Ulla Wagner • Director
Passion and nuance
by Josef Schnelle
- Ulla Wagner • Director Passion and nuance
“My style is based on precise observation of detail. You have to tell a story that is more than mere action, and then it will work.” Ulla Wagner knows just what she wants. In her films she explores the fine nuances of love and passion without falling into the trap of cliché.
Several emotions may take hold of an individual, for example, and this can even be at the very same moment. Visualizing this kind of tension in a film scene represents a great challenge, but it is one that Ulla Wagner has met with repeated success in her films so far. It all depends on how one directs the actors and actresses, which she has viewed as a particularly fascinating aspect of her profession from the start.
“Very early on, I wanted to be on the spot when a film was being made. It was watching the work with the actors that finally convinced me which profession I wanted to pursue,” she says. At that time, Wagner was still searching for her vocation and had worked in various film professions after completing a course in Theatre Studies at the Free University in Berlin: in casting, dramaturgy (including in the department of TV drama at broadcaster SFB), as an assistant director and a writer.
In 1989 she received a grant from the Screenplay Workshop Berlin which covered her expenses for one year. In 1993 she won an award from the Filmstiftung NRW for her film adaptation of the children’s novel Wacholderzauber. Subsequently, she worked for the children’s program of the pubic broadcaster WDR and also contributed various essayistic, documentary films to the series Kunststuecke.
Almost always, she was the author of the films that she directed. “I don’t believe in the idea that the eighteenth version of the screenplay – with as many authors involved as possible – is likely to be the best. That means that I have always seen myself as a classic author-director.” This also applied to her first full-length feature film. The story of Anna – who faces rather more problems than those of puberty in a small German town during the 60s – is not autobiographical, “but it does have a few personal implications.” Anna Wunder represented a breakthrough for author and director Ulla Wagner. A co-production by Pandora and C-Films, it sold in many regions, enjoyed a successful run in the cinemas and even found an audience in distant Japan.
Her work continued with the much-praised adaptation of a novella by Uwe Timm, who also works as a screenplay author; however, he did not wish to turn this obviously very personal material into a screenplay himself. “After our conversations, he was very willing to put the book into my hands and to accept my condition, which was a free hand with the adaptation.” The Invention of Curried Sausage tells the story of Lena, a woman who feels she may not be attractive much longer. She is given perhaps the last chance to live a completely different life, a fantasy of love and passion. Ulla Wagner masters an unusual tightrope walk in this film. It is never historicizing, because we sense that every radical change in the times triggers the opportunity for a new individual beginning, and that every passion, however tentative, may have monumental consequences.
In Ulla Wagner’s film actress Barbara Sukowa celebrated a comeback welcomed by critics and audiences alike, and also succeeded in winning the prize for the Best Actress at the Montreal World Film Festival in 2008, where The Invention of Curried Sausage was shown in the highly-regarded international competition. Asked how she convinced Barbara Sukowa to take the part, Wagner answers: “You can win over the best actors with a good screenplay. Actors want to act and they quickly recognize any good part that is offered to them.”
Ulla Wagner is not prepared to reveal much about her upcoming films yet. She selects her projects very carefully. “But perhaps it’s time for a film that isn’t historical and yet still reflects my style.” Might that include a screenplay that has been written by a different author? “It’s always better if you know what story you want to tell and have written the screenplay for it, too. But of course, I wouldn’t refuse a finished screenplay that was offered to me if it was good and I really liked it.”
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