(BLICKTPUNKT FILM) Dieter Berner & Hilde Berger on "Alma & Oskar": "Do I love or do I already hate?"
Austrian directing icon Dieter Berner and screenwriter Hilde Berger on the very special love affair between Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka, which they illuminate in "Alma & Oskar," their view of cinema and working with actors. Her film premieres at the Munich Film Festival on June 27 and opens nationwide via Alamode on July 6.
After exploring the life of Egon Schiele, both of you delve once again into the world of a prominent painter in "Alma & Oskar." However, this time, your focus extends beyond a male artist to include a significant female artist and muse.
DIETER BERNER: Love stories often revolve around a fascinating, confident man who exploits a young and devoted woman, creating a narrative that has been told many times before. We addressed this theme in "Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden." However, what intrigued Hilde and me about Oskar Kokoschka and Alma Mahler's relationship was the reversal of this pattern. Here, we have a confident and superior lady seducing a socially disadvantaged young man. It raises the question: Is this love or an alternative form of sexual exploitation? Throughout the story, the power dynamics constantly shift, serving as evidence of the presence of love. We embark on an affair where the concept of love is continuously scrutinized. What does love truly mean? Do I still love, or have I begun to hate?
HILDE BERGER: I conducted extensive and intensive research on this story. My interest was piqued because both Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka downplayed their over two-year-long affair in their respective autobiographies. Alma, for instance, mentioned that he would have killed her if she had remained with him any longer. Furthermore, in the second edition of a collection, Kokoschka even removed a beautifully written account of their relationship. This compelled me to take a closer look. The allure lay in examining two powerful individuals who refused to conform to societal expectations. Kokoschka constructed a unique image of Alma Mahler. When she failed to live up to that ideal, he commissioned a doll in her likeness. Finally, he possessed what he had always desired: someone who observed his artistic process, admired him, and offered no dissent.
DIETER BERNER: There exists a cliché that portrays love as harmonious, devoid of contradiction and conflict. This ideal, however, cannot be realistically sustained. Nevertheless, it persists within us as an eternal yearning. The discrepancy between the internal images we carry and the reality that prevents us from fully realizing those ideals becomes increasingly apparent. With "Alma and Oskar," we transport ourselves to a pivotal point in history—the dawn of modernity—where the chasm between idealized notions and reality begins to widen. It is a time when dissonance asserts itself as a legitimate artistic expression in music, and the notion of a harmonious golden age is consigned to the past.
For both Kokoschka and you as filmmakers, a canvas forms the basis of your creative power. What does it mean to you to create images for the cinema, to paint on the movie screen? What is your approach?
DIETER BERNER: Apart from the fact that both visual arts and filmmaking revolve around visualization, personally, the most significant motivation behind my work is that the film camera allows me to get so close to people that I can show what they feel without expressing it verbally. Close-ups establish an intimacy that one would never endure for such a long time in real life. Although I began my career as an actor in the theater, I have always been more intrigued by film because it can delve deeper into a person's psychology and establish a more intense identification. That is also why I have often chosen to focus on individuals with particularly compelling life stories in my cinematic works. The first film I showcased at the Diagonale was about the Austrian rock musician Hansi Lang, titled "Me or You." This question of "Me or You?" is pure drama. It creates scenic material that is ideal for the movie screen and allows the audience to identify with it in one way or another. In fact, it is also the subtext of "Alma & Oskar."
HILDE BERGER: Like Dieter, I began my career as an actress, starting in theater and soon transitioning to film. For me, film is the medium in which I can portray a real person, their everyday behavior, in actual spaces with real props and genuine dialogue. Dieter and I often rehearse the dialogues together. We aim for a language that is not elevated but rather sounds like how people truly speak. During rehearsals, we often work closely with the actors, encouraging them to perform the scene using their own words. The results are usually more authentic than the written dialogue and I incorporate them into the script.
DIETER BERNER: The finished script depicts the characters as envisioned by the authors. Then, the actors come into the picture, and they must embody the role. It is important to me that the actor's personal experience intertwines with the character, creating an authentic portrayal. This way, something new emerges during filming that was not initially evident in the script. Ultimately, the film is shaped a third time during the editing process, as the cohesive storyline is crafted from the abundance of material.
Do you see a relationship between visual art and moving images?
DIETER BERNER: In film, two art forms come together. There is a visual art component, as well as storytelling and narrative. The moving image has a different impact than a painting, which captures a specific moment. The frozen motion of a snapshot triggers our imagination, making us linger before the image, mentally envisioning what came before and what will follow. The moving image draws us into a flow of time from which we can hardly escape. It is charged with tension, allowing us to experience something immediately. We feel it in our nerve pathways. We hope and fear, laugh and cry, and in good films, we also reach moments of reflection. However, this kind of reflection is never as active during the course of the film as it is when contemplating a painting. It is only in the aftermath of the film that thinking becomes conscious and active. The development is what fascinates us in a cinematic story. A scene is better if there have been significant changes from the beginning to the end. The process of becoming is the theme of the moving image.
How do you approach creating images differently when making a feature film compared to TV or theater? Is the intention different when it comes to cinema?
DIETER BERNER: Definitely. The audience's level of attention is already different in cinema. People sit together in a dark room. While you may also watch television with others, it is usually in a private setting. In the cinema, I am with strangers, laughing together at the same moments or holding our breath simultaneously. Something emotional happens collectively, and we experience how similar we all are, even across continents. I was reminded of the international language of cinema when we premiered "Alma & Oskar" at the film festival in Goa, India. Despite the film being set in a distant world with a foreign culture and in a past era, the audience followed attentively and with great interest. People with dark skin tones wanted to take selfies with me afterwards.
HILDE BERGER: In the cinema, I am much more focused and more willing to engage with something challenging. A TV film constantly needs to use attractions to keep my attention. In the cinema, I have the tranquility and the attention, similar to being in an exhibition, to engage with a work of art.
DIETER BERNER: With this heightened level of attention, as a director, you can play with the audience's expectations, surprise and shock them, leave them with a question, and so on. However, it can also have the opposite effect when, in the interplay of cultural politics, criticism, festival juries, and ambitious filmmakers, such a challenging approach to filmmaking is chosen that the audience feels like culture is being used as a punishment. I believe that we should not forget that cinema, just like music, emerged in the field of popular entertainment. If we betray the source, the stream could run dry.
What do images mean to you, Ms. Berger, when writing screenplays? In the case of "Alma & Oskar," there was initially a novel, from which the screenplay was then created.
HILDE BERGER: I started writing prose much later. I wrote screenplays for 15 years before venturing into my first novel. The cinematic thinking required in screenplay writing has helped me in my prose writing. In addition to the source material for "Alma & Oskar," the novel adaptation for "Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden" is also my work. My imagination is greatly influenced by cinematic thinking. However, in a novel, I have more freedom. I can jump in time and space with half a sentence, I can describe something that only takes place in the characters' minds. I don't have this freedom when writing a screenplay. I have to follow rules to create a score that will be brought to life by the instrumentalists of directing, acting, cinematography, composition, and many others.
You have been working together as an artistic couple for many years. First as actors, then behind the camera, with you, Ms. Berger, as a writer, and you, Mr. Berner, as a director. What does the exchange between you look like?
DIETER BERNER: Our first joint film project was the ORF Christmas film "Das Menschenkindl" in 1980. We were offered to make a Christmas story. Initially, I couldn't think of anything for Christmas, but then Hilde told me something funny during breakfast, and that became our first screenplay together. I have also directed screenplays written by other authors, and Hilde, in turn, has written screenplays for other directors. A discovery of the '68 movement, to which we belonged, was the importance of the biotope: the environment in which we live shapes us, and creativity only grows through the interaction of various stimuli and influences, not through individual genius. The concept of genius was condemned as a relic of the 19th century and as an expression of Nazi thinking. Rightly so, I still believe. This led to the formation of many groups at the time that collectively developed a new joyful creativity. In the theater, the so-called "participatory theater" emerged on the initiative of well-known actors and directors. Decisions were made democratically, including the choice of repertoire, casting, who directed, and even the uniform salary, where everyone received the same amount. The Schaubühne in Berlin, where I interned, was one such group, and Andy Warhol's "Factory" in New York was an artist's biotope as well. Our Mauerbach collective was a shared apartment in an outer district of Vienna, where Willi Pevny and Peter Turrini also lived, and we worked together on projects such as the "Alpensaga."
Mr. Berner, you received training as an actor at the renowned Reinhardt Seminar. Interestingly, you have also trained actors or taught them how to perform differently in films than in theater. Does working with actors have a special significance in your own films? And what makes a good film actor?
DIETER BERNER: I believe that film schools, in general, underestimate and neglect working with actors. That's why this aspect was particularly important to me during my teaching career as a professor in Potsdam-Babelsberg. The technical aspects, the dramaturgy, editing, camera work—these things are so complex that young directors are fully occupied with them. They prefer it when actors make a good offer on their own and otherwise don't interfere. But the more interesting the role, the more it requires a longer process in which the director, together with the actors, invents their characters and the dynamics between them. There is not enough time for that during shooting; it needs to happen during rehearsals. Alternatively, one can cast actors who have played a similar character in other films. They always play the same character. I reject that because it inevitably leads to clichés and not to specific and interesting portrayals of individuals.
HILDE BERGER: In Potsdam, I had the opportunity to work with the acting classes as well. Because the workflow in film requires that you don't continuously play a role in the chronological order of the story but sometimes have to shoot the end of the story on the first shooting days, I focused on developing the script's dramaturgy. When you have to be able to jump into any point in the story on any shooting day, knowledge of narrative dramaturgy is crucial. You need to know where you are in the emotional arc, what you have left behind, and where you are still developing. Experienced actors work on that on their own during their preparation. But young talents often leave everything open, just like in theater rehearsals, and hope that the director will do the work for them. Then they are surprised that it's usually not possible to start from scratch due to the time pressure of shooting.
You once said that there is an area where acting in theater and film is very similar, but, for example, working with intimacy makes little sense in theater but has a lot of significance in film. This surely applies to your film "Alma & Oskar." Can you explain to us how you rehearsed the very explicit sex scenes with Emily Cox and Valentin Postlmayr? What approach did you take?
DIETER BERNER: The film includes excerpts from Kokoschka's play "Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen" (Murderer, Hope of Women). It is very radical, with minimal dialogue but instead relies on a dance-like body language. The actors are naked, and their bodies are painted. For the development of these scenes, I brought the internationally renowned choreographer Doris Uhlig on board. In her projects, she often works with nudity. Together, we cast the dancers and she took charge of choreographing these scenes in accordance with me. For the sex scenes between Alma and Oskar, I wanted to approach them in a similar way, starting from the bodies as material, as visual material. I wanted to convey what the sexual attraction does to Alma and Oskar. I didn't want to show sex itself but rather the specific sexuality of a self-assured woman and that of a young man for whom this woman becomes an obsession. For this subject, the female perspective was important to me. That's why I also developed these scenes in collaboration with Doris, and I entrusted her with their staging on set.
When looking at your diverse and extensive filmography, it's evident that you have worked more for television than for cinema. With the "Alpensaga," for example, you have written a significant chapter in Austrian film history. Is this type of television still being made today?
DIETER BERNER: I haven't been working in television for a while because I have struggled with the increasing power of editors. Not because I can't subordinate myself, but often this power comes from a profile neurosis and has nothing to do with a genuine and profound contribution to the project. Nowadays, young directors have a much harder time because they are quickly replaced. That wasn't the case during the time of the "Alpensaga." I remember that my editor for the "Alpensaga" respected the director's artistic responsibility. And that was my debut film. You can make any project in a thousand different ways. If you want personal films, it's logical to follow only one perspective, that of the director. If you don't, you inevitably end up with standardized goods. Fast food.
Do you have more freedom in cinema?
DIETER BERNER: I would say yes. Of course, there are still constraints, determined by the budget, the market, co-producing countries, funding institutions, and even co-producing television stations. There are demands and conditions that must be taken into account; otherwise, there won't be any money. But as a film director in Europe, you are artistically responsible for the film and can decide whether you are willing to accept certain conditions, whether you prefer to find other partners, or whether you forego a big budget and make a no-budget film. That is also possible and sometimes the better choice.
Are these the kinds of films you make as part of your teaching activities?
DIETER BERNER: Yes, for example, in Potsdam-Babelsberg, I made a film with a graduating class based on the play "Krankheit der Jugend" (Illness of Youth). Budget: 40,000 euros. The film was later shown on Arte in France and Germany. At the University of Arts in Graz, I recently developed a screenplay and shot a film with acting students based on improvisation, which had Jacques Brel's song "Ne me quitte pas" as its theme. With an even smaller budget.
And what kind of filmmaking will you choose next?
DIETER BERNER: None. That was my final directorial work.
HILDE BERGER: You say that after every film, actually.