Ruth Beckermann • Director of Mutzenbacher
“It was interesting how relaxed and how playful the men were as they interacted with each other”
by Teresa Vena
- BERLINALE 2022: The Austrian helmer confronts men of different ages with a controversial text about the sexual adventures of a fictitious female prostitute – and observes their reactions
Ruth Beckermann returns to the Berlinale with her new documentary, Mutzenbacher [+see also:
interview: Ruth Beckermann
film profile], which is based on the fictitious memoirs of the prostitute Josefine Mutzenbacher, who was supposed to live in Vienna in the 19th century. The doc has been shown in the Encounters section, where it was awarded as Best Film (see the news). We talked to the Austrian director about the concept of the movie and her interest in getting a male perspective on the text.
Cineuropa: What inspired you to deal with this topic?
Ruth Beckermann: Maybe it's in the air at the moment. Coincidentally, the book is also being republished soon. But it was also the case that you couldn't shoot very much lately; I had time to think, and memories from my youth came back to me. I decided to turn this material into a reality. We only had a few shooting days available for it. All in all, it took one-and-a-half years from the beginning of the research process to the finished film, which is quite a short time frame.
It was a playful project. After a long period of research, during which I dealt with the text, but also with contemporary prostitution, further literature and the author of the text in more detail, I then came up with this very simple, pared-down concept. From then on, everything happened relatively quickly.
Did you know from the beginning that you would focus on male protagonists?
After my research, and after discussing it with different people and on different levels, I thought that it was pretty certain that it was a man who had written the text – that it's a male fantasy. I wanted to confront men from today, who I chose at random, with the text and see what happened. I wanted to know how they would react.
Were you surprised by the reactions?
I was surprised by how open the men were. Women often say men don't talk about themselves, but that was not my experience. It was interesting how relaxed and how playful the men were as they interacted with each other. This was not necessarily very surprising, but nice.
Did your perception of the text change while working on the film?
It is always different when a text is read aloud, and it also makes a difference how it is read. To read it in a collective space, and aloud, is what gives the text a social relevance in the first place, compared to when you read it by yourself, in isolation. This changes the text and alters one’s perception of the whole phenomenon it describes.
The sofa is the only comfortable piece of furniture in the picture. Why was it important that the rest of the environment should be kept rather sterile?
I intended to reflect a casting situation. I really liked the walls of these run-down surroundings. The sofa and the piano were supposed to be a contrast with this masonry. Overall, it was supposed to reflect a somewhat absurd studio situation.
One young man says he is there because he trusts you to handle this delicate subject properly. Did you think about what could actually have been considered abusive in these interactions with the men?
I always try to introduce people, no matter who they are, and not to expose them. That's a basic ethical stance – to be authentic and not betray or cheat on them. Whether that always succeeds, I don't know, but that's definitely the ethos of documentary film and life in general.
Why was it important to use a fixed camera? And what other visual aspects were important?
It was a very stripped-back concept so that I could focus on the faces, the language and the overall physicality of the protagonists. This involved a fixed camera, a small team, a long preparation process and the precise selection of texts. The hall was suitable, of course, because it allowed us to stage these group chants. It was big enough to welcome 100 men inside it.
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