«Young people from every generation have to perform their own "land grab".»

Egon Schiele – Death and the Maiden, inspired by Hilde Berger's eponymous novel, portrays the emerging artist as mirrored by the women who were so crucial to him during the years of his artistic breakthrough and throughout the historic convulsions of the early 20th century.

There have been several attempts to portray Egon Schiele on film: Egon Schiele – Excess and Punishment by Herbert Vesely with Mathieu Carrière, the TV film Egon Schiele by John Goldschmidt with Felix Mitterer in the leading role. So a new film would seem to require a perspective of his life story that hasn't been applied before. How did you aim to distance your project from previous films? How did you find the approach you wanted?
DIETER BERNER: The works you mention date from a period when research into Schiele wasn’t as extensive as it is now. Excess had a rather speculative approach, inspired by his trial, where he was accused of having seduced the 13-year-old Tatjana von Mossig. Goldschmidt's film, on the other hand, is a very broad construction that attempts to depict the whole of Schiele's life. The aspect that appealed to me most was his youth. I found it fascinating to portray somebody who – like so many young artists – first of all had to draw attention to himself and struggle for survival. During his early years Egon Schiele managed to create a powerful body of work with incredible concentration. I set myself the task of describing the early years of a young man who dared to try a new departure when confronted with the atmosphere of the declining monarchy. During precisely that period, the early 20th-century, Austria produced a large number of outstanding artists and scientists, almost as though this decline provoked a new awakening.
Telling the story of Egon Schiele, who died at the age of 28, also means depicting what it was like to be young exactly a century ago. How did you develop your approach to this task?
DIETER BERNER: It’s certainly partly connected with the fact that I grew up in the '68 era. Young people from every generation have to perform their own "land grab". They have to create the world for themselves. When I was growing up, our parents’ generation had to bear responsibility for a lost war. The chasm between young people and their elders was huge for my generation. We attempted to create an alternative concept to the authoritarian, fascist past. From that point of view, I felt strong links with young people in the early 20th century. In the years around 1910, 1912 there was a general feeling that the monarchy was about to collapse, and that nobody would do anything to stop it. I think this state of mind was a driving force for many artists and scientists in that period. How did the young generation behave in such a revolutionary historical situation, when sexuality was being rediscovered, when social questions increasingly demanded a radical solution?
In your film the character of Egon Schiele takes shape by association with five female figures: Wally Neuzil, the two Harms sisters, Egon‘s sister Gerti and the model Moa. The novel employs five perspectives on the life of Egon Schiele. How did you interweave these aspects to create a unified film?
DIETER BERNER: My first idea was to make the film a series of narrative episodes based on the novel by Hilde Berger. But it turned out that this isn't the best form for a film lasting about 100 minutes, because each episode also requires its own exposition. So then, working together with Hilde, I started to weave together the episodes from the book. One fundamental event was the trial, when Schiele was charged with having sexual relations with an underage girl, and another was the outbreak of the First World War. I felt that a further important aspect of Schiele's growth into adulthood was his discovery of sexuality and his choice of a wife. Models were particularly representative of the powerful social divisions in society: at that time modeling was on the borderline of prostitution. Bourgeois painters had very intense relationships with their models, but they would never have considered marrying them. Women like Wally, who came from the countryside and wanted to live in the city, were faced with the choice of working in factories, as maids, as sales assistants or as models in an artistic milieu. They were a separate, clearly distinguished division of the lower class. Middle-class girls were brought up to be wives, learning conversation, a bit of painting and the piano. The aim of that education was to enable them to be good company for their husbands. The young women who worked as models had to take charge of their own lives and carve out a place in society for themselves.
What were the individual roles that these five women played in Schiele's life?
DIETER BERNER: I started out with his wife, Edith Harms, and her sister Adele. They were both searching very hard for husbands; they lived opposite Schiele’s studio, and they were able to observe his permissive relationships with women all the time. He aroused the curiosity of these well-brought-up girls, who also had a dormant desire for change and a new beginning. Schiele’s most important model was Wally Neuzil; some experts believe she was recommended to him by Gustav Klimt. He had often worked with children as models, partly for financial reasons – because they didn't cost anything – and also because they interested him thematically. Klimt suggested he should work with Wally so he could finally stop working with naked children. A very deep friendship developed between Schiele and Wally, an intense relationship. When war broke out and he was called up, the prospect of a respectable marriage with Edith Harms led him to break things off with Wally, because he thought that way he stood a better chance of being relieved of military service. Another of our female characters is Moa, a naked dancer from Tahiti who worked in the Prater amusement park. She represents liberation from bourgeois standards. Schiele created a group of painters around Moa, with several of his friends, and they moved to Český Krumlov to work there; it was a great shock for the little town. His first model, and his most important relationship after Wally, was his sister Gerti. After their father's death Egon and Gerti were more or less neglected as children although they came from a reasonably well-off family. Gerti was his first nude model, and the relationship between them was very relaxed.
The film presents us with a whole spectrum of faces from the young generation of Austrian actors between 20 and 30. First of all Noah Saavedra, but also Valerie Pachner, Maresi Riegner, Thomas Schubert, Marie Jung and Elisabeth Umlauft. How did casting work out, especially for the leading roles?
DIETER BERNER: We spent a year and a half trying to cast the film. My method is to choose certain scenes, film them and then look of the footage closely several times with a certain distance. A large number of very good actors were interested in the part. None of them were young enough. There are very few mature actors between 22 and 24 years of age. We realized we had to try a different approach. One day Eva Roth, who was casting the film, suggested Noah; he was working as a photographic model and didn't have any acting experience. But from the very first moment he conveyed the energy I considered absolutely crucial. We began to work on the part every weekend for almost a year. He took acting lessons and spent two semesters at art school to learn something about drawing nudes. Several actors who are famous today had their first parts with me. So I think I have a very good antenna for that. I first noticed Maresi Riegner, who plays the part of Gerti, when Eva Roth used her in the early auditions as a prompter. Valerie Pachner attracted my attention at the Reinhardt Seminar, where I held a film workshop. When we filmed an audition with her it was immediately apparent that nobody would be better suited for the part. She has a particular feeling for the camera, because her acting is very subtle and very self-contained.
The subtitle of the film comes from one of Egon Schiele's pictures, Death and the Maiden. Do you consider this painting has a particular place in Schiele's work?
DIETER BERNER: Death and the Maiden is also the title of Hilde Berger’s novel. Death features in many of Egon Schiele's pictures. It's astonishing really that such a lively, charming person as Egon Schiele was so fascinated by decline, death and decay. That's why it struck me as an appropriate title.
When a painter is the protagonist, a feature film also has to focus on the creation of the "art": the brushstroke, the technique. Your Egon Schiele is glimpsed a number of times as he makes sketches. In particular you repeatedly capture his way of looking at things: he suddenly sees something and freezes the pose for his work. Are you also establishing a reference here to the filmmaker as someone who seeks a certain image?
DIETER BERNER: Egon Schiele was also a photographer. When you look at the poses his models adopted it is noticeable that they're not the postures familiar from the Impressionists or those we know from the works of Klimt. He creates expressive poses in the same way that a choreographer or a film director does. One of the fascinating aspects of Egon Schiele is that he makes the body expressive in distorted positions. The connection between spirit and material foundation becomes very noticeable here. Schiele also drew inmates in a psychiatric clinic for scientific purposes. And we know he studied photographs of patients of the neurologist Charcot. It seems to me that there is a connection with his childhood experiences. Evidently he was very interested in the degree to which powerful inner tension is expressed in a person's appearance. We studied his sketchbooks and had some of the drawings copied in order to study the process by which a sketch becomes a picture, which is after all a process of orchestration. I feel strongly that painters are also the directors of their pictures. And I wanted to convey what it means to see something and then to capture what has been seen as a process of constructing an image. Egon Schiele was certainly one of the first to work from photographs. He also painted landscapes from postcards – modified, of course. He took advantage of the opportunity to capture one moment and then to structure it. And he liked going to the cinema. In my view all this helps explain why Schiele is so relevant to present modes of seeing.
The film also shows how much the world has changed in 100 years.
DIETER BERNER: I started working in the theatre, and then I moved in the direction of film because I'm interested in the present. I didn't want to recreate ideas from previous centuries on a darkened stage. However, as a result of my time in the theatre I have a particular relationship to history. One reason to become involved with history outside the theatre is that by studying the changes that have occurred over time you can appreciate what people are capable of. I think it's political to treat historical subjects in such a way that you can see what is different and at the same time what connects us with that period. And that should make it obvious that it's not fate but people themselves who instigate the actions which change circumstances.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
July 2016
«In the years around 1910, 1912 there was a general feeling that the monarchy was about to collapse, and that nobody would do anything to stop it. I think this state of mind was a driving force for many artists and scientists in that period.»