«As close as possible to reality.»

Constantin Wulff is a careful observer. He spent one and a half years at a psychiatric clinic for children and young people in order to give us a thorough insight to every day life of a hospital ward that generally evokes only vague and probably outdated ideas in our heads. Like The Others sets out for its international festival tour at Leipzig Dok. An interview with Constantin Wulff.

After Into the World, a documentary about everyday life in a Vienna maternity hospital, you remain in a medical setting for your current film project Like the Others. Where would you locate the continuity between the two films?
CONSTANTIN WULFF: There is actually a certain continuity. This film is also set in a medical facility, and the starting point was similar as well. My motivation for Into the World was the realization that the images I'd seen in the cinema of women giving birth never corresponded to what I'd experienced as the father of two children. On the subject of psychiatric care for children and young people I had the impression that the pictures most of us have in our heads are outdated, vague and distorted by fear. I wanted to counter this with some realistic images from the present day.
How did you get the people on board – the staff of the clinic and the children and young people being treated there?
CONSTANTIN WULFF: The advantage I had when making this film was that I could already point to a previous film I’d made. So the clinic administration and the staff could get an idea of how I work. They saw that it wouldn't be either a sanitized whitewash or a simplistic, sensational film. Instead, it would be a film focusing on observation, attempting to be as close as possible to reality. As with my last film, again we had a long preliminary period – about a year – when we established all the legal, medical and ethical parameters. All in all, we had such intense advance discussions about all the possible situations in the film with the staff, the children and young people – and also their parents – that I felt very secure about the whole process, and when we were actually filming there was a great deal of trust on both sides.
An image of a playground in spring, and some shots of the clinic building in winter, establish the timeframe operating in the film and are at the same time the only external pictures. Otherwise, the audience is plunged inside the clinic, into this closed world. Being closed off like that signifies protection and discretion but also exclusion, with the element of taboo. What was it like to have access to that interior, and how did you handle it?
CONSTANTIN WULFF: We filmed over a period of a year and a half, with three and a half months actual shooting. I spent a year of my life on that ward. For the children and young people, we were simply there. Incidentally, there were more days when we didn’t film anything than full shooting days. The children and young people had a huge amount of fun, and the staff also found our presence positive. Sometimes we made everyday life there more relaxing, because one of the problems experienced by children there is not getting enough attention at home. A camera crew means 100% attention. Many of the "disruptive" children relaxed more when we were around, simply because we were doing something with them. As for the small number of exterior shots, from the very start I wanted to concentrate on everyday life in the institution, and that almost exclusively goes on indoors. This made the exterior shots special, and I had to be careful they wouldn't be read as highly symbolic; I just wanted them to remain what they are, which is external shots of the clinic complex. In my view attaching poetic overtones to the subject of psychiatric illness, which is often done in films, is completely the wrong way of depicting crisis and vulnerability.
Could you describe more closely the sort of poetic overtones you mean?
CONSTANTIN WULFF: What happens most often in films is a kind of exaggeration, implying that the world itself is crazy, so those who deviate from the norm are the only non-crazy people, the genuine ones. There’s a whole repertoire of images and sounds in the history of film that are used to depict that kind of "crazy world". I've always found that kitsch, and right from the start I wanted to take a very sober look at everyday life in the clinic.
The camera had to be very discreet but also very mobile. What did that mean in terms of the task facing your cameraman Johannes Hammel? How was the camerawork conducted during a team meeting, for example, or if unforeseen things happened?
CONSTANTIN WULFF: Johannes Hammel, who was also the cameraman for In the World, is an outstanding observer, and he's ideal for this type of Direct Cinema. We've known each other for a long time, and often we understand one another implicitly. At the same time, sometimes I’m very strict as a director, because even things in a documentary don't just happen; decisions have to be made. That means a lot of the pans, the zooms and the framing are the result of decisions I made at that moment. On top of that, however, there are lovely moments where the cameraman got into the flow and decided completely intuitively who or what situation he would follow. As a director, you have to be able to trust someone like that. With Johannes and me it's based particularly on the huge amount of work we’ve done together, and on a similar understanding of cinema itself.
How did the clinic strike you as a space, as a piece of architecture? How did you perceive it in terms of being a place for children where spontaneity, the urge to move around, the need for warmth and security, among other things, have crucial roles to play? How did that architecture open itself to the view of the camera or perhaps remain inaccessible?
CONSTANTIN WULFF: One initial impression for me, which was very important and surprising, was the realization that the psychiatric clinic for children and young people is part of a hospital. That's a social statement. It is a rejection of the idea that the insane should be locked up in a Narrenturm (the “Fool’s Tower” was the 19th century lunatic asylum in Vienna). The second surprise was that nobody walks round in a white coat. There aren’t any heavy doors with big locks or barred windows. There are doors that have to be kept closed, but the general impression created by the architecture is much more one of openness and transparency, particularly due to the large windows. Which caused some technical problems for us when we were filming. The message of the architecture is: we’re not hiding people away, and we want to make it easy to get help. But the place still is a hospital, with a cold, anonymous atmosphere. The clinic isn't a cheerful living room; on the contrary, the children and young people are apart from their families.
When I saw Like the Others it struck me as a film about the limits of protection, the limits of helping and healing, and as a film about exhaustion: exhausting the possibilities of assistance with the legal framework and the exhaustion of the human resources. Were those points also part of the understanding you came to after this long working process?
CONSTANTIN WULFF: The gripping aspect of the Direct Cinema method is that a lot of things find their way into the material which you don't register so clearly while you're actually filming. The fact that the staff were exhausted, which is visible at the end, wasn't so apparent to me while we were shooting. After all, you get used to everyday life in the clinic, to the constant bright light, the smells and the sounds. To a certain extent we became part of the clinic, so we didn't see some things from outside any more. When you analyze the footage at the editing desk you suddenly see things from a new perspective again. Particularly the scene when Paulus Hochgatterer is confronted by the two senior doctors shows clearly the huge trust the hospital administration placed in us when we were making the film. It isn't easy for an institution to permit things like that. I have great respect for them.
But in many cases the limits you come up against when you're trying to help someone become visible, the way a doctor must experience them.
CONSTANTIN WULFF: Yes, those limits become clear. For me, the film can almost be boiled down to the long conversation between Sophie and the doctor treating her. The conversation lasted several minutes, and it's filmed with reverse angles, like a kind of showdown. You see that it's a battle between the two of them about the smallest step forward. And that struck me as a kind of quintessential feature of what I experienced there: the everyday struggle for the smallest changes. But the best thing about the scene is the fact that Sophie is so strong. She opposes the doctor's good intentions, and in response he comes up with something else, because he wants a clear agreement on a measurable basis. And the question always in the background is when can they move on to the next step. One of the stereotypes about psychiatric institutions for children and young people is that the youngsters involved stay there for ages. But that's just not true. The department in Tulln is more like a transit station, with the youngsters there on a short-term basis. Exactly how long varies, from a few hours or a few days to several weeks. None of the children and young people in the film is still there today.
Interview: Karin Schiefer
October 2015

Translation by Charles Osborne