Opening a bridge in the reality

By Young Film Critic Petra Meterc

Julian Radlmaier (born 1984) is a young German filmmaker, whose film Self-criticism of a Bourgeois Dog is screened at this year's Bright Future section and is also competing for the Bright Future Award.

Radlmaier's previous work includes a short film A Spectre is Haunting Europe (2013) as well as a feature film A Proletarian Winter's Tale (2014). Radlmeier talked to us about his newest film, about his love for the genre of comedy, about casting his friends as actors, as well as about the audience he wishes to reach and more.

First of all, could you tell us how the idea for the Self-criticism of a Bourgeois Dog, the story of which is rather peculiar, came about?

I had my previous film here in Rotterdam that was called A Proletarian Winter’s Tale, it was in very short terms about three characters that work as some sort of cleaners who have to clean a castle for a party of some rich guy and the film follows their story. The film took a proletarian perspective, so now my question was what my own class position is to the relation to what I'm telling and what could be the problems that come with that. So this was the starting point and another thing perhaps is more of a daily-life experience, since many people in my generation and also perhaps from my social circles during certain periods in their life are in phases when it is economically a bit more difficult for them, especially with the times now in which many people live more precarious lives. But if you come from a middle-class background, you can have the feeling that your social position is in danger and you feel a bit how it is to really be on the fringe of the society, but instead of developing certain solidarity, you actually just wait for the first occasion to climb up the social ladder. So these were some of the questions that I was thinking of.

Apart from the self-criticism, what were the other reasons to portray the main character, your alter-ego of some kind, by yourself?

One reason is that I anyway always work a lot with my friends and the people from my surroundings, so it was mostly non-professional actors but also non-professional that haven’t been cast, but people with whom I studied or parents of my friends so it was not a very strange thing to also play myself in it. The second reason is that it would feel a bit stupid to give this negative role to someone else and pretend that this is some other director. And the third thing is perhaps that this is in a way an alter-ego, but it describes a much more general problem. As a filmmaker it is very virulent because you are also the person who speaks about the film, but there is also a universal problem of what relation you have to other classes if you are of a certain class. I think that at the moment when I set this as a very personal narrative, it is not about someone else, but about a subject reflecting oneself, so this is perhaps a framework where also the viewers may get in a similar self-questioning mode of perception. I don’t know if that happens, but perhaps there’s at least a bigger chance for that.

The beginning of the film presents the main character as a film director who is currently without work due to a lack of financing. One of his colleagues remarks that she heard his films were too radical to finance. So how did it go with the financing for this film?

That’s a strange thing because the fact that the film exists proves that it’s not exactly how it is in the movie, but still, there is a permanent fear that one has because the German film funding system is definitely not waiting for this kind of films. As long as you are a newcomer the system always likes that and if you have a bit of festival success then you can hope that you might find financing but it’s still tough. This film was my diploma film from film school and in Germany, in Berlin there is a special program for diploma films where it’s a bit easier to get money and the criteria are a bit less market-oriented so we got this funding. However, it was actually too little money to make the film so it was strange because you come very close to exploiting the people you work with as well with a minimal payment. For me the investment is clear, because I have a movie and I call travel and build my career with it, but for a lot of people it may be just a badly paid job. So I hope we at least created a good experience for the people who worked with us as compensation, but the situation is really ambiguous.

As you already mentioned, most of the actors in the film are non-professional actors, your friends, their parents, etc. This was also your choice with your previous film, so I am wondering if you would ever consider casting professional actors instead.

Perhaps I'm only scared to work with professional actors (laughs). For me, what I like about non-professional actors and specifically about non-professional actors I know is that you don't go into the total  blue with the idea but when you start writing you're already thinking who could play this and who could play that.  It's like you have some pre-existing material to work with and I think they bring very specific qualities to the film. Of course there are great actors, but if I see a movie that consists only of professional actors I feel a certain voidness of something running too smoothly and I like that those people are not yet trained to fit smoothly into this product but they have a kind of natural resistance to be sucked up into the narrative. I like to combine it a bit; there are also some professional actors in the cast so I feel this makes the film richer. Often, non-professional actors are used to appear more natural than real actors, but that's not exactly how we work, I don't think we're just looking for naturalness but even sometimes for highlighting the awkwardness.

The IFFR webpage claims that you say »that young German filmmakers are "fiercely" against the idea of film as language, which is mainly “to hide the stupidity of the mainstream".« Could you explain that a bit and perhaps talk about your own view on film language?   

I don't know who wrote that (laughs), I don't really understand it.  For me, at the beginning there's often not just a story or a theme that I want to tackle, but a formal design. Just as in the Winter's Tale, I wanted to do some static tableaux situations, and here it was the desire to work with some very monumental closer shots of people. So basically if someone says that he or she uses the film language as the best way to tell a story, I’m definitely more interested in the specific expression that certain forms have and to work with them, and to bring that forms into a relation with the story, to see how they will interact.

The main character in the film lies to his crush that he is going to make a communist fairy tale film. Later in the film, magic also appears in the form of magic beans, as well as in one of the heroine’s reading Alice in Wonderland aloud.  How come you incorporated the genre of fairytale into your films?

This perhaps comes from a very banal level of the joy of inventing stuff like this, but I think it does have some political implications. I have a problem with so-called realist aesthetics because when you do that it seems as though you wanted to describe and show the world as precise as it is, but there’s always a problem that one may reach a dead-end by doing that because it’s hard for a film to open any kind of perspectives by not being different from everyday reality. So that’s why I like these fairytale moments of pure fantasy, because they open a bridge in the reality and give you the sense of possibilities. Not concrete kitschy possibilities; it’s not a real possibility, but more like a model. At the end, my character says at the Q&A of his film that he does not believe in the change in the society because he does not believe in miracles, but then of course a miracle actually happens to him. Of course in reality, no one experiences that. But if it happens in a movie, of course you don’t believe in it, yet perhaps it infuses the narrative with the feeling that things don’t have to be as they are and that can be transposed perhaps to political context, just as a basic attitude, in a way that people shouldn’t take the world and the current state of the society as something given and determined.

The film is full of references to famous films, philosophers, artists and at the same time, it pokes fun of the art and academic sphere.  Is this something that you drew from your own experience?

It’s a strange world that is so full of über-narcissists and egos trying to compete all the time, which can be very exhausting. But why it had to be in the film – the strange thing is that this scene often pretends to have a progressive idea of politics but those ideas don't seem to mean anything to them in practical terms. That’s the contradiction that the film talks about that in the academic world a lot of ideas, also very good ideas, are produced, but I’m always wondering how these actually relate to reality.

Not many films deal with complex topics such as politics in such a heavy comic way. Why did you decide to make a comedy?

All the political movies I really like are comedies and I think that comedy, in its lightness, avoids depressing, gloomy, resigned way of dealing with politics, and you also avoid getting into a kitschy narrative of some working class heroes. You can say something depressing about the world and you can at the same time show a positive perspective and the comic characters have a kind of natural resistance to the society they are confronted with. This natural resistance of the comic approach is what interests me a lot. 

Which directors or artists have influenced your work the most and whose work do you admire?

Jean Renoir’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936) had a major influence on this film. In it, there is one central event that is very similar to one in my movie and he made quite similar politically-infused comedies. And also the more comic films of Pasolini I think are really important for this film, especially in the way how characters appear in this portrait way but at the same time it can be something of a documentary about how these people move and look and all that. From a more German perspective - definitely the films by Fassbinder as well as Alexander Kluge.

Perhaps for the end you would like to share your self-predictions for the reception of this film, either at international festivals or in Germany.

It's interesting because the last film didn’t exist at all in Germany; it was seen more outside Germany, except for some small festivals. I don’t know why it seems that this film will be a bit better received, it travels to Berlinale after Rotterdam and we already have a distributor in Germany and also in Austria so now for the first time one of my films has the chance to travel to normal cinemas and will be seen outside the festival circle. Germany has a very limited market for this kind of films and I’m always sad, because as I mentioned Fassbinder before, the situation was much better in the 70’s and 80’s in Germany and I know my grandparents saw Fassbinder films but not because they were interested in him but because there was a cinema in their street that played his films and so they just went and saw them. Sometimes people say, "Oh, but your film is for an audience that knows cinema" but I think it’s very arrogant to say that this film is not meant for anyone to see. If I make a film, I hope it can communicate with as many people as possible and for it to go to totally random cinemas.

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