Due to an error during printing one page of this interview was replaced by an ad when it was originally published in Film International 66, vol. 11, no. 6/2013. Therefore we have chosen to republish it here in its entirety.
German director Caroline Link has written and directed for both television and film. Her first feature Beyond Silence (1996) was nominated for an Oscar, and her third feature Nowhere in Africa (2001) won the Oscar, making her the second female director of a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner (Marleen Gorris was the first with Antonia’s Line in 1995). Link’s other features include Annaluise & Anton (1999), A Year Ago in Winter (2008) and her most recent, Exit Marrakech (2013), which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September. Caroline Link spoke with Anna Weinstein just days before the premiere.
Anna Weinstein: Tell me about your latest film, Exit Marrakech.
Caroline Link: It opens in Germany at the end of October, and then in all the German-speaking countries after that. It’s the story of a father and son. I tried to tell it almost like a love story really – the characters don’t like each other very much at the beginning of the film, but by the end they fall in love with each other.
You tend to explore family dynamics in your films. What draws you to tell stories about families?
I think dramatic stories often have to do with our desire to be not alone – to be understood or to feel a certain closeness to the people who surround us. And it always seems to come down to either love stories or stories of family. This is where we get our first views about life. It’s where we get our complexes and where everything that bothers us for the rest of our lives stems from. And it can also be the beginning of our understanding of love. So I think the elementary emotions we learn in families, emotions that we’re taught through our families and that we pass on to our children, I think it’s an essential backdrop for a dramatic story. It’s always the same desire we have – to be seen by the ones who are close to us.
Would you say that desire is at the core of Beyond Silence as well?
It is. This isn’t really a movie about deafness, Beyond Silence. It’s about deafness on the surface, of course, but the emotional substance is about communication in a family. I always try to speak about a universal emotion that most viewers will know and understand. So with Beyond Silence, I knew I wanted to make a movie about a father and a daughter – a daughter who loves her father very much but who feels drawn to a completely different world. This I knew from my own life, and this is what I wanted to write about before I knew I’d make a movie about a deaf family.
Can you tell me about your upbringing? How does your childhood influence the stories you tell?
In my childhood, really nothing led me to a life of a film-maker. My parents owned a restaurant in the town I grew up in – a little town close to Frankfurt – and it was a very non-intellectual and non-artistic family. My father left school when he was 14 or 15, and he travelled all over the world by himself. He was very curious and always pushing forward as much as he could, so he was very courageous as a young man. The only thing I know, and I can’t thank my parents enough for, is that they taught me about curiosity and openness – about not judging people but instead watching and collecting impressions. They were very open people, my parents. So everything that makes my movies emotional, I guess, I have to thank my parents for that. They gave me this view of the world – of honesty and faithfulness to family. But they didn’t teach me about literature or film.
Did you know as a child that you wanted to be a writer and director?
Not at all. I think there are two types of directors. There are the ones who can say at 10 years old that they knew they wanted to become a film-maker, that they loved cinema. But I belong more to the other group, the group who just loves people and telling stories. If I hadn’t become a film-maker, I would have worked with children who needed help. I suppose I could have become a journalist who had to research difficult living situations, where I’d go into peoples’ living rooms and engage with their problems. So I belong more to that group – the group who didn’t love cinema for cinema’s sake. I became a film-maker because it allowed me to enter a new world and learn about human beings. I’ve always had a desire to step out of my world and into an unknown world.
You often tell stories from the point of view of children or young people. Why do you think you’re drawn to this perspective?
It’s not so much the point of view of the child. It used to be in my first movies, but maybe this changed as I became older. I’m a mother now, and the point of view of the child isn’t the one that interests me anymore. You change as a film-maker. You grow as your life changes. My attitude changes – unfortunately in some ways, fortunately in other ways. I’m not as optimistic as I was when I was younger. I’m a bit more complicated now, I guess, because I’ve experienced more. So the movies, I suppose they grow with you if you tell your own stories.
Can you talk about telling your own stories, or how you make a story your own? How much do you draw on personal experiences for your stories?
That’s a lot, of course, because I always have to get goose bumps when I write. I have to feel with my characters, and I do that when I’m close to them. It doesn’t have to be a woman my age – it can be somebody completely different. For instance, I felt very much for the 17-year-old boy when I wrote the story in my new movie, Exit Marrakech, and I felt just as much for the 55-year-old father. And I’m not 17, and I’m not a man, but I give them characteristics of people I know – and of myself, of course. I let them speak and react and act like people I know. So it’s a very personal and completely subjective point of view.
What’s the climate like in Germany right now for female directors? Is it a challenge to be a woman directing films in Germany today?
In Germany, we have a very strong state subsidy system. We get money from different economic subsidies, and we also have the public television investment in German movies. And those systems really aren’t hostile towards women. I think it makes no difference actually, whether a screenplay comes from a man or a woman. I can’t say that men are at an advantage or in a better position. If anything, I would say what I find difficult as a woman is keeping up continuity in this job – not because anybody stops me from making movies but because I find it exhausting. You always have to start again from nothing. You have to convince people and get the money together. Even if I’m a quite successful film-maker, it’s always a struggle. It’s a struggle for men as well, but I have a feeling that we as women don’t have as much strength over the years, the continuity to always fight and fight and fight for the next project.
When you have kids and you need to be away so much for research and shooting and financing… it’s emotionally straining. And you’re always judged. People have opinions about you personally because they see you through your movies. And many talented young women who went to film school with me, they don’t like to live that life, and it’s their decision not to keep fighting. It’s not so much that anybody kicks them out. In Germany, this isn’t really a problem.
Do you find the process of directing itself tiring as well? Or just everything leading up to the shoot?
I really love directing, and I’m usually very happy and excited when I’m on the set – and have a lot of positive adrenaline. I’m also always very aware that being in the position to make your stories come to life, it’s a privilege really. But I will say that it’s sometimes tough to be so many different women at once. You want to be the understanding, loving, caretaking mother of the company, and at the same time you have to be determined and tough, always focused on what you’re doing. You have to push the carriage through the mud, and it can become tiring, because as women we try to meet all those needs.
Do you have a sense that as a female director you have to be nurturing? Because that’s part of the job?
I think one big problem for women is that they worry too much about how they’re perceived. More than anything else, I am a problem for myself, I would say. Because when I discover male characteristics in myself, I don’t like myself. But I don’t think men worry about that. When they become impatient, aggressive, pushy, demanding, they just think, ‘Well, I’m the director, and I have all the rights in the world to be like that.’ But as a woman, I worry, ‘Oh, I’ve been too tough, and I’ve been too pushy today. Who did I treat wrongly? Maybe I should have been more patient.’ And then I worry so much about how I behaved, because I want to be a nice girl, after all, a nice person. And I sometimes think that’s unfair. Men don’t behave nicely all the time, and they’re respected. But when women behave like that, people don’t like it. Well, I don’t like it at all. I’m very strict with myself.
Do you think your gender factors into your work – your representations of characters, the stories you tell, or the way you tell stories?
I have never really thought of myself as a female storyteller. Of course, I do tell stories in different ways than men would probably, but I always felt a little hurt when people looked at my movies and said, ‘A typical women’s movie!’ Nevertheless, I have to accept – whether I like it or not – that most of my audience is female and that I tell stories with female handwriting, in a way. But really, we need the whole variety of handwriting and languages and tones and points of view. We can’t just let men show us the world in movies – the range of emotions and difficult, complicated, complex human relationships. How poor would that be if only men described the emotional variety of human expressions? That would be a very one-sided picture. So I think we need the point of view of different people – not only men and women, but people with different social backgrounds and different intellectual backgrounds too.
Anna Weinstein is a US-based writer, editor, and screenwriter. She writes frequently about women working in film and television, female screen storytelling, and on-screen representations of women and girls.