It’s a Battle of Stories: An Interview with Christoph Hochhäusler about The City Below, The Lies of the Victors, and Political Cinema
by Marco Abel
Es geht los (“and so it begins” or “it is starting”)—we also hear these mysterious last words of German director Christoph Hochhäusler’s Unter dir die Stadt (The City Below, 2010) spoken in what is to date his fifth and most recent feature film, Die Lügen der Sieger (The Lies of the Victors, 2014). This occurs when, at an expensive restaurant, Mr. Dellbrück (Karl Fischer), a high-ranking German government minister, tells his interlocutor, a lobbyist for the country’s chemical industry, “Es geht los.” In The City Below, which is set in Frankfurt (Germany’s banking hub), it is the female protagonist, Svenja (Nicolette Krebitz), who voices this sentence in the film’s closing seconds while watching from her hotel room, in which she spent the night with a powerful bank manager, a group of white-collar workers frantically running and yelling on the street. As the film cuts to black, viewers inevitably are left with the very question that Mr. Nailly (Gottfried Breitfuss), the lobbyist in The Lies of the Victors, poses in response to Dellbrück’s claim: “Was geht los?” (“What is starting?”). In other words, what the earlier film instills extradiegetically—namely in the viewer’s mind—as a question without relying on a screen surrogate to formulate it for us, Hochhäusler’s latest film explicitly verbalizes on the diegetic level; more, whereas in The City Below it’s impossible to provide with any certainty a referent for the indeterminate pronoun “es,” in The Lies of the Victors Dellbrück quickly supplies one—“The soup”—as an attractive young waitress approaches their table to serve it.
For a brief moment Nailly seems to tense up in response to the semantic indeterminacy of Dellbrück’s declaration that it—but what?—is starting. In a film that seeks to shed light on how contemporary neoliberal political and economic processes smoothly operate in slick corporate spaces whose glass facades’ insinuation of transparency is contradicted by the window’s alluring glare that renders the processes occurring behind them opaque and conspiratorial, one of the agents through which these political operations flow exhibits a split second of anxiety before the determination of the initially indeterminate pronoun relaxes him again; his laughter thus expresses his sense of relief that it is not the case that something might be going on of which he is not aware and, importantly, that he is not able to control.
But Nailly’s laughter—and, more broadly, the quick cinematic transformation of something potentially ominous into something utterly mundane—also works on the viewer’s mind, as the opening minutes of the film have dexterously played with the conventions of the conspiracy thriller genre in order to put us on edge, to make us not only anticipate the unfolding of sinister machinations but also expect that they have already been set in motion. The surprising de-dramatization of the indeterminate pronoun’s potential to harbor conspiratorial implications momentarily ruptures our affective immersion in the mise en scène; having bought into the narrative’s claims to its believability as being realistic vis-à-vis the “real world,” we now have to reconsider our intellectual and affective investments. Indeed, it is as if Hochhäusler were reminding us here that he, like a puppet master, is in control of the strings with which he guides his puppets—not only the characters in the diegesis but also the viewers watching the film. This brief moment, in which the director subtly reminds the viewers of the artificial construct in which we’ve become increasingly immersed, isn’t the first, nor the last, of such moments in the film, as I discuss with the director below.
I furthermore emphasize this instant in the film because I think it also constitutes a remarkable element of intertextuality insofar that it functions as a lighthearted in-joke that an alert audience familiar with the filmmaker’s work is bound, and perhaps even expected, to notice: such viewers are made to smile at the very moment when Nailly’s laugher expresses a rather different emotion on the diegetic level. At this moment, our smile, and perhaps even subdued laughter, is one of recognition: we recognize how, in a film about both economic desires and their effect on political processes and the (in)ability of journalism to shed light on them, the sinister implications of the “es geht los” are playfully undermined by the explanation’s sheer obviousness and Nailly’s ensuing laughter. It’s a playful moment in a film by a director whose work isn’t known for its humor; indeed, critics occasionally accuse Hochhäusler’s films, as well as those by his “Berlin School” peers, as being too heady. Although The Lies of the Victors does not shed the filmmaker’s intellectual tendencies, its affirmation of genre filmmaking nevertheless constitutes a significant departure from his previous works, while nevertheless remaining clearly recognizable (in the classic auteurist sense) as a “Hochhäusler film.”
The density and complexity of this brief “in-joke” moment in The Lies of the Victors, finally, also explicitly foregrounds the connection as well as the difference between this film and The City Below. On one hand, both films can be regarded as topical films. They are films about, or in any case films that deal with, big issues. Whereas The City Below can be read as a film that seeks to shed light on—indeed, that tries to find new ways of imaging—the world of high finance, The Lies of the Victors extends this effort of finding new cinematic means to render sensible contemporary capitalist operations by delving into both the world of political lobbyism and the increasingly anachronistic world of print journalism. It shows how investigative journalists Fabian (Florian David Fitz) and Nadja (Lilith Stangenberg) find themselves subject to the same manipulations that politicians do (often without recognizing this until it’s too late) and that journalists’ hard claims to having a purchase on “the truth” become increasingly difficult to maintain when the business model of print newsmagazines suggests it is more preferable to allow readers to keep their faith in the veracity of print than correcting erroneously reported stories lest such actions undermine that very faith, as Fabian’s editor explains; The City Below, in turn, shows how the seeming immateriality of finance capitalism, its apparent “lightness,” nevertheless requires bodies—especially those of the traditionally marginalized such as immigrants, working-class people, women, or the “other” from remote countries—on which it can feed, as Hochhäusler suggests below. Unlike in his earlier films—Milchwald (This Very Moment, 2003) and Falscher Bekenner (Low Profile aka I Am Guilty, 2005)—then, these more topical films pose questions of macropower, of how power works on the level of big finance, industry, and governmental politics; crucially, however, they tackle such questions by providing us a sense of how the machinations on the level of macropower affect the everyday lives of regular people who generally are not privy to these operations.
On the other hand, this in-joke also marks what I think is a crucial difference between the two films—a difference that complicates any attempt to read The Lies of the Victors as a smooth continuation of, even a sequel of sorts to, the former. Most obviously, it quite explicitly embraces genre filmmaking in a way that cannot be said for The City Below (nor for Hochhäusler’s other films, perhaps with the exception of his contribution to the Dreileben experiment, Eine Minute Dunkel [One Minute of Darkness, 2011]).1 In this regard, Hochhäusler’s career trajectory can be considered similar to some of his Berlin School peers such as Thomas Arslan, Benjamin Heisenberg, and most of all Christian Petzold, all of whom have increasingly moved towards genre filmmaking;2 arguably, Hochhäusler’s recent turn to more genre-inflected filmmaking was at least in part inspired by his email debate with Petzold and Dominik Graf about film aesthetics and the state of contemporary German cinema.3
Less obviously, the difference between the two films also manifests itself on the connotative level of the very speech act that constitutes the in-joke. In The City Below, “Es geht los” renders sensible for the viewer a moment of utopian promise: it’s an expression of a revolutionary moment, a rupture, to-come. “Es geht los,” I argue in The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School, “is not a statement of fact but an expression of a subjective desire to which the subject must demand others’ acquiescence, regardless of whether they actually agree with the sentiment. ‘Es geht los’, like linguistic forms such as ‘it rains’, eradicates any clear-cut sense of a doer behind the implied deed precisely because the implied revolutionary subject cannot be posited as preexisting (doing so would beg the question of why it has not already acted); rather, such a subject has yet to be provoked into existence. And yet, the coming-into-existence of this subject, its actualization, must in turn be presupposed or posited in the form of a demand to be fulfilled—as something that will have been.”4 (185). Svenja’s speech act thus functioned, I suggest, as the most concise expression of Hochhäusler’s films’ (affective) politics until that point in his career.
In The Lies of the Victors, in contrast, the same utterance is not only delivered by someone who is an agent of contemporary (macro-) power but also emptied of any utopian promise that its first, utterly indeterminate occurrence can be said to have borne. What remains undecidable and indeterminate in The City Below—and what was issued as a demand on and of the viewer—no longer carries the same affective impact: the speech act’s valence and direction—its vector of force—has fundamentally changed from The City Below to The Lies of the Victors.
Does this cinematic instance—subtle as it admittedly may be—also mark a shift in Hochhäusler’s view of (the possibilities of) radical politics? Has his, or at least his films’, (formerly utopian?) outlook become more realistic, more realpolitik-like? It is, in any case, hard to ignore that The Lies of the Victors ends on a considerably more pessimistic note than The City Below (or for that matter Low Profile, which leaves us with the protagonist smiling directly at us from behind the backseat window of a police car as he is about to be driven away for having committed a crime to which he has falsely confessed). Whereas in his earlier films the director always managed to render sensible for his viewers a moment of utopia, in The Lies of the Victors that utopian promise, tentative though it may have been in those earlier films, seems to have completely vanished; it is as if his most recent film puts into question the very presence of the utopian moments of its predecessors and questions their viability. If the previous films still allowed the viewer to be affected by a sensation of utopia, no matter how indeterminate that sensation might have been, then now we might say that things have gone from bad to worse insofar that we are left to confront the distinct sense that even in our imagination we can no longer imagine or sense utopia: we can no longer even dream of an alternative, can no longer imagine an end, to the prevailing neoliberal system (Petzold’s Yella  makes a similar point). One could of course chalk this shift up to the director’s increasing maturity; or, less autobiographically, one could historicize this shift by calling attention to these films’ years of release: 2005, 2010, and 2014, respectively. It is a shift, then, from a moment prior to the onset of the most recent global financial crisis in 2008, to one from its immediate aftermath, to, finally, one from the present when we find ourselves once again forced with the need to face the fact that not much has changed for the better since the liquidity crisis seemed to threaten the entire capitalist edifice and to promise, for a brief moment, its undoing.
Yet, even if Hochhäusler’s political outlook has shifted, The Lies of the Victors maintains his essential attitude toward cinema and its capacity to engage reality. This attitude is rooted in his sense of communication as agon—a conception of communication characterized not by the desire to relieve tension and eradicate differences but, on the contrary, to intensify the very differences that constitute social reality. His goal, as I see it, is to use his films to intensify those differences so that an agonistic attitude might get instilled in us, so that we might enact agon in our own lives. As he once wrote, his goal is to create “a cinema that makes life more intense…A film is an instrument in the process of producing reality. It is therefore part of a social context. The basic question is: What is real? Each attempt at replying is a personal commitment.”5 Hochhäusler’s career to date can be seen as a series of attempts at realizing this goal; and regardless of whether or not he has fully succeeded with any of his films, his dogged pursuit of his goal has resulted in a still evolving body of work that, in my view, deserves greater exposure as it ranks among the most interesting in the context of contemporary world cinema.
The following interview took place April 10, 2015, in New York City.6
Though this is a stand-alone interview, interested readers might also consult an earlier interview I conducted with the director—a prequel of sorts—in which we discuss both his early career and the so-called Berlin School with which he is associated.7
Cineaste: It seems that especially with the last two films—The City Below and The Lies of the Victors—your films have started to exhibit greater political topicality. Of course, both This Very Moment and Low Profile also touch on the political realm. For example, This Very Moment concerns itself with the relationship between unified Germany and Poland, but it’s predominantly a modern retelling of the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale and diagnoses the troubled familial relationship between father, stepmother, and two young children. Low Profile, in turn, touches on the topic of terrorism, yet it ultimately is more a story about a family and their teenage son who struggles to find his place in the world than about the issue of terrorism per se. In contrast, both The City Below and now The Lies of the Victors more overtly engage with political questions.
Christoph Hochhäusler: You can see in my work a movement towards questions about society and systems. When I started out, I was very suspicious of topical films, of films that were about something, because I often have the feeling that films that have a clear sense of what they want to criticize end up compromising their cinematic qualities, their visual language. But you are right: in my more recent films there’s an opening towards systems and society, towards offering a perspective on contemporary society. I had grown somewhat frustrated with working on narratives about father–mother–child relations, that is, about what are basically timeless constellations. I felt the need to go beyond timelessness and instead make films that are specific about our time, that portray what we call modern problems. I think modern experience is rather abstract because it involves many processes that are more algorithmic than intentional, driven more by nonhuman operations than by traditional human volition and agency: all the technological and social processes in which we’re now engaged are less based on ideas than results of systems producing certain logics. Yet, I remain concerned that such topicality might compromise modes of storytelling and the visual language of cinema.
Cineaste: How do you find the right cinematic form for rendering the banking milieu in The City Below or the lobbying milieu in The Lies of the Victors?
Hochhäusler: The Bible includes a story about Martha, Mary, and Jesus, with Jesus teaching, Mary listening on, and Martha preparing a meal in the kitchen. At one point, however, Martha complains to Jesus, arguing that it’s unfair for Mary to just listen to him instead of helping her in the kitchen. Jesus replies that Mary did the right thing because sometimes you just have to listen and stop what you are doing. From a cinematic point of view, however, I think Martha was right, not about Mary but about the perspective on what we might call “Big History,” which Jesus personifies: the perspective on Jesus’s teaching is much more interesting if it’s from the kitchen.8 My point here is that I think we need to proceed via a detour when approaching questions or issues pertaining to “Big History.” I don’t think we can fruitfully approach them head-on; if you approach them directly, the danger is that you won’t see anything because everything ends up being so in your face. We have to find detours to be able to grasp the essentials of historical experience, and we need the mundane things so that we can measure the impact “Big History” has.9 I think that it would therefore be much more illuminating to look at what happened in, say, Germany of the 1930s from the perspective of the kitchen than from the point of view of the Führerhauptquartier [Hitler’s central command location]10 We need this detour, this peripheral perspective, to look inside, to get a glimpse of the historical essence. Reflecting on my earlier films, I’d say that they—like many of the Berlin School films with which my work is associated—made the periphery the main thing. This was a good thing, but I also think that we should look towards the center again, albeit from the periphery.
Cineaste: What are some of the narrative detours in The City Below that, in your view, draw out how the banking milieu or contemporary finance operates?
Hochhäusler: I didn’t ever think the film is really about how finance works. It’s more about the effects of this industry as an example of modern living. I’m not so much criticizing bankers. I don’t really think they’re different from us. They’re trying to make a good deal like everybody else. But what I found interesting was that they work in an industry that is very advanced in terms of how abstract it is. It is very detached from real life, and I think this detachment produces a desire to return to one’s body. This is why the whole metaphor of this film is basically Dracula. Dracula lives forever, but he needs the flesh—the blood—of people who are alive now. And this is exactly what the financial industry is doing: they want to live forever. It’s about power, and power is about immortality. To achieve this they need to feed on the lives of so many others. This was the basic idea for The City Below. If you compare This Very Moment to Low Profile and then compare The City Below to The Lies of the Victors, you see something similar happening. The first two films are focused on the domestic sphere, whereas the last two focus more on modern workspaces. After I had received some criticism for my debut feature, I had the feeling that the mode of presenting this kind of story was too sharp-edged, and that I had to find a camouflage technique so that people would think they are merely seeing an ordinary film; that’s what I tried to do with Low Profile. In a way it’s the same problem with The City Below because it was very difficult for people to swallow this “poisoned cookie.” So I tried to camouflage The Lies of the Victors with the help of a form that’s much more fluent and more seductive.
Cineaste: But in terms of narrative detours—
Hochhäusler: Let’s see if this claim—that we need to film the (mundane) reflection in order to see the (sacred) light—actually applies to The City Below. If there is a narrative detour in this film, it’s probably the “love story” between the “banker of the year,” Roland Cordes (Robert Hunger-Bühler), and Svenja Steve, the wife of a new “hotshot” banker whom Cordes sends off to do dangerous work in Indonesia so that he himself can have free rein with Svenja, who remains in Frankfurt.
The film clearly breaks the common template of two people being meant for each other. We have all the ingredients for an amour fou story, yet it never quite materializes. The characters fail to believe in their love, and all that remains is addiction—to the old stories they no longer believe in, to the promise of love (as a drug?). Their lives have been infected by a system that is beyond the body. But to be honest: I’m not sure if this description is accurate. After all, The City Below is a king’s story. It’s not the story of a servant; it’s not told from a servant’s perspective. So I have to doubt my own theory.
Cineaste: In the press materials for The Lies of the Victors you explain that you found it difficult to figure out how best to dispense a minimal amount of necessary plot information—to decide when to present viewers with which specific pieces of information so that we can follow the narrative despite its inherent (genre-typical) confusions. The first scene tries to do a number of things in order to set the tone for what’s to come. It introduces us to the film’s central cinematographic device: the ceaseless panning or scanning movement of Reinhold Vorschneider’s camera.12 And we immediately encounter the main character, investigative journalist Fabian Groys. We witness what we understand as his morning routine: after waking up, he goes to his (outdated) computer; checks his (old-school) cell phone as well as a device that measures his blood-sugar level that will play an important role later on in the film; and tenderly attends to his pet hamster. This scene sets up a domestic sphere that, unlike in your first two films, does not play a big role in the film, since it does not really concern itself with domestic life; nevertheless, you spend time showing it to us, and you also make a point of revealing to your viewers his young, well-trained, attractive body. This scene does all kind of things that are clearly designed to lure the viewer into the narrative in ways that, I think, your previous films don’t.
Hochhäusler: It’s really pretty close to cliché: it’s a bit like introducing a German version of the American hero persona. Fabian is smart, good looking, relatively well-to-do, and he takes care of his body. Viewers are invited to think he’s as smart as we are—or, in any case, as smart as we’d like to think we are. Having such a dashing hero, or really anti-hero—Florian David Fitz is one of the most popular movie stars in Germany today—is something new for me. I don’t know if it pays off. [Laughs]13
Cineaste: This opening scene works differently than the one in The City Below. In the latter we first see the banking towers that dominate the skyline of Frankfurt and then Svenja walking past shopping windows that reflect her image and that of her surroundings in ways that immediately foreground the cityscape and how it tends to encroach upon the human figure. The film doesn’t give us much “domestic” information.
Hochhäusler: On the contrary: what we see in The City Below is that all appearances, and first impressions, are deceptions. Her reflection is not what it seems, so we remain totally in the dark about who she is, whereas with Fabian we do get a fairly accurate impression of what he does and who he is.
Cineaste: Both films play with this notion of seeming transparency that is so characteristic of modern institutional spaces—the postmodern banking towers or the interior workspaces of office buildings: we can easily see the characters through the windows, just as we can look into these spaces as we walk on the streets in major cities. These buildings seem to suggest there’s nothing hidden in these spaces, but obviously this is far from the truth.
Hochhäusler: For me the most seductive conspiracy theory today is predicated on the idea that all-important things are invisible. Cinema, however, is all about what you can see. And cinema has formed our society and our beliefs in that direction: we still hold this very high opinion of visibility and think we can access truth if we can only see what, say, the parliament is doing, as is the case with the German Parliament’s glass dome: you can climb up there and look down through the glass ceiling to see the politicians debating.
This glass roof insinuates to the citizens that they can actually control parliament by seeing what politicians are doing—that seeing means control, that visibility equals transparency, and that transparency is ultimately a good thing. And if you now say that power today is invisible, then you have this very seductive conspiracy theory that you actually can’t show anything, that what you do see is not what it’s all about. I’m very interested in this, and of course I’m also a bit desperate about this phenomenon because as a filmmaker you have no choice: you can film only physical reality. Of course, you can use voice-over and other techniques to suggest interiority. But ultimately you film physical beings and actions existing in space. And this limits our ability to show a world that is to an ever-increasing degree shaped by algorithms and computer designs that we can’t see. We tried to show some of this in the film, but how do you film someone hacking? At one time, you see this dark office, and suddenly the monitor switches on. It’s a naïve image: after all, if someone hacks into a computer, we don’t see it.
Cineaste: I’m still trying to think about what constitutes the transition from The City Below to The Lies of the Victors in terms of how the latter tries to use narrative and visual detours to discover ways for rendering visible what cannot necessarily be made visible.
Hochhäusler: Take, for example, what I call “scan-tracking.” The scan-tracking movement is found throughout the film. It’s mostly a left-to-right, sometimes a right-to-left scan-tracking shot that repeats itself. It has no obvious connection to what’s happening at any given time, so in a way it’s a machine eye. What does it mean? What does it do to the viewer? I’m not sure if it works in the way I imagined it to work. But I was trying to have a camera that ends up establishing for the viewer that something is happening even though it doesn’t care about what is going on. It’s like with the phenomenon in news footage: images that appear as if by accident are imbued with a different truth quality than those that are clearly staged. You feel that something really transpired. If the camera is slightly “off,” so to speak, the viewer feels that this is all the more proof that something is going on: a camera that is “off” seemingly proves that what it shows was not made “for” its, and thus our, purview. Another aspect of this scan-tracking concept is that it’s a fleeting movement and that you can’t be sure you get the most important part of the action. The privilege cinema usually grants viewers is that we get to see the decisive moment; it’s a bit like with historical painting in this regard (Caesar crossing the Rubicon, etc.). But with this scan-tracking technique, which basically imitates an automated eye, you don’t exactly see what’s important; rather, you see the aftermath of, or the lead-up to, what might ultimately turn out to be most important but remains invisible and thus largely unknown to us (or what can be known by us only through insights into what happened before and after the omission, before and after that which transpires while the scan-tracking moves away from and toward it). You thus have the feeling that what you see isn’t made for you, that it’s not made for mankind but for a machine. And I thought this would be interesting because so many of the things that shape our lives today are no longer predicated on human logic.
Cineaste: You say that viewers might feel that what they see might actually be happening—and that sometimes the scanning eye catches what’s happening and sometimes it doesn’t. But it is this scanning movement that also creates for the viewer a sense of a “before” and “after”: there was something going on before the mechanical eye “accidentally” catches hold of something, and there is something going on after the eye has moved past that which seems to be going on “accidentally.” A sense of temporality is thereby rendered sensible for us. At the same time, these “accidental” images are noticeably staged. The camera movement is so relentless that I could imagine some viewers becoming annoyed by it, in the same way that my students feel annoyed by Jean-Luc Godard’s relentless tracking back and forth during the famous scene in Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963) when Paul (Michel Piccoli) and Camille (Brigitte Bardot) discuss their relationship while sitting at opposite ends of a table in their apartment: similar to how you shoot the scene when Fabian and Nadja finally write their cover story for Die Woche, the weekly news magazine for which they work as investigative reporters (she as a new intern who’s been assigned to him, the more experienced journalist), Godard pans seemingly willy-nilly back and forth, as if the camera were indifferent to who’s speaking and who’s reacting. (The difference is that whereas in Godard’s film the effect is to enhance our sense of the couple’s emotional disconnect, in your scene the technique renders sensible the very moment when Fabian and Nadja “click” the most: it’s almost like they’re having sex before they actually end up sleeping with each other!) In any case, the sheer relentlessness of the scanning throughout the film is used in a way that the viewer can neither ignore nor make immediately sense of.
Hochhäusler: We had already used this technique in The City Below, albeit to a lesser degree. We might have overdone it this time. [Laughs] Our use of this technique in The Lies of the Victors certainly exceeds the level of sheer functionality; and that’s what I think is interesting.
Cineaste: I think this ultimately prevents the viewer from comfortably settling on the notion that the fleeting moments that are captured by the camera are actually moments that are happening right then and there; and I think it’s important for the film to ensure that we can feel that what seems to be really happening is actually not at all happening precisely because it is through this contradictory sensation with which the film affects us that the lie of “transparency” is rendered sensible for us: the very technique that affects us so that we feel things are transparent concurrently affects us so that we gain the idea that the assertion that things are transparent is actually just that—an unsubstantiated proposition that demands to be interrogated by us. In a way, this technique renders palpable the very mediating processes that govern the visible, that create the effect of transparency, without themselves being visible. But The Lies of the Victors uses this technique in ways that are much more visible than you did in The City Below.
Hochhäusler: What I regret about The City Below is that the viewer is always given an “overview” point of view; I think the film would have enormously benefited if I had shot it more from a “clandestine” perspective. I had actually planned to shoot it differently, but my collaboration with my cinematographer, Bernhard Keller, was somewhat unsatisfying in that respect.14 My desire had been to render the images unclear because I can no longer believe in clarity. I thought it would be more appropriate to have obstacles that obscure what we can see, that frame our gaze.
Cineaste: I find the composition of the images in The City Below—their clarity—actually quite beautiful. In The Lies of the Victors you put arguably much more “pressure” on the images. Take, for example, the constant scanning in the office space, which is visually further intensified by how the camera mostly remains behind cubicle windows and their blinds. Or when they are sitting in the lounge area: the camera hardly ever moves above the edge of the couch, which has the effect that everything we see is partly obscured by the furniture.
Hochhäusler: Yes, and you have all these blurs, flares, and all kinds of other visual distractions.
Cineaste: And when we get moments of clarity, when the images are (seemingly) clear, then it’s a long shot where the point of view remains actually quite far from the characters, from the action. I’m thinking here of the wonderful moment when we see the lobbyists—who are a bit like invisible puppet masters—in their modern office space behind glass windows, with the camera gradually zooming out until we behold the entire building from a wide-shot point of view that, however, renders the lobbyists far away and thus barely visible: we see them alright yet have no real access to them.
Hochhäusler: Which in a way is true for our lives: we don’t have access to a wide-shot perspective on our lives; only others may have it.
Cineaste: The Lies of the Victors includes narrative elements that one could cut out because they do not seem necessary for the plot’s main thrust. The gambling scenes, for example, seem to constitute a detour leading us away from the main story. Yet I think viewers likely wonder whether the French men who run the illegal gambling activities might turn out to be connected to the main conspiracy.
Hochhäusler: In the original script these scenes and the main narrative were more strongly connected. But during the editing process [editor: Stefan Stabenow, who also edited Low Profile, The City Below, and One Minute of Darkness] we decided that allowing for this connection to be part of the finished film would make everything too well-rounded, with everything adding up to one coherent narrative. As a result of making changes to the script in the editing process, however, the gambling scenes that remain in the film are now quite insular, disconnected from the central narrative thrust. But I nevertheless kept them because I had intended for them to offer mirror images of what’s happening in the main story—mirror images, however, that would stylistically differ from the rest of the film insofar that they are the film’s most genre-typical images. I thought it could be interesting to use that kind of gangster genre cinema as a foil to reflect what’s happening outside, above ground, in those well-lit, “transparent” white-collar workspaces: just like gambling is a game, the political and economic processes “above ground” ultimately amount to one big game as well. I once wrote that we all keep on playing—but we forget that we are. When we see children playing, for example, we rejoice in their play, yet we forget that we, too, keep playing in our “adult” world.15
Cineaste: One scene puts this very idea center stage: namely, the one in which we see the lobbyists rehearse for a meeting with an influential politician whose help they try to secure in their efforts to block legislation that would tighten governmental oversight of Germany’s chemical industry. So playing occurs on a number of levels in the film, and at times these moments might lead nowhere. While this may possibly frustrate some viewers, it’s worth pointing out that the film is ultimately about one big dead end, is it not?
Hochhäusler: Yes, indeed.
Cineaste: This world of illegal gambling is also shown as a male world. The few women who are part of it seem to be little more than the men’s “toys,” as it were—something that irked a number of viewers as we witnessed during the Q&A after the film’s screening at the “Critics Week” in Berlin in February 2015.16 However, the maleness, and sexism, of the criminal underground in The Lies of the Victors not only repeats genre clichés (quite intentionally, it seems to me) but also mirrors the very real world of journalism and political lobbying that your film fictionalizes. In interviews promoting the film, you’ve repeatedly pointed out that part of your research for the film involved visiting Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading weekly news magazine, where you observed how thoroughly dominated its world is by men. Of course, even though the world you depict is mostly populated by male characters, it involves two crucial female characters—Nadja, the intern who ends up working for, with, and maybe even against Fabian, and Karina von May (Ursina Lardi), the head of the lobbying firm. Whereas the former appears rather naïve (she really isn’t, though!) and almost too feminine due to the actress’s waifish good looks and soft, almost whispering voice, the latter is quite stern and tough, which is enhanced by her perfectly upright body posture, the hair she wears in a “matronly” knot, and her sharp voice that she’s not afraid to raise, when necessary, to “boss around” her male underlings. What was your approach to the question of gender for this film, given that you surely must’ve anticipated the potential criticisms?
Hochhäusler: Doing research with PR people, lobbyists, and communication agencies, I was surprised to learn that they are not only more advanced than their journalistic counterparts in technological terms but also more progressive on other fronts. There are more women in lobbying than in political journalism; pay equality seems to be established; the terms of sharing parenting “off time,” etc., are more advanced. The “bad” sleep well, do Yoga, and eat vegan. The von May character is smart, well paid, and in command. Whereas in journalism, things seem rather old school: long hours, red meat, beer, and football—no women around. If you happen to be one of the few women in this environment, your strongest weapon is getting your male colleagues to underestimate you. This is Nadja’s strategy. But I have to admit I’ve always been skeptical of the assertion that in order to advance society we need “strong women” in movies. What we need are strong characters of all sexes, sexual orientations, or ethnic backgrounds; but strong characters are real people with flaws. I don’t want to see even more “good people” in films—strong women, happy gay people, extremely talented Native Americans, or, in German films about the Nazi era, all the Jewish “saints.” I don’t want to advertise how life should be. I believe affirmative action is harmful in movies: it not only harms the films but also is counterproductive for our perception of the real world because people will find out that we are all human. Even victims have flaws, and they deserve to have them.
Cineaste: At one time, Fabian tells Nadja that “One has to tell a story”; and earlier in the film, the importance of telling stories is directly dramatized when the lobbyists rehearse for their meeting with Mr. Dellbrück (Karl Fischer), the minister whose support they try to solicit. The telling of stories plays an important role in all of your films.
Hochhäusler: Yes. And this is certainly one of the connections between The City Below and The Lies of the Victors. The banking milieu that the former depicts is defined by the imperative to tell competing stories; and in the latter, the lobbying firm creates one story, the newspaper creates another: they all want these stories to succeed, and they all want to create stories that can be made into sequels. Put differently, a story is really just another commodity that has to be serialized in order to work. You have to prepare it like you would prepare an elaborate meal: you’ve got an appetizer, an intermediary course, the entrée, a palate cleanser, the dessert, an after-dinner drink, and so on. It’s very culinary! [Laughs] It’s the same in banking. Bankers create a narrative of progress, of chances, and of how the smart investor creates value. These are all competing narratives. The interesting thing is that we still believe somewhat—albeit often against our better knowledge—that journalism is “neutral,” that it is about reporting the truth, and that journalism is a pillar of democracy: the Fourth Estate, as they call it. This is not entirely wrong, of course, but I think Christa Wolf was correct when she wrote: “Wie es gewesen ist, so kann ich es nicht schreiben” [literally: “The way it happened, I cannot write it”].17 In the end, this is what all media is about: truth has to be described, yet in the process of describing it one inevitably transforms it. It is in this process of transformation that we have to find our art: as Picasso said, “art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”18
Cineaste: I like the culinary metaphor, the idea that there is an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert. But in a way that’s still very classical, isn’t it? Today, though, stories might be more like Ferran Adrià’s molecular gastronomy: rather than having an appetizer, an entrée, and a desert—in this order—you have just one bite on your plate, but the bites keep on coming, one morsel at a time. The meal keeps going and going and going, and you don’t really know when it’ll all end.19
Hochhäusler: That’s an interesting comment. In fact, I often talk to my editor and cinematographer about how we could possibly make molecular kitchen in cinema: to offer bites or bits that are not necessarily part of the story but that will become the story once you digest them. That said, The Lies of the Victors actually does offer a fairly conventional story frame. If you want to have a wider commercial release for your film you have to find a form that will be recognized as something people know. It’s within this recognizable framework that you can try to change as much as you think you can get away with; it’s always a very unstable equilibrium.
Cineaste: This gets us back to the question of the political, of how the cinema can encounter the contemporary conditions of living, of power, of biopower, if you will. And your film tries to take seriously what contemporary power is, or, rather, how it works: it consists of an endless series of microstories and the process of their telling and dissemination. It is telling, for example, how the lobbyists respond the moment they find out that Fabian and Nadja are digging up information that has the potential to undermine their lobbying efforts. Whereas Mr. Nailly, who works as a direct representative of the German chemical industry, has one of his choleric fits, Frau von May calmly points out that the very fact that they are able to inform him about Fabian and Nadja’s activities means they can control the situation. And the way they proceed to control it is precisely by planting another story—one that ultimately ends up constituting the lie that, as Fabian discovers only when it’s too late, forms the core of his and Nadja’s cover story.
Hochhäusler: I once read about the idea of “fractal strategy,” which says that it’s not important whether people do or do not know about a particular event; what’s important, however, is that they don’t know for sure. For example, some powerful group secretly engineers a regime change, but then the truth comes out. What do you do? Well, you don’t deny it; instead, you produce a range of other versions of what happened that are similar but not identical. Fractal strategy theory suggests that its implementation will eventually undo the truth because now people can choose from multiple narratives that all have a reasonable degree of viability: every segment of the “audience” can choose a story that suits them best. Thus, the left will choose one story, the right another. So you have multiple competing stories, yet none of them is actually true. But, according to this theory, this is exactly what you should do as someone in power. I think this is pretty close to how reality works today: we end up with so many competing stories that every tiny subset of the larger population will find their story; thus, there is no longer any unified story.
Cineaste: In The Lies of the Victors, this is directly dramatized time and again. Crucially, for instance, it comes to the fore that the cover story our protagonists researched turns out to be based on false information. As reported, the story is simply incorrect. Yet, when Fabian reveals this to his editor, the latter refuses to call headquarters in Hamburg and justifies his decision not to publish a correction to this (false) story by saying that the story’s impact affected the “right ones” (“Es hat die Richtigen getroffen”)—meaning, a group he deems worthy of the political consequences triggered by the story’s revelations. Thus, he asks, who cares whether the story is really true or not?
Hochhäusler: Yes, to him it’s more important that the readers believe the story than that what they (are made to) believe is actually true. The editor believes in his magazine’s brand, and the brand says they are always right.
Cineaste: He says, “Wir schreiben für Nostalgiker, die glauben, Papier lügt nie” (“We write for nostalgic people who believe that paper never lies”). Therefore it’s crucial for the magazine to maintain its ethos, its reputation, which he thinks would be undermined if he were to publish a correction.
Hochhäusler: And this is really pretty accurate. In all its storied history, Der Spiegel, the model for Die Woche, has never disavowed a title story. Yet, while they do have good fact checkers and relatively high standards in terms of pure reporting, over the course of its history Der Spiegel has often been wrong in how it connected the dots. And this is the real story, the story, isn’t it: the story is about the connecting of the dots, rather than the dots themselves. When I asked people working at Der Spiegel why they never admit to their errors they said it would harm their brand and that their readers don’t want it! [Laughs] Of course, they would never say this on the record. Remember what happened with The New York Times and the scandal they had with a fabricated story about events in Afghanistan. They went to great lengths to re-establish their reputation and published pages and pages reporting the results of their investigation into that fraud. Yet something remained: You can’t undo a story once it’s published. And I think that’s fascinating. Stories stay: you can’t undo a story. Or, rather, the only way to undo a story is by creating another. But I’m not saying that lobbyism always succeeds, since there are also other lobbyists who want to push another, different—their—story. It’s thus a question of which story carries more force: it’s a battle of stories!
Cineaste: The only way to kill a rumor is by trying to overpower it with a number of different rumors. You can never fight a rumor by having recourse to “the truth” precisely because truth appeals to, and operates on, a different affective register than a rumor does. But as important as storytelling is to the view of contemporary power that The Lies of the Victors dramatizes, the film doesn’t suggest that it’s that “simple.” Let’s return again to the rehearsal scene, when the lobbyists prepare for their meeting with Dellbrück. During the rehearsal, the four people present imagine how the meeting might unfold based on their observations and knowledge of the minister’s idiosyncrasies. But during the actual meeting between Nailly and Dellbrück, the latter rewrites the script, so to speak, because he does not want to be served by the male waiter whom the lobbyists had planted in the restaurant; instead, he requests the attractive waitress to whom he’s accustomed to serving him. And from then on, the planned script goes more or less out the window for Nailly. Whereas during rehearsal he was coached by Frau von May to soften up his approach—to use small talk, to comment on the politician’s nice tie and suit, to talk about the weather, etc.—during the actual meeting what she imagined would be most effective ends up being derailed by the pure sexism both men exhibit and bond over: the two men are classical male power brokers who quickly come to an (intuitive) understanding that they can still do business in a “traditional” (read: crudely patriarchal) manner. At this moment, an old mode of power rears its ugly head, as if wanting to assert that notwithstanding all the “soft” power characteristic of the age of communicative capitalism, as some have called today’s biopolitical regime, a more hard, brute operation of power has not yet vanished.20
Hochhäusler: I agree: this scene is totally about animals. And funnily enough, the actual dynamic between these two actors had an animal-like quality: there was a fair bit of competition between them, and I liked that. But it’s true: the lobby agency employees and especially Frau von May are actually the most modern people in the whole film. First of all, gender equality is there, and they have more taste; they probably eat wholesome food, too. In so many ways, they’re really the avant-garde of the mainstream. They’re very advanced in their use of computers and technology in general, yet they deal with structures that are still much less advanced, which is journalism and industry. [Laughs] And I thought that’s ironic. When I sat down with some of those players in Berlin, it became clear to me that they basically take any assignment, whether it comes from the conservatives, the Social Democrats, or the Greens: for them it’s not about ideology. Theirs is a really pragmatic approach: they see themselves as troubleshooters. For them it’s really about how to spin a story—that’s what it’s about. But I’m always interested in rehearsal situations. There’s one in Low Profile as well. Rehearsal scenes reveal so much about people’s concept of reality; and then, of course, reality unfolds differently than how they imagined it would.
Cineaste: It’s an interesting dialectical relation. There’s the image of reality, or how one imagines a future reality to unfold based on one’s present knowledge. And one tells a story about it. One puts together the dots one has gleaned from empirical observation and then says: this is what is going to happen, and we can control this by preparing properly for it. But then, reality actually happens—in this case, pure “old school” heterosexual male desire kicks in, demanding to be served by a beautiful woman!
Hochhäusler: Whom he already knows and trusts. There’s a very nice analogous scene in the HBO series K Street [2003, Steven Soderbergh]. Howard Dean, the real person, participates in such a rehearsal meeting. I liked that a lot.
Cineaste: Given that The Lies of the Victors is a conspiracy thriller—certainly a film that plays with generic elements of the conspiracy film tradition—I assume you’ve seen the famous conspiracy films of the 1970s.
Hochhäusler: Of course! I like them. All the President’s Men [Alan Pakula, 1976] is a great example, though I don’t think we modeled our film after it. But it’s a fantastic movie, not least due to its capacity to react very quickly to the events of its times. But it doesn’t do this in a journalistic way. The film is about journalism, but it’s not journalistic. Pakula respects the mythical needs of a film: it’s not merely a pastiche of known facts as we see them on television docudramas. And then there’s of course Parallax View [Alan Pakula, 1974], which is more of a B-movie version of All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor [Sydney Pollack, 1975], The Conversation [Francis Ford Coppola, 1974], and many others. I’ve seen most of these conspiracy films of the ’70s. I also always liked the journalism genre in American movies. In the 1930s, journalists were always depicted as hellhounds, hunting down their stories, very hard-boiled. Those journalists were basically a variation of the hard-boiled detective. Take His Girl Friday [Howard Hawks, 1940], one of my all-time favorites. Ben Hecht, who was a real reporter in Chicago, wrote it. I read his A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago , which is about his time in Chicago. It’s amazing: he was really close to being a criminal, hunting for stories, breaking in, and so on (if we believe his stories). Or Deadline USA [Richard Brooks, 1952], which The Lies of the Victors directly references. It’s a good film; I wrote a small text about it on my blog.21 It’s a very modern film. Maybe that’s why it was not so successful: it’s not mythic enough. Brooks, a former journalist, wrote and directed it, and the film is full of details that show how well informed it is about the real problems of a newspaper. In the film, the newspaper’s owner has died, and his son-in-law wants to sell it because a stockbroker he knows told him that there’s no future in the newspaper business and that there are better investment opportunities. Humphrey Bogart plays Ed Hutcheson, the hard-boiled editor-in-chief who tries to prevent the sale by purposefully picking a fight with the mafia; Ed knows that the son-in-law is bound to have a harder time finding investors if the newspaper seems to be misbehaving. I find the dynamic of the narrative interesting: by bringing down the criminal kingpin, Ed is doing good, but he does so not out of moral idealism but in order to keep this newspaper alive. And notwithstanding his temporary success, the film clearly suggests that next time around he won’t be as successful—the paper will please the advertising clients and increasingly operate with an eye on satisfying its investors. This is all very modern: all these problems do still exist.
Cineaste: Your use of the brief moment in which Ed says something like, “That’s the press for you, baby”—
Hochhäusler: He says, “That’s the press, baby, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” He’s on the phone with the mafia boss who demands that he stop the story. Ed says, “That’s the press,” as he holds the phone up in the air so his interlocutor can hear the noise of the printing press in the background running the morning paper. The sound of the press serves as proof that truth will prevail. But it’s very questionable that truth will ultimately prevail, and in any case this is not the end of the story. It’s like whistling in the dark. It’s a bit like the end of Three Days of the Condor: will they really print the story? At this moment Ed says that they are printing it, but what happens afterwards? Who knows?
Cineaste: This insert of Deadline USA is an unusual moment in The Lies of the Victors: film history irrupts here for a brief moment in the most obvious way into your film’s diegesis. Another moment, which I think works in a more subtle way, occurs much earlier when the color cinematography shifts to a brief moment of black-and-white footage, thus giving us the impression that we might be watching surveillance footage. This moment reminds me a bit of the opening of Benjamin Heisenberg’s Schläfer [Sleeper, 2005], where we observe characters having a conversation while walking in a park, but we can’t quite make out what they’re saying until they’ve moved much closer to where the camera is placed.22 Like in Schläfer, your camera, at this moment when we see Fabian meet a military guy-cum-potential informant, remains far away from the action, and though the black and white footage suggests that someone is watching, it remains unclear who.
Hochhäusler: This is probably more like the same reference to The Conversation.
Cineaste: This Conversation-like moment, as well as the clip from Deadline USA, clearly takes the viewers out of the film. Why do that?
Hochhäusler: I’m not sure. I liked it. I think it’s not a bad thing to realize that we are watching a film. I don’t want to cite Brecht here, but in principle I think it doesn’t hurt at this point in the story, when the Bogart clip occurs, that we realize it’s all made: not only the story Fabian and Nadja write for and will get to publish in Die Woche, but also the film. It’s all done by someone to suggest something, so I thought that’s an appropriate moment to call attention to this fact. As for the use of the black-and-white footage, I used it in order to mark that there is someone who is observing. After all, both journalism and espionage are about observing what happens and then interpreting what one saw. We create meaning by connecting two events without necessarily knowing that they are in fact related.
Cineaste: Your films are always dominated by what one could call “architectural” images—images that call attention to the space in which something transpires by carefully attending to the architectural makeup of that space.23 The ways you visualize these spaces often obtain a certain degree of quite beautiful abstraction. In The Lies of the Victors there are these moments—and they may be the most confusing moments for the viewer—where you employ many, if you will, abstract spatial images that show aspects of the city (Berlin) that, as such, are largely disconnected from the narrative. But they nevertheless intensify our apperception of the narrative due to their sheer tactility. And I think this tactility emerges from within these seemingly abstract images (abstract in the sense that they are not “movement-images,” in Deleuze’s sense, but that function more in line with what he discusses as “any spaces whatever”) by virtue of the fact that they confront the viewer with the texture of the city’s architectural space.24 These shots render visible the city without being immediately reduced to serving as mere background for the conspiracy plot. What was your thinking there?
Hochhäusler: I shot this footage because I wanted to incorporate more of the city into the story. This proved difficult, however, because there was not enough space for the city in the narrative insofar that in a thriller the narrative thrust is so paramount: the viewer actually always wants to know what’s going to happen next. So for a time we didn’t know how to use this material we shot of Berlin. I first thought we could use it like Ozu uses his “pillow shots”: to have glimpses of life, the life of the others, so to speak. And then my editor, Stefan Stabenow, suggested we use it as a resonance chamber for who will be affected by this story. I thought that’s a good idea, so now these moments stand more in the Walter Ruttmann tradition: while we are seeing this story, life goes on, and these images show the people and spaces that will be affected by the story.25
Cineaste: The first of these moments occurs when Fabian notices an actress in a television commercial promoting a “be your own DJ website.” At this moment it dawns on him that this actress is in fact the same woman whom he had interviewed as part of his research, thinking she was the girlfriend of the man who had committed suicide by jumping into a lions’ den. It’s at this point that Fabian actually finds out part of the larger truth: that some “invisible forces” are not only pulling strings in the background but also have played him. And this is when you provide a sequence of more “abstract” or disconnected images, perhaps as a means to mark his confusion, as a way to render visible for us the emotional explosion he might be undergoing, knowing now how his title story may be based on false information. The second of these moments occurs late in the film, when he tries to reconnect with Nadja, with whom he’d earlier celebrated their successful collaboration. But he can’t, and you insert another of these “any-spaces-whatever” sequences—a sequence that, like the first one, is accompanied by the film’s memorable score by Benedikt Schiefer.26 And the images provide snapshots of the lives of the others, as you put it—of a space populated by people who remain oblivious to what the story itself reveals or who, in any case, do not attend to what they may know or at least suspect about these “invisible forces.”
Hochhäusler: Yes, and these images also show that there are many more stories out there. I’ve always admired American cinema’s ability to include in their fictions bits and pieces of reality. At least in the cinema of the 1970s there’s a tradition of including documentary shots of street life and so on, even if the story itself is totally artificial. Integrating real life into their stories this way lends these films a certain amount of believability. I always liked this because when you look back at a film decades later, some of the things that are most interesting are those that reveal how people lived at the time: they show what was there, give insight into what the atmosphere of the time was like, and so on.
Cineaste: What you articulate here reminds me of Siegfried Kracauer’s famous argument that “Notwithstanding their latent or even manifest bearing on the narrative to which they belong, all these shots are more or less free-hovering images of material reality. As such they also allude to contexts unrelated to the events, which they are called upon to establish. Their cinematic quality lies precisely in their allusiveness, which enables them to yield all their psychological correspondences.”27
Hochhäusler: I like the idea that the most valuable thing you may create with your film might be totally beyond your original intention. Your sensibility may be a strong filter, but how the resulting artifact will be read is unknowable. This puts your effort in perspective. Stories are fragile arrangements, which is why they need so much care. It’s a very human, necessary, but ultimately hopeless fight to arrange objects and persons in a way that make “story sense”: the universe stays indifferent to our desires.
Cineaste: When using the cinema to engage and shed light on contemporary political realities, do you also have to take into consideration the “political economy” of filmmaking itself? In other words, how does the fact that you depend on a budget to make your film affect how you make a film about a political issue like the banking milieu in The City Below or the political lobbyist milieu in The Lies of the Victors? It’s not just a question of aesthetics, is it, given that there’s a “real reality” there, as it were?
Hochhäusler: Of course there’s a relation. After all, what’s considered suitable for theatrical distribution is only a fraction of what’s possible in this art form. So, aesthetically you’re very restricted. But to a certain degree that’s a restriction of my own choosing. In terms of what you can show, the limits are less obvious. Interestingly, one funding institution wanted proof that a story like that could happen. We sent them a couple of articles about some of the real events that inspired our story, and this satisfied them. But this kind of question would not have happened with any other story. In terms of industry or lobbies, I don’t think we were identified as a threat in any way, and we certainly aren’t, simply because art cinema is so marginal. But of course there are legal restrictions with regard to our ability to name names and so on. For a while I was contemplating to narrate a real case. I’m quite sure this would’ve been much more difficult to get produced.
Cineaste: Your desire to make this kind of film expresses your desire for the cinema to have some real-life impact, no?
Hochhäusler: Well, ideally a film helps you to sharpen your vision of what’s happening. What I like about movies is the process of talking about them. Of course, in talking about them you have to deal with the same translation problem all over again: how do you talk about what you have seen in a film? But people talk about films all the time, and I’m not talking about cinephiles or professional critics. I’m talking about people in the subway and in bars. They tell their friends about a film they’ve seen, and then they have to grapple with the problem of what they can say about the film—how to describe what they’ve seen. And I think this process is interesting, in terms of how this re-telling of what someone saw in a film ends up affecting our perception of the world. But of course the danger is always that people only see and believe what they already know or believe—that they will always discover themselves in whatever you do, no matter how clear you think you are as a filmmaker.
Cineaste: It seems one of the biggest delusions of the Enlightenment is precisely that we think that we only have to shed light on something for us to know the truth, and that knowing the truth will produce the kind of action that ends up changing circumstances “for the better.” This isn’t exactly how things work.
Hochhäusler: Well, I think it works like this to some extent, but this isn’t the whole truth. But yes, for a long time we thought that if we only knew the truth and if we “can handle the truth,” to misappropriate what Jack Nicholson says in A Few Good Men [Rob Reiner, 1992]—he of course yells at Tom Cruise that he can’t handle the truth—then everything will be fine. I don’t think this is true. What’s interesting about, for example, the current crisis in Europe involving Greece’s difficulties is that pretty much everyone agrees that imposing austerity on the country is an economic mistake. But it’s not about economics; it’s about a story people can believe in. Even if it’s against everything we know about economy: people believe that if you spend too much you have to behave and get better. And I think German Chancellor Angela Merkel is catering to that very story. She wanted to establish a simple narrative of the Greek people having lived beyond their means so that they now have to walk in a “hair shirt.” We know that this kind of story isn’t true, and that it’s dangerous to buy into it; yet, it’s a story with which people can connect, to which they can relate. It’s so much about storytelling these days. I wonder whether it was ever any different, though.
Cineaste: Yes, surely storytelling has always played an important part for people, though the degree to which it affects how power works seems to have changed—that is, the sheer degree to which power is now, more than anything, a matter of storytelling and thus communication might be new. In any case, it seems that the way films have represented how power works has changed over time. Power seems to work differently in films from, say, the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s: in those films the representatives of capitalism are often physically unattractive, smoke cigars, and drink whiskey, generally act in ruthless ways, and often have their henchmen do their dirty work. In your film, in contrast, the capitalists are fairly attractive, have good taste, don’t seem to be “bad” people, and they don’t really engage in violence. Indeed, the most violent moment we see is done to Fabian, but this really has nothing at all to do with his job and instead happens because he likes to frequent illegal gambling events.
Hochhäusler: And the other moment of violence occurs when the former soldier commits suicide. I think most of the violence is being inflicted by the victims themselves, which is like a dream come true for “power” because “power” doesn’t even have to send their henchman anymore: people will kill themselves.
Cineaste: Speaking of storytelling, though, what might be difficult for viewers to accept is that in the end it’s not clear who we are supposed to blame for the bad things that the film suggests are in fact happening: the film doesn’t authorize us to point to the Chancellor or some military general, for example. And even worse than not authorizing us to blame someone in particular might be the fact that The Lies of the Victors reveals how the “victims” are playing a huge role in all of this bad stuff: or, more broadly speaking, that the film shows that those who are really not in power (in the traditional sense) nevertheless actively participate in these insidious operations.
Hochhäusler: In theater there is this exercise of “playing King.” It means that the King is doing nothing; it’s the others who make the King. And this is how power works, I think. The center is empty and totally exchangeable. Of course, people “in power” believe that it’s all about them, but this is an illusion [Laughs]: we make them! And we need them so that we can blame them. I think it’s a very complex pathology of our societies. Still, my film does show that some things occur that are clearly wrong and that we should identify as such. For example, in one year alone, the chemical industry in Germany spent one billion Euros to soften the reach of a law about dangerous chemicals, and many believe they succeeded. This is clearly bad for the ordinary citizen. So there’s a real danger here, and the film makes this clear. But admittedly this isn’t the film’s main focus. I also wonder whether this phenomenon is really new. We all tend to believe that we live in a new era. But every generation believes that its time is worse than any other—that its time is more sophisticated, more complicated, more complex, and so on. I somehow doubt this is actually true. However, I do think it is true that today we have a machinery running that is mostly invisible in its reliance on computer networks with their algorithms and so on. And how to address this phenomenon through cinematic storytelling remains unanswered.
Cineaste: Are there any contemporary filmmakers that you see as grappling with this question?
Hochhäusler: I haven’t seen the latest Michael Mann film, Blackhat , but I think he’s interested in a similar problem. I don’t think it’s a good idea to show electrons running through your computer and then revert to a physical story, however. It’s a bit like Wall Street [Oliver Stone, 1987]. You have a system—high finance—that’s exceeding the personal level, but you have a story that’s all personal: two fathers, one son, and a fist fight in Central Park. This surely can’t be the answer. And Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps  was no improvement over this formula. I much admire the approach of David Simon’s The Wire [2002–2008], which very much stands in the tradition of Sidney Lumet’s and Frederick Wiseman’s work and their desire to portray complex structures or institutions. I think it’s important to use the cinema to take a close look at these institutional structures and systems, and I think both Lumet and Wiseman, in their different ways, succeeded quite well. And I already mentioned that I thought K Street was quite interesting. I’m a bit skeptical of the hype that television series in general receive these days, but clearly a series does afford you the chance to establish more than one protagonist and more than one central relationship. The ability to do so can lead to more complexity, even though in actuality I don’t think this happens in most cases. We, too, had originally tried to do The Lies of the Victors as a television series. We had considerably more story material, so we offered it. But there was no interest, and I was impatient to make the film and did not want to spend another five years in development without a guarantee, or at least a probability, that it would happen.
Cineaste: After having made films set in the banking milieu and now the lobbying and journalism milieus, are you interested in making more films along these lines?
Hochhäusler: Ulrich Peltzer, with whom I co-wrote both The City Below and The Lies of the Victors, and I discussed the possibility of collaborating on a project about Brussels.28 Who knows if we’ll ever be able to realize this idea? But I find it paradoxical that no filmmaker has taken a closer look at Brussels. After all, today there’s so much power concentrated in Brussels, but nobody really knows how it looks like, how it works. There’s a lot of lobbying taking place, there’s a lot of money around, and there’s a lot of power in action; but because it’s all transnational there appears to be no good forum for talking about it.29
Cineaste: It might be a hard sell to make a feature film about EU bureaucracy, though—
Hochhäusler: That’s true. [Laughs]
- Made between The City Below and The Lies of the Victors, One Minute of Darkness is the final “episode” of Dreileben’s three parts. The other two films comprising this triptych of films, which take the same narrative event—the escape of an alleged murderer—as their point of departure, are Christian Petzold’s Etwas Besseres als den Tod (Beats Being Dead, 2011) and Dominik Graf’s Komm mir nicht nach (Don’t Follow Me Around, 2011). For a discussion of this remarkable collaborative experiment, see Marco Abel and Christina Gerhardt, eds., “The Berlin School (1): The DREILEBEN Experiment,” German Studies Review 36.3 (Summer 2013): 603–642.
- Petzold, as Jaimey Fisher has convincingly argued, has always made films that are grounded in and work with genre elements. See Fisher’s Christian Petzold (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013).
- The first part of the exchange between the three directors was published in the German film magazine, Revolver, of which Hochhäusler is one of the founding editors, while the second part was subsequently made available on the journal’s Web site. See “Mailwechsel ‘Berliner Schule’: Graf, Petzold, Hochhäusler,” Revolver 16 (2007): 7–39; and http://www.revolver-film.de/Inhalte/Rev16/html/Berliner.htm. For a discussion of this conversation see Marco Abel, “The Agonistic Politics of the Dreileben Project,” German Studies Review 36.3 (Summer 2013): 607-616.
- Marco Abel, The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (Rochester: Camden House, 2013): 185. My book offers a more elaborate reading of the utopian force of not only The City Below’s ending but also Hochhäusler’s work prior to The Lies of the Victors and the Berlin School films in general.
- Christoph Hochhäusler, “Right to Reply: A Cinema of Challenge,” quoted in Abel, The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School: 163.
- Thank you to Barbara Starks for producing a raw transcript of the interview.
- Marco Abel. “Tender Speaking: An Interview with Christoph Hochhäusler.” Senses of Cinema 42 (January-March 2007). http://sensesofcinema.com/2007/cinema-engage/christoph-hochhausler/.
- Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939) famously offers a perspective on “Big History” from the kitchen. Hochhäusler voted for Renoir’s masterpiece as one the ten greatest films of all time in the Sight & Sound 2012 “The Greatest Films Poll.” www.explore.bfi.org.uk/sightandsoundpolls/2012/voter/914, accessed June 24, 2015.
- Tellingly, Hochhäusler has expressed his hesitations about Laura Poitras’s acclaimed documentary about Edward Snowden, Citizenfour (2014), precisely for not having offered enough of these “mundane things” that would have helped the film’s audience to “measure the impact” the Snowden story has on us. As reported by The New Yorker, at a private screening in Berlin, Hochhäusler told those present, including Poitras, that he would have liked for the film to have more “gravity”: Snowden’s story, he argued, “is so crazy and big and unhealthy,” which is why “I need the consequences of all this very abstract information for people, for us, and you [as the filmmaker] are our stand-in, you are our eyes.…Because most of the people think, Yes, but it won’t happen to me, and anyway, I have nothing to hide. It’s always the same argument.” Quoted in George Packer, “The Holder of Secrets,” The New Yorker October 20, 2014. www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/20/holder-secrets, accessed July 3, 2015.
- This is a not-so-veiled critique of the many German film productions that engage the “big” issues of German history, whether that of the Nazi years, of East Germany’s Stasi, or the history of internal terrorism that affected West Germany in the 1970s and 1980s.
- This basic triangular narrative dynamic presents us with an update of the Biblical story of King David, inflected, film historically, by Raoul Walsh’s Silver River (1948).
- Vorschneider is one of German cinema’s premiere cinematographers. In addition to the two films he shot for Hochhäusler (he helmed One Minute of Darkness as well), Vorschneider has worked with Angela Schanelec, Benjamin Heisenberg, and Thomas Arslan, all of whom are regularly associated with the Berlin School, as well as with Maria Speth, who is also occasionally considered affiliated with this group. He received the Marburger Kamerapreis in 2013—Germany’s most prestigious award for cinematographers (the list of awardees since 2001 includes Raoul Coutard, Robby Müller, Slawomir Idziak, and Agnès Godard).
- Florian David Fitz is best known for his roles in commercially successful films such as Simon Verhoeven’s blockbusters Männerherzen (Men in the City, 2009) and its sequel, Männerherzen…und die ganz große Liebe (Men in the City 2, 2011), Ralf Huettner’s Vincent will Meer (Vincent Wants to Sea, 2010), Detlev Buck’s Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the World, 2012), as well as in numerous television productions.
- Hochhäusler had previously worked with Keller on both Low Profile and his brilliant short film, Séance, which concludes the thirteen films comprising the omnibus film Deutschland 09: 13 Kurzfilme zur Lage der Nation (Germany 09: 13 Short Films about the State of the Nation, 2009).
- Christoph Hochhäusler, “Goldene Regel (12).” http://parallelfilm.blogspot.de/2011/05/goldene-regel-12.html, accessed June 29, 2015. Commenting on a shot sequence from Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), Hochhäusler writes in this blog entry: “Wir bleiben Kinder—aber vegessen, dass wir spielen” (We remain children—but forget that we play).
- The “Critics Week” was a weeklong event conceived as a critical counterevent to the Berlin Film Festival, which at least some German film critics view as too industry-oriented and as lacking interest in promoting a critical encounter with world cinema today. See www.wochederkritik.de/en_US/critics-week, accessed June 25, 2015.
- In her 1968 novel, Nachdenken über Christa T., Christa Wolf wrote: “Wie man es erzählen kann, so ist es nicht gewesen. Wenn man es aber erzählen kann, dann ist man nicht dabei gewesen, oder die Geschichte ist lange her, so daß einem Unbefangenheit leichtfällt” (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2007: 79). (“It didn’t happen the way one can tell it; but if one can tell it as it was, then one wasn’t in on it, or it all happened so long ago that candor comes too easily.” The Quest for Christa T., trans. Christopher Middleton, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979: 64.)
- http://www.pablopicasso.org/quotes.jsp, accessed June 29, 2015.
- Ferran Adrià’s restaurant el Bulli was a three-star Michelin restaurant and during its existence was widely considered one, if not the, best in the world. Diners would be presented with mindboggling meals consisting of thirty-five (!) courses.
- See especially Jodi Dean’s Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).
- See “Moderne Problems,” www.parallelfilm.blogspot.com/2014/04/deadline-usa-richard-brooks-usa-1952.html, April 30, 2014, accessed 26 June 2015.
- Heisenberg co-wrote Hochhäusler’s debut feature, This Very Moment, and co-founded with him Revolver, which played an important role in giving many of the directors associated with the Berlin School a voice. For more on its history, see chapter 4 of The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School.
- This is perhaps not surprising for a filmmaker who once studied architecture.
- For Gilles Deleuze’s discussion of movement-images and “any spaces whatever” see, respectively, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), and Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).
- Ruttmann is of course most famous for Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, 1927).
- Schiefer has scored all of Hochhäusler’s films but One Minute of Darkness.
- Siegfried Kracauer, The Theory of Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997): 71.
- Peltzer is an acclaimed German novelist. His most recent novels, Teil der Lösung (S. Fischer Verlag, 2007; Part of the Solution, 2012) and Das bessere Leben (S. Fischer Verlag, 2015) intriguingly resonate with the films he has co-written with Hochhäusler.
- One of the problems, as Hochhäusler explained in my conversation, is that “filmmaking or media-making is, in Europe, still mostly a national affair.” In Germany, for example, a film production is required to spend more money than it receives in the federal states whose tax-based subsidies it relies on in order to get off the ground in the first place. This makes it difficult, even with European co-productions, to cross borders.
Several Hochhäusler films are available in English-subtitled DVDs on amazon.com, including The City Below, I Am Guilty, and This Very Moment (Milchwald), and Germany 09: 13 Short Films about the State of the Nation. For those who don’t need subtitles, all of his films are readily available on amazon.de.
The Lies of the Victors has yet to be acquired for release in the United States, but the DVD will be available in December in Germany.
Marco Abel is professor of English and film studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and currently chair of the Department of English. His most recent book is The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (Camden House, 2013), which was awarded the German Studies Association’s award for Best Book (2014).
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