Benjamin Heisenberg about SLEEPER


« find lifting the viewer out of the space they've let themselves fall into is interesting and productive for arousing their attention so they don't become sleepers.» Benjamin Heisenberg about Sleeper. This first feature length film premiered in Cannes' 2005 Un Certain Regard.


Although it isn't spelled out explicitly, Sleeper echoes September 11. What was the story's inspiration?

BENJAMIN HEISENBERG: September 11 was in my opinion a decisive event, because it seemed to show clearly and in a dramatic way how this new type of terrorism would alter the political situation. The consequences became visible so quickly. National security systems were reorganized at high speed so that terrorism could be dealt with as a new "type of war." Unfortunately this opportunity was also exploited to make changes in domestic policy, which governments had been wanting to do for some time but couldn't because what they wanted didn't conform to data-protection guidelines. I was stunned that some of the laws put through on domestic security would have met with strenuous resistance in the eighties. And I realized how little is in fact necessary before our basic rights are abandoned. In my opinion this brings up the question of how fast someone will throw their own principles and values overboard in the face of political instability, and how little is necessary before someone's betrayed. The enormous feeling of insecurity caused by 9/11 is still with us, and it has also politicized people. On top of that I can sense a general feeling of insecurity in our society, which was born of globalization and comes mainly from the complex way in which the world's perceived.


Does the protagonists' search for a path between oppressive social control and total freedom reflect a contemporary feeling of unease?

BENJAMIN HEISENBERG: I think that what we're seeing today is like a search for both stability and freedom, and it's contradictory. With the old structures such as family, marriage, parenthood, etc. people were able to develop a feel for certain unavoidable constraints and make decisions. At present people can decide for themselves whether they accept these constraints or save their energy for something else. Deals are being made constantly. Making decisions has become much more difficult as a result, much more individualized. The moment people lose the emotional connection to themselves, they lose all guideposts. All three main characters in the film are suffering from this dilemma. They're strangers to the city, are unable to fall back on a circle of friends, a social network, and are searching for inner and outer orientation.


What does the world of science represent in the film?

BENJAMIN HEISENBERG: For me this is first and foremost a world in which ethical questions are posed. In experiments involving animals life-and-death decisions are made as part of the daily work schedule, and I sensed that as a result people develop a kind of rationalized attitude which resembles that of an FBI informer or a sleeper. There's a kind of emotional dissociation, because they have to transform something they would normally judge with their emotions into something theoretical. The motives behind this split are extremely varied. In one case it's done for an ideology, in another in the interest of scientific analysis of problems, and in a third it's simply because of a need to earn money. Something that normally takes place on an emotional level is rationalized, which leads to a moral conflict.


Are Johannes and Farid two opposite poles or two people fighting for the same side?

BENJAMIN HEISENBERG: They're not on the same side at all. And I wouldn't really consider them to be opposite poles. Parts of them are opposite, while others point in the same direction. On the one hand Johannes makes reports on Farid, and on the other a relationship develops between the two men. This is a professional situation with certain fields of conflict, but there's also positive emotion. Johannes sees Farid as one of the few people he can talk to and have discussions with at a similarly high level. At the same time Farid's physical features and the way he deals with conflicts and enjoys the positive aspects of life are foreign to him. He?s attracted to Farid and pushed away at the same time, and depending on where Johannes is in the film, one feeling or the other predominates. The betrayal at the end results from the interaction of disappointment and actions in the course of the film that drive him to despair.

What role is played by the love triangle introduced into the story through Beate?

BENJAMIN HEISENBERG: I no longer see it as a ménage à trois. Though I described it that way for a while, I decided later that that doesn't apply because the three don't really come to any kind of arrangement and the competition continues to smolder. Beate's a searcher and enters into relationships with both men because she can see two sides of the same coin in them. She needs both sides because of her own sense of uncertainty. As a character I've always seen her as seeming relatively strong on the outside, but at the same repeatedly falling into the depths of loneliness and isolation and someone who tends to look for partners who can keep her head above water, so to speak. The moment one leaves her, she starts searching for another. When Farid becomes unobtainable, she tries to land Johannes again so as not to descend into loneliness. She also resembles the other two psychologically, who are lonely in their own ways and searching for orientation.


The film dispenses with a morally strong character who represents certain values, and also with the principle of love as an answer. Is this a pessimistic view of interpersonal relations?

BENJAMIN HEISENBERG: I don't see it that way. I think that the connection between these three individuals is built on an all-too shaky foundation. But that's more a realistic assessment than a pessimistic one. The fact that there?s no strong moral character isn't intentional. I wanted to show uncertainty. I'm not so sure that love doesn't promise to cure all in the film. It says that this desire for love, as shown in the film in this constellation, doesn't provide certainty because it involves too many elements of uncertainty. Love isn't really interest in the other person, it's a wish for certainty. I don't think this love will last, but it's not harder to understand, and I have the feeling that it works this way very often these days. But I'm also convinced that a very strong feeling of love can provide a great deal of certainty in a person's life. At the same time relationships that work well constantly go through this up and down of certainty and uncertainty, and love doesn't cushion the impact of everything that goes wrong like it does in so many romance stories. That's how I think love's depicted in the film.


How did the affinity to coop99 come about?

BENJAMIN HEISENBERG: My collaboration with coop99 started through our periodical Revolver, an issue of which was dedicated to them. We saw Lovely Rita and were thrilled, and then we saw the other films by Barbara Albert, Jessica Hausner and Antonin Svoboda, all of whom have worked with Martin Gschlacht. That seemed to be an extremely interesting production concept. We were also at the Viennale for a meeting of Revolver and coop99, and we all became friends, realized that there's a great deal of overlap with regard to content and that we could work together well. With coop99 I had the feeling that they're one of the few production companies in Europe with which you can make the kind of films I make at an extremely high artistic level.


Sleeper is your thesis film at Munich's film school. Doesn't your artistic background lie in a different field?

BENJAMIN HEISENBERG: After finishing school I enrolled at the art academy, I studied Sculpture at the Munich academy until 2000 and film too in the final years before graduating. I still work in both fields. My visual artworks developed gradually in the direction of film, and I started to make videos inspired by classic painting and sculpture. This led to a study of film and then my first short film, which I financed myself. Although production of that film was extremely chaotic, it convinced me that I'd like to continue working in film.


What can be done with film that isn't possible with sculpture?

BENJAMIN HEISENBERG:  For me film is a collage medium in time. That's one of the differences compared to sculpture, though it's possible with installation art to an extent. Of course sculpture, like film, involves modeling light and shade, but having images that imply or simulate movement combined with a spoken text or sound which can be used to tell a story, that was new. Of course sculpture can also tell a story - my sculptures were symbolistic figures reminiscent of parables, some of them extremely narrative - but I think that film again provides its own reality and that fiction films suggest reality in a special way. This "make believe," which conveys the sense of a space of reality, allows a completely different kind of driving force to operate emotionally, which I find interesting. There are numerous moments and sequences in Sleeper where this work in the visual arts is apparent as an influence. For example when the characters are seen from the front, looking into the camera, while playing a computer game. That's from one of my video installations in which children are observed while playing computer games. They look straight into the camera, and there's an intense kind of concentration. I've frequently tried to include anti-realistic moments that unexpectedly juxtapose one emotion and something new. I find lifting the viewer out of the space they've let themselves fall into is interesting and productive for arousing their attention so they don't become sleepers.


Interview: Karin Schiefer (2005)