Barbara Albert talks about FREE RADICALS


«I wanted the figures to be totally concrete, realistic and tangible, I wanted certain moments to have a vitality and intense corporeality, and in my opinion both are there. It's an abstract film which makes use of extremely concrete figures and moments, and it also works with everyday matters and snapshots of life. I wanted to employ these elements and see what happens.»


What's the theme of your second feature-length film?

BARBARA ALBERT: Free Radicals is in my opinion an essay on a certain theme in which several other themes are also covered. Specifically Free Radicals is a film about the fear of dying, and there are a few sub-themes. Atmospherically this variation on the fear of dying is in my opinion successful in light of the possibilities available to me. My second intention was an attempt to put a large number of characters into a single film. And thirdly there was my need to tell about a certain reality, though at the same time about something which is more complex: a combination of total reality and something which is not clearly real.


Will the viewer have a hard time summing up the plot of Free Radicals? This film has a mosaic-like structure and is also somewhat abstract.

BARBARA ALBERT: Abstract is certainly the right word, and that was my intention. But with abstractness concrete figures are required in order to approach the theme. I wanted the figures to be totally concrete, realistic and tangible, I wanted certain moments to have a vitality and intense corporeality, and in my opinion both are there. It's an abstract film which makes use of extremely concrete figures and moments, and it also works with everyday matters and snapshots of life. I wanted to employ these elements and see what happens. Will this work or will it be just a puzzle which does not connect? Another thing I considered was creating a structure with a few dead ends, where the story doesn't go any further and no solution is provided. Just like real lifeæa many-layered structure of figures, people and individuals. Some things lead to a particular goal and some don't, but one must constantly search for logical connections and attempt to put them all together.


How do things get going when you write?

BARBARA ALBERT: Firstly I gather topics I want to tell stories about and which are in a sense abstract – such as fear, or endlessness or sadness, fundamental things. Secondly there are characters that fascinate me, that I think up scenes for. The material for these scenes comes from a mixture of my memories, the memories of others and observations. Free Radicals is not as autobiographical as Northern Skirts, because it doesn't have as many scenes I experienced myself or that are as personal. But just under the surface it does have a great deal to do with me and my experiences. In principle I always avoid retelling stories because compressing a story to the most important aspect is rarely successful. What's important to me is how the story is told, which character I'm close to at which moments, the moments that make up a film's atmosphere. Atmospheres and emotions interest me the most in the medium of film, but not particularly the plot.


This film confronts the viewer with a great deal of the mercilessness of fate and conveys at its conclusion resignation to that fate rather than the expected ray of hope.

BARBARA ALBERT: It's a combination of the two. In my opinion there's also a lot of reconciliation when I say we're always looking, including throughout the film, for logical connections, for conclusions, for solutions, for something which leads somewhere. In the end, and one could say that it's a drag and I agree – it is as it is as it is. That can seem extremely cold, and it is somewhat passive, but it's also about a certain theme – the theme of death. If I were to make a political film in which people are fighting for something and at the end I say that that's how fate works, it would be wrong. But little Yvonne is in a situation where she can't even ask whether she's able to change the world. She's just here and is then confronted with someone's death, with losing someone. In the final analysis that's how simple it is, in spite of all constructs, in spite of the search for coherence, the struggle for survival, not wanting to be alone, the struggle and the desire to have someone, it's about accepting the fact that life just is as it is.


There are a number of characters, but some who aren't even present play an important role.

BARBARA ALBERT: What I really wanted was a characte – it turned out to be Manu in this film – who disappears but maintains a presence until the very end. Kathrin Resetarits has such a strong screen presence that it works with her, she's just always there. That's like family constellations: A lot of important people aren't there, but they're still so important that they exist although they're dead, and they still exercise an influence on the living.


Why do things like the supernatural and family constellations, things which can't be explained rationally, play a role?

BARBARA ALBERT: Because they too relate to death, which is the subject of my film. And this also involves a game with various levels of reality – is that the film's reality or real-life reality? In my opinion these family constellations embody systems of people who are involved with one another and are dependent on one another in an abstract way. The scene culminates here, and "characters are put forth," in film, in life, in this form of therapy. And I wanted to compare these systems.


What was the casting process for all these characters like?

BARBARA ALBERT: Long and complicated, because our search covered a lot of ground, from schools and nursery schools to bars and the streets for the amateurs, and then agencies for the professional actors, other films, part of the time in Germany. I always devote a lot of time and effort to the cast, and in this case the intention was primarily to try out various combinations, who really works well with whom, and at some point I hung up all the pictures of the "film family" and asked myself whether the family tree looked right, so to speak.


The timeless main theme is joined by critical commentary on today's society in the form of emotionally wrenching TV shows and big game shows?

BARBARA ALBERT: That's a secondary theme. Originally the theme of guilt played a more important role. In the TV show "Verzeih mir" ["Forgive Me"] someone is publicly asked for forgiveness. I didn't intend to criticize that, I just wanted to say that this is how we deal with the subject of guilt at present, and I was astonished: Rather than trying to solve an interpersonal problem directly I'll go public or through some medium as if that would make the whole thing more important. More valuable, easier, and that's a phenomenon I find frightening, the fact that everything on television is more valuable. That's an important part of the film's mood.


Free Radicals was the first film you've produced. What was that experience like?

BARBARA ALBERT: In all it was great, very intense and positive. I also noticed that having personal responsibility suits me very well. Of course being the producer wasn't my main task, that was done by my colleagues in coop99. Martin Gschlacht also operated the camera, and we had a strong sense that we were making the decisions ourselves as part of a process – at the same time the others in coop99 performed a regulatory function. To my mind there was no problem that I had to deal with certain issuesæsuch as "How much do I have to save next week if I work overtime this week" - in my opinion that's part of the creative process, dealing with these things, and when I direct too. It's an incentive, being personally responsible and not having to justify everything. That was really liberating, though whether it's your first or second film makes a big difference. My development is at a different stage. I've learned a lot in the meantime, in part thanks to the smaller projects I did after Northern Skirts, and the team was an excellent combination of people who were totally supportive.


This film has enjoyed a lot of international attention because of the invitation to Locarno. What's the significance of that?

BARBARA ALBERT:  When your first film is invited to Venice and is well received, you're spoiled. But this experience gave me the feeling that I don't have to chase after success any longer, because I've already experienced it. But with Free Radicals I noticed right away that whether it was accepted or not would affect me in some way. I couldn't say that doesn't matter to me at all, partly because I still have a big emotional investment in this film. What I can be sure of is that the public will have even more difficulty understanding it than Northern Skirts. This is a film with a great deal of content, and that was the risk I took. I'm even happy that it met with a wide variety of reactions, because that means people are thinking about it. I'm prepared for that too, which I wasn't after Northern Skirts. Making it took a lot of effort and the success was that much better as a result. I don't need it as much this time, because I have a better idea of what I want, even if it involves a risk.


Have you started working on your next project?

BARBARA ALBERT:  I've started thinking about my third film, though there might be some smaller things first. That proved to be very positive between Northern Skirts and Free Radicals. Situation Report for example and working with other people was very educational, I got over a number of my fears. That's why I want to take time again to see what could come next. Of course it has to be something new, Free Radicals was completely different from Northern Skirts. I'm sure it won't be another complex system with a lot of characters, there will have to be something else that challenges me.


Interview: Karin Schiefer (2003)