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BERLINALE 2024 Forum

Anja Salomonowitz • Director of Sleeping with a Tiger

“A biography is always just an interpretation; my film doesn't claim to hold any truth”


- BERLINALE 2024: The director’s unorthodox biopic of Maria Lassnig highlights her mesmerising pictures but also her empowering accomplishments

Anja Salomonowitz • Director of Sleeping with a Tiger
(© Heribert Corn)

By the time Maria Lassnig died in 2014, she was not only one of the most renowned painters in Austria, but also the woman who had broken through the glass ceiling for many others to come. Surpassing her male counterparts on the market and being the first female professor at a major art university, she is not only remembered for her mesmerising pictures, but also for her empowering accomplishments. Anja Salomonowitz’s unorthodox biopic Sleeping with a Tiger [+see also:
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interview: Anja Salomonowitz
film profile
, which premiered in the Forum at the 74th Berlinale, honours Lassnig and her art.

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Cineuropa: Maria Lassnig is one of Austria's most important artists. What fascinated you so much about her life that it made you want to shoot this film?
Anja Salomonowitz:
There's a long and a short answer. The short answer is the colours: I've seen her paintings at exhibitions, and found the garishness and intensity beguiling and inspiring. I then started researching her life. The long answer is that I wanted to question the portrait of the artist. There are these films in exhibitions that usually show an older, white man, which are made in a certain way. I wanted to break this narrative and investigate the mechanisms of the art market. This idea then became the film This Movie Is a Gift [+see also:
film review
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. But while preparing that, I looked at several artists, including Maria Lassnig, and she stuck with me.

Except for a few scenes, Birgit Minichmayr always plays Lassnig, but without making her age. You can't place her in a specific time period. It's not important when, where and how something happened.
People say that Lassnig was wise as a young girl and remained young as an old woman. My point is that the soul wanders. Memories and feelings are not anchored in any particular time. You can jump forwards and backwards. The film reflects her inner experience. She waits until the feeling comes to her, and then puts it on canvas.

Is it difficult to translate these feelings from a picture into a film?
A biopic is always the interpretation of a life. I did a lot of research and interviewed a lot of people who told me their stories. But these stories are always personal recollections. A biography is always just an interpretation; my film doesn't claim to hold any truth. It's about a feeling that I wanted to describe. Maria Lassnig went to her studio every day, sat there and waited. You enter a stream of consciousness that has no time and no place. In my opinion, that's where creativity lies.

By showing specific images in the film in a certain order, you also take on a curatorial role.
Maria Lassnig experienced and participated in many art movements from the last century. The introspective experiences, these images of body consciousness that we are talking about now, only emerged later. I wanted to depict this path, from her early pictures to the pictures that we are all familiar with, but above all, it was a decision about what I liked, what suited the scene, and what had the right colours and the right feeling.

She repeatedly refers to the paintings as her children and, in the end, does not want to part with them.
Maria Lassnig fought for recognition in the male-dominated art world throughout her life. She has to be recognised for this pioneering role, for having fought her way through and becoming the most expensive female painter in Austria. She experienced a situation where men promoted each other or were promoted by others, and she, as a woman, was not. She got close to young curators whom she knew would be able to help her. But she experienced fame very late in life. From the moment it arrived, she was no longer able to accept it.

You named your film after the painting of the same name. Why this one, exactly?
For me, sleeping with a tiger is like wrestling with the world. It can be an inner or an outer conflict. There is even the interpretation that Lassnig herself is the tiger: I like that idea, too. But for me, it was depicting her inner and outer struggle.

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