Berlinale 2014. Sleepers, Robbers, and Superegos: An Interview with Benjamin Heisenberg

The German director talks about his films _Sleeper_, _The Robber_, and his new film in Berlinale, _Superegos_.
Yaron Dahan

Above: Director Benjamin Heisenberg

Benjamin Heisenberg has presented his third feature film and first comedy Superegos (Über-Ich und Du) in the Berlinale this year in the Panorama section. Superegos is an improbable buddy film between Curt Leidig (André Wilms), an octogenarian psychologist with an undefined Nazi history, and Nick Gutlicht (Georg Friedrich), a young small-time crook without either convictions or, seemingly, even a past. When chance brings them together, Dr. Leidig begins his study of his “not uninteresting patient” and, inevitably, Freudian-cinematic acts of transference and counter-transference occur, leaving them both to question their identities. Benjamin Heisenberg’s debut feature Sleeper was screened at Cannes Un Certain Regard in 2005 and his second film The Robber competed for the Golden Bear at the 2010 Berlinale.

NOTEBOOK: Let's talk about your new film. It’s very different from your previous two. You mentioned you had wanted to do a comedy for a long time, so why did it take so long?

BENJAMIN HEISENBERG: [laughs] That's a very good question. I tend not to plan my, let’s not call it career…but what I do in the future. Normally things just come up. Projects pop into my eye, and I have the feeling "Okay, now this is what I have to do." In the first place it was Sleeper, and Sleeper was meant to be a comedy. Then it became a tragedy. And then Geyrhalter Filmproduktion in Vienna came and asked: "Do you want to do The Robber?" So one thing led to the other. My wish to make a comedy remained and I've written actually quite a lot of beginnings of comedy scripts that are now in my drawer. It just happened to work now.

NOTEBOOK: It’s very difficult for me to imagine Sleeper as a comedy, especially since in many ways its character is so unsympathetic. How could it have been a comedy?

HEISENBERG: Well the idea was…you know it was 9/11, and all these Secret Services were growing and growing, and they needed personnel. So there are all these people working behind the typewriters, typing, you know, analyzing stuff. But they need people out in the field to follow people. So these people who don't want to be outside in the field are going to be pushed outside. That was supposed to be part of the comedy: someone who is very shy and very sympathetic goes out and has to spy on someone. Then he gets to know the person, and feels suddenly sympathetic to this person, and his emotions between his job and his relationship are totally intertwined. That was the beginning.

Above: Bastian Trost as Johannes in Sleeper

NOTEBOOK: I saw Sleeper again recently, and my thought was that ‘the sleeper’ was Johannes and not Farid.

HEISENBERG: Absolutely. That's the big thing about the film. Absolutely. The German guy is the one who is dangerous. He is the one who is a menace to society because his own moral convictions just don't stand in difficult situations. He can't maintain them because he so is unaware of his emotions, that he gets twisted around by them. And that makes him very dangerous if he comes to a position where he has power.

NOTEBOOK: Is he particularly a German menace to society? Your work deals often with history, and there is something in his righteousness, in his believing that he is doing the true and honest thing, that seems to me to be very particular to the character.

HEISENBERG: I think that it has some particularity, if you can say that, of Germans. It's sad in a way.  I would say that trying to do the right thing, and then being not aware of oneself, and not being aware of the real political situation, you get kind of drawn inside this dilemma, and at a certain stage, you can't really get out of it. And that makes it very tragic. I think that's happened in the Third Reich a million times, and it's happened in the DDR as well…people spying on their colleagues for the Stasi and so on. Maybe it's also international, but definitely it's a German thing.

NOTEBOOK: In many ways he is like the verso to your other characters—Johann Rettenberger, the robber, or Nick and Curt in Superegos who are both stubborn individualists, whether they are good or bad…and he loses his individuality in many ways.

HEISENBERG: Yeah, absolutely…

Above: Super Egos. Left: André Wilms as Curt Leidig. Right: Georg Friedrich as Nick Gutlicht

NOTEBOOK: Now about your new film, the title in German is Über-Ich und Du, literally “Super-Ego and You,” and in English when you translate it, it becomes plural. It's not ‘Superego’ or ‘Superego and You.’ but Superegos, and I was wondering if you saw the dash to the second word? Is there a Super-Du that exists somewhere, a Super-You that you are inventing with this film, or did you simply mean the Super-Ego and You?

HEISENBERG: The funny thing is that it was very hard to translate. For example, in French it works very well. It’s Sur-moi et toi, and that is very beautiful. And in English I feel that Superegos fits very well. We had a long discussion about whether there should be a dash or not between Super and Ego, but I have the feeling that it's right that it's one word, and that the Super-Ego belongs to both Nick and Curt, because it’s really about both of them. They are and they have strong Superegos, and they are focused in a strange way on each other without wanting it. So I think it's a very good title for what we see, even if it's very different from the German one.

NOTEBOOK: Can you tell me about the writing process with Josef Lechner?  So far you've written three features in collaboration, and one by yourself, so maybe you can tell us a bit about the work itself, and how it was different from working with Christoph Hochhäusler on his 1998 film Fieber or Martin Prinz, with The Robber?

HEISENBERG: It's been very different because Josef and I have known each other for 20 years.  We have a very nice way of just getting together and having fun. He's a very intelligent guy, very well read, and he's very inspiring. We would get together and Skype for eight hours with screen-sharing. He would see what I was typing and then we would just make jokes and see. He would say "Oh no it's very bad what you have written there…you can’t say that" So it was very playful. With the other films, they were dramas. With The Robber, we had a novel lying before us, so it was very different from this comedy. Our progress in writing the comedy was much more associative. We didn't say: "Now let’s make an outline, and we are going to make this outline exactly." We just moved forward playfully.

NOTEBOOK: Was there some sort of division of tasks, or habits you naturally fell into? Like Josef wrote the funnier jokes, and you wrote the visual ideas?

HEISENBERG: [laughs] No, you can't really say that.  I think we both contributed in some stages different materials. Sometimes I might have organized the different pieces in the end, dramaturgically, more than him. Josef actually is very good at writing dialogue and inventing dialogue, because he has this dialogue-motor…I think it's very…how do you say…Gleichberechtigt [equal].

NOTEBOOK: Last night at the premiere both Georg and André said that they hadn't understood anything about the script…

HEISENBERG: [laughs]

NOTEBOOK:  …I guess they're probably half-jokingly because they're having fun on stage but are they also telling the truth?

HEISENBERG: They are telling the truth. Absolutely. And they weren't the only ones. Actually, some of the film fund people also said "What is this? I don't really get it. It's so strange." And Georg and André both…I asked them "How did you like the script?" And they said "Weeeeeeeell, it's kind of funny, but I don't think I really understood it." And they really didn't understand it. During the shooting or at rehearsals they were always saying "Ah, now I know what you mean! Now I know what's funny about that." So it seems to be a very peculiar script. I gave it to my American agent and he said too "I don't know what this film will be…" [laughs] They couldn't handle it in a way, you know? And I think now it's be very different. If you see the film, you can relate to it and get a strong feeling about what it tries to do.

NOTEBOOK: And is it problematic to begin working when the actors don't understand? Do they come into understanding? Is it necessary for them to understand at all?

HEISENBERG: I don't think it's so necessary. The funny thing is that working in comedy is very different from tragedy… especially acting. Comedy is not so much about this deep feeling that comes with each part, but it's more of acting in one situation quite practically and then functioning in the character with your own notions added. You can be very free because comedy is so much about little movements and little reactions that mostly, this inner motor of each actor inside a situation is probably what brings most to the comedy. So it doesn't have to be entirely linked to the character’s emotion. If the mise en scène is right and if the storytelling in terms of what they experience is right, then it will function.

NOTEBOOK: In your experience in making this film, how did the mise en scène change in function of that fact that it's a comedy?

HEISENBERG: I think that most of the things we changed have to do with movement. We tried not to have the camera be it's own character, to impose itself on the movie too much. I think we were observing empathetically what was happening. Not like in Sleepers where we were also observing, but it was a very mean way of observing. So that was one of the difficulties: to see what is the point of view that does not impose on the characters but that has this kind of empathy that you need for comedy. And then it's a matter of: How close do I want to be? Is it better to have a close up? Is it more important to see the face or the gesture? We had a lot of discussions about that. So it's not an overall strategy, it's more like working through the script from one scene to another.

Above: Andreas Lust in The Robber

NOTEBOOK: Can you tell me a bit about the casting? I've noticed that in your films you seem to put a lot of emphasis on physiognomy.  The characters really look like who they're supposed to be.  The expression of their being is written on their face. So Andreas Lust in The Robber seems more human when he puts the mask, at least in the film…

Above: The Robber

HEISENBERG: [laughs]

NOTEBOOK: …or Bastian Trost who plays Johannes in Sleeper has something a little bit good, a little bit nerdy, a little bit slimy; and then you have Georg Friedrich the prole in Superegos, and so on and so forth…

HEISENBERG: You could say that. It's very interesting. I've never thought of that. It's probably a process in which I have a picture in my head. I'm trying to find the person who will personify the character. For example, for Andreas Lust, I had the feeling that what was really special about him is one thing that you said, that there's not so much changed whether the mask is off or on. But on the other hand, he's someone who's translucent in a way. When I look at him, I have the feeling that even though he tries to be very hard, you always have some kind of softness that comes through his mask. Which I find appealing. And I had Georg at the end of the casting for The Robber. Him and Andreas Lust. At the end I chose Andreas Lust, because I had the feeling that he wasn't so much personifying the criminal. Georg would have personified the criminal much more. And here with this script I think it was very funny to have Georg as a small-time crook. At the same time, it's a small-time crook who reads loads of books, who knows about Plato and so on, and that doesn't fit Georg at all. I like to have small sparks of strangeness that you wouldn't expect in the characters, even though you have the feeling that this is the character which fits exactly into the role.

NOTEBOOK: It seems to be the right choice. Because there is something about Andreas Lust’s normality, his desiring motion in face of the passivity of society and especially Austrian society. If we look at how Austrian society is portrayed in cinema and literature, in Thomas Bernhard for example, it works a lot better than if it was portrayed by this tough, typical…

HEISENBERG: …gangster type. Yeah, absolutely. And the real guy [Johann Rettenberger, the real life bank robber], if you would have seen the face of the real guy, he's much closer to Andreas Lust than to Georg. Or he could even be a type of guy like Bastian Trost.

NOTEBOOK: Returning to your current film, since it has a lot to do with Freud I'll allow myself this Freudian question:  How has the importance of your family and its legacy, and your grandfather's work [Benjamin Heisenberg’s grandfather is the Nobel Prize winner theoretical physicist, Werner Heisenberg] under the Nazis on the German Atom Project and various events, influenced your filmmaking, your thought and your work?

HEISENBERG:  It's a thematic that has been going around with me certainly, as I've grown up in this family. And it's interesting how people deal with the Third Reich history in general. It's something that has always interested me. At the same time, I would say that especially this Nazi theme in Über ich and Du is not a clear representation of my coming to terms with my own history.

It's a kind of Ableitung [derivation] of that. I’m very interested in seeing how the second and third generation, which I belong to as well, deal with that history. I've always had the feeling that it's like a mathematic Ableitung. For me, the psychology behind the coming to terms process with the Third Reich is like making Ableitung. That's something that I witness in myself, and that's in all of these films in some ways. In The Robber it's this aggressiveness; in Sleeper it's the issue of the morals; here, it's a matter of do I want to remember or don't I want to remember? And how do I deal with a guy who doesn't have a history at all? I couldn't say I'm only making films that deal with that, but it's a part of me, it's a process of me.

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