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Katharina Wyss • Director

“Sometimes you shouldn’t do what you’re told”


- VENICE 2017: Debuting director Katharina Wyss, whose Sarah Plays a Werewolf has been shown in the International Critics’ Week, explains why she was afraid of understanding her protagonist

Katharina Wyss  • Director
(© L Kurtz/International Critics' Week)

In Sarah Plays a Werewolf [+see also:
film review
interview: Katharina Wyss
film profile
, Katharina Wyss’ feature debut, screening in Venice’s International Critics’ Week, timid teenager Sarah (Loane Balthasar) discovers theatre. While her outrageous ideas initially provoke some controversy, for a while it seems like she can finally find a way to fit in. But from some things you simply cannot escape – at least not for long. 

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Cineuropa: Watching Sarah constantly shoot herself in the foot is extremely hard. But your film also reminds us of that time in our life when we just can’t seem to do anything right.
Katharina Wyss:
 I just wanted to be honest. I didn’t really care whether she was likeable or not. Sarah can be nasty and narcissistic, and it wasn’t easy to “write” her. At first, I was working on the script by myself, but I realised that I was looking from the outside. I needed to follow her into this experience, which proved extremely difficult – I just couldn’t connect with her. But then I started to work with some teenagers, and I met a boy who seemed to know a lot about Sarah’s inner life. He was the one who made her come alive – as well as the actress, Loane Balthasar, of course, because Sarah and I have a complicated relationship [laughs].

It was her first role, wasn’t it?
It was – Loane is very independent in the way she works. I told her it was her story, and only later did I realise that she had taken it quite seriously. She was afraid of destroying the film. She started to write Sarah’s diaries, imagining what this girl went through. I just pointed her in a certain direction, but I guess she knew her performance would drive the whole thing. 

Sarah’s fascination with martyrs and other tragic figures is not that strange, really. Even Anne of Green Gables pretended to die while playing Tennyson’s Elaine.
I liked the idea that these young women are fascinated by something dark and scary, and they want to act out violent scenes on stage. And they are so serious about it! There was this book by Elisabeth Bronfen called Over Her Dead Body, filled with images of dead women. All these martyrs and saints were, at least in my opinion, courageous and strong. So when they died, for some it was a relief.

Why did you decide to talk about abuse in the film? To explain why Sarah is the way she is?
It came rather late in the process. It’s tricky because I didn’t want people to say: “Oh, she was abused, so that’s why she is behaving like this.” But I really believe that in most cases this is precisely what happens.I find it interesting how people see it in the film, or how they don’t see it, because some just prefer to ignore it. Sarah can’t go into the world like the others and experience things that others consider as normal. She carries it with her at all times. She sees it and she knows it, but it’s ambivalent enough for her not to ask for help. A lot of people, especially older men, go around saying: “It’s not really about the abuse. She is the problem.” I also spoke to teenage girls who told me that although Sarah’s father is not exactly sympathetic, he actually wants to help her. 

That’s a scary reaction.
When I was making this film, I realised that teenagers actually respect adults, which allows them to do anything, so it’s important to protest and say: “I am not going to do this.” When I was growing up, some things would happen and you wouldn’t even know how to name them. It took us years to finally be able to do that. Some women came up to me after the screenings and we didn’t really talk about abuse, but I could feel that the film had triggered something in them.

For Sarah, acting becomes that trigger.
She is proud that she can do something well. Sarah is a good student – she does what she is told to do. But there is this moment when she feels attacked and becomes almost feral. She is reacting like an animal. Some teenage girls told me it was their favourite scene because they could finally see her fight. I think sometimes you shouldn’t do what you are told – it’s healthy.

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