Petr Hátle • Director of Mr. and Mrs. Stodola
"The suggestion or imagination of violence can be far more interesting and horrifying"
- We talked to the Czech director about making the transition from documentary to fiction, true crime and violence, and the casting process for notorious serial killers
Czech documentary filmmaker Petr Hátle makes his debut in fictional cinema with Mr. and Mrs. Stodola [+see also:
interview: Petr Hátle
film profile], a film centred on the story of a serial killer couple. Drawing from his background in documentary production and his acclaimed work on a true-crime podcast, Hátle’s biographical film delves into the everyday nature of malevolence. As the film plays in the First Feature Competition of this year’s Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, Cineuropa talked to the director about making the transition from documentary to fiction filmmaking, true crime and violence, and the casting process for notorious serial killers.
Cineuropa: The Czech documentary scene is currently in good health. Why did you decide to tackle the Stodola case through a fiction film, especially considering the project initially started as a documentary? Is this a one-off, or do you plan to continue as a director of fiction films?
Petr Hátle: The decision to shoot the Stodola case as a fiction film emerged naturally during the research phase. I couldn't find a convincing way to document the case in a manner that would offer a fresh perspective on the well-known controversy. Opting for a fictional narrative, albeit one deeply rooted in reality, allowed me to focus more precisely on the aspects of the story that intrigued me: the relationship and marriage of the Stodolas, and their joint descent into darkness.
The Stodola case seems suitable for both a documentary and a feature film. In your approach to the screenplay, how did you contemplate and unravel the story? Your focus is on their crimes and capture, leaving out Danina's past.
My co-writer, Tomáš Hrubý, and I spent a considerable time deliberating on how to approach the story and from which perspective to narrate it. The detective genre, portraying the Stodola case from the angle of a police investigation, was an obvious choice. However, I felt that this approach was somewhat simplistic and that the media landscape is already saturated with detective stories. We decided to take a different route, telling the story from the perspective of the Stodola murderers themselves and exploring their dark love story.
In the Czech Republic, particularly in film and TV series production, there's currently a strong trend for true crime and a high demand for it. Why did you specifically choose the Stodola case?
Crime and various other extreme experiences have always intrigued me, especially when they stem from real events, as they acquire an even more chilling and fascinating quality. You're presenting something that could realistically affect anyone. The Stodolas are intriguing because they committed their crimes as a couple, which is quite unusual. Typically, serial killings are perpetrated by men, for whom it tends to be a very personal and intimate experience, not shared with others. In contrast, the Stodolas shared their acts, with the murders becoming a part of their daily marital life. These crimes served as a bond in their relationship, a shared secret from which there was no escape.
You haven't completely abandoned your documentary style and poetics in Mr. and Mrs. Stodola, as you incorporate formal documentary elements. What led you to this particular formal approach?
As a documentarian, I have always preferred to stay as close to reality as possible, observing and being part of the events. However, my previous documentary works have sometimes been described by audiences and critics as genre-blurring. I enjoy working with stylisation and often ask subjects to re-enact or demonstrate situations that occurred in the past. The line between documentary and fiction films is incredibly fine and increasingly difficult to define in contemporary cinema. Mr. and Mrs. Stodola is certainly more of a fiction film compared to my previous works, but it's rooted in specific key moments from the real lives of the characters portrayed. The film contains numerous details that precisely match descriptions found in police files. We filmed in real locations, in abandoned houses within the region where the murders took place.
For Mr. and Mrs. Stodola, you continued your collaboration with cinematographer Prokop Souček, who worked on your documentaries. Why did you choose to partner with him for your fiction film debut?
Prokop Souček has been crafting the visual component of my films since our days at FAMU. We agreed to continue what we had been doing in our previous documentary projects. Using a handheld camera, minimal lighting, and staying close to the characters has always been our approach, and we saw no reason to change that. A significant portion of the film takes place at night, so we conducted several tests before shooting to determine how much we could limit the lighting equipment while still ensuring visibility on screen. Interestingly, our favourite scene is the one where Dana proposes to her fiancé on a night road amidst fields. It's so dark that you can't see their faces, which I find beautiful.
True crime films and serial killer portraits often face criticism for their exploitative nature and “celebrity documentary” format. You seem to avoid the conventions of mainstream true crime and serial killer portrayals, notably by not depicting violence. What influenced this decision?
Personally, as a viewer, I don't seek out violent scenes with excessive bloodshed in films. Often, the suggestion or imagination of violence can be far more interesting and horrifying. For example, when violence occurs off-screen, in the next room, or is reflected in a character’s expression. The critique of exploitation in the true crime genre is valid. To display events that happened to real victims and their families on screen is inherently controversial, ethically speaking. In my work, I often ponder this and try to find the boundaries: what is acceptable to show, what should remain unspoken, and what should not be displayed.
What was the casting process like for the roles of Dana and Jaroslav Stodola, and how did the actors prepare, particularly for their toxic relationship and psychological profiles?
I knew that casting the main female character was crucial. Dana needed to possess the strength and conviction to bend the world around her as needed. She also had to have a hint of irony and clownishness, constantly transforming and playing with her identity. Lucie Žáčková, predominantly a theatre actress, met all these requirements. Jan Hájek, who plays Jaroslav, was briefly married to Lucie about twenty years ago. Their marriage lasted only a week, but they have remained very close since, sharing an intense relationship and performing together in several theatre productions. He is an excellent actor, very focused. Before making this film, I had never worked with actors, nor did I personally know any. So, our collaboration was not guided by any particular method from my side. What united us was a shared passion for the project, a combination of cooperative love and combat. When Lucie Žáčková broke her hand during one intense scene due to her commitment, it confirmed to me that I had made the right choice in casting.
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