Stefan Jäger • Director of Monte Verità
“It’s funny that we in Switzerland created the first hippie commune”
by Marta Bałaga
- The Swiss director invites everyone to revisit “The Mountain of Truth”, a utopian colony that welcomed all of the unconventional thinkers
It’s 1906, and young housewife Hanna (Maresi Riegner) literally can’t breathe any more, stuck in her role and in her flat that she isn’t supposed to leave – at least according to the doctors. Until she hears about a mysterious place where everyone is uninhibited and free, that is. In Stefan Jäger’s Monte Verità [+see also:
interview: Stefan Jäger
film profile], shown in the Piazza Grande section of the Locarno Film Festival, it’s time for a revolution – even if it’s just a personal one.
Cineuropa: I had never heard of Monte Verità; now, I just want to find out more.
Stefan Jäger: I was there in 1989 with Cinema & Gioventù, which is also a part of the Locarno Film Festival – they invite students and young people. That was my first time, and it struck me right away – it’s such a mesmerising place. It’s full of history, which you can just feel; you can sense all those people who used to walk around there, dance and discover the very same things we are discussing today, like veganism, our relationship with nature, and women’s rights.
It’s crazy how ahead of the game this community was. Well, maybe apart from their insistence on daily sunbathing.
Maybe in those days, the sun wasn’t that aggressive [laughs]. I was curious to learn about the female figures who created this place, like pianist Ida Hofmann – not being married was very important for her. This specific year, 1906, was chosen because that’s when Lotte Hattemer, the daughter of the mayor of Berlin, took her own life and [Austrian psychoanalyst] Otto Gross was giving her all of these potions – this is a fact. Hermann Hesse visited, and so did Isadora Duncan – one of the first dancers to go there. We still don’t know who took most of the pictures of that place, however – there are more than 500 of them. That’s where our invention started. We said: “Let’s create a female protagonist who will be a photographer, looking for a new artistic approach.”
By giving her this profession, you were able to play around with some old techniques. For a filmmaker, that must have been a lot of fun, right?
I love those old pictures. We had a special camera, a Hasselblad, and you could film what it saw. Also, there is this museum of photography in Switzerland, and the researcher there helped us a lot. When Hanna takes pictures and we jump inside her head, there are parts that are still moving while others have already frozen. She wants to embrace movement, make it a part of her creation. It was fun, but a lot of work. Maresi had to learn how to handle the camera, too. You can see that her character is not so used to it at first, after all those years being married.
Hanna is trapped in her house at the beginning. Her illness, be it real or imagined, brought to mind “hysteria” and how some men tried to cure it.
We talked about asthma, not being able to breathe. During the pandemic, it took on a whole different meaning – we had to work with masks on, after all. We had this idea that being on the Monte Verità feels like learning to breathe again. You can hear it in the sound design, too. There is a whole storyline told just through her breathing.
Back in Vienna, we wanted her neckline to be very high, her hairdo very stiff. All the rooms are dark, and it’s like being imprisoned in a gilded cage, with doctors telling you: “Don’t show any emotion, or you will have an attack.” Only later does she gain some confidence – also to be able to work as an artist.
With period films, attention to detail is crucial. But were you able to let your imagination run a bit wilder once she steps out into this world?
There are many books about it and a documentary called Freak Out! And all these pictures, of course. But we decided not to be so precise about the look of these people, because sometimes it felt a bit cheesy, to be honest. We wanted to go further and create looks that would also remind us of the Flower Power movement; we looked at pictures from the 1960s and 1970s. I always say that it’s funny, that we in Switzerland created the first hippie commune. People were rebelling against this society that wouldn’t let them be free. I would love to be a hippie myself, but I was born too late.
These ideas, or utopias, are generally rather short-lived.
And yet Ida Hofmann, played by Julia Jentsch, was there for 20 years! That’s quite an achievement. Later, she left with her partner Henri Oedenkoven, who had a child with a dancer. She accepted it, and they created this patchwork family, moved to Brazil and founded a new community. So much of her life went into this utopia. There were different periods in Monte Verità’s story: there was the period of the founders, the artists, then the rich, building a new infrastructure. What these people did was really revolutionary – you can’t believe it was even possible. I love fantasy, but here, all of the magic happens in the head of the audience.
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