Jan-Ole Gerster: “Even though cinema is a sacred tool for me, I’m just a guy who’s terribly afraid of failing”

The German black-and-white tragicomedy “Oh Boy” (2012) was film director and screenwriter Jan-Ole Gerster’s breakout debut that didn’t go unnoticed. The film won numerous awards, including the European Film Award for Best Debut, it got rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, the film was shown in movie theaters in about forty countries, and reportedly grossed nearly $3,000,000 worldwide. Not bad for a first and independently made art house film that has become a cult classic about life in modern Berlin today.

And now, so many years after “Oh Boy,” Mr. Gerster’s long-awaited second feature “Lara” is about to be released in a number of countries; after the film was out in November 2019 in Germany, the release was delayed in several territories due to the Coronavirus pandemic. In the meantime “Lara” was screened successfully at various festivals, including last year’s Karvoly Vary International Film Festival (world premiere), winning three awards at the Czech festival. The film then toured festivals worldwide and was screened in Munich, Zurich, Vancouver, London, New York, Palm Springs, Chicago, Göteborg and Miami, among others.

“Lara” is an unsettling psychological drama that turns a regular day into a thing of palpable tension. It’s a portrait of a mother dealing with her thoughts, emotions and feelings on her 60th birthday, which seems to start like any other day—with a cup of tea and a cigarette for the retired civil servant who doesn’t seem to care much about anyone or anything. But, also, today and for the first time, her son Victor is giving a grand solo performance of piano music he composed himself—it was her who mapped out and forced Viktor’s musical career in the first place. But unlike Viktor‘s father and his new girlfriend, Lara is not invited. Nevertheless, she has her own plans for the day: she buys the remaining tickets for the show and distributes them according to her very idiosyncratic ways. In any case, the events of the day unfold in a completely unexpected manner.

The award-winning German stage, television and screen actress Corinna Harfouch (who portrayed Magda Goebbels in “Downfall,” 2004) plays Lara; Tom Schilling who played the leading role in “Oh Boy” reappears as Lara’s son Viktor.

Since the film is directed by Jan-Ole Gerster, one of Germany’s most talented filmmakers, it comes as no surprise that “Lara” is a fascinating film and in-depth character study, an unsettling portrait of a desperate woman, that can be interpreted and understood differently by each viewer. Time will tell where Mr. Gerster’s career is headed after “Lara” although I’m sure he may be in for yet another surprising cinematic success—hopefully sooner than later.

Corinna Harfouch and Tom Schilling as Lara and Viktor in Jan-Ole Gerster’s “Lara.” Photograph: Cherry Pickers

I sat down with Mr. Gerster (b. 1978) for a Corona proof Skype interview to talk about “Lara” and his approach as a filmmaker in the wonderful world of his brilliant imagination.

Mr. Gerster, how did “Lara” come about? Was it an easy journey, especially since you set the bar very high with “Oh Boy”?

You think I did? I hope so, not that I rank my movies, but I think “Lara” has a more cinematic approach in terms of visual storytelling and in terms of storytelling itself. So I think I moved a little bit forward, and that was my main goal. But it took a while, as you might have noticed [laughs], because I was a bit suprised by the success of my first film. There are filmmakers who just climb back on the horse and do their next film, and then do another one, and there are many filmmakers who even manage to top their first film when they do their second, but there are also people who are having a terrible time even putting a second film together. I was somewhere in between, I think. So I spent my days developing a few new projects that I still continue to develop right now—I’m working on two projects that I started to write between “Oh Boy” and “Lara,” but then I met this wonderful screenwriter Blaž Kutin from Slovenia who’s now living in Berlin. I was always interested in finding a collaborator when it comes to screenwriting, but it’s almost an impossible task if you force this. It’s like finding the right person you want to spend your life with: you have to get along on so many levels, you have to share so many things that you like, you have to be able to argue, fight and laugh. So it was very complicated to find this one collaborator in screenwriting, but with Blaž it was really natural from the beginning. I’m really happy about that.

When did you start working together on “Lara”?

This was around 2016 when we started to kick around various ideas. We met on a daily basis and it almost felt like going to work, to the office from nine to five. We were sitting there and we talked about ideas, and at one point he mentioned this screenplay that he wrote almost ten years ago which received very good feedback, it also won a few awards in screenplay competitions. And so during this whole journey of developing “Lara,” he had the opportunity to meet Jeanne Moreau at the French Film Festival of Angers. She liked the script and discussed it with him. All these things made me curious, it sounded like a very good script and I couldn’t even understand why they still hadn’t made the movie. In fact, Blaž was a little bit traumatized because it never had been filmed before. So then I came along, I read the script, and I liked it. I liked the character, the tone, the humor—the whole writing. It was something that felt familiar. After “Oh Boy” I was offered a few projects and I had read many scripts, but none of them felt right until “Lara” came along. I called the producer and told him that I had the right project, it was right there in front of me, a ready-to-go script. I loved it.

German actress Corinna Harfouch as Lara. Photograph: Cherry Pickers

How would you describe the character of Lara?

She occured to me as a real person because she is so full of contradictions. In the beginning, I couldn’t really put my finger on her like ‘she’s this kind of person’ or ‘she’s that kind of person.’ That attracted me to her in the first place. And so, because of all the contradictions, she seemed to be a very truthful character. We get to learn about her desperation and pain, and therefore we understand more and more about her negativity, her manipulative power, and in the end I even pitied her, I felt for her. This was so evident in the script from the very beginning that even Corinna Harfouch had a very precise idea about Lara—even though we both agreed not to analyze her in a psychological way as people tend to do. For us it was more interesting to protect a certain mystery about her and at the same time try to get as close as possible to whatever is her heart and soul. Since the script offered a range of situations and encounters that could show a whole lifetime in just one day, we trusted the quality of the script and the quality of the scenes. Then it was more a question of how to once in a while get an idea of what’s going on inside of her, because she seems to be behind a wall built around her throughout the years, and once in a while we manage to see what’s really going on inside of her. Otherwise it wouldn’t have even been possible to like her in the end. That is at least what happened to me when I read the script: I liked her, because I understood her. She’s a passionate woman, but for whatever reason, her life didn’t turn out to be the way it was supposed to be. Maybe she was not lucky to have one person in her life to encourage her. She wanted to be absolute, I think that is an impossible task, and she was so in awe of the thing that she loved most, that she preferred to step down in order not to face the possibility of failing.

There are several crucial scenes in the film. The concert scene being one of them.

From Lara’s point of view, she is really convinced that this concert can be a very traumatic experience. There is also some motherly care to this negativity and manipulative power. I mean, there’s nothing worse than telling your child, three hours before the concert, that peace might not be good enough. But for her, it makes sense to a certain degree. When Viktor says at the end of the concert, ‘Everything I am, is because of my mother,’ he’s not only referring to his great ability to play the piano, but also to his doubts, his fears, and he doesn’t even say ‘Thank you.’ Yet he’s dedicating the concert to his mother, so it’s up to the audience or the individual to judge if this is a good or a bad thing.

Tom Schilling during the concert scene in “Lara.” Photograph: Cherry Pickers

The way you shot it, she is standing in the door, you only see half her face, it’s shot in a very minimalistic way. Less is more?

You know, there’s also shame in this scene. When I read the script—and this was maybe the smartest thing I did throughout the whole process—I wrote down everything that came to my mind, and sometimes they were only images, like you’d only see half of her face, or the way she looked through the door, because these things come out of intuition. You never get a second chance for a first impression, so I tried to take these things as seriously as possible. This image of her, not really being in the audience, but rather outside the actual hall, was an image that—in a way—I used throughout the whole film. It’s like there’s a garden party going on, but you’re behind a fence, looking at the party. This is how Lara felt her whole life: she’s the person who’s not invited to something that she wants to be part of—which is this warm, glorious and almost sacred world of classical music. It’s funny that these things come back to me now that you talk about it, but this is how this motive of the windows in the film sneaked in. Lara is often behind glass, there’s something that separates her from everybody else. Looking through the glass into a different world is something that I wanted in the movie whenever it was possible.

Since music is so important in the film, did you also add or changes scenes to emphasize the importance of the score, especially for the concert scene and leading up to the concert?

Let me put it this way. I can’t really say that I grew up with classical music. When I was in my twenties and thirties, I was into rock, jazz, hiphop—whatever. But the past few years, classical music became more important to me and I discovered these wonderful composers more and more. But still, if I wanted to do a movie about this, I still had to do my homework and do a lot of research. The only way I could talk to a composer, was from an emotional point of view, or from the story point of view. So then I found Arash Safaian, the composer—who by the way plays the critic who comes to Viktor after the concert, and says all these nice compliments. I gave him the opportunity to give nice compliments about his own piece [laughs]. So when I found him as the right person for the project, we asked Tom Schilling to join us in the discussion, because it was important to know what he wanted to express with his music. And even though there was not a real answer to it, it all has to do with liberating from the mother. To me, it was a very belated cutting of the navel string from Viktor to his mother, in order for him to become a stronger person than Lara ever was. I think about this clumsiness of a child wanting to grow up—this is why his piano playing in the beginning is a little bit naive—and then it gets better as the orchestra joins him. It’s like he is taken away from his mother. And that was the way we talked about music, because talking about music can be beautiful and very frustrating, especially if you’re not familiar with those musical terms. But it worked out very well, I think. We spent hours and hours sitting together, discussing the character, the way the piece could be build up through this tiny little window that we see. This is how we came up with Viktor’s piano concerto. It was interesting to see that there is a way to talk about those things without really knowing the language of music. Arash Safaian understood that perfectly, and we were able to get the actual score in the film which was very important to me, and which emphasized the mystery around and about Lara.

Corinna Harfouch with Tom Schilling in “Lara.” Photograph: Cherry Pickers

Was the casting of Corinna Harfouch and Tom Schilling an obvious choice for you?

Corinna definitely. When I first read the script, I immediately had her in mind. Everybody in Germany knows her from cinema and from television, and I really had an affinity with her when I went to the theater, because she’s also a very famous stage actress. Ten years ago, I think, I saw her acting in Anton Chekov’s play “The Seagull” with Corinna playing a very manipulative mother. I was blown away when I saw her, I sat very close to the stage, it was like a magic moment, and I hoped that one day I could work with her. I never thought about writing something for her, but then when I read “Lara” for the first time, from page one or page two, I saw her face right in front of me. From then on, I read the whole script with Corinna in my mind. I even said to my producer, ‘If she doesn’t play Lara, I don’t know if I want to make the movie.’ But I didn’t know her personally, so I sent her the script through her agent, and a couple of weeks later she called me. We went for lunch—for five hours—and we talked about everything. It was a very nice afternoon, and we kind of immediately knew we would do this film together. With Tom Schilling, it was so obvious that the part was perfect for him because he is so ambitious. But he’s also very doubtful. He was really rehearsing “The Revolutionary Etude” from Chopin until he was able to play it, while we were shooting. Everybody who was involved in that scene, even the musicians in the background, were absolutely impressed by the fact that an actor was not pretending to play, but was actually playing “The Revolutionary Etude” and this kind of ambition is something I only know from Tom. And I knew he would understand the character without further explanation.

You made two films so far, both of them got rave reviews and they have been favorites at film festivals all over the world. That’s pretty impressive, isn’t it?

You know, even though cinema is a sacred tool for me, I’m just a guy who’s terribly afraid of failing. Therefore I do my best and try to get as close as possible to what I think cinema should be about. I’m still miles away from it, but I try not to lose my goal, I try to focus, and at the same time I try not to be too cautious and shy about it. If I look at the process of “Lara,” I have to admit that a certain stress and fear about failing was constantly present. It’s a terrible thing, because filmmaking and making art should be joyful and free, but since filmmaking is—unlike any other art form—so tremendously expensive, and there are so many people involved… I mean, I’m not writing a novel, right? I’m making a movie, there are fifty people on the set, and every day costs € 50,000. So it’s all about finding a balance between being respectful about what you do, and at the same time, you also need to have the guts to do it. When I studied at film school, I was in the same situation as Lara, because I wanted to quit, I thought I couldn’t be a director. I was dreaming about becoming a director, but I had no clue what it actually meant to be a director. Watching movies is like hiding from reality for a couple of hours to experience a different reality or a different truth, while being a director means going on stage naked—like you’re saying, ‘Look, this is me, I’m a little bit chubby here. This is how I am, this is who I am. This is what you pay eight euros for.’ So with every film I make, I want to be respectful to cinema to a degree that it is almost paralyzing me, but at the same time I am naive enough to believe that I can do it… This sounds terrible! [Laughs.]

Corinna Harfouch. Photograph: Cherry Pickers

Has it been a problem for you to finance “Lara”?

It would be wrong to blame my speed of filmmaking just to financing, because I take my time to write, I take my time to edit, and I take my time between two movies to go traveling, to see places and get inspired. Financing is for sure something that slows down the process, and even with “Lara” we didn’t have the budget that we hoped for. When I sat down with my producer and he said, ‘Can you imagine to limit yourself a little bit here and a little bit there, a few days less, maybe a slightly smaller audience for the concert scene?’ Of course I can do it for less money, but it can be frustrating, and I think it can also become the mentality of people who finance movies, like ‘I’m pretty sure you can do it for less. Let’s see, if you want three million and we give two million, you’ll be fine with that?’ But they’re not thinking about the compromises, also in terms of karma and spirit, because you’re always the guy who’s making this low-budget film and people have to work for less. It does something. Filmmaking is expensive, but I would never become a slave of the budget.

What do you mean by that?

I’ll give you an example. Yesterday I was in my office and I was a little bit uninspired, so I watched “Tale of Cinema” [2005, a.k.a. “Geuk jang jeon”] by Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo. It was a film I didn’t know, but every time I watch one of his movies, I wish I could be him [laughs]. His movies seem to be so effortless—or encouraging to be effortless, which is a very difficult thing to do. You watch his movies, and you constantly think, ‘I could do a movie like that, I want to be a filmmaker like him, with real people in the streets and just zoom in and zoom out, we don’t need a lot of production design, we buy the costumes at H&M, and this is how we make our movie.’ But of course, it’s hard work to be like Hong Sang-soo, because he’s just unique in his field. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was exactly the same, he could make two, three, even four films a year. I try to wreck my mind around how to be as free and as liberate as they are. Maybe I’m still in the process of figuring out where my limits in filmmaking are or what I can do. I’m actually writing a project that to European standards will be a higher budget art house film. I don’t know if I can find the money to do it, there’s a big chance that this will be difficult to finance. We’ll see. But the last thing I want to do, is become too dependent on this whole money issue, because I always think there’s a chance and a way to do things. Especially now in times of Corona when everybody is minimizing everything anyway to show something of your skills and your creative world in a low-budget film.

To what extend has the Coronavirus pandemic affected the release of “Lara” in foreign territories?

In Germany it pretty much landed. You could see it when at the end there were only a few cinemas where you could see the movie, so it pretty much came to its natural end, thank God. The film was in French theaters I think for two weeks before the lockdown, and now “Lara” is about to be released in other countries. I’m happy that it’s going to be released, but I’m not expecting too much because numbers in general went down in an alarming way. So let’s hope that they might go up again and people don’t get used too much to enjoy cinema on their laptop.

Suppose an American producer asks you to do an American remake of “Lara” in the U.S., with for example Jessica Lange or Sissy Spacek. What would you do, also keeping in mind that you would have to make several compromises?

[Laughs.] I can give you a long answer, but I will give you a short long answer instead. I was asked if I consider myself a political filmmaker, or if I would become more political in the future. “Oh Boy” and “Lara” are not mainly about political subjects, but I still would consider myself a political filmmaker since I managed to resist advertising throughout my whole career, even when money was tight. I never wanted to go into advertising because of a political reason: I don’t want to be a part of it, I don’t want to be a part of big advertising companies that I don’t believe in. But still, if you try to make a living with independent art house filmmaking, you once in a while have to consider a job just for the money, and there are people who do it. Do you remember this Chilean movie “Gloria” [2013] by Sebastián Lelio? He also directed the remake with Julianne Moore [“Gloria Bells,” 2018]. I have only one explanantion for that, especially because in between those two films, he won an Academy Award for another film he did, “Una Mujer Fantástica” [2017, category Best Foreign Language Film of the Year]. And then his next movie was the American remake of “Gloria” which is quite remarkable, don’t you think? If you can get the biggest check of your career… [laughs]. So would I be interested in doing a remake of “Lara”? I have absolutely no interest in repeating myself, but it doesn’t hurt to take the check. That’s the most honest answer I can give you.

Is there any filmmaker in particular who inspired you to become such a passionate filmmaker? John Ford maybe?

It’s funny that you mention him, because there is a big portrait of John Ford in my office down the road. I had found the photo, and so there he is, this grumpy old man with his eye patch, already in his seventies, I think, and he’s looking at me with this expression on his face, as if he were saying, ‘You sit down and write this script, and you don’t go out for coffee again!’ But he doesn’t belong to the directors who inspired me really. I always had Ingmar Bergman in my life, like I always had The Beatles in my life. Sometimes my favorite song is “Here Comes the Sun” and two years later, I think, ‘Oh no, “Helter Skelter” is the greatest song.’ And then you end up with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” which is such a masterpiece of pop song writing. And it’s the same with Ingmar Bergman, and I like to have him being part of my life as a filmmaker. Ever since I watched “The Seventh Seal” [1957] when I was a teenager, and then “Persona” [1966]… When I was preparing “Lara,” “Autumn Sonata” [1978] was very important to me—I showed the film to my team—so he’s a big inspiration. I’m also rediscovering Lars von Trier, I just watched “Dancer in the Dark” [2000], “Antichrist” [2009] and “Melancholia” [2011] again, I’m really stunned by the intensity, the power and the darkness of his films. So these filmmakers are very important to me. Michael Haneke is also a big inspiration, I’m very familiar with his work, but I never really considered “La pianiste” [2001, a.k.a. “The Piano Teacher”] to be a reason strong enough not to make “Lara.” It’s a very similar world, but you have two different characters, two different life tragedies, and that’s why I decided to make “Lara” anyway. After all, the last thing you want to do is spend two or three years of your life on a movie, and then when it’s released, everybody says, ‘Oh, it’s like that one!’ So I don’t want that, but I really thought about it. Was it a strong enough argument not to make “Lara”? No, not for me, so I decided to do my film, because I think cinema is like an echo room, and it’s like Jean-Luc Godard once said, ‘It’s not a matter of where you take it from, it’s a matter of where you take it to.’ And that’s a good motto.

Skype interview,
September 16, 2020

The trailer of “Lara”

FILMS

GOOD BYE LENIN! (2003) DIR Wolfgang Becker PROD Stefan Arndt, Katja De Bock SCR Wolfgang Becker, Bernd Lichtenberg CAM Martin Kukula ED Peter S. Adam MUS Yann Tiersen POST-PRODUCTION Jan-Ole Gerster CAST Daniel Brühl, Katrin Saß, Chulpan Khamatova, Maria Simon, Florian Lukas, Alexander Beyer, Burghart Klaußner

EIN FREUND VON MIR (2006) DIR- SCR Sebastian Schipper PROD Tom Tykwer, Maria Köpf CAM Oliver Bokelberg ED Jeff Harkavy CAST Daniel Brühl, Jürgen Vogel, Sabine Timoteo, Peter Kurth, Michael Wittenborn, Oktay Özdemir, Jan-Ole Gerster

OH BOY, U.S. title COFFEE IN BERLIN (2012) DIR – SCR Jan-Ole Gerster ASSOC PROD Jan-Ole Gerster CAM Philipp Kirsamer ED Anja Siemens MUS Cherilyn MacNeil, The Major Minors CAST Tom Schilling, Katharina Schüttler, Justus von Dohnányi, Andreas Schröders, Katharina Hauck, Marc Hosemann, Friederike Kempter

LARA (2019) DIR Jan-Ole Gerster PROD Marcos Kantis, Martin Lehwald, Michal Pokorny SCR Blaž Kutin CAM Frank Griebe ED Isabel Meier MUS Arash Safaian CAST Corinna Harfouch, Tom Schilling, André Jung, Volkmar Kleinert, Rainer Bock