Ruth Mader • Director of Serviam – I Will Serve
“Girls can also be violent”
by Marta Bałaga
- The Austrian director wonders how far one can go in the name of God, and if it’s even worth it
Ruth Mader – whose previous film Life Guidance [+see also:
interview: Ruth Mader
film profile] premiered in Venice back in 2017 – invokes some of her own experiences in Serviam – I Will Serve [+see also:
interview: Ruth Mader
film profile], which premiered in competition at the Locarno Film Festival and is now screening in Sarajevo. The film focuses on a prestigious Austrian all-girl Catholic boarding school where it’s less about spirituality and more about status. One of the nuns (Maria Dragus) isn’t too happy about it, however, so she encourages her young student to really embrace God, starting with a penance belt.
Cineuropa: I know stories of young girls seduced by religion, or at least responding to it very strongly. It’s odd yet believable that a child would like to “suffer for the sins of the world.”
Ruth Mader: As a child, I was particularly receptive to religion myself. I can say I was a firm believer in God. But when I went to boarding school, I met girls who were even stronger believers than I was. That was my initial model for the role of Martha, who herself wants to follow in Christ's footsteps – even in a physical way. In Latin America, there are even more such traditions.
Such schools feel like something from another era, but they do exist. The one you show doesn’t have much to do with spirituality, it seems. It’s a status symbol.
Yes, indeed. These private Catholic schools are for society’s elite which sees Catholicism only as a decoration. As I was also attending one as a child, many of my impressions from that time, its atmosphere and its mood, can now be found in the film. The parents of these girls didn’t really believe [in God], they just used the institution to confirm their status to the outside world.
This building is so empty, deserted, devoid of joy. Like a haunted house, almost. Is that how you remembered it, too? How did you go about creating that universe?
The girls experience great loneliness at boarding schools. Which is why in the film, they are isolated even in crowd scenes – in the dining hall, in the shower or at the school sport event. It’s a hermetically sealed space. Still, simultaneously, these big glass fronts make it seem so transparent and open. It was exciting to show and talk about this huge contrast.
In Serviam, what initially feels realistic turns into something stranger. Did you think about genre cinema, thrillers, when developing that story?
We wanted to make a thriller from the beginning, also because I like to watch thrillers myself. The films of Hitchcock, Kubrick and John Carpenter were certainly very inspiring to me.
The nun played by Maria Dragus is very mysterious as well. It’s hard to say what drives her exactly. How did you talk about that role?
Faith is in rapid decline in a secularised world, that much is clear. But this nun still believes deeply and fights for the faith of each child left under her care. She has a special relationship with Martha because she understands her, and her faith is especially strong. She is just glad to have found such a child in that place. She is very zealous and radical, I would say, and of course goes way too far in the end.
Relationships between young girls, who are pretty much left to themselves here, can be very intense and cruel. Is that why you wanted to introduce these animated fantasy elements for example? In a way, it’s the only escape.
Relationships at boarding schools are very formative. Girls can also be violent, yes. Nevertheless, friendships that last for a lifetime are still created there. When it comes to the animated sequences, this is the first time that parts of John’s Book of Revelation [the final book of the New Testament] have been filmed. This part in the Bible is very mystical and, in my view, packing the most powerful punch visually. The animation represents how these girls experience faith and, at the same time, it should also trigger the viewer simply by posing this question: What if God does exist?
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