem with all the demonstrations around these days as well. I consider that a mistake. Love is the only thing that can prompt this change. Love and faith. DER LETZTE SOMMER DER REICHEN is an extremely melodramatic tale which depicts the global dimensions of our catastrophic downfall - a fate which awaits us all. The culture has failed, and politicians responsible for culture have failed. There are always a few rebellious spirits, but fundamentally culture has failed in that it doesn't attract due attention from politicians, so it isn't supported appropriately. All I see in the media are celebrities who all look similar, who are all presented in a boring way so we forget what we want to be. In the arts, the media directs its attention to stars and gala events, and nobody gets discovered any more.

In DER LETZTE SOMMER DER REICHEN the wealthy are in control, in league with the media. Politicians are absent, apart from a rather unhappy female politician concerned with culture.
Peter Kern: Politics is for sale. There's one scene where Hanna says to her secretary: "How many thousand euros are left over? All right, we'll give that to the FPÖ (the extreme right-wing Freedom Party of Austria).“

You were able to secure the services of a famous French actor, Amira Casar, for the leading role of Hanna von Stezewitz. How did you come to envision her for the part?
Peter Kern: I saw her in a film directed by Werner Schroeter, and I met her two years ago at the Hof Film Festival. We had a meal together, she was raving about my work, and she said her greatest wish would be to work with me. So I replied: "Darling, the problem is your language. How could you work in a German-language film without knowing the language? I'm very specific about dialogue, and I demand great precision." And she suddenly started speaking German to me; she really fought to work with me. So I offered her the role on condition that we film in German. As far as the language is concerned, I pulled off a trick by allowing the film to contain two levels: when she speaks German, she's very authoritarian and demanding, in a position of superiority. The language alone is oppressive. When she is free and when she swears, she falls back into English. She worked extremely hard for this part.

She also appears in extraordinary costumes.
Peter Kern: Chanel placed the costumes at our disposal. That was a fine thing. I think they are absolutely right. It's incredible what you can do with plastic. It's less important to me, but for Amira it was extremely important that the costumes, make-up and hairstyles should all be perfect. She used to be a model before she became an actress. She has incredible potential, and what she achieves in my film is the art of acting to the highest degree. The actor who plays Sarah is also a great discovery: Nicole Gerdon. She's a German actor who hasn't been in such a big part before. The cast is exactly right. In the team everybody had great faith in the project, and they all gave everything they could. I was looking for movie faces, not television faces, and people didn't really understand the difference. Or the implications. What the camera shows in a television production has no similarity with what is shown on a movie screen, with the minimization of expression in the highest degree and with the greatest clarity.

The language of the dialogue is polished and elevated beyond all social classes.
Peter Kern: The people who arrive here and are told: "You should learn German first," are actually the intelligentsia, and people keep on trying to torment them. The entire asylum policy is completely insane. And on the other hand you have the Hypo Bank and the Eurofighter scandals. Now people are getting hysterical about the Africans coming to Europe through Spain. I made a film on the subject four years ago: Glaube Liebe Tod. Just think of Frontex; the fact that we are financing the death of these black people is a scandal. Frontex should be there to help them, not the opposite – sending them back and abandoning them to drown.

Some years ago you described yourself in an interview as a "sad optimist". Would you still say that?
Peter Kern: I lost my optimism because I haven’t achieved anything with my work. It's true that I have prompted lots of emotions in individual people, internationally as well. After a talk show on television I get a lot of letters and emails from people who want to get in touch with me and discuss freedom. But when I was closer to death than life I realized all that isn't important. The whole bureaucracy, the daily restrictions, all the contradictions and duplicity you have to expose yourself to. I've no idea where I could go in order to live freely. Even the islands are now contaminated by certain figures in politics.

Could art still be an island?
Peter Kern: Art has always been in the vanguard of society. It indicates the total absence of culture when people are simply slaughtered, as happened recently in Paris. We are slipping back into the Middle Ages, which is a catastrophe. We're facing a regression in culture, dominated by the medium of television and theatre that doesn't have any courage these days. It should be the task of the state to finance art. Art can't be analyzed in terms of cost and benefit; it must always expose itself to risk and failure. It's not a commercial undertaking. But we artists are treated by the people in power as if we were businessman. I've lived my whole life in the red, constantly trying to pay off the debts of the previous project. You get brutally exploited, and then unfortunately you have the aim of changing something with the artistic media of film. But I haven't changed anything. Society has very often evaded what I have done because it can't permit it to exist. We don't even have a distributor for DER LETZTE SOMMER DER REICHEN in this country.

The director Daniel Hoesl appears several times in your film as an actor. I see his appearances as an artistic wink of the eye, in the sense that the two of you are linked by film-making which is subversive and anti-capitalist.
Peter Kern: I saw his first film, and I think what he's doing is courageous. That may be a hopeful aspect of my film – the fact that Daniel Hoesl runs through the story.

There is also the utopian moment in the film where the two women walk up the aisle together and are married by a priest.
Peter Kern: That's right.

Two of the main characters are Hanna and the grandfather. The death of the grandfather marks the passing of a generation which was no less amoral. The generation in between, that of the parents, is absent. Does this absence also represent the failure of that generation to bring about a different social and economic development?
Peter Kern: I wasn't conscious of that. In terms of the story, the absence of the parents serves to depict the character of Hanna more precisely. The audience themselves have to work that out. I provide material which leaves spaces for thought where you can apply your own interpretation. In my films you don't have to find the solutions: it's much more that they are intended to expand your mind, to provide food for thought.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
January 2015