«How do people look at somebody who comes into light?»

Barbara Albert's new film Light, set in Vienna in the late Rococo period, is the fourth feature film, produced by NGF Geyrhalterfilm.  Maria Theresia Paradis, a musical prodigy who lost her sight at the age of three appeals to the ambition of Dr Mesmer. Light focuses on his efforts to revive Resi’s powers of vision and on the talented young woman's oscillation between light and shadow both in her own life and in society’s perception of her. We talked to producer Michael Kitzberger.
The final days of shooting for Light are taking place in Schloss Hetzendorf, where the opening scene is set. There are a lot of ladies and gentlemen in historical outfits lounging around the corridors. How does Barbara Albert’s Light begin?
MICHAEL KITZBERGER: In this opening scene of Light the 17-year-old Maria Theresia Paradis, who is blind, is presented to society in a Viennese salon by her parents. She performs both as a pianist and musical prodigy and also by dancing a minuet with her father; her mother trained her in this. The childhood of Resi, as she is known in the film, was very firmly characterized by this compulsion to display her achievements. Her parents attempted to compensate for her blindness by demonstrating her talents to society (and this focus on achievement is just one of the many aspects of the film that also relate to our times). For these days of the shoot we had the most extras on the set, because the festivities in the salon had to be appropriately "lively". Since the film is set in the Rococo period, and we concentrate a lot of detail, we also had a huge team of additional costume and make-up people behind the camera as well.
Barbara Albert is a director who is generally associated with coop99 filmproduktion; how did it come about that you worked together on this film?
MICHAEL KITZBERGER: Alissa Walser’s novel Mesmerized, which depicts the story of Franz Anton Mesmer and Maria Theresia Paradis, greatly impressed Barbara Albert, and she optioned it for a film version. We have been friends with Barbara since we all started out in the film business, and on top of that, I think Barbara quite wanted to work "only" as a director for once, without having to bear in mind the producer’s agenda as well. Since she has been living in Berlin for a long time, and Franz Anton Mesmer was German (and Paradis also performed concerts in Berlin later), Germany was a natural coproduction option. Our association with LOOKS Filmproduktion goes back to a meeting with Martina Haubrich in Cannes in 2013. At that time Michael Kohlhaas was in competition in Cannes; it was LOOKS’ first feature film - previously they had concentrated exclusively on documentaries. There were some interesting similarities with our own company story (with our first two feature films, Der Räuber and Michael in competition in Berlin and Cannes). Then we established that we shared the same film vision, which meant that LOOKS was also my first choice when we were looking for a coproduction partner for Light. Martina was immediately keen on the idea and came right on board.
After Der Räuber, Michael and Anfang 80, Light is the fourth cinema feature film from NGF Geyrhalterfilm. How does this project fit into your small but high-quality fiction portfolio?
MICHAEL KITZBERGER: For us to produce a feature film the script, the material, has to be convincing in terms of sustainability, and we have to be interested in the distinctive aspects of the director. These factors were very clearly present for this project. We liked the first script version by Kathrin Resetarits a great deal, although it was very long, and we were especially keen on working together with Barbara Albert, who we respect a great deal as a film autor. The themes of the film appealed to us in terms of contemporary social relevance, even though it is set in the past.
Whenever a film is set in a different epoch, the project inevitably takes on a grandiose, expensive aura. In terms of the technical aspects of the production, how big a step was it in fact from previous films?
MICHAEL KITZBERGER: Naturally Light was a big step in terms of budget, as a historical film, but since it is concentrated predominantly on one location, our early estimates suggested that it was still feasible for us: we established an internal budget limit of about €5 million. Producing a film that goes beyond that budget would require too many compromises for us, dictated by the state and regional effects that would have to be complied with, because the number of subsidy organizations would increase and at least one or maybe even two more coproduction countries would have to be brought on board. That would mean spending far too much time with financing and the "producer’s sport", which is what I call navigating through Excel tables and the requirements of the state and regional subsidy organizations, rather than with the creative production and supervision of a project, which is where our main interest and passion lies. So in association with Barbara we decided to take this risk. And the whole team has worked together to create this low-budget Rococo film.
Apart from the costs, historical films always represent a considerable challenge as regards production design, costumes and make-up. What kind of preparations went into creating the Rococo atmosphere?
MICHAEL KITZBERGER: As luck would have it, Alissa Walser’s novel turned out to be one of the favorite books of Katharina Wöppermann, who was Barbara's first choice as production designer. She's famous for her attention to detail when it comes to mounting searches and inventing solutions, and here she had the opportunity both to construct Mesmer's universe in the studio, based on historical details of course, and also to find various castles in Lower Austria, Vienna and the Czech Republic to constitute other parts of the universe. The costumes were created by the Veronika Albert, as in all of Barbara's films to date, although Light is her first opportunity to work on a historical cinema project, and she threw herself into the challenge with great gusto. She did an awful lot of travelling, as well as considerable historical research, and working together with the set design and director she produced a very detailed color concept, becoming intensely involved in the colors and patterns typical of the epoch. During the Rococo period, before they became unfashionable and very simplified, wigs were extremely important – and that meant they were also a crucial element of the make-up in the film. Helene Lang, who had already gained considerable historical experience from projects including Das finstere Tal and, most recently, Maximillian by Andreas Prochaska, was responsible for that vital detail. During the period wigs were very often interwoven with the person's own hair to form immense hair creations, so most of the wigs were specially developed for the actors involved by Helen and her team, and for major roles it would always take an hour or two for the characters to be made up. The result is really impressive!
The script of Light is based on a novel by Alissa Walser. Is the project an adaptation of the novel or a film interpretation of Maria Theresia Paradis's personal story?
MICHAEL KITZBERGER: The credits of the film will say: "Based on the novel by Alissa Walser and actual historical events." Alissa Walser’s novel has a very distinctive style which greatly appealed to Barbara. That was the starting point for the project, but then Kathrin Resetarits conducted very intense research into the facts in order to write the screenplay, reading a huge number of letters, documents and secondary literature from that era and about the period, and she also studied the situation of servants at that time. Walser’s novel pays less attention to those aspects. It's the combination of the novel, the historical events, a highly independent screenplay and Barbara Albert as writer-director (she revised the screenplay for the director’s version) which gives the project its unique quality.
As far as the story of Maria Theresia Paradis is concerned, the film actually deals with just over a year in her long life, 1777, when she entered Mesmer's Institute as a 17-year-old. We "only" tell the very significant story, on various levels, of the brief period when she was cured, when she learned to see again after suddenly going blind at the age of three. This film concentrates a lot on the subject of seeing and being seen, the question of how people look at somebody who comes into the light. What does light represent, in the sense of enlightenment and the additional meaning of freedom? Could it also be a form of freedom if, as a result of some restriction, a person is able to escape from social conventions and requirements, from social pressure?
Maria Theresia Paradis was a contemporary of Haydn and Mozart, as a pianist she toured Europe, but today she is virtually forgotten. Her male contemporaries have remained far more evident in terms of being seen.
MICHAEL KITZBERGER: As well as being a pianist, as she got older Paradis was also very productive as a composer. Alongside a number of piano and chamber music compositions, she also wrote songs and stage plays, although most of them are now lost. Her existing works are never performed today, either. We recorded an impressive piano fantasy she wrote for the film, to give a sort of perspective on her future life. Light focuses to a great extent on fascinating female characters; in addition to Maria Theresia Paradis and other representatives of the aristocracy and upper-class, there are also female servants such as Agi, a chambermaid, the family cook and their associates. They are portrayed by our wonderful actresses such as Maria Dragus, Maresi Riegner, Katja Kolm, Stefanie Reinsperger, Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg and Grete Tiesel (supported by wonderful actors including Devid Striesow, Lukas Miko, Christian Strasser and Hermann Scheidleder). In this the way the story opens up a lot of issues and possibilities of identification that also relate to the present day.
Interview: Karin Schiefer
May 2016
Translation: Charles Osborne