As the 67th International Berlin Film Festival came to a steady close, I sat down with the (relatively) young German director Julian Radlmaier about his debut feature film ‘Self-Criticism of a Bourgeois Dog’ (‘Selbstkritik eines bürgerlichen Hundes’) which premiered a few weeks earlier in Rotterdam and which screened in the ‘Perspektive Deutsches Kino’ (Perspective of German Cinema) category in Berlin. It is a film just as playful as its director suggests, always moving in search of the next bit of dry humor, artful jab, and “communism without communists.” Its satire and (as the title promises) self-criticism are so strong that it threatens to leave itself out of the joke every step of the way, yet manages to hold on to enough self-assurance and consistency of tone to keep any self-aggrandizing intellectual watching. As a young Oklahoman filmmaker in Germany myself, I left the interview feeling hopeful.
Maximilien Luc Proctor: I’m curious about your earlier short films, which I haven’t seen. Are they in any way as comedic as this feature?
Julian Radlmaier: I think they’re both a bit similar in the basic approach to some political questions, something that really comes from comedy, or is in a comic way. They’re slightly different in that the first one was perhaps more referential, so it’s really a game, I had to get out all my cultural ballasts and references, and playing with that. The second one is perhaps even more minimalist and deadpan, but yes I think they form some kind of trilogy.
MLP: How did you decide on the [1.37:1] aspect ratio?
JR: Actually I shot all of my films in this format. In my film school, the first film you shoot is always on 16 millimeter, and now I shot digital but I kept this format, which I really like. A lot of the films I like are in this format, but I think it’s also justified because I like the way you can easily get a stage-like framing. You don’t get this vast space where figures get lost in it – it’s a bit like a theater stage. I think what I always try to do is something that’s between […] documentary (because I work with non-professional actors, we shoot on real locations, etcetera) and something very artificial. This kind of framing heightens that. I also like the way we have a lot of portrait-like shots in this movie, and this square format, for me, really gives an iconic presence to the people in close-up shots.
MLP: You said this is less referential than your earlier films?
JR: Yes, yes, imagine…
MLP: Yeah, I’m trying to imagine. I think I heard you mention the Fassbinder film Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day [in a preceding interview]. Can you talk a bit about the influence of Fassbinder and Godard specifically on your film? And more specifically Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day in terms of dealing with political situations and how to talk about them on common terms?
JR: They both work very differently but what I always admired in Godard is how he manages to talk about political and philosophical subjects and at the same time work with burlesque slapstick comedy. I think there’s something that feels very right [about that]. In a way it also creates a playfulness toward reality and oppression. I think it enables me, as someone who does it, but I also think it creates a liberty for the viewers in relation to concepts and ideas and to reality. I don’t feel like someone who has to try to depict reality as it is as powerfully as possible but also not to have to be faithful to some ideas to the letter. But it gives me the freedom as a human being not to play around with stuff and also to make stuff that I find a bit stupid, to ridicule, but at the same time I think it also praises…it’s a strange form of something a bit ridiculous but at the same time it also gets heightened and praised, like a Chaplin for example: we laugh about the Tramp but at the same time he’s like a Messianic figure, in its relationship to the world. I think that in our world you hear so much of ‘things are like this’ and you hear so many explanations…things seem to be so static and determined. Comedy is just a means of making everything open again.
And Fassbinder: what I like about Fassbinder and Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day is…when I first saw the series in Film school, I really really liked how he dared to try to represent complex questions, power relations and economic processes in society and how he tried to dare to present it in a very simple way that people could deal with – but not in terms of being simplistic or simplified to a point where it becomes wrong, but to really try to bring it to a point where you can relate to it again. I did it in a very different way because I think he has a more… I mean, it’s an eight-hour movie so it gets more detailed, but we did it in a bit more absurd way so… we perhaps had ideas that we wanted to talk about and we would break it down to the point of absurdity, where sometimes a complex problem gets transformed into a comic dialog, but it still expresses the essence of what we wanted to talk about.
MLP: Do you think the humor, self-criticism, and self-deprecation at all runs the risk of being detrimental to getting those messages across?
JR: Well no, I don’t think so because […] for me the message of the movie has something to do with individuals getting the rights to speak in their own words and think what they want to think. It has something to do with very different characters that come together and get a space in the movie and start to take their [own] lives in their hands and the film creates a space where they can all be present and respected in a way. I think this aspect, this six-minute discussion scene is very central where we have a series of portraits of people who talk to each other and I think this conveys in the framing the political idea of the movie in a very clear way. [The scene in question consists of a series of individual medium close-ups of characters in discussion who are both answering and talking past one another, attempting to decide upon a singular course of action.] When I get the chance to laugh at something, I feel as a viewer, respect. Someone who can watch something, who can make his opinion about something, who can laugh about something, […] engages my intelligence in another way. If it were a melodrama or a realist movie that just tries to convey a message I would feel much more that someone wants to push something into my head. I hope this way it creates a freer and more joyful relationship between the movie and the one who receives it, [that] this freedom and joyfulness is always something you take out of the movie. Perhaps this is, in a way, the message. This experience you make with the movie is perhaps an experience that should be translated into structures of society. If I see a Chaplin movie I laugh a lot and I get the feeling [for] how a good society could work much more than if I see a well-meaning social drama.
MLP: Do you have any feelings on contemporary German cinema? Do you think that it’s progressing, staying static, looking backwards too much?
JR: I think there’s a lot of interest in young directors that produce films in Germany [right now]. They are not all necessarily Germans. For example, in the Critic’s Week that runs parallel to the Berlinale, there’s a friend of mine who had a film. He’s from Georgia, he studied in Germany and made his film in Georgia with German money, so it’s perhaps a more international cinema that more or less comes from Germany that appears now and I think the world is about to discover a lot of new voices that are coming out [of that]. What unites those people is a respectful rupture with what’s been [happening] in German cinema or art cinema in the last ten years, or more twenty years, which is called the Berlin School, which is much more realist, much more serious. I think now people are starting to make films with a much more playful approach. And yes I’m an optimist or hope that those people will be able to go on making films, and I’m looking forward to a lot of stuff.
MLP: Last question, why is the apple orchard [in the film] called Oklahoma?
JR: Ah, that’s a joke actually. In the end of Kafka’s novel, Amerika, which is an unfinished fragment, it ends with a circus called Oklahoma that wants to attract people to join them, and it sounds like a Utopian promise. In German literature, this Oklahoma is always a bit of a promise of something and in the film we made the joke that in Berlin there are these posters that want to attract people to Oklahoma. I don’t know if you want to know this, it’s just an additional level to the film…Those two characters think they will go to a nice place because there’s the association of an apple orchard with fruit, goddess and paradise dimension and they get there and [working at the orchard] just a horrible exploitation thing. So for me it sounded like a false promise, Oklahoma. That’s what I liked about it.