by Boyd van Hoeij
- The director of The Elementary Particles talks about his adaptation of the Michel Houellebecq novel
Cineuropa: How do you relate to the story personally? Many of the story’s themes have surfaced in your earlier work, especially Agnes and His Brothers?
Oskar Roehler: I liked the book and wanted to make the film because it tells so much about my generation – especially the male generation – of people who are in their mid-40s now: their weaknesses and the bad experiences they have had with the generation before them and the cultural fights they had to go through. These were the reasons I wanted to do an adaptation of the book; the stories of these characters that were so lifelike and real. It is very daring in that it laughs about male sexuality and the inferiority complexes of men. The book is very fascinating because I never read about these topics before in such an honest way.
What was the biggest problem when you were adapting the controversial novel?
When I started to think about the screenplay, I was very aware that the novel was written by someone who reproaches society in way. The book basically works on two levels, with one level being a radical socio-political viewpoint that looks down on humanity and says: you are finished, you will need to make place for a new race. The more I thought about this point of view, the more I realised that this would be an embarrassing point of view for a film. When I read the book for the first time, I went along with it and accepted it, but when I started to think about what this really means I could not agree with it anymore. I grew up here in Germany where there have been experiments where they tried to create a superior race, and in the novel there is also this aspect of the mad scientist that acts like he does because of a complete lack of sexuality. I do not trust people that have no sexuality at all; it makes me uncomfortable somehow. So the ending [of the novel] was changed [in the film].
Could you explain your reasoning behind the new ending, since most viewers familiar with the book will find it very different indeed?
From the beginning there was a discussion about how the film should end. If we included the ideas of the novel about a new race of asexual human beings taking over the planet, then there was the question of how do you film something like that. We imagined something like a Stanley Kubrick film, or something like a video clip in which asexual beings wander on the beach at sunset, but in the end we decided to leave these aspects out of the film completely. [It is hinted at in a brief written epilogue on screen.] We could have made a very avant-garde, pornographic science-fiction film but we decided we preferred telling a love story – or a story about whether love is possible – and focussing on the emotions, which is a more classical approach to film. Both elements are in the book, but when making a film I think you should stick to either one or the other. I think a classical film narrative can sustain one disaster or even two, but not a disastrous end for every character and for the whole of mankind. Now, Bruno and Christiane’s ending is far from happy [and the other characters are better off than the book].
Could you tell us a bit about your decision to switch the two lead actors shortly before filming?
We decided to switch four weeks before shooting. Moritz [Bleibtreu], who plays Bruno, was in my last film [Agnes and His Brothers] in a similar role and I wanted to work with him again, but he was afraid that he would repeat himself so I started rehearsals with a compromise. I told him: "You do not have to play Bruno, you can play the other brother if you prefer". With Christian [Ulmen, the actor who plays Michael] we were really lucky because he is a chameleon and during rehearsals he played Bruno quite well. But some time into the rehearsals I realised that Moritz really got fascinated by the role he did not initially want to play, so at a certain moment we looked into each other’s eyes and knew we had to switch roles. Unlike Moritz, I was not afraid to repeat myself with him in this role: he is my favourite actor working in Germany right now and if I have a role for him that is perfect than I would not hesitate to work with him again.
Despite being about sex, there is not a lot of it on screen...
The action and the characters are driven by sex and I wanted that to be enough. I did not really want to show the sex at every turn but just talk about it and make it clear that this is what drives the characters. However, after these two sex themed dramas [Agnes and His Brothers and The Elementary Particles [+see also:
interview: Franka Potente & Moritz Ble…
interview: Oskar Roehler
film profile]], I am going to do a film that is not about sex, and it has sex scenes in it! [Laughs.]