Of the 30 films I watched at the 2009 Berlinale, my favorite was Everyone Else, the second feature by Maren Ade (Forest for the Trees). The film chronicles an idyllic vacation that slowly introduces cracks in the vibrant but fragile relationship between insecure architect Chris (Lars Eidinger) and free-spirited but needy Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr, who scored the Best Actress Golden Bear). Ade's film falls within the "New Berlin School" of German independent cinema that offers modest but precise examinations of contemporary German life.
In my coverage of the festival I wrote: "Five years ago the Berlinale unveiled one of the most uplifting relationship films of the decade, Before Sunset; this year’s competition film to beat is also a sharp observation of a couple who share an uncommonly wacky rapport, except here their amorous vibe is threatened by the looming specter of adult respectability. A twenty-something answer to Voyage to Italy, it recalls Rossellini’s investigation of how environments sculpt emotions, though Ade and her remarkable actors (esp. free-spirited Birgit Minichmayr) achieve this not through Rossellini’s stripping of personal masks, but by presenting a mirror in the form of a rival couple whose confident aura of bourgeois respectability inspire both contempt and insecurity. The Berlin jury may deem this not “high concept” enough to snag a best picture Golden Bear, but the film’s willingness to flesh out a scene to its fullest and its vivid awareness of the little gifts and pinpricks that people give each other in gestures and words is exactly what’s missing from a slog of competition films about global issues that have as much insight and authenticity as an article in Newsweek."
I spoke briefly with Maren Ade during the Berlin Film Festival.
NOTEBOOK: How did you conceive of this project?
MAREN ADE: At the beginning I just had the idea of this couple. I was interested in whether it was possible to tell the inner life of a relationship, the things you can't express to a third person. When Gitti and Chris are coming home after the holiday, and someone asks her, "How was it?" maybe she wouldn't be able to tell what happened.
NOTEBOOK: So did it begin with a situation?
ADE: More with the characters. I'm very interested in characters. First there was Gitti, an extreme woman, and on the other side a defensive man. I was thinking about their relationship, their fears, their longings. After a while the story came out of it, this story of a power struggle, then a power shift. Then this theme of the roles they start to play.
NOTEBOOK: How long did it take to write the script?
ADE: About two years.
NOTEBOOK: The actor Lars Eidinger (who plays Chris) said that there was a script during casting. Then there was a significant rehearsal period in which there were some revisions made. Can you tell us about that process and what the actors brought to the script?
ADE: After the rehearsals I changed several things in my mind about how to direct the scenes. I found the idea of the ending with them. Some things have never changed, like the first evening, when Gitti is defending Chris. But there are other scenes like towards the end when Chris screams at Gitti. I asked Lars to just say what his character would like to tell her and I took some lines from what he improvised. At the rehearsals we looked at films and talked a lot. I had to find out that they had to become their own couple, and not the couple that I wrote.
What I found so interesting about them is that it's not so clear who is the stronger one. We rehearsed the scenes, then you see that this sentence is not interesting. Or this is a sentence that Chris doesn't have to say. For Gitti's character, the way Birgit says, "Sometimes I have the feeling I admire you more." Small things that I thought were important for what is the picture that they make together.
NOTEBOOK: There's such an amazing combination of spontaneity and precision. You say that it's mostly scripted but you make it feel so alive.
ADE: They are very good actors. The first two days when we started shooting, I asked, "Can you do this scene again now just to see what's happening and not use the dialogues?" Because I wanted everything. You always have in mind that improvisation is better than what I wrote. And after a while Brigit complained and said, "I don't want to make the script better. I can't do that now. I have enough freedom in the dialogues you wrote, and we can play the subtexts in so many ways. That's what we found out, and we started relying completely on the script.
NOTEBOOK: What are some relationship films that mean something to you?
ADE: I love Scenes from a Marriage, so we all watched it together. That was important for me for the film, because there's also this power shift, and you're very surprised at how close you get to the man after you're so much with the woman. I also love A Woman Under the Influence. Thinking about Gitti's character, she's not as lost and insane as Gena Rowlands gets, but that character was important. And I love La Notte.
NOTEBOOK: Berhard Keller's cinematography has a lot of discipline. What sort of approach were you thinking in terms of how you wanted this to look?
ADE: What we knew is that we wanted to give it a feeling of freedom but we didn't want it to look like a documentary. It was important to tell the story through the camera and we talked a lot about distance and point of view, whether the woman watches the man or the man watches the woman. Bernhard joined all the rehearsals from the beginning. That was very important because it was always the four of us. We didn't have a visual concept, per se. We made two trips to Sardegna and found the locations very early. We talked a lot about the mood there and talked a lot about the scenes. But when doing it, he just went after his feelings. I'm not a camera director. I'm working a lot with the actors, and he's looking, and I always arrange the scene like I want to, and then he proposes some pictures.
NOTEBOOK: What's your take on being included with the New Berlin School?
ADE: We don't really like that name. It's not like we call ourselves that. It's made from critics who are throwing films together. In Gemany it's difficult because it seems to be that the Berlin School is complicated cinema that gets no viewers and is difficult to find money for. That's sometimes how it's known to the film business here in Germany. But I love the films, and I'm working together with those directors. That's what's interesting about this context of filmmakers. For example, Valeska Grisebach, who directed Longing, which was in Berlin two years ago. She helped with the script. I think it's very important to work together with other directors. I show them my films a lot of times and they are very honest and critical, and that's very important. I love the films from the New Berlin School, it's just the label that gets on my nerves.
NOTEBOOK: How easy is it for you to get funding?
ADE: It was easy for me, luckily, with this film. In Germany these productions are more or less funded. It's difficult to get money for very arthouse films. My last film had a certain success that made it easy to get funding for this film.
NOTEBOOK: What was the toughest scene to film?
ADE: The sex scenes are always tough, at least for the actors. It's always a little bit embarrassing. It was very very cold when they had to do the second sex scene, outside in the yard. But for me, the scene where Gitti jumps out of the window, I found very tough to find the right movement between her and the camera. And sometimes the jump was not right. But she can't do a lot about how to jump, and I wanted a certain way of jumping.
NOTEBOOK: How many takes did you do?
ADE: 24. In the end there was only one jump I really liked. Sometimes her skirt got up too much, or she wasn't centered. And the mattress outside was too high, so sometimes she came up again, or her hair showed up.
NOTEBOOK: The ending is quite unexpected, and has been open to debate as to its significance. I think it's a return to childhood, especially for Gitti, a regressive desire to go back to a time of reckless innocence.
ADE: That's what it feels for me, what she does. And he answers with something similar, with the farting sound he makes on her stomach. But they know that maybe they've also lost this. I thought about what it would mean to bring the story to an end. Telling the story would lead to the question, "Are they staying together or not?" I was not interested in that. I didn't want the feeling of judging them at the end or say what was right or wrong, like when someone does that, you have to leave him or her. I wanted to leave it open so that everyone can make their opinion. Though for myself, if I were Gitti and I loved someone, I wouldn't leave the guy.