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Sonja Heiss • Director

Life is always a good source


- Sonja Heiss talks about her new feature Hedi Schneider Is Stuck, a story about everyday life and the impossibility of enduring happiness

Sonja Heiss • Director

The title of the new film by Berlin based director Sonja Heiss is Hedi Schneider Is Stuck [+see also:
film review
interview: Sonja Heiss
film profile
 and at first, we are to understand it literally: right at the beginning, the lift that should be taking perky Hedi up to her office floor suddenly comes to a stop.

Of course, Hedi is soon rescued, but the scene in the lift sums up her entire situation. She is a working mother and wife who, scurrying from her office to the children’s day care center, eternally busy with household chores and visits to relatives, experiences a panic attack that culminates in a massive anxiety disorder. For months on end, Hedi is caught in a kind of paralysis.

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This second feature film by Sonja Heiss, witty, cool and at the same time very serious, tells of the effects of her illness on her otherwise happy nuclear family and on the loving relationship to her husband, Uli. Asked whether the immense strain on women of her generation is what triggers Hedi’s illness, the director, who is about the same age as her protagonist, responds: “I didn’t want to give a reason, but I don’t know anyone who manages to do everything she has decided to do, even on one single day. I also have a to-do list, which just grows longer and longer. We are over-stressed and we set ourselves high targets: we think we need to be perfect mothers and successful in our work, and we have to enjoy a good sex life because time passes so quickly and life is so short. But above all, we must be incredibly happy.”

The protagonists of Sonja Heiss’ first full-length feature film, Hotel Very Welcome, were also searching, with only moderate success, for happiness. Employing a tiny team and comparatively simple technology, she made a travel film in India and Thailand, for which her five actors from Germany and Great Britain were called upon to interact, in real situations, with lay actors chosen through castings. “We always travelled with just one actor for a month, filming the episode, and then the next one came. We spent four months on the road because we had no money for preparation, so we didn’t look for the locations and supporting actors until we got there. That made it a very cheap film,” Heiss explains. “Including absolutely everything, it only cost 350,000 euros.” However, this low budget was combined with huge personal commitment from all those involved: “The shooting was a truly borderline experience: a combination of chaos, heat, illnesses, sleeplessness, bribery, and some other dicey situations”.

Her films operate on a fine line between seriousness and buoyancy; Heiss avoids pathos and clichés with a sure hand, almost in her sleep, it seems. “I believe that German humour has a poor reputation internationally,” she says, “and that is a shame, of course, because in Bavaria or in Northern Germany as well there are certain types of dry humour, which I think are amazing – you may even find it in Berlin, occasionally,” she says jokingly. Humour has much to do with courage, the filmmaker believes: “The actors that I worked with had a private sense of humour as well. But above all, they had the courage to take risks. In every take in which they aim to be funny, actors ultimately risk the danger that no one will laugh.”

Sonja Heiss is now writing a book – once again, all about life and the impossibility of enduring happiness. Or at least, it is a family novel, possibly also a little autobiographical? “Of course, there is something of my own life in everything that I do, including in the collection of short stories I have written, Happiness Runs Out. Your own life is always a good source of material. That’s one of the practical things about this profession: when you experience awful things, at least you can turn them into art afterwards.”

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