«Özge doesn't talk things to death: she acts and reacts.»

THE HELL is being promoted as the fastest and toughest action thriller ever produced in Austria. What will make the film so fast and so tough?
STEFAN RUZOWITZKY: People tend to associate speed in an action film with fast cuts, and they will certainly feature as well. But I'm predominantly concerned with the pace of the narrative, by which I mean the dialogue and the sequence of scenes. Helmut Grasser in his company Allegro Film has set himself the task of producing Austrian genre films – The Dark Valley and Dead in 3 Days. Those two films utilize the setting of the countryside and the mountains, and now The Hell is going to be a big-city thriller.
You filmed your last two thrillers, Patient Zero and Deadfall, in the USA. To what extent has your experience in the USA changed your approach now that you are making an action movie in Europe?
STEFAN RUZOWITZKY: My aim is to do as many varied things as possible and not to be pinned down to one genre at all. I learned a great deal in the USA with respect to the craft and how to approach such things in principle. In this project we have a scene where a car has to roll over. Well, it isn’t the first time I've had to stage a scene with a car rolling over. I can draw upon my experience, I know how to work with the stunt people, I know what can happen, I know how they do it in America. That means I have more confidence when I’m shooting here, because I know more clearly what's in store for me. When it comes to gathering experience in the USA, on the one hand you realize they’re not so different to here, but on the other hand you do learn the rules and established procedures, and it is worthwhile knowing them. The filming itself is where the biggest similarities lie between working in Europe or the USA. You have a certain creative freedom wherever you are. Fundamental differences exist regarding financing and the process whereby the film actually gets made in the first place – and in the editing and postproduction phase you also feel much more strongly the influence and pressure of producers, distributors and studios over there. But the hallmark of a thriller isn’t determined by the question of whether it's made in Europe or the USA; it has much more to do with director whether the film ends up slower or more conventional, or shot in a very dynamic way with a hand camera or GoPros.
One thing that might characterize your approach in the action genre is the combination of technical skills and involvement with the character. In The Hell there is a female protagonist, Özge, a young woman from an immigrant background. What is it that makes her a complex leading character?
STEFAN RUZOWITZKY: Özge has the features of a classic action hero: she's withdrawn, and gradually you realize that she's experienced very powerful, traumatic things in her life. Like every action hero, she prefers deeds to words. During rehearsals we quite often cut lines of her dialogue completely. Violetta Schurawlow has very beautiful eyes and an intense gaze: she looks at something… and then walks on – or she lashes out. She doesn't talk things to death: she acts and reacts. In good American action films there are also interesting, multi-faceted characters: I'm thinking of the Coen brothers, or Sicario, for example. That's what we're trying to achieve in The Hell, and here too there are different themes involved. I always try to make films that interest me, that provide good action and lots of adrenaline but at the same time say something about human existence and the society we live in.
Was it your original intention to have a female main protagonist?
STEFAN RUZOWITZKY: It wasn't a stipulation, but it developed that way, and I think that's fine. I'm sure people in the film business who claim that action heroines don’t work are mistaken. From Alien to Hunger Games, the contrary has often been proven. My Anatomy with Franka Potente in the leading role is still the most successful German-language genre film. Hexe Lilli is also an action heroine, you might say. I think a female protagonist in an action film is more multi-faceted, and more interesting, because other factors come into play when a woman has to combat a male villain. In my view it also makes things more thrilling, and more attractive for a female audience, when it isn't just boys beating each other up.
Why does Violetta Schurawlow capture the character of Özge so well?
STEFAN RUZOWITZKY: When we started to think about casting it seemed to us that there was nobody among the familiar names who really fitted the description of the character. So we mainly auditioned newcomers, and the moment Violetta did a screen test for us the producer and I both felt she was the right choice – independently of each other. As a result of her origins in Uzbekistan she has an exotic air, a kind of dusky beauty which works well for this character. And the part was also a huge physical challenge. Of course we used doubles for the stunts, but the actress herself had to be there for certain scenes. For example, there's a scene where she is set on fire. When she burns for a longer time it's a double that you see – but she had to film the scene herself when she actually catches fire. In another scene she jumps off a bridge into the Danube Canal. The jump was performed by a world champion in splash diving – but Violetta herself had to jump off the railing and fall 3 or 4 meters on a rope. That takes a lot of nerve, despite all the safety precautions. The scene with the fire is a huge challenge mentally. You're burning, and you have to act even though your body is in a state of panic, producing adrenaline and all sorts of other physical reactions. Even if you’re in Formula 1 underwear and there are five firemen standing around, ready to extinguish the flames immediately, you still have to overcome the instinctive fear. When you make a film like this, it really does take it out of you. That's why I wanted us to develop actors and actresses like Violetta with abilities in action filming. In the early stages of the project there was a proposal to use a big name. But it would have been completely ridiculous to hire somebody who was famous for romantic comedies. That might make the film entertaining, but you can't make a real action movie that way. Since there aren't so many action films made in German-speaking countries, there aren't any big names that can sell the genre either.
The Hell isn’t only fast-moving but also very brutal. Making an action movie without any violence would be a contradiction in terms. How do you decide the quota of violent incidents in your work?
STEFAN RUZOWITZKY: Actually, I once worked it out. On average there are six murders or six killings in each film I make. There aren’t so many in The Hell, but they're more gruesome. Violence is an aspect of life, so it also features in films. But it always depends how you depict it: whether violence is the solution or the problem. I try to avoid presenting violence as the only legitimate means of resolving an issue, which is what you find in trashy Hollywood movies, but for our story I think it's important and correct to employ violence and talk about it.
The violence that occurs in The Hell has various connotations, one of which is associated with current developments where religious fanaticism goes hand in hand with violent acts. What prompted you to deal the subjects of violence and religion as we engage with them today, and to do so in the genre of entertainment films?
STEFAN RUZOWITZKY: I really don't want to emphasize any possible social references here, because I wouldn’t like to prompt a negative response on the part of younger cinema audiences. If there's a young Muslim woman who, purely with her own strength, manages to deal with a guy who is a psychopath and a misogynist, and also crazy enough to try to justify those attitudes with religion, then there may be certain references to real life there, but they are not in the foreground. I wouldn't want them to be expressed theoretically or debated. I'd be very pleased if we've created the character of Özge successfully enough for young women to see her as a positive figure who succeeds in asserting herself. The Hell definitely isn't what might be described in this country as a socially critical or political film.
Martin Ambrosch wrote the screenplay for The Hell. Did you develop the material jointly with him?
STEFAN RUZOWITZKY: Martin Ambrosch wrote the screenplay by himself. I always think it is very important, during the screenwriting phase and later in the work as well, to talk to the actors about it a lot and to make adjustments so things can develop. Tobias Moretti had a lot of ideas that made his character more interesting. I also didn't want the lives of immigrants in Vienna to be depicted on the screen as a miserable vale of tears. That's why there's a lively range of characters, including a successful Bosnian businessmen, people who have completely integrated and also people like Özge‘s parents, who are less integrated. That seems to me to correspond to real life. The film is clearly located in Vienna, and that's intended to be part of its entertainment value. It will be entertaining for audiences in Vienna to have chases that involve cars racing through the narrow lanes of the city, around the Ring or across the Stadtpark. And we hope it's also interesting for international audiences if an action film isn’t set in New York or Los Angeles or some anonymous American city for once, so you can discover something new.
Interview: Karin Schiefer
April 2016
Translation: Charles Osborne