By Anna Weinstein.
I’m really interested in the psychology of my children, and that has shown me that we are fragile and strong creatures. I’m really exploring and elaborating this subject. It’s always about family and relationships – that’s what all my movies are about.”
Leading Swiss director Bettina Oberli has directed one television mini-series and six feature films, including the award-winning Late Bloomers (2006), which is ranked as one of the top three Swiss films, with more than 560,000 admissions in Switzerland. Her most recent film, My Wonderful Wanda (2020), premiered at Tribeca, where it won a jury special mention for the Nora Ephron Prize, and opened the 16th Zurich Film Festival. An ensemble film written by Cooky Ziesche and Oberli, the film stars Agnieszka Grochowska as the central character, a young Polish mother who accepts a job in Switzerland caring for the bed-ridden, elderly patriarch of a wealthy Swiss family. An engaging and unexpected glimpse into the complexities of modern family life and class injustice, My Wonderful Wanda is absurdly funny, examining a difficult social problem with heart and empathy. Bettina Oberli spoke with Anna Weinstein about My Wonderful Wanda, her career as a filmmaker in Switzerland, and her family’s influence on her screen stories.
I love the balance of drama and comedy in this film. Did you know from the outset that you wanted to explore this subject with humor?
Oh, yes. We knew we wanted to offer something funny since the subject is so serious. I think sometimes the best humor comes out of despair, so we wanted to put this family in a desperate situation and really explore the humorous side of life. Not making fun of the characters, we wanted the audience to feel for them in a very empathetic way. But that was important in the telling of the story, that the viewer can find relief in laughter.
For sure. You’re left with the reminder that life is just difficult and strange sometimes, and laughter is often the only way through.
Laughter and also holding onto self-confidence and pride, that’s what’s necessary for Wanda. No matter what she does, she has to maintain her sense of self.
What was the origin of this story?
I was interested in telling a story about a woman who has to leave her country – her family, her children – so she can earn enough money to have a good life in her home country. This was the origin of the of the idea. But then I soon realized, together with my writing partner, Cooky, that we wanted to also study a woman coming here to serve, almost owned by this wealthy family, but never losing the belief that she’s the one in control of the situation.
Did you interview women who had worked in this capacity?
Oh, there were a lot of interviews with women who are in this situation, and I can tell you, each of these women, they all told me, “I am not a victim.” They really are self-confident. They come here to Switzerland and make the most out of it.
Did you talk with anyone who went so far as to sleep with the elderly person she was caring for?
There wasn’t anyone who saw sex as a service, that was our invention. But there were love stories, men falling in love with their caretaker. There was one who even wanted to get divorced so he could marry the young caretaker.
Yeah, some real drama. But the sex was our invention, and I know it’s provocative, but everyone talks about the win-win situation when these women come from the East to take care of the old men here. They earn much more than they would do in Poland or Hungary, so it’s always discussed as a win-win. But emotionally, of course, it’s not a win for these women, leaving their families, their children, their own parents. You know, they don’t have their own lives anymore. They give up something in an emotional way to come here and fulfill our needs. So Cooky and I, we were thinking about what could happen in the story so it really is a win-win for Wanda. How she could become someone with power on the same level as her employers. And as soon as she’s pregnant with Josef’s baby, of course then she is on that level.
The sex scene is strangely compelling and horrific all at once.
Thank you. I worked with my female DP on this. Wanda just sees this as a part of the pragmatic work, so we wanted to show it as an act of work. Not with a beautiful sunset. There are no cuts. It was important to show the whole sex act, from beginning to end.
You had me guessing right up until the end with this film. I had no idea which way it was going to go with Wanda and Elsa.
I was exploring this idea that it’s the first time someone asked her what she wants to do. For the first time in her life, it’s not her parents, not her children, not her boss, not her patient. Elsa asks her, “Do you want to leave, or do you want to stay?” And so, for the first time in her life, she has a choice. And I think this is very important to get her to that place where she can decide for herself.
A great character arc.
And the answer isn’t important. We don’t need to know what she decides, just that she will be able to make that choice.
This was the first time you wrote with Cooky?
Yes, the first time, but I’ve known her work for a long time. I admired her work that she did with other filmmakers in Germany. It was really a happy day for me when she agreed to work on the project.
I’m curious about your work in Switzerland as a female filmmaker. Is it a tight community of filmmakers?
Switzerland has a tiny film community. Film, it’s not important in Switzerland. We have banks and insurance and watches and chocolate. But it’s a very small film business. So, we all know each other. I know pretty much all the other female filmmakers, and with some of them I have a lot of exchange. We even have a female filmmakers association here. I love it, because it’s important that we make it very normal, women writing and directing.
Has it been a challenge, as a woman, to get to this level of success in your career?
I started making movies from the moment when I left school, so I was really lucky. But I also had a lot of confidence. I was educated by very strong women – my mother, my grandmother. I come from a family where it’s totally normal to have that feeling that everything is possible.
Your mother and grandmother, did they work outside of the home?
Always. And that’s not unusual in Switzerland. But some of the women in my family – my great grandmother even – they were married to artists and dreamers, very charming, fantastic men who, of course, passed down their artistic genes. But these women always supported their men, earned the money for the family.
That’s interesting. Raising the kids and working.
Yes, always, including my mother. But in a very self-confident way. I’ve honestly never known it differently.
Do you find it a challenge to balance motherhood with your work as a filmmaker?
The father of my sons is an artist, a cameraman, so we have always shared the responsibilities. It’s always felt very natural that we share the profession and the family and household duties. Honestly, though, I find these last months quite challenging because the boys are teenagers now, much more challenging than when they when they were babies. I love it, and it’s interesting, all the debates and how they develop as personalities. But I still have to work. I don’t come from a financially privileged background where I don’t have to worry about finances. This September, in the fall, I will make a TV series in Germany for about four months. I’ll be shooting in Munich, and I will take my older son with me. He’s seventeen.
Oh, how wonderful for him.
Yes, he will intern there. He wants to be a musician. Look, I love my job, and I want to make my films, but for a long time still, my children will be my top priority. They are teenagers now, but still, I feel 100% responsible for my boys.
Does your family life, your parenting, inspire your work?
Yeah, because I’m really interested in the psychology of my children, and that has shown me that we are fragile and strong creatures. I’m really exploring and elaborating this subject. It’s always about family and relationships – that’s what all my movies are about.
Your first movie came out in 2004. So, your son was born at that point?
My first baby was born at the end of 2002. I got pregnant very quick after film school. I was in panic mode, and I wrote and wrote and wrote like crazy. I was so scared that if I don’t produce scripts now, I’ll never make a movie. So, I was really strategizing my career, and I thought, of course, I want to have babies, but I want to handle both – my career and mothering.
Tell me about your time in New York. Were you studying in New York after film school?
It was during school. I was interning with Hal Hartley. I adored his work, so I wrote him a letter to see if there would be any opportunity to come work with him, and he wrote me back. He said, “I’ll be shooting in three months, and of course you can come. I can’t pay you, but I can offer you an internship and contacts.” Anyway, so I went to work in New York for half a year, and I got to know his circle, actors like Steve Buscemi. It was a terrific learning experience.
What a great reminder for young people, that you have to be proactive, write those emails.
Mine was a fax! There was no email then. I remember writing the fax and putting it in the machine and then waiting and waiting. I loved his work so much. I adored this guy. I always liked the Hollywood movies, but I was more into the art house films. I watched all of Hal’s movie with such great pleasure. So, when he wrote me back, it was like heaven.
Do you have mentors now, at this stage in your career? Anyone you can turn to for advice?
I talk a lot actually to Cooky. She’s become a bit of a mother figure for me. She lives in Berlin, which is like 500 miles away, so we talk a lot on the phone. Honestly, I would love to have more women as mentors. I’d love to have Jane Campion as a mentor. Susanne Bier too!
Do you do any mentoring with the younger generation of women filmmakers?
I’m in touch with younger generations. I’m really interested in what they are doing. Lisa Brühlmann, who has now directed some episodes of Killing Eve, she’s great and ambitious and very talented. She and I went to the same school, so we try to keep in touch. She’s shooting a series in the UK now – I think she’ll have a great career.
What are you working on now? Any new scripts?
I’m co-producing now because I really want to work on and also be more responsible for my projects. I don’t just want to be someone’s employee, especially when it comes to my own ideas. I have a new series I’m creating, a Swiss production. It’s about a doctor who is new in town and tries really hard to do her job and be a good doctor but ends up getting involved to all the psychology of her patients. A female lead.
You tend to have women in central roles in your films. Do you feel a responsibility to have female leads, or to present women in a particular light?
Totally, and I feel very empowered to offer the female point-of-view. It just feels natural to me – I know that I can touch the audience telling these stories. Honestly, I feel self-confident about it, and I will never doubt that and don’t want to take it for granted, that I have this opportunity to tell stories from a female perspective.
You mentioned you come from a lineage of male artists, women who support their male partners in their artistry. Are you the first female dreamer in your family who is making a living as an artist?
You know, I never thought of this, but yes, that’s cool. It’s very interesting because all the other artists in the family were men. I’ll have to keep thinking about that. My father also is a dreamer, but in another way – he puts all his blood, sweat, and tears into medical projects in the South Pacific. And if my sons want to be dreamers and artists, I’ll always support them.
The Diva Directors interview series has appeared both online and in the print editions of Film International. To date, the series has included interviews with internationally acclaimed filmmakers Gillian Armstrong (Australia), Susanne Bier (Denmark), Isabel Coixet (Spain), Cristina Comencini (Italy), Anne Fontaine (France), Marleen Gorris (The Netherlands), Caroline Link (Germany), Claudia Llosa (Peru), Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy (Pakistan), Patricia Riggen (Mexico), Kirsten Sheridan (Ireland), and Susanna White (England).
Anna Weinstein is a screenwriter and frequent contributor to Film International. She teaches screen and television writing at Kennesaw State University.