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BERLINALE 2020 Encounters

Sandra Wollner • Director of The Trouble with Being Born

“I was interested in making an anti-Pinocchio”


- BERLINALE 2020: We chatted to Austrian director Sandra Wollner about The Trouble with Being Born, in which she finally puts the Pinocchio myth to rest

Sandra Wollner  • Director of The Trouble with Being Born

In The Trouble with Being Born [+see also:
film review
interview: Sandra Wollner
film profile
, shown in the Encounters section of the 70th Berlinale, Sandra Wollner follows an android that looks just like any ten-year-old girl and is named Elli by a man who keeps her sheltered in a house by the forest. Elli is designed to be whoever her owner needs her to be – until she suddenly needs to become someone else.

Cineuropa: Androids are a popular subject nowadays, but when it’s a child, it just feels different somehow. Especially as some of the scenes in your film can be seen as disturbing.
Sandra Wollner: It’s true. For me, it’s basically a film about a child-like android that can be programmed to do anything you want – all the darkest things you can imagine. And yet it just doesn’t care; it wants what it’s programmed to want. I found that aspect quite interesting. I felt it allowed me to go deeper into exploring our human mindset, but it was hard for me, too, especially during the editing process. I understand if someone finds these scenes shocking. But in the world that’s becoming more and more “virtualised”, we are already able to project our inner thoughts and desires onto other people.

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Even though this particular android wants, as you said, what it’s programmed to want, some still don’t seem too happy with its “performance”. Why?
People aren’t happy with Elli – after all this time, I still keep referring to her as a girl – because every dialogue you can have with her, or with this object, is basically a monologue. Then again, it’s more the idea of a robot than an actual technical creation. We are not showing the latest advancements in artificial intelligence; it’s not about science fiction or what could possibly happen in the near future. I just wanted to reflect a certain aspect of our current reality. Also, when people talk about projecting their inner self onto an android and having it out there in the world forever… To tell you the truth, I find the whole concept of eternity rather unsettling. It scares me, frankly – this idea of just reliving and reliving, what would that even mean? I am not sure I am a fan of that.

Your film is not exactly sweet – it’s not Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. But even though Elli doesn’t care about what’s right and wrong, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for her in the end.
I actually thought about that film a lot, especially considering that it was Kubrick who originally started to develop it. It’s basically the story of Pinocchio, and what I was interested in was an anti-Pinocchio. I didn’t want her to have this wish to become a human, which is usually their biggest goal. Elli only wants what was programmed inside her. If she were programmed to dream about becoming a human, that’s what she would want. But that would just be cruel, and it’s obviously not happening here. I found it striking: there is this android, and she doesn’t mind if a 50-year-old man takes her to bed or if she stays with an older lady, serving as a projection of her dead brother. I wanted to show our world from the perspective of someone who is not human, from the viewpoint of an object that doesn’t judge and isn’t trying to find the meaning of life. It just is.

This is a very lonely existence that she is leading. Did you always want to show her accompanied just by one person?
Elli gets programmed to do whatever she does in the first half of the film, and then she needs to reset. She doesn’t care about that past any more, and this relationship basically ends – that was the only way of showing her just being a machine. The audience may care about finding out how it would potentially go on, but not the android. Sure, there are overlaps. There are still some fragments left, so it’s not like it was completely erased. But she doesn’t care about how this man feels once there is another programme in place. My last film [The Impossible Picture [+see also:
film profile
] was a bit different – I tried to explore how you develop an ego. Now, it’s more about destroying it.

Human interaction is all about compromise. But here, you don’t need to think about this other person. This concept of owning a creature that you can program to do whatever you please, do you find it scary?
It is quite disturbing. But I am not sure if our virtual communication hasn’t already become more like this. You are talking to someone online, but it’s just an idea of this person – it doesn’t have to be real. I am not sure there is such a big difference any more. A lot of dialogues we have with the world right now feel like monologues, too. For me, The Trouble with Being Born is a story about the ghosts within: the ones we carry with us or project onto something else. Because here’s the thing: we can actually do it now.

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