by Fabien Lemercier
- An interview with a young director who is anchored in sobriety and meticulously observes a world of insinuations
At 34, German director Matthias Luthardt is off to a successful start in features with his graduation film Pingpong [+see also:
interview: Matthias Luthardt
interview: Sebastian Urzendowsky
film profile], which was selected in the Cannes Critics’ Week. In Paris Cineuropa caught up with the director, a former journalist and documentary-maker, to talk about how his former career has contributed to a directing style characterised by distanced observation of daily life.
Cineuropa: How did Pingpong come about?
Matthias Luthardt: I wanted to tell a story set in a social milieu close to mine, well-off and traditional because 'bourgeois' is too simplistic a term. I wanted to concentrate on a few characters, and found a co-scriptwriter who works in theatre, so someone used to the behind-the-scenes. Our objective was to show what happens behind closed doors, without continuously dramaticising events, by unveiling how characters communicate or don’t communicate, and paying particular attention to what is left unsaid. We then developed an intriguing storyline against a backdrop of social conflict. Although from the same family, Paul comes from another milieu that has a very different way of communicating. The microcosm in which he bursts into is a little isolated, a world where communication has broken down. Also his cousin Robert is not a normal teenager who goes out with friends when the weather is fine, for example.
Was this choice of filming behind-the-scenes linked to production constraints?
Financial constraints did play a role, of course, but I was naturally attracted to this closed universe. Previously I worked in documentaries with small teams, sometimes holding the camera myself, in order to be as close as possible to the characters. And for Pingpong, I feared that too many locations and too much ambition would ruin this type of approach. It also took me a long time to find my actors. I was very lucky with Sebastian Urzendowky who I liked right away in the casting. The most difficult character to cast was Robert because I wanted a real pianist and I had looked all over Germany before finding Clemens Berg.
Schumann the dog is a character in his own right.
I treated him like this because the way the mother of the family likes him says a lot about her. I was moved by the Austrian documentary Tierische Liebe (1995) by Ulrich Seidl about very strong relationships that border on the sexual, which the inhabitants of the Vienna suburbs have with their dogs. I wanted each object, including the dog, to have a function, like the leitmotivs in romantic literature. There was a danger of representing them as symbols, although I didn’t want to be too demonstrative. Therefore, I tried to use shots and frame images, which could show this symbolism in a distanced fashion. And I made the choice without compromise by asking myself who was my character of reference. In certain scenes, the focus is on a character in the foreground while another character is talking in the background.
Journalists associate you with the "Berlin School" (Petzoldt, Schanelec, Grisebach, and others). What is your view on this?
Anti-dramatic and anti-psychological films belong to this movement, but Pingpong doesn’t fit into this framework. However, the one thing I do have in common with this "school" is my desire to avoid any sentimentalism, and instead tell stories that are a bit rough, simple in a sober way, not at all "bigger than life" like in American films, just an observation that we explore with our own language.
Which directors have influenced your work?
I like Haneke and the early films by Kieslowski, Under the sand by François Ozon, some films by Lars von Trier and especially those by the Dardenne brothers.
What do you think about the current renaissance in German cinema?
There is a certain renaissance and the current five schools of cinema are the driving force. But young directors also do not want to imitate other directors. Heads of pre-sales at several television channels are also open-minded and support this movement, which wasn’t the case ten years ago. Finally, history plays a role because some time was needed after the fall of the Wall before directors could deal with specific subjects such as those in The Lives of Others [+see also:
interview: Florian Henckel von Donners…
interview: Ulrich Muehe
film profile] by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (see Focus).