By Yun-hua Chen.
The gender concept is now so flexible. And that, I find quite appealing. The not quite so ordinary thing in this film is that here a woman is the perpetrator, and the story is told from her perspective and this perspective remains unpunished.”
German director Isabelle Stever’s new film Grand Jeté is fearless, radical, and uncompromising. The script is based on the novel Fürsorge, commissioned by Isabelle Stever and written by the Berlin-based writer Anke Stelling, a winner of the Leipzig Book Fair Literary Award in 2019.
The former professional ballet dancer Nadja, the main protagonist, previously works abroad and now comes back to her hometown in Germany in her 30s. Her body is ravaged by years of training. She suffers from pain, injured legs, and pustules on her skin. Unable to continue her career as a ballerina, she teaches young girls ballet at a school. In her mother’s house she finally sees her gym-addict teenage son for the first time after many years’ complete absence. Both having a deep obsession with their bodies, they click with each other immediately. The ensuing feelings that they develop for each other very soon transcend mother-son bonding and challenge moral conventions.
The incestual mother-son relationship and explicit depiction of carnal desire is prone to controversies, admittedly, but the director is the same lucid as she is unapologetic in her unique approach. Despite being provocative, a shock effect is not the goal for her. Rather, it is a film which was created from the desire to reject all the categorizing, stereotyping, and pigeonholing that we are all too used to.
Can we maybe start by talking about what the process of making this film? How was it like? How did the collaboration with Anke Stelling start and how did it develop?
This is already the third directorial work of mine that was adapted from a novel by Anke Stelling. And here the process was a little different from the usual. Namely, first there was the Treatment by an actress Franziska Petri, in which there was a love story between mother and son, but told as a classic love story. I found that interesting and had a feeling of irritation at this, let’s say subversive, idea. And then I thought to myself, why did I feel this way? And I didn’t really know. This feeling, what it triggered in me, could be material for a film, I thought. I tried to write something myself and realised that I couldn’t do it. I gave the Treatment together with my thoughts on the story to Anke Stelling, and she wrote an exposé which really shocked me when I read it. It was so drastic because it portrayed the situation so explicitly and in an exaggerated manner.
Later on, I understood that this was probably a good way to deal with the material, so I commissioned and also paid Anke to write a novel. It was because I believed that through a novel, it would get closer to the material and less to the plot, and that I could then write a screenplay from this novel better than if we write a screenplay straight away. But, when Anke finished the novel, it was a big challenge to adapt it. What happened in the narrative was so inaccessible, so monstrous, that only the ironical point of view of the narrator made it bearable and accessible, perhaps like Lolita. There is a narrator who imagines this story between Nadja and Mario, as a product of imagination, as a projection. I even had the idea of making animated characters with Motion Capture and thought really hard about how I could make it into a film, and in-between I made two other films.
The whole thing spanned from 2006 to 2009, and then the novel came into being. And then in 2015 I met a woman in Moscow, Anna Melikova, who interviewed me and whom I met again later at the Berlinale 2016. She also did ballet and is a film curator. She has written about films as a journalist as well as proses and texts. And somehow from my impression of her taste, I thought she could perhaps adapt this material. She wrote the first scene, and I thought wow, why don’t you write the next scene? And then she wrote a whole script over the course of a year, which was far too big, too long, and too detailed. Rich in detail, I then worked with her to find a path to enter the film, so to speak, which became the script. After the montage and the realization of the film, there is still a pavement left of this street, so to speak, and this pavement is very dense, however, because it has 16 years behind it and many thoughts. That’s why you can also look at this film in many ways.
What I think Anna has done is that she has given an identity to the projections of the novel narrator but it is not psychological. It’s like the social identity of a set piece.
Are there differences between the original concept of Treatment and the way it is as a film?
Yes, it has been changed and that’s exciting as well. The Treatment was in a bourgeois milieu of culturally experienced people, and the son was growing up with the father. Anke settled the story in another milieu, and there the son grows up with the protagonist’s mother. And so when Nadja returns home and goes into her childhood room, which now belongs to her son, she also makes up for a childhood that she never had and is suddenly there with her son like siblings, basically all fighting for the mother’s attention. Then in the screenplay it moved further away from the novel, in which inner conflicts became inalienable.
Nadia’s body is a very important part of the film, and in a way I feel that this film is also about the desire of an ageing body to become young again, and the human longing for connection and continuation. What are your thoughts on this?
I think Nadja is a character who is only defined by her body. Everything she does relates to her body and this body is in danger of decay. And she wants to survive. So she wants this body to survive and to that extent she is also something like a primal instinct of something archaic for me. She’s not a social figure; she’s more like a physical drive.
I think you can also read the arc of history as how evolution carries through. The parents have become obsolete. They are service providers. Against this concept Nadja in the end she surrenders herself. You can also read this ending like a surrender in order to be independent. Now she has something for whom she takes responsibility, but we don’t know for sure. And Mario is following a stereotype of the wandering man, after having made up for something previously lacking in a very twisted way. When he tries to leave, I designed the mise-en-scene so that there is always something that moves, like water in front of him, fans, machines in the gym. Actually, he was narrated in relation to his distance to her.
That’s what I imagined, that she is basically pulled through the story by her body. You can also see the film as body horror, as if Nadia’s repressed body suddenly has its own agenda, breaks out and pulls her into this, into this catching up with a childhood, into this catching up with a motherhood, also into her biological task.
Body decay can also represent a very radical world view, and there is something not pleasant about such female figures. These female figures are exhausting and uncomfortable. And not easy to pigeonhole. And that’s why such films encounter difficulties. It is interesting to tell this kind of story about female characters. I can also imagine that now that more attention is being paid to films by women and the concerns of women, that perhaps these films will have a renaissance.
If you try to sort a film by rules: no score, no crane shots, no short shots, no long shots…you define purity laws of what is a good or a bad film, and we no longer see the film itself but only the pigeonhole it is placed in.”
I especially like the way you started the film. You delayed the moment of showing us how Nadja looks as much as possible. The way that the audience sees Nadja as a mystery is later on transferred on to the way Nadja sees Mario as a mystery. This not-knowing and anti-omniscient perspective, what are your thoughts behind?
That’s a very good observation. I find it tremendously important to find a good timing to show the face of the main character, and to decide on what the look of that face brings along with it until then. That is, a face alone cannot tell much of a story if we already tell a lot of things beforehand, which are then projected onto that face. And we have this water, which is a kind of unpredictable movement, chaos, life. And then we see a woman stretching, but we don’t know, is it pleasure or pain? Or masturbation? We have used the montage to build up with images that this film is about the body and visuality. We tell the story with a distance using the means of elevation.
To tell it in such a way that the viewer is given the opportunity to have freedom and hope in this ostensibly hopeless story, namely because they can play with the elements of the plot, because the world is shown as changeable through elevation. Nadja is narrated through an often raised perspective. We narrate it as if everything was preordained like a saga, like a legend, as if we were narrating her space around her. And at the same time we have given the visuality an unpredictability, as if anything is possible at any moment. We are very close to her and very far away at the same time. What is important to her comes into focus. What is unimportant to her is out of focus.
How did the casting and rehearsal go for Sarah Nevada Grether and Emil von Schönfels? Why did you choose a Berlin-based American actress to play the role of Nadja?
Yes, that was an exciting decision. I thought it was just too important for my form of storytelling to cast someone who I would call, is not so easily pigeonholed. She seems like an alien for the fact that she is actually American. But we have worked with a coach on her language to such an extent that her German just sounds original, as if she has acquired a certain way of speaking German through her ballerina existence in order to set herself apart. And the fact that she is a dancer means that she can think herself into this world and that she has this body and this body is irreplaceable. For this story, that alone tells a story. And then I saw something in her, something unpredictably wild. And I found it incredibly appealing. To put Sarah into this corset, into this prison of the figure of Nadja, with an inner confusion resisting this strictness. Sarah had this experience herself and has left the ballet herself for good reasons. In her there was this longing to break out.
For the role of Mario, I found Emil von Schönfels, who has been an actor since he was four years old, so he is actually much more experienced in acting than she is. He seems vulnerable and confident at the same time. He has a secret, an unfathomable secret, and that makes him a projection of curiosity. When you watch him, you don’t know if he’s just really like that. So natural. Or whether he has a plan. Or whether he’s very puzzled by it all and doesn’t even know how to cope, and it’s all just an adolescent mask to protect himself. You have all these possibilities. But that’s common in Anke Stelling’s works. Mario is also a desire made flesh, fantasy of Nadja. So he is in this prison of fantasy, but comes alive.
The power struggle and imbalance between the two is very intriguing. How did the actors work together?
I have a way of approaching working with actors which I have been following during all my previous feature films until now. When we decide to work together, the script gets thrown away and it doesn’t get taken out until we’re on set. During six months, we have rehearsal that consists of a chain of improvisations. During these improvisations which tell their own story, related to, the conflicts are similar, the film’s narrative, I also think about the characters again. I also rehearse written scenes with actors from time to time, but they are written especially for the rehearsals. So, the actors get to know the characters, but the situation on set is fresh. I can thus try to achieve an authenticity, to keep an originality in their performance.
During these improvisations, I also have rehearsed physical scenes, but they did not have a sexual context. That is, situations where the actors interact physically with each other, but without a sexual context. And through this, the two were able to build up a trust with each other, to become physical without having to play intimacy. Later during shooting there was a very concrete choreography, so that for the audience it looks like intimacy. But for the actors they basically just have to let physicality guide them.
What do you think about the female gaze in your film? I mean, sometimes I feel that if it had been done by a male director or scriptwriter, it wouldn’t have worked as well.
I don’t really get along with the pigeonholing of the female and male gaze, but I think my gaze is probably already feminine. I also find it interesting when I watch a film without knowing the director’s gender, and it happened to me in Toronto when I watched Brownian Movement of Nanouk Leopold and thought the director was a man. Then I understood afterwards that it was a woman. I found myself rewinding the whole film and rewatching it again and somehow evaluating everything differently in a very twisted way. This is so deep inside us. It motivates our own evaluation and affects how our perception of a work of art resonates.
On the other hand, it is no longer possible to view works of art in this way because the gender concept is now so flexible. And that, I find quite appealing. The not quite so ordinary thing in this film is that here a woman is the perpetrator, and the story is told from her perspective and this perspective remains unpunished. That is a subversive act that is very uncomfortable for the viewer, but it is also deliberately done that way.
The film project was funded only a quarter from what it would have cost. I shot it with students and on a low budget, in a workshop-like atmosphere, so that everyone who took part also got something out of it. They gained experience and are now doing great things.
Do you expect the film to be controversial during the film festival?
I very much hope that the discussion that may arise doesn’t flatten the film, and that, the discussion around it would respect the subtleties of this narrative. Otherwise, it would be very unfortunate for the possibilities that this film has. In that sense, I’m kind of prepared for it because I already experienced it in the stage of looking for funding. The fact that it might be perceived very controversially aroused my interest rather than my resistance. I think that controversial discussion can also be very devastating, and I hope that the film will hold its own ground. I’m the one who put it there and now it has to speak for itself. I can only speak about it in a protective way, but in the end, the film is now in the mind of the viewers and I wish the film a lot of strength.
What do you think about the Berliner Schule?
That’s a very good question because it always arouses my aversion to pigeonholing. It serves delimitation. If you try to sort a film by rules: no score, no crane shots, no short shots, no long shots…you define purity laws of what is a good or a bad film, and we no longer see the film itself but only the pigeonhole it is placed in. It motivates building up prejudice. And if you then start sort out bad films by these purity laws, and only some good sorts are left, it could trigger cultural starvation. Compare it to agriculture. When there is only one type of apple left, then a beetle specified on this sort of apple can come and destroy all apples there are. But if you have different sorts of apples, they can fertilize each other and mix their genetic material and fight the beetle. And that’s why it’s good that there are also many films from many sides that keep one another, alive, it’s good to have diversity in culture. And if a beetle destroys two, three films, the others can do it again. But Berliner Schule is not even a pigeonhole. I can’t grasp the definition of the term on Google because no definition makes sense. In fact, films are there to enrich the world through the greatest diversity possible. And it’s really appealing that there are very, very different approaches to film.
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.