Händl Klaus talks about Tomcat, an intensely absorbing drama about loss and love, selected for Panorama Special 2016
The film opens with a series of paintings from the 1930s, which are today in the ORF Funkhaus in Vienna. What was the appeal
of these pictures as the opening sequence for Tomcat? Were the density contained in the momentary image of a painting and the contemplation that can be associated with it in
some ways programmatic for the narrative and visual language of this film?
HÄNDL KLAUS: These wall paintings are in the orchestra rehearsal room there, which is an important place for the main characters. When
we first went to view the location it was as though we had been invited into their world, because unexpectedly we discovered
several scenes from the screenplay there, a series of small, idyllic views: the ballgame, the dance, two innocent, naked boys
at a lake with a sailing boat, and even a group of deer
As well as that, these paintings in earthy colors are associated
with our main location, a beautiful house in Hernals that was designed by an American architect of that period. So we used
four sections from the paintings as a kind of overture, interwoven with pieces of music that are important later in the film
for carrying the action, when the orchestra is rehearsing Ravel and Schubert, or when Stephan listens to Bach in a desperate
mood and Andreas listens to the Intimate Letters by Janáček.
When I look for thematic links with your first full-length feature film, March, as well as the sensations of loss and mourning there is also something unexplained and inexplicable in Tomcat, a huge question mark, an unsolved puzzle beneath the surface. Does that get to the heart of the subjects that preoccupy
HÄNDL KLAUS:Yes, I think I just have to keep on pounding away at that. Because I can't explain our existence and I don't have the
comfort of a religion. But this being together, which you cant actually escape from, whether you want to or not...
thats basically all we have, a blessing and a curse. I just sense how precarious it all is. How little it really takes
to shatter everything. And that you always look for something to hold on to - even if it is only, for example, when Stefan
asks about the grave. Not knowing the place where you can grieve which makes everything a possible place for grieving,
the whole house that's the worst punishment possible for him. That is why the dead fawn in the forest was so important,
which he covers with a branch as if finding some consolation there.
The themes addressed within in a village community and a family in March are focused on an intimate relationship between two people in Tomcat. As if another layer or level had been removed in your exploration of what it is that brings two people together and keeps
HÄNDL KLAUS: That really is the driving force with me. I'm surrounded by so much thats threatening. Its inside me as well:
what exactly is lurking in there? Why do I so often feel ashamed? What is the origin of my shame? I have brought down mountains
of guilt upon myself. Is that what makes me so distrustful? Although sometimes it's transformed into the complete opposite.
That's what's so amazing. That I suddenly experience unspeakable tenderness for people I felt uneasy about for a long time.
Like a sudden understanding, a liberating sense of indulgence. All this preoccupies me a lot. And the way I myself am changing.
What happens to me over the years. In terms of my sexuality alone, it seems to me that I have experienced at least four great
metamorphoses. How it's all so fluid.
The tomcat, Moses, is a channel of communication between these two men: they're both devoted to it with the same intensity.
I believe you yourself are very close to a tomcat. Could you say something about the bond that can arise with an animal? What
strength and what significance it can have.
HÄNDL KLAUS: The point is that you never know with complete certainty where you are how that other being really feels; after all,
it can't articulate itself in my language, even though its skilled at imitation and employing sound patterns, so it
can "speak" in a complaining or demanding way. I have to develop a different way of being attentive, Im constantly in
the process of interpreting the situation but there's a huge opportunity for misunderstanding, and a whole host of
things are accepted because of our mutual relationship, although in fact it's more "alien" than I would like. Nevertheless,
there is a bond of trust between us: this tomcat seeks me out, and I'm clearly the being it most closely relates to.
Stefan and Andreas are united by music but also by the natural world, the garden, food. They appear to be anchored to the
world by basic elements?
HÄNDL KLAUS: Yes that's right, fundamental things. The things you reach for, that link you to life in the sense of being alive but also
signify life themselves and provide comfort in the state of having been thrown into the world. Music above all. Because it's
the language of things that cannot be spoken, it can approach these things most closely, and for Andreas and Stefan it's also
literally work: a life with music is hard. It's also associated with nakedness. Physical proximity as well and with
Andreas and Stefan sex is only ever initiated after contact with the "outside world", which apparently functions as a catalyst:
after having lasagna with friends from the orchestra, after the summer party, after the concert
And literature is important,
the wide variety of voices in the bookshelf. While we were filming we often deliberately placed books out of the shot, under
the bed. It seemed to me that would have some sort of effect; for example, Der nackte Soldat by Belmen O, or Jacques Derridas animal book L'animal que donc je suis. And Angelika Reitzers novel Unter uns established a link back to March; that was also a tribute to Angelika. In a longer version theres also a poem by Lorca, about a cry that cracks the
wind like a viola bow, and the two of them also share an interest in Spanish, in the richness of a foreign language.
The relationship between the two men is contrasted with the orchestra, as a powerful collective force. And whether it's the
cat or the orchestra, it seems that the internal component of the relationship between two people can't exist and be maintained
without an external component. What role do you assign the orchestra?
HÄNDL KLAUS: It's a special place with rules of its own, which is familiar to me from writing libretto; I have several musicians among
my close friends. I'm fascinated by how hard this work is and it carries on at home; they all practice for several
hours even in their "spare time", because there is so much pressure to play as well as possible. It's also interesting as
a community with so many fine distinctions between the individuals, sub-groups and networks, and sometimes if the conductor
is difficult and the program is hard it feels like a group of people subjected to the same fate. On the other hand,
there's a relaxed and playful attitude, and people really do play football together; everybody lets their hair down after
the concert. And you get all sorts of nationalities: with us there were Japanese, Dutch, German people; our friends included
Aileen from Ireland, Anaïs and Violaine from France, Anders from Sweden, even Johannes from Tyrol, and of course there was
the Russian Vladimir; he and Lorenz form the second couple in the film, who keep their relationship secret at first. They
are like a mirror image of Andreas and Stefan, because in their case too one of them stands by the other even though it's
difficult or almost impossible in a way. But love is stronger, even though that's only touched upon in a few scenes; at the
crucial moment its something Andreas and Stefan also realize. That was very important to me; I certainly didn't want
to lose it. Apart from that, the orchestra can also provide a supportive environment; when the adrenaline level rises before
the concert, and outside on the football pitch, theres an atmosphere of affection that not only comforts Stefan but
really strengthens him. When he experiences this support I think it genuinely changes his image of himself: it gives him something,
belief in himself, and it comes from this group. Although nobody would even mention it. We were so lucky with the weather:
we were praying for rain, and it rained! There we were, standing in the Schutzhaus in the light of dawn, with the cold bowling
alley as a dressing room, and then we went out into the clearing
We were incredibly lucky with the RSO, the Radio Symphony
Orchestra, in general. Firstly, we were able to use a gap in their schedule, which we called the "Chinese window", because
a tour of China had been cancelled. Otherwise it would never have worked out with the time! I was really worried about the
huge machinery of the orchestra, but from the very start everybody was open, trusting and accommodating. And working with
the individual musicians who played the friends of the main characters was wonderful. They were musical in every sense of
In the first section the film takes the time to depict the main characters at home, in a safe atmosphere, with intimacy and
sexuality slowly mounting. It does this in a long series of relaxed shots leading to a dance of love where bodies, music,
movement and painting merge into a whole. What issues are you together with Gerald Kerkletz addressing here in terms of the
HÄNDL KLAUS: We wanted to "breathe" with the three of them, the two people and the cat, wanted them to have as much space as possible for
themselves but at the same time also be close. Gerald, who was at all the rehearsals with the actors from the very beginning
and was also at my side whenever it came to dramaturgic issues showed me some rehearsal footage in 2.39:1 Cinemascope.
It's a format I'd never thought of, because I didn't associate it with closeness, which Gerald created in any case. It also
gave us the opportunity to be close to the people in all the group scenes with their friends, without the need for a number
of shots with different focal length, and to see the people and the cat together. Later, during the period when Stefan and
Andreas are hardly seen together, this also "gave voice" to the emptiness in the garden, and the house, with all the whiteness.
In the first part we were consciously placing slightly exaggerated emphasis on everyday life so that the catastrophe would
really break through when you weren't expecting it because you had become familiar with the everyday situation. And we wanted
a sort of mature closeness to be present in everyday life, also as a result of the nakedness that is possible in the first
part, before the two of them are expelled from Paradise. That was a big question: how should we depict that nakedness? We
certainly didn't want to exhibit it: we wanted it just to be there. So first we looked for well-crafted examples from films
we liked as well as bad examples and we showed them to the actors, who would have to trust us, to see where
that journey could end up. The important thing was this gift from Gerald, his sensitivity and instinctive certainty that make
him not just a cameraman but a director of photography.
In the second part you find an incredibly intense language of mourning, to capture the pain at the loss of someone beloved
and the question of guilt which, in the final analysis, remains one of the great mysteries of this film. To what extent was
working with the two leading actors Lukas Turtur and Philipp Hochmair also part of this creative process?
HÄNDL KLAUS: Time was everything. Of course I prepare down to the smallest detail, but something unexpected always develops from the encounter
itself, the performance by the actors is exciting, and I go into search mode. Then I just keep calm for a while and lose myself
a little, get into a state of less self-control but in a protected sphere just as the actors do. And you need
time so as to stay patient. It was the first leading role that Lukas had played; I knew him from the stage, where hed
acted in a play I wrote, and there he had a sort of profound vulnerability which is what I was looking for in Stefan. In front
of the camera he has the curious gift of tipping over into a transparently concentrated state and on top of that, hes
very musical and even plays the horn. Clearly it helped that he had played the clarinet since he was 15, but the lip position,
the fingering, the stance, the breathing that was all new territory. We had Christoph Walder as our coach, which was
another stroke of luck. And I had been friends with Philipp for almost exactly the same length of time, since I saw him in
Sarah Kanes Cleansed, which was brilliant. Wed always wanted to do something together, and wed been thinking of a play until suddenly
Tomcat came up. Philipps instinct is incredible, and he can also be transparent in his acting. During the casting sessions
the two of them were a thrilling couple from the very start, and they made me think: "I'd like to see these two working together
more closely". I was really keen to discover how it would be. It was like a release, because the casting procedure was long
and fairly complex, since the famous chemistry had to be just right.
What were the crucial criteria during the auditions for the leading actors?
HÄNDL KLAUS: Above all the speaking voice: I was looking for something gentle and warm, which is why I wrote the dialogue in Viennese dialect:
I also felt Bavarian could be appropriate, and that's how it worked out, with Lukas Turtur from Munich. But unfortunately
a stipulation like that severely restricts the potential field; I did try with great actors from Cologne and Berlin, but each
time it sounded off the mark, out of tune, fundamentally wrong. And then the first question I had to ask was whether the actor
could handle being naked. Actually I really underestimated this point, because an astonishing number of people are afraid
of that - even actors, who surely work with their bodies as if they were instruments, which made me think it must be easier
for them than it turned out in fact. But there was no way around it: Adam and Adam had to be naked in the Garden of Eden,
and later the pain and alienation showed itself partly in the fact that this nakedness and intimacy was no longer possible.
What was it like working on the set with the four-legged protagonist?
HÄNDL KLAUS: We were like hunters or collectors. In other words: patience, patience, patience. And when we had run out, we had to have
a little bit more patience. And again, and again. Of course, I love Toni, so my patience with him is endless. But for the
rest of the team I'm afraid it really was extremely exhausting. After all, we had to make concrete decisions about each scene:
do we stage the scene and establish a framework for Toni to behave, or do we run after him? Running after him definitely didn't
work. So we just had to be patient. But of course we were rewarded for this again and again partly because Toni is
a sociable chap at home, and he blossomed with the team. And weeks before we started filming I moved out to Hernals with him,
to live in the house, and once we finished filming each day his brother Tino was there for him to play with. I got both of
them from an animal shelter, and now they live with me and that's a real stroke of luck. And together with Andi Winter
and Gerald we had some "Universum" days: we called them that, because it was like filming an animal documentary with Toni
as the protagonist, watching his life in the house and the garden, the way he marked out his territory, ate grass, caught
mice, played and slept. There was a huge amount of material, and we only used a small part of it. Afterwards our Klaus Kellermann
would come along with his boom and do the same thing for the sound, for days on end. We had to separate sound and picture,
because Toni was so fascinated by the sound boom it distracted him too much when he was out on his forays.
Tomcat makes it very clear that a deep, emotional pain seizes hold of the body and permeates it. Filming the body the bodies
seems to have been one of the major tasks in the camerawork here.
HÄNDL KLAUS: That's something I find hard to describe; it was the same with Gerald when we filmed March. It's a matter of closeness at particular moments feeling with the characters, breathing, living with them. I remember
I was so grateful after the first take of All Blues, the love dance, for the way Gerald moved around with them uncut
it lasted almost 30 minutes that I said I would like to take it all just the way it was. And he said, joking, he wasn't
doing anything: the actors were panning towards him, not the other way around. Maybe that's the best way of describing it:
seen from the outside, it was three people dancing together at the same level, without any hierarchy, for themselves and for
each other and one of them happened to be holding a camera. The three of them were also alone in the room; the rest
of the team, including the assistant cameraman with the focus remote, were sitting in the next room with me in front of the
monitor. But on top of the actual filming he has the complete ability to throw himself into a project right from the start
from a much earlier stage than usual, I think. We began to talk about Tomcat right back when we were driving home from Tyrol, after the last day of filming March. During the preparatory phases we spend days and weeks in intense conversation, and there are lists of books and films we
work through together. And then we end up talking less and less, and on the set we hardly have to say anything; very often
everything just feels right between us without needing to put it into words.
The film is clearly characterized by its rhythm and the music. A rhythm thats not only dictated by ellipsis and omission
but at other times by taking a great deal of time for certain moments. How did the film develop, in editing and with the music,
into an entirety?
HÄNDL KLAUS: Working with Joana was once again very fine; we are so much in synch and after our experience on March, theres a confidence about what is being omitted. At some places in the script jump cuts had been specified, and with
the four plates at the beginning and their music, which is cut drastically, you can hear that too. On the other hand there
were islands, distinct in terms of resolution, when the decision was made to use uncut "real time", for example at the turning
points, and here the acting alone determines the rhythm of the film. And the sequences with Moses were quite an adventure
in the editing room. We really had to take our time, trying something out, looking at it, losing track, getting back on track
all thanks to Joanas instinct. Then there was the separate world of the background sounds, which is crucial.
We brought some touches of contamination to the house in Paradise and shifted it closer to the city with street noise that
doesn't actually exist up there. But the most important sounds were in the house itself, the creaking of the old parquet floor.
With the couple dancing in silence, this creaking is their accompaniment, their music.
There is clearly biblical symbolism in the snake that destroys the two peoples innocent existence, and the tomcat as
the "foundling" Moses in his basket. We're dealing with expulsion from Paradise, but there is also the implication that Moses
is a possible rescuer or savior.
HÄNDL KLAUS: Although it is Moses himself who brings the snake into the house and Stefan, of all people, who makes a home for it
from stones! The really biblical aspect of Moses is his nakedness he does have his fur, but thats his nature
and that corresponds to the people walking around the house naked in a state of innocence. But Moses has a mind of
his own, and his own life.
The question of whether there can be reconciliation or healing is left open in Tomcat. It becomes clear in one conversation towards the end of the film what it means to accept another person in his entirety.
In that sense, more than March, Tomcat goes beyond the subject of grief and loss to become a film about love between two people since we also have references to
various relationships within the orchestra.
HÄNDL KLAUS: That conversation is like a re-organization, a turning point. It's when you face up to the situation and look at it together,
deliberately discussing something that's been bothering you and oppressing you for a long time something that is crucial
if you're going to carry on living together. For a long time everyday matters just take precedence, and you go through the
motions, but then it really does come down to decisive moments like that. And they just stop. The silhouette in the bath is
one such moment, before glancing in the mirror and on the grass in the garden, when Stefan comes back from the animal
shelter. And there are external actions that can heal something: when the "wicked tree" is cut into little pieces for firewood
I sigh with relief.
Interview: Karin Schiefer
Translation by Charles Osborne