By Yun-hua Chen.

It’s always very hard to put these labels on films. It’s easier to come up with new labels that didn’t exist before, and that is why I call the film a spiritual comedy. There is humor in it. There are absurd and funny situations. And adding thriller? Why not.”

Jöns Jönsson, a Swede who has lived in Berlin for many years and the face of a new generation of German cinema, presented his debut feature Lamento (2014) at the Perspectives on German Cinema section of the Berlinale that year, when he freshly graduated from the Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf in Potsdam, adjacent to Berlin. Axiom, his second feature, was selected by the Berlinale Talents for script development and now premiered at the Berlinale Encounters.

As Jöns Jönsson said in the interview, it’s almost impossible to talk about the film without including some spoilers. So, here is the big giveaway: the protagonist Julius is a pathological liar who constructs a self-image that is all an act. A handsome and charming young man, he always has an endless stream of anecdotes to tell and an extraordinary ability to read people. Seemingly at the center of attention, he is unwilling to face his true self and always cloaked in a fabricated identity. Once someone finds out his pathological lying, he would immediately run away from the scene and withdraw himself from the established network.

Axiom’s subject matter is very relatable, as we all wear a kind of disguise to a certain extent, or we “fake it until we make it”. How much of our “real self” is real in its truest sense? Does our inherently deceptive self-image add up to our feelings of loneliness deep inside? Reminiscent of Luigi Pirandello, Jöns Jönsson’s Axiom foregrounds the alternate new identities for each new acquaintance.

Jöns Jönsson, as scriptwriter and director, presents a well-researched and insightful portrait of an individual without attempting to provide any psychological explanations for the puzzling behavior or forcefully bringing the protagonist to salvation. His carefully crafted script is put on screen with precise camera work that takes on the pathological liar’s perspective. Fabian Torsson’s scores, accompanied by Schubert’ Der Doppelgänger with Heinrich Heine’s poem, are eerily fitting. The dialogues are intentionally intriguing and ambiguous, while all the details are there for a reason and need to be discovered by the audience. The director’s observation of human interaction and our contemporary society is sharp and spot-on; the issues of social class, modern slavery under the capitalist system, unrealistic social expectations, and equality in the workplace were touched upon while the protagonists intensely debate about religious beliefs and atheism.

Jöns Jönsson’s openness and frankness during the interview is almost like a footnote to his own understanding of “real identity” and his reaction to his character Julius’ evasion of it.

This is one of the most interesting films I have watched at this year’s Berlinale until now. Where did the idea of the script come from?

Berlinale Talents - Jöns Jönsson | Berlinale Talents

There is a spoiler alert here because it’s very hard to talk about the film without talking about the protagonist. So, there we go, he is a chronic liar. I got the idea from a friend’s anecdote, about somebody he knew, a new colleague at work who told him weird stories but who was also an interesting and fascinating character. He wanted to take his friends to a sailing trip, and it didn’t work out for different reasons. I started thinking about this person a lot and kept doing so for many years. This was like 15 years ago. There was no obvious reason for which he was behaving the way he did. I started to research on the topic, met therapists and so on, and read some books about it. I thought a lot about us as human beings, what our “true” identity is, and what “be yourself” means since we all have very fluid identities. The idea of an identity and of who I am is sort of an axiom. It is probably a complete construction according to how one adapts to the environment through rebuilding the image of oneself, just like Julius, the main character in the film.

Where did the film title, Axiom, come from? “God as Axiom” appears in the conversation between the protagonists, right before your camera turns to capture the blue sky, woods in nature, and a piece of leaf flowing down the river.

The film title, for me, refers to the protagonist’s life structure, in the way that Julius always modifies the statements that he makes and transforms himself into different identities. In the conversation that you mentioned, his friends and he talked with a Christian guy about God, whether God exists, and how somebody so young could believe in God nowadays. The group of friends doesn’t understand it. Julius’ encounter with the Christian guy is a very important story in the film. It is an encounter between a pathological liar and somebody who chose to believe in God. This was very interesting to me. I like to call the film a spiritual comedy, as a new genre, and this is the first film of this genre. I am hoping for more spiritual comedies because there are not enough of those, I think.

What about spiritual comedy-thriller? I felt some elements of social thriller because I felt really anxious about whether his lies would be exposed.

It’s always very hard to put these labels on films. It’s easier to come up with new labels that didn’t exist before, and that is why I call the film a spiritual comedy. There is humor in it. There are absurd and funny situations. And adding thriller? Why not. When I made the film, I didn’t think about any genres or labels at all.

I thought there was a tint of social thriller because of how impressive the performance of Moritz von Treuenfels was. He is not only convincing in this complex role but also very charismatic, to the extent that throughout the film I felt very anxious for him that he would be caught. Can you talk about how you cast Moritz von Treuenfels? Was that the image you had in mind when you wrote the script?

He fits perfectly. I was open about it, and he was so good during the casting that this decision was quite easy for me. The character of Julius needs to have this kind of energy and needs to be charismatic. He should be good-looking. These are important to me. And he needs to be flexible in his acting because the character’s status goes up and down many times as the film progresses. At times he is somebody that people might look up to and admire, and then he would be down on the floor and full of shame in other situations. That’s how the journey goes for Julius. I was very happy that Moritz is not so famous yet and hasn’t made many films. He has only made some shorts. He did a lot of theatre but is a new face in cinema. In Germany, cinema and theater are completely divided worlds. I always like to have new faces on the screen.

As you said, being caught with a lie is so terrible. It’s like losing face. It’s such an existential fear in human beings. There is a French series that’s called Le Bureau de Legends. It’s a thriller series in four, five seasons. It’s very thrilling, very exciting. Those spies and agents go for missions in Russia or Iran, and they always pretend to be somebody else to collect information. They pretend that they work as nuclear scientists or whatever somewhere in Iran. The situations where somebody gets tortured or killed by the IS in Syria are not half as scary as the moment when somebody is about to be caught with a lie in an office. And you see it coming; everything that the spy pretended to be is about to be revealed. It’s so scary.

Axiom is very much about not being able to face his/her real identity and the need to get into other people’s skin, tell other people’s stories, and steal other people’s identity. Almost a kind of Mr. Ripley. But it is also very much about the hypocrisy and stereotypes around it, like the seizure scene which feels like a literal reference to Lars von Trier’s The Idiots. Can you maybe talk about your thoughts on that?

That’s great to hear. I hope that the audience will see it the way you do. I am always unsure about it. When I chose to make a film about such a character, I thought for some time about what this film is going to tell us. What can make it a better film than something that is simply about this guy with this problem? During the writing process I noticed that it’s always about placing him in different situations and observing the group’s behavior and hierarchy around. Who is the dominant one? When does who speak what? How does one behave? What signals do people send? How we are seen by people in our environment is something we are not so aware of but what we always pay attention to. During writing I somehow noticed that from the time the audience knows that he is almost never telling the truth, he suddenly becomes a scalpel that make cuts into the body in order to have a closer look at social behavior and everything that comes with that. That was a moment when I thought this could get interesting.

For me Doestoevsky was a big influence when I was writing Axiom. Somehow I felt really free to put all kinds of aspects, spiritual, psychological, that are there to have a way of looking at what it means to be a human being.

You studied at the film school Bablesberg Konrad Wolf. What’s your thoughts on the umbrella term “Berliner Schule”? As a non-German person, do you see German cinema gradually growing into the multitude of German “cinemas” with very different voices and a lot of diversity?

I had a good time during the film school. I was quite happy to be in Germany, and I am still happy to be making films in Germany. I like it a lot, more than Sweden somehow. I will make another film in Sweden though, hopefully. Berliner Schule was a big influence on cinema, and it was the only German cinema that you could watch during these years, and it was a reaction to the previous era which was overwhelmed by a lot of commercial comedies. That was a very important point of German film history. Now I think the struggle is to get out of it. The Berliner Schule is kind of out for many years now. It’s been used as a label to diss a film. I have heard it from some TV broadcasters who said, no we cannot make this because it’s too Berliner Schule. It’s been used as a negative term by people in the industry at least. I think at some point everyone got a bit sick of it. Then many directors of the Berliner Schule tried to do something completely different and tried to do genres, which I also think is problematic. I think, as filmmakers, we should not think so much about these terms. We should think about what we want, about our own film without using categories and labels.

Why was it more interesting for you to make films in Germany?

In Germany it is so much bigger so there are more films being made. There are a lot more interesting filmmakers in Germany for this reason, maybe. Sweden is small, you know. This has an impact on the film scene and everything. And I don’t know where the Swedish cinema is heading. In Stockholm they educate film students with a pretty strong focus on the craft aspect. They focus more on being good at the craft than making auteur cinema. Here in Berlin, they are much more focused on auteur cinema.

Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and her contribution to the edited volume titled A Darker Greece: Film Noir and Greek Cinema will be published by Edinburgh University Press in 2021.

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