«The blow to Georg's ego is devastating.»

In his directorial debut Wild Mouse Josef Hader dispatches an eminent classical music reviewer on a tragi-comic rollercoaster ride, watching closely to see how a sophisticated spirit can be transformed into a wild beast as a result of a bruised ego. A conversation with the writer, director and leading actor.
Wild Mouse begins with a long travelling shot focusing on two people wending their way through a newspaper office. In a sense the audience is drawn into this interlocking structure before the narrative thread begins to develop. I would imagine that in a solo cabaret act the first few minutes are also crucial, dictating whether the audience is carried along with you or not, and possibly the language must be very graphic. So perhaps film-making isn't so fundamentally different from cabaret work after all?
JOSEF HADER: The writing aspect isn't really so different, because in cabaret I always try to put on a kind of theatrical show as well. I always have a planned structure, although I never completely stick to it. And then I revise it a number of times, which makes it clear to me what I really want to say. I like revealing as little as possible at the beginning. Not having enough information is always a source of suspense. In the first scene I didn't want to show exactly what's going on, to serve it up on a plate. Two people are walking through a large office, and at first you can't really make out what kind of place it is; they’re talking about things you can't immediately make sense of. Maybe if it was on TV you would just zap over to another channel. But it's in the cinema, and people have paid to get in, so they don't run out straight away. That means you really can start off with a little question mark.
Did it appeal to you to work on a project with a big team and a large number of specialists, in contrast to a small team in a cabaret?
JOSEF HADER: As an actor I'm familiar with working in a big team. Making this film always felt like being on holiday from solo cabaret work, because there you are all on your own. Of course directing a film means the focus is very much on you, and you have to rise to the challenges, but it also means you can assemble your team yourself and determine what kind of atmosphere there will be on the set.
What was the general atmosphere on the set?
JOSEF HADER: Everyone knew that any suggestions would be welcome, and I would take them seriously. If you have selected the right people to work with, as the director you just have to accept suggestions or reject them. Funnily enough, I wasn't at all afraid of losing sight of the overall aim. When you've been working on a screenplay for years you get a very clear picture of what it should look like. Maybe even too clear a picture. And then when you are shooting the film you have to give other people access to what you've written all by yourself. So what comes out in the end isn't something you can have complete control of any more. The wonderful moments that aren't in a script only happen on one particular take, and if you tried to repeat them they would never work out quite so well. But they only have to happen once, because then they are preserved on film. Like a butterfly being pinned down in a collection. But not so brutal. If you make sure that butterflies like that are in the film at certain places, it takes on a sort of immediacy that’s otherwise very difficult to achieve.
Your main characters are initially bestowed with identity based on their professions, and their attitudes towards life are also very closely connected with current economic developments. There are still three social classes, as it were, but the middle class is beginning to crumble. Is that a social sector you wanted to look at more closely?
JOSEF HADER: I wanted the film, which is anyway a mixture of several genres, to be a satire of modern middle-class life as well. A blow of fate for a middle class person isn’t usually purely tragic; generally it’s also comic. If the story of my main protagonist being made unemployed were shifted to a working-class environment, where people in situations like that really are faced with deprivation, it would also be possible to bring out the comic elements, but it would be harder to pull off the dark humor. I mean, if someone’s face is in the mud you don't push it down even further. But when catastrophes like this happen to the middle classes, they are less fundamentally threatening, and there’s something laughable about people who react as if their very existence were in jeopardy. My main protagonist would have been able to look for another job, or write a book about music, or simply not work for a year and live from his redundancy pay as a journalist. But he acts as though he were facing annihilation, because the blow to his ego is so devastating. In a way Georg’s interpretation of the situation as a complete tragedy is a sort of luxury he can afford.
In your work as a cabaret artist you have the reputation of seeing humor as particularly important…
JOSEF HADER: Some people would say that as a cabaret artist I have the reputation of seeing humor as relatively unimportant.
What place did you intend humor to have in Wild Mouse? To what extent were you perhaps trying to achieve a different tone?
JOSEF HADER: The screenplay came into being without any tactical considerations of how funny the film should be. I don't really do that when I am developing a cabaret show either. Of course I always have plans, and basically you have to calculate these things, but the nice thing is that after a certain point you can write yourself free of it. At some stage all that matters is the story, and nothing else. In a cabaret show you intuitively give more space to the gags, because you're all alone on stage, and if you didn't have any jokes you’d die a death every evening. But even in cabaret I often attempt to replace humor with suspense. That makes it more interesting to play as well. In films I think the tragi-comic should always arise from a serious situation. When I was writing the screenplay for Indien with Alfred Dorfer and Paul Harather, we tried to decide in advance which jokes would emerge from the film and which wouldn't. With the Brenner films we tried to insert more drama from one film to the next, and to use comic elements only at specific points, and in a very measured way. With Wild Mouse the aim was to maintain the balance between tragedy and comedy so carefully that there wasn't any pressure in the dialogue to go in one direction or the other. It was my hope that if you really could balance the comic and tragic it would create a depiction of life which is closer to the way I perceive my life.
The most powerful cinematic images appear in one of the dramatic sections in a landscape of untouched snow. It can't have been easy to shoot those scenes. What's the significance of this snow-covered landscape for you?
JOSEF HADER: When I was a young man I saw François Truffaut's film Shoot the Piano Player. Part of the story takes place in the snow, and I can still remember how fascinated I was by the effect snow has in a film, because it completely changes the sound and the picture. Ever since then I've had the idea in the back of my mind of a final scene in snow, where everything is completely covered and muffled, as if you were walking on cushions. It’s only possible in a landscape with deep snow, so we waited for that and then started filming. The good thing is that if you're running around in your underpants for three days trying to film the scene, you don't have to act any more. It becomes a bit like a documentary film. The snow and the cold take charge, and all you have to do is be there and turn on the camera.
It's very apparent that your aim was to create great cinematic images. And to achieve that you worked with very interesting pair of cinematographers: Andreas Thalhammer and Xiaosu Han. What did they bring to the visual work?
JOSEF HADER: It really is impossible to overestimate the contribution those two made. My ideas about the camerawork were essentially that I didn't want to exclude the possibility of beautiful images, but I also didn't want to subordinate everything to the beauty of the visual. So I tried something un-Austrian, which was to find a relaxed approach towards beauty and ugliness, and to make a film where both could appear. And I didn't want the audience to watch the hero’s failures with cool detachment: I wanted them sometimes to be uncomfortably close. One decision I made when I first started writing was that I really didn't want the film to have a composed score running through it; so essentially the locations and the editing would have to create the music. I discovered Andreas Thalhammer and Xiaosu Han when I looked at various show reels from camera operators. The two of them hadn't been to any school; they just make films, and they've been doing that all over the world even though they're still very young. When we met we discovered immediately that we were on the same wavelength. We agreed at a very early stage that we wanted to film in CinemaScope. CinemaScope doesn't actually mean an expansion but a concentration of the image. You can conceal things and only reveal them at a certain point.
As the writer and director you place yourself in a tradition of Austrian auteur film-makers. It's more unusual for the writer and director to be the leading actor as well. How did you treat yourself as an actor?
JOSEF HADER: I thought the biggest difficulty would be that on the one hand I’d be a colleague for the other actors but on the other hand I’d be the boss on the set. I decided to behave the way you would in a band or a string quartet, where you play together but one person has more say about the direction things move in. But the others can also put forward their ideas.
How did you direct yourself as an actor?
JOSEF HADER: Of course I was concerned about my own acting. But because I was even more worried about being the director, there wasn't any time to worry about my acting as well. I thought to myself, well, if it's not good enough we might as well pack up and go home. After three days of filming it felt to me as though three weeks had gone by, because it was so intense. But I was able to sleep much better at night then if I’d only been an actor. I had the completely unfounded impression that I was doing quite well.
You play a protagonist who is a real expert on classical music, with everything that entails. What motivated your choice of music for the film?
JOSEF HADER: I tried to find the music myself, but I also had advice, especially about which pieces would be easier or harder to get hold of. There are some interpretations which are only available for an exorbitant price. It took me a long time to find music that would be appropriate for Georg in his rage and defiance. Finally it occurred to me that some sort of baroque music might be fitting. One subject dealt with by many composers during that period was "la follia" – madness. It constantly varies between minor and major, between tragic and cheerful. Vivaldi's Follia, the version by Il Giardino Armonico, sounds like punk music to me. I think Beethoven is very appropriate when you're trying to get up the nerve to do something. If I listen to Beethoven in the car I always drive too fast. And I wanted a very modern Beethoven, where you can really hear how new and edgy his music was for all his contemporaries. That's why it was the German Chamber Philharmonic conducted by Paavo Järvi. Then I was faced with the question of what Georg listens to in the concert hall. Many years ago I was able to work with Nikolaus Harnoncourt on a concert performance of Mozart's Der Schauspieldirektor, because he wanted a cabaret artist on board. That's where I met Andrea Bischof from Concentus Musicus, who also plays in the Quatuor Mosaïques. She and her partners were prepared to play the scene in the concert hall, although as a quartet they are constantly travelling around the world, and for a musician at that high level there’s nothing more unnatural than miming to a playback of your own music in a film scene as if you were really playing. I chose the Schubert because it is a variation movement which begins very sadly and then becomes enraged. Georg is sitting in the concert hall listening to the Schubert, moved, and then the angry variation of the same theme is used as film music, almost as though it were inside him, and he allows himself to be carried along by this music to his first minor act of aggression. Music can make someone big and expansive and calm. With George it's different. The music makes him smaller, angrier but also braver. He does things that you just don't do, and the music in his head helps him do them. That's how the whole tradition of military music grew up. It was there on the battlefield so people would be less afraid of death and more willing to attack the enemy.
Interview: Karin Schiefer
November 2016
Translation: Charles Osborne
«It was my hope that if you really could balance the comic and tragic it would create a depiction of life which is closer to the way I perceive my life.»