«Stupid coincidences and messy lives.»

Andrea really tried her best: a police career in her own village, a husband with a penchant for strong liqueur, a mother-in-law under the same roof and a father in the early stages of dementia. She was willing to make every compromise to create a life for herself in the countryside. Until at some point, enough is enough – and this is when fate steps in. In his second feature film, ANDREA GETS A DIVORCE, Josef Hader tells the story of a provincial existence where there’s no escape from the flat landscapes and low houses.
The opening of ANDREA GETS A DIVORCE features a landscape that is not exactly typical of Austria – broad and flat, a delicate light green. A road slashes a path through the middle of the scene, a strip of asphalt like a thread of fate, the car a fateful element in Austrian provincial life. Was the car, as a factor that shapes the identity of (male) rural life, also a constituent element of the story?
The car is often at the root of misfortunes in the countryside, which is why there are quite a few of them in my film. On the one hand, my idea was to make a film in a rural area that isn’t specified precisely but corresponds to provincial existence as I remember it – having experienced it as a child up to the age of 20. I also wanted to see how much comedy, and what kind of comedy, is possible when something bad happens in the first quarter of the film. Those were the two ideas at the beginning of this film project.
A story from the provinces follows your last film, the urban tale Wild Mouse. What did you want this “country life” in ANDREA GET A DIVORCE to look like? Where did you find the right landscape, the right village?
I wanted a landscape that didn't have so many features. There were two reasons for that: firstly, it's more effective cinematically – but the more important thing is that people can't run away as easily. On the plains, where there are lots of fields and low houses, people are much more exposed to each other than in a wild mountain region. It is very difficult in Austria to find small villages that haven’t been so horribly mutilated over decades that they have nothing to say for themselves anymore. We had to look for places where there wasn’t such extensive economic development in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Looking for the plains, the horizon, people against the horizon who can't run away, and the thought of filming in an area where big money hasn't established itself in the last fifty years: all that automatically led to eastern Austria. When you start looking for villages, you eventually end up at the “road villages” in the eastern wine region, where things aren’t so picturesque. The nice thing about them – from a cinematic point of view – is that there are only street fronts – no flowers, no decorations, no parking lots – because the roads are so narrow, cars can’t stop. It's cinematically exciting: bare fronts of the road villages, the whole of life taking place in the yards facing away from the road, and above the houses – often single-storey buildings – is... the sky.
The women are moving away, and the men are getting weirder, says one of the men in the film. Were you attempting to analyze and depict the male state of mind in the countryside?
It's my perspective on provincial life, although I don't think it's a purely Austrian phenomenon. Rural areas like this, where men are left and then entrench themselves – often with weapons, definitely with alcohol – can be found everywhere from Brandenburg to France. These provinces aren’t Austrian; they’re very European. The decline of agriculture also means that only the large agricultural enterprises are subsidized by the EU, so there is less and less money left, and hardly anyone is willing to do this work. Often, people are just left behind. People who want to withdraw from society because they are outraged by it – or perhaps even hate it – are also more likely to move to the countryside. Something develops that has been around in America for a long time, which is that you meet people with definite behavioural problems in the countryside. Also because there’s room for them there, which I think is a positive factor. If my film is also a psychological portrait of people in the countryside, then I hope it reveals that they aren’t evil people; they’re bulls in a china shop. When they were growing up they developed such a thick skin, they harm other human beings without even noticing. I was more interested in describing this kind of life form, which I experienced for the first twenty years of my life: how I experienced it, how I perceive it today, what it did to me. And I always had to watch out that it wasn’t too rough for me, ever since my childhood.
A minor coincidence has major consequences in ANDREA GETS A DIVORCE. Did it appeal to you to consider how small decisions can prove to be so fateful?
I'm more interested in stories where something happens that puts people under pressure, or forces them to resolve things, than stories about people who choose a goal and then pursue it. That's not how I see the course of my own life, and I don't think that's how life is. For me, the way life works is that you see what comes along and then try to halfway handle it so it’s acceptable for you. And I don't like writing stories about people with goals. I prefer to write stories with stupid coincidences...  and messy lives.
Did you want a female protagonist from the beginning? Birgit Minichmayr embodies a woman who is completely inscrutable. How did you work out the role of this hermetic figure together? What do you see as the strengths of Birgit Minichmayr as an actress?
I really wanted a woman as the main character. I think women in the countryside are more exciting than men in the countryside. Andrea, who has tried to compromise with rural life as a woman and grown a really thick skin as a result, who deliberately refrains from achieving success in the countryside by using "feminine" tactics and has decided to live her life the way she wants instead, marches through the film like a cowboy. We don't think it's remarkable when men behave very enigmatically, when you don't know exactly what's going on inside them. The moment a woman does that, I find it really exciting. We are so used to women expressing their feelings to the outside world that Andrea's manner triggers puzzled responses.
I always had Birgit Minichmayr in mind when I was writing the script, and I hoped she’d like it. She's an actress who can do everything, but she doesn't play everything. The best critics of a script are smart actors. Birgit, as well as other actors, added something to the story that was only outlined in the script at best.
You have once again created a character for yourself who is part of an old world, a world that’s fading if not already vanished. But he is also a character who may be leading a kind of double life.
Franz Leitner is an outsider. Actually, what makes him interesting is that he doesn't act the way men in the countryside are supposed to, which is why he's an old fool now. He doesn't think that's a bad thing. He doesn't have a career plan either, like Andrea. He’s quite lonely, and what happens to him in the film actually brings him alive, although it is a great imposition. Somehow, he comes alive due to this guilt. Perhaps not so much because, as a Catholic, he has a set of tools enabling him to handle guilt well, but something is finally stirring in his life again. There seems to come a point where two outsiders who are fundamentally different can help each other quite a lot and learn from each other. For me, Franz is more of a beaten man than someone with hidden depths. Although you could wonder where he was going, out in his car that night. That’s never cleared up.
The way you handle "guilt" is left very open. The teacher doesn’t become a scapegoat, and although she turns herself in, Andrea isn’t condemned by those around her. The vastness of the fields suddenly opens up options here that contrast with the narrowness of the village. Maybe the countryside isn't the peak of narrow-mindedness after all?
When you look at these road villages, you don't get the impression that people really live together. They may see each other in the supermarket, in the pharmacy, at the gas station, even in the church in the old days, but that hardly happens anymore – and the road villages show that so clearly… because basically there’s hardly anyone on the streets. And why should there be? There’s nothing there. They all live behind the houses, in their yards, away from the community. The countryside isn’t a place where people have more to do with each other. Maybe the countryside is a place where you have less choice about the people you interact with; in the city, it's easier for us to get into a bubble. The events in ANDREA GETS A DIVORCE have nothing to do with cold-blooded murder: it’s more like a very clumsy incident. What are the major consequences? The man who ran over the person lying in the road couldn’t have seen him. He may have killed a human being, but who exactly is to blame? Of course, some people will insinuate that the man was an old alcoholic, and if he hadn’t been, he could have braked. What will happen to Andrea at the end when she leaves? She broke some rules, but the tragedy isn’t rooted in drama. The tragedy is that different people want different things at different times, and then sometimes collisions occur. That's the tragedy. But it's not terribly dramatic. I like that.
The country – as you capture it in the first and last images – a place of narrowness or a place of vastness?
That's really a matter of opinion. For me, it's not so much about narrowness or space, but about being left alone when I want, and that's why I prefer to be in the city, because it's much easier to be disturbed in the countryside. The writer Thomas Bernhard lived in an old farmhouse in Upper Austria that he’d renovated, and he was always being disturbed. Then he bought a house even further in the forest. The fewer times he was disturbed there were actually more disturbing than at the farmhouse. In the end, he was quite happy in Vienna in the 19th district, with his life partner, and was able to live there most quietly. That's the way it is. The narrowness of the provinces is in people's minds, and that has nothing to do with geography.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
December 2023

Translation: Charles Osborne

«I also wanted to see how much comedy, and what kind of comedy, is possible when something bad happens in the first quarter of the film.»