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VENICE 2023 Competition

Timm Kröger • Director of The Universal Theory

“I dream in the way classic cinema has taught us to”


- VENICE 2023: Instead of actually delivering the titular theory of everything, the German director opts for mystery

Timm Kröger  • Director of The Universal Theory

Johannes (Jan Bülow) heads to a physics congress in the Swiss Alps in 1962, where another scientist is set to reveal a new theory of quantum mechanics. But soon, an investigation ensues, and femme fatale Karin seems to be the only one who knows the secrets of this strange place. German director Timm Kröger breaks down his Venice competition title The Universal Theory [+see also:
film review
interview: Timm Kröger
film profile

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Cineuropa: You don’t just reference classic movies here; The Universal Theory actually looks like one of them.
Timm Kröger:
The funny thing is that we didn’t really plan it this way. When I was working with my DoP, Roland Stuprich, I showed him some Orson Welles, Truffaut and Helmut Käutner. After that, we just fell back on this half-remembered memory of what cinema used to be.

I never wanted it to be this Tarantino-esque collection of clever references; it’s not who I am. There are ironic elements, but tonally, this film turned out much more serious. It feels like a Hitchcock thriller at times, even though it’s not. It’s more of a noir, although I never treated it as just one genre. I am “smuggling” a lot of things here.

It's interesting to have this man, so dedicated to numbers and facts, encountering something he can’t understand. It’s a story about the unknown, like Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Screenwriter Roderick Warich and I have always enjoyed metaphysical cinema. It’s about this unanswerable question: are there divine reasons for things that happen to us, or do we just live in a chaotic, indifferent universe? We have heard about “the theory of everything” before: scientists have been looking for it for centuries now. We have seen films about genius mathematicians: A Beautiful Mind, Good Will Hunting… I wanted to riff on that, and have a main character who is both a genius and an idiot [laughs]. You have to make up your own mind about him because the film never does. Actually, he misses the moment when he could have become a genius. It’s the story of many human biographies, I think. The world is filled with half-geniuses who never quite made it.

We talked about this story bursting with hints, and Thomas Mann also comes to mind, especially because of the setting. Why did you choose it?
The Magic Mountain is the archetypical template for this story. Once again, you have all these intellectuals enjoying fine dining in the Swiss mountains. I also wanted to make a film about the 1960s, and it needed to be in black and white. It had to be in the Swiss mountains with German physicists who go skiing. This idea came to me in a couple of seconds after making my last film, which was about music and German nature mysticism. I dreamt it that way. I dream in the way classic cinema has taught us to.

It’s set in the 1960s, so – as shown in one scene – they are quick to point out their past sins. You can still smell war on them.
My family history is not terribly interesting, but I liked listening to my father’s stories about that time. I have this connection to post-war German history, full of secrets and things you don’t talk about. There were many ghosts hanging around at that time. This film is about German history, even though it’s not the main plot. I wanted it to be weird and strange, entertaining and nightmarish at the same time.

You said it “needed” to be in black and white, and it’s every cinematographer’s dream. But did you try to make it look fresh?
Stylistically, we had to go back to the 1940s and 1950s, especially in terms of lighting, and then have the film become a bit more modern and more adult. There is something about the way they used to light films back then: there’s an incredible naivete about it, and I suppose you can translate it to music as well. It looks like it needed careful planning, but we just turned up on set and did that. The film’s style is ostentatiously dramatic, but I wanted it to fall apart at times.

Do you see it as a story about obsession? Johannes looks for the truth, but when he meets Karin, he starts following her instead.
Yeah. I suppose it’s very old-fashioned: he replaces one search for this mysterious truth about the universe with another for a woman who keeps eluding his grasp. It’s a typical example of infantile male psychology. I wanted to embrace that concept and make fun of it. Sometimes, I liked to look at things from Karin’s perspective. Once you do that, it’s a completely different film.

Speaking of different films, you actually make him face his own story when his book is adapted into a trashy Italian spectacle.
There is something inherently tragic – and comical – about having that dramatic story misinterpreted by other people. I have empathy for Johannes, but maybe he also deserves it? It can’t be healthy, the way he clings to this past that nobody really believes in. We will make a sequel one day because, as we state, he died not knowing his novel would become a cult hit. There is another story to be told, and we can certainly take it further. Maybe in ten years?

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