«What fascinates me a lot is the huge difference ...


... between what people say and what they think.» Jessica Hausner on her new film, AMOUR FOU, selected for Un Certain Regard at the 67th Cannes festival.

The meaning of the term love changes considerably depending on the historical and social context. Why have you chosen the context of the early 19th century in order to reflect on the subject?
Jessica Hausner: My original idea was to make a film about a double suicide. I always discover the more specific nature of my interest during the course of my research. In this case I studied a large number of contemporary episodes, and at some point I stumbled upon Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel, and their joint suicide. What struck me as interesting about it is that in the early 19th century the concept of romantic love began to develop: the belief that love must last forever and is something absolute. I often have the feeling that we carry with us to this day the burden of this romantic idea. Dying together because of love is an extension of the idea that love is absolute, that it resolves all difficulties and is even more powerful then death. Unfortunately, it's simply not like that - which is what Amour Fou describes.

The title, Amour Fou, implies a love where the people involved have lost their heads and no longer act according to reason. Kleist and Henriette certainly don't act from passion or a feeling of love in the way we regard it today. What feelings are behind their actions, in your view?
Jessica Hausner: The title, Amour Fou, is intended in a slightly ironic way. I understand it more to mean "love is crazy". The driving force for these two characters is anything but passionate love. Certain circumstances in their separate lives prompt them to choose each other. During the course of the story you get the feeling that the motivations for each of them are very closely connected with their own characters. Why should anybody give himself or herself to another person in any case? This alliance or affection between Heinrich and Henriette takes on an insipid quality because something calculated or ambivalent comes into play.

"Till death do us part" was the premise underlying the binding together of a man and a woman at that time. In Amour Fou Kleist is looking for a person who will bind herself to him in death. Was this paradox one of your starting points for the story?
Jessica Hausner: What fascinates me a lot is the huge difference between what people say and what they think. At the beginning of the film Henriette and Kleist speak about the Marquise of O. Henriette says she feels that the Marquise exerts an attraction over her, but then she contradicts herself. She utters the words: "You say one thing and yet feel the other at the same time". This completely normal mendacity is one of the premises of the film.

Were you also interested in exploring the mystery of people choosing to die together? Is that one of the last remaining mysteries, in a way? The desperate attempt to escape from the solitude of death?
Jessica Hausner: I wasn't searching for a Romeo and Juliet variation, where two people are driven together by the pressures of society but not allowed to live together. In the case of Kleist and Henriette Vogel, it would have been quite conceivable for them to live together. It's more like an attempt to claim that an existential love has been created by this joint death. Heinrich says he is looking for somebody who finds him more important than that person finds herself. That's an insane presumption, but probably it's not so rare for people to cherish such a wish in secret. You do learn that you can't expect the kind of love from a partner that parents should give to a child, but I think the childish idea that you can be loved unconditionally, just the way you are, and that you can be the most important thing in the world for the other person, does exist in many people - and Kleist expresses it as well.

To what extent does Heinrich von Kleist and his literary creations exert a fascination over you?
Jessica Hausner: His work is fascinating. I'm thinking particularly of the Marquise of O. It's an unfathomable story. Here I’m completely in agreement with Henriette's mother in my film, who says: "What an absurd idea, that a woman who is impregnated against her will by a man can come to love him in the end." That's a very male fantasy. And I think that's also what inspired my character of Kleist in the film. What kind of man could think up something like that? He'd have to be somebody who is very caught up in his own extremes, who doesn't step outside, and who can only accept extreme things. What fascinates me about his literature are the bewildering twists and turns, in Michael Kohlhaas for example. The huge number of contradictions also exerted a powerful influence over me in my dramatic work: somebody does something, but then something else happens and it's necessary to perform a 180° turn. People are the playthings of fate, which can be very absurd and cruel. What’s certain is that in the end nothing meaningful emerges. I think that's great in his works.

The film doesn't make any claim for historical accuracy, but at the same time you work with great precision, as always. How did the film develop in that intermediate area between historical exactness, precise connections and free invention?
Jessica Hausner: As far as the series of events in the film is concerned, first of all I wrote my story without any regard at all for historical details about Kleist's life and contemporary history. I wanted to establish a dramatic arc that I wouldn't lose sight of as soon as I started to research - because I knew I'd be swamped by the huge number of details. I didn't want to lose myself in the effort to achieve historical fidelity. I think that’s dry and bland. I wanted to tell a story that also works today. The framework of the story is a parable. It's all to do with the to and fro of love. When that narrative arc had been established, I started to do research into the details and weighed them up to decide whether they would fit in my story or not. Actually, the historical biographies of Kleist are also just conjecture, because nobody was there and nobody knows the truth. And it would be reckless to take letters literally. People also tell lies when they write letters. The more research I did, the freer I felt to make some sense of the whole thing for myself -because nobody knows what it was really like.

Was it the painting or the literature of the period that predominantly helped you immerse yourself in the epoch?
Jessica Hausner: I'd say it was both. For writing the dialogue I looked round for correspondence and diaries from that period, and for a while I just copied out sentences from those letters as a way of writing myself into that time. Lines of dialogue from plays are actually works of art as well. Writing letters was also a form of artistic expression, but I think it was closer to the spoken word. There aren't any spoken recordings from this period. In terms of structuring the scenes, I looked at pictures, but I took my inspiration more from Renaissance art. That's probably connected with the composition of those works, like tableaux, where the main point is the interplay between the foreground and background, and the movement in the picture.

Colour is always a crucial factor with you. And here again it's surprising how colourful this early 19th-century period is, as it depicted in paintings.
Jessica Hausner: We were visiting Paretz Castle, for example, not far from Berlin, where there’s an anteroom in bright turquoise that reminded me most of all a fitness centre. I remarked to a colleague of mine: "That's a terrible renovation job." But then our museum guide explained that this turquoise was the true Prussian blue. The composition of the colours corresponded precisely with the technology that had just been developed in order to create that greenish blue. Again, you can only speculate, but when you do some research into the use of colour, it emerges that the preference was for bright shades. The walls weren’t just white: they were blue, red or green… And there was wallpaper, there were carpets that covered the floor of the whole room like fitted carpets. Our film is set in the Empire Period, that short time between 1810 and 1815 when people followed the model of ancient Greece. You can also see it in the clothes, with high waists and soft, flowing, light material. In terms of interior design, they used ancient columns, draped curtains and Greek landscapes painted on the walls. This was also connected with the philosophical ideal of antiquity. The patterns and colours don’t really develop until the Biedermeier period, but it all started at the beginning of the 19th century. Another interesting point is that heating, light and comfort were generally concentrated only in one living room, which is why people would sit around a table - five, six or more of them together, and they would hear what the other people were talking about. To a certain extent there was a different kind of privacy in those days.

It's interesting how you have succeeded in creating a portrait of society at that time with very few characters: the aunt, Henriette's mother – the couple who are friends, where we see political development, and then the silent but extremely complex figure of the maid. How would you describe your constellation of characters?
Jessica Hausner: The concentration of figures forming a microcosm around Henriette Vogel is the strongest focus, because this family arrangement represents something typical: the husband, the child, the mother, the friend of the house and the musical evenings. There’s something of a closed society about it. I'm always interested in explaining something about the society in the story of one individual, because I find it very striking that people's destiny is so strongly influenced by their environment. I find it difficult to come to terms with the idea of personal freedom. There may perhaps be a few things you can decide for yourself, but in most matters what is actually possible in a life is very much determined. The question "What can people decide freely for themselves?" plays an important role in this film. In conversation with Vogel Henriette says: "Love can't be chosen," and Vogel replies: "In a certain way it can." It’s interesting that he perceives freedom there of all places.

You work with few changes of perspective: in conversations, you tend to play with different focuses rather than cutting to different angles. Why is this?
Jessica Hausner: In this project I was interested in exploring to the limit the question of when a cut should come. I really tried to use only the most necessary cuts, and I put the question to myself: "When do I really want to change the perspective?" I wanted to go to the limit just once. That also explains the small number of cuts in Amour Fou. When a dialogue is filmed using the shot – reverse shot technique I find it most difficult to decide when I want to see who. It's often clearer for me if the perspective is changed by means of the scene than a convention of cutting.

Apart from Christian Friedel, whose face is familiar from The White Ribbon, the cast includes a lot of new names for Austrian cinema. How did you find your actors?
Jessica Hausner: It was a long search. I always find it extremely important that the casting process should continue until I have found the actor for each role who can enable physical plausibility to develop. Something unexpected which breathes life into the character. As though the person couldn't step outside their own skin. When something like that happens during auditions, then we go through some more scenes. In the casting process itself. That means when the auditions are finished, I've rehearsed everything. Then we meet again to shoot the film. Christian Friedel impressed me very much because he spoke the text eloquently and with a kind of self-irony: he was so wonderfully lacking in vanity as he pushed Kleist's amusing self-centred quality to the point where it became really funny. Birte Schnöink interested me because on the one hand her character is supposed to be innocent and naive, but on the other hand she isn’t at all stupid. She embodies a comic blend of passivity, gentleness, the desire to let herself be led and at the same time the wish to remain unreachable.

What motivations drove these characters to make their choice, in your view?
Jessica Hausner: I think the character of Henriette isn't sure until the very end – and would really like to call the whole thing off. It's part of her funny, passive nature that she doesn't back down. She simply couldn't find the right moment to say: "I actually don't want to do this at all." If her husband had said: "Don't go on that trip: have a rest, and then we'll go to Paris," maybe it wouldn't have happened at all. He let her go, and that's how it happened. In the end it was all very much a matter of chance.

One part which seems unimportant but is very complex and difficult to play is that of the maid.
Jessica Hausner: She so introvert, and there's something clumsy about her. It really only developed during the course of the casting process and the research into the scenes that Dörte, the maid, is in so many of the scenes. I started to feel more and more that the class society is shown in this way. The role of a servant as a silent witness is almost eerie. No matter what is being talked about, during practically all the conversations, this maid is standing in a corner, watching and listening to everything – and at the same time being completely ignored. She's treated not like a person but like a piece of furniture.

In musical terms, two pieces dominate the narrative. How did you choose these two works?
Jessica Hausner: In those days there was a real vogue for salons. There were literary or musical salons in private homes, both among the aristocracy and the upper classes, and also with mixed guests. It's kind of social evening that has something very convivial about it, and for the film that presented a very tangible image in order to make this period comprehensible. That's why I set out to find appropriate lieder. Mozart was very fashionable at the time, and Das Veilchen is by him. The second, Wo die Berge so blau, is a Beethoven composition. They were both very popular compositions, and they were sung very often.

At the end I see a parallel to Lourdes, where the last few minutes of the film are also carried by a song, and a space for reflection is opened for the viewer before you are released from the film.
Jessica Hausner: Henriette's daughter, who sings Wo die Berge so blau at the end of the film, carries the torch after the death of her mother. She is in her mother's shoes, in a sense. It's a sad moment that makes us think: "Hopefully she'll manage everything better, hopefully she can free herself more effectively from social conventions."


Interview: Karin Schiefer
May 2014