«The idea of not being permitted to die.»

Valentin Hitz’ Hidden Reserves imagines a world where private life has been pervaded by technology and society sharply divided into rich and poor. A world where the human body is exploited for data storage even after natural death. However, even in this world deprived of mutual trust, color and emotion which prefers to entrust life and death to insurance companies, a hidden potential for resistance is beginning to appear." An interview with director Valentin Hitz and producer Oliver Neumann.
Hidden Reserves creates a world where everyday life is dominated by the complete erosion of personal privacy, the division of society into extremes of wealth and poverty, and commercial exploitation of the human body extending even beyond death. At present we are confronted with social changes which prompt reflections in many creative artists via dystopian concepts. Why does a dystopia provide an appropriate approach?
VALENTIN HITZ: One of the intentions behind Hidden Reserves was to consider where current tendencies could conceivably lead in the near future. However, this is also based on observations of social and technological developments over the last 10 or 20 years. And on experiences in the immediate environment as well as with the individual. As far as the overall picture is concerned, for example, over the last few decades a drastic process of commercialization can be seen, involving all aspects of life right up to death and beyond. And the corollary of this on a small scale is the ruthless drive for self-optimization, which becomes a kind of exploitation of oneself and doesn't even permit the idea that one might not actually be able to function after a certain point. But events like 9/11 or the 2008 financial crisis have also had an influence, provoking fears that have resulted in an absolute mania for security. Not to mention the movement of refugees, which has prompted in many people a suspicion of anything that is unforeseen, and the desire to close themselves off from the outside world. The combination of all these factors has led to a situation where the future no longer looks at all as promising as it did in the 1960s and 1970s. In that sense, I believe that current trends – taken to their logical conclusion and with only a slight exaggeration – do indeed lead to a threatening scenario or some form of dystopia.
How does one begin, during the screenwriting phase, to construct a dystopian world? Does the topography have to exist first, before a plot can be inserted, or do they both develop simultaneously?
VALENTIN HITZ: I think there's a certain amount of interplay. Something that has fascinated me ever since childhood, and is the basis of Hidden Reserves, is the idea of not being permitted to die. Perhaps it was initially prompted by a vampire film, or maybe some other experience. The concept rests on the feasibility of achieving eternal life but from a negative perspective, and it implies some sort of authority with the power to decide over life and death. At one time that might have been the gods or an individual God, but with modern technology it’s no longer possible to locate it so precisely. That's why, in Hidden Reserves, we are confronted by the question of who has the authority to make that decision. That raises a whole complex of issues, which a film can't resolve. But I think it's fascinating to transfer this conceptual struggle into a future scenario. In mythology, and in pop culture, Dracula is a man who returns from a Christian crusade and discovers that his wife has committed suicide after receiving a mistaken report of his death. This injustice of fate makes him turn away from God, a transgression which leaves him damned to eternal life. In the vampire cosmos, eternal life isn’t at all like the dreams of our commercialized, optimized world: it's a punishment, not being permitted to die for reasons of moral guilt. I think that's a very interesting thought. And proceeding further with that idea, in Hidden Reserves the individual is not permitted to die due to outstanding financial debt. [Translator's note: in German "guilt" and "debt" are the same word.] Naturally, there are other influences alongside this Dracula theme. One of my favorite films is Double Indemnity by Billy Wilder, which hinges on a life insurance policy paying double for accidental death. It's a great film noir. So if you connect the idea of not being permitted to die and the role of insurance policies… And then at some point a story arises from all the impressions and observations, and with it an entire world.
At what point in the conception of a utopian world do budgetary considerations and feasibility issues arise? How closely does the producer watch over the development of sci-fi material?
VALENTIN HITZ: At first of course you try to depict the world on a large scale, in very visual terms. The closer you get to actually making the film, the more you're concerned with the need to portray the entire world by means of condensed segments.
OLIVER NEUMANN: We started collaborating on this project at a very early stage. But as a production company we always perceived the project on two levels. We wanted the screenplay to be developed first, so we could then focus on the practicalities of making the film. If we had intervened at an early stage it would have been very limiting for both sides. There was never a time when we imposed categorical restrictions. We knew we wouldn't have to create animations of complex 3D beings or have spaceships gliding around the galaxy. It was always clear that we'd be able to find solutions.
How did this universe develop, with its cold materials, linearity and geometric, uniform appearance, in your work with the production designer, Hannes Salat? And what about the alternative world?
VALENTIN HITZ: We spent several years developing the concepts and trying out various ideas before achieving the final result. It was obvious that the insurance world, and also the storage facilities where people are kept as data storage devices, had to be structured in a very linear and hierarchical fashion, horizontally and vertically. Everything had to be manageable and to permit complete surveillance. In contrast, the alternative world of poor people and resistance fighters had to spread out in various directions, making it clear that life doesn't have to follow straight lines and can flow at will.
OLIVER NEUMANN: Since Hannes Salat was aware that the limits of the budget would be reached at some point, he resolved as far as possible to adapt and utilize real, existing spaces in order to create this future world.
VALENTIN HITZ: In terms of the story, it was my intention that Hidden Reserves should be set in Vienna. The city is a representative European metropolis with a wealth of reference points pointing towards various epochs in history. And in the history of film. Dividing the city into various zones, which features in the film, goes back to post-war Vienna and of course also serves as a reference to The Third Man. One of my ideas for production design was: "Let's take the external borders of the EU and have them run through the middle of Vienna." Right from the screenplay phase. And even early in 2015, while we were filming, it was impossible to predict the extent of the refugee problem, and the consequences. Nobody could have imagined that later that same year, not so far away, fences would be erected again and zones created.
The cameraman, Martin Gschlacht, has created a visual world which is almost entirely devoid of color; even the alternative world has to make do with only minimal lighting. What form did the collaboration between you and Martin Gschlacht take on the visual aspect of the film?
VALENTIN HITZ: On the one hand we had to find the spaces we wanted, and on the other we had to decide very clearly what we wanted to show of those spaces in the film. There are some rooms which open up and are present in the visual totality, like the open-plan office filmed in a library, while there are others where the view has to be restricted in order to transport the narrative. In working together with Martin my aim was to find an aesthetic which is clearly that of color film and yet leaves the viewer with the feeling of having seen a black & white film. Apart from three days of shooting, we filmed Hidden Reserves entirely at night, which was helpful in structuring the rooms with just a little light and a lot of darkness to create this other, future world. And I wanted to shoot in winter, so you could see the coldness of people's breath, which added to the visual atmosphere and also meant we avoided showing any vegetation, with only skeleton structures visible.
What was it like working with actors, if the aim was to depict a world where virtually no emotions could be displayed, or only in very subtle form on the faces of the characters?
VALENTIN HITZ: Working with the actors wasn't essentially different than on films set in the present day. Clemens Schick, playing the main character Vincent Baumann, adopted an almost robot-like attitude, so he was functioning with almost frozen perfection. We discussed in great detail the instances when there was a slight change, when something broke through this armor. The main point was always just the nuances. You really couldn't have a robot suddenly running amok with wild emotions. I saw Lena Lauzemis in Wer wenn nicht wir? (If Not Us, Who?), where she played Gudrun Ensslin. It was interesting, because I was looking for an activist at the time. I also knew her theatrical background, which I found very appealing. In the character of Lisa I wanted a very special form of femininity that also had an androgynous quality. I didn't want Vincent's progression towards emotions to be prompted exclusively by her external appearance. I mean, she was supposed to open up a new world for him, not just unbutton her blouse. And I wanted her to be a plausible fighter who still had a spark of youthful fire about her.
OLIVER NEUMANN: With co-productions the partners always express certain requirements about the cast and crew. The point is to find the right balance. We had long conversations with Rita Wasilovics, who was responsible for casting the film, about possible candidates and whether two particular actors would make a plausible combination. But as a production company we would never try to persuade a director to cast a certain person in order to reach a consensus. After all, the whole point about casting is that in the end it illustrates the director's vision.
Of all the things that people are deprived of in Hidden Reserves, the issue of loss of trust seems to be the central point. The ending indicates what it's possible to do for love in a surveillance society like that, in order to benefit the person who is loved, even though it's ultimately very little. The film ends in a gentle, melancholy way, but without leaving much hope. Resistance appears to come at a price?
VALENTIN HITZ: Of course I wouldn't decree how anyone should interpret the film. The world we depict is governed by complete lack of trust. The society attempts to replace trust with control. In the second half of the film the two main protagonists constantly struggle with the question: How far can I trust the other person? At what point is he using me for his own purposes? There's a very strong emphasis on the objectification of relationships, and none of the characters is free from this tendency. In fact, it’s only in death that Vincent and Lisa gain access to each other, find a way to trust each other completely. When he gives up his insurance for her, it's a huge step for someone like him. But when he makes it possible for her to die because of the action he performs, he surrenders entirely to her concept. Actually I do see this as a happy end. What she has been fighting for comes to fruition in her: the right to die. Even though it's a grim image. I see a flicker of hope in the fact that a controlled, optimized person like Vincent is still capable of change, of carrying on Lisa's spirit.
OLIVER NEUMANN: The world is very grim, but I also see the transformation of our leading character as essentially optimistic. Valentin once put it well: Hidden Reserves is a very dark film, but there are colors. You just have to look for them.
Interview: Karin Schiefer
October 2016
Translation: Charles Osborne
«The world we depict is governed by complete lack of trust. The society attempts to replace trust with control.»