Noticias Festival
Official Section interviews: Katharina Lüdin, director of ‘Of living without illusion’

“Verbal forms, withdrawal and refusal to participate can also be a form of violence”

In the German drama ‘Of Living Without Illusion’, Swiss director Katharina Lüdin explores romantic relationships through the character of a middle-aged theater actress. In this powerful debut, with echoes of Bergman’s cinema, the protagonist finds herself rehearsing an emotionally intense work with her ex-husband while suffering the rejection and unrequited love of her current partner.

Shot in 16 millimeters, the film alternates the observation of familiar situations with the staging of resonant moments of neglect, fear and violence. With the abundance of long shots, Lüdin offers the audience an alternative model to scrutinize desire, far from the audiovisual grammar usually used for this type of stories. The debut feature was presented in the Cineasti del presente section of the Locarno Festival.

– “And that one is able to live without illusion.” sounds like an affirmation. Was the title decided from the outset?

– The sentence stems from Ingeborg Bachmann. The quote starts with the statement, “Human beeings can bear the truth”, and the entire passage has been in my head for a long time and has strong affirmative power for me.

– I think one of the hardest things in life is to fulfill our desire for integrity. Although many problems and injustices would be prevented, it is still tough because we are not used to dealing with honesty – above all when it hurts.

But for me, it’s also a title that gives rise to the question: How can peaceful human co-existence come about? Is this only possible by putting an end to self deception, in other words as a form of emancipation? Which also hurts initially to some degree; to liberate yourself from mind constructs, to recognize and dismantle your own normativisms, your own ignorant spots, and break down patterns of behaviour.

Patterns in which you feel at ease and at home because they protect you, because they prevent pain and prevent dealing with your self-lie. For me, all of those elements are contained in this title. Both in respect of this film and also social interactions.

– Your story narrates the various stages of love between people but also a relationship that is interspersed with the experience of violence. Was this juxtaposition important to you?

– Yes, this juxtaposition, the parallel nature of these relationships which deal very differently with their respective starting points and end points. The one relationship that seemingly simply doesn’t want to end although it definitely could end, while the other relationship which actually shouldn’t end, does end or at least changes due to spatial separation. And this spatial separation again raises various questions of proximity and distance.

What does an end mean in fact; are spatial endings and actual endings interdependent? Is a spatial ending even a rescue, a preservation of the other which might not even be possible without it? So yes, this parallelism both between old and young and between the individual means of communication that the respective partners choose in these relationships, is different but at the same time similar.

Not just because the characters are related and live together but also because all these combinations of people – including the young relationship – reveal micro-acts of violence. More in verbal forms perhaps, or in withdrawal, in the refusal to engage –that can also be a form of violence.

Conversely, taking what you don’t get due to refusal can also be a form of violence – if boundaries are not respected. I also think that all these violent acts occur as a result of a certain need or urge, and these needs resemble each other in a certain way. Because these needs, if you reduce them to their essence have something to do with self-acceptance, ego, inherited injury and with this self-recognition and being recognised.

Which is what you want but which can also be destructive at the same time, because it’s scary. Because once again it’s all about this integrity, accepting yourself with what you bring to the table. That’s why this desire to be accepted is also something that scares people.

– The casual way the experience of violence unfolds in the film irritated and impressed me in a positive way. You really have to look very closely and fine tune your senses. Can you talk about why you chose this mise-en-scène?

– Firstly, I’m not a fan of depictions of raw violence which are little more than a means in the end, supposed to hook the audience or manipulate emotions as a cinematic device. At the same time, for me certain things only unleash their full power in a certain way. I think the power of omission, thereby stimulating your own wealth of experience from which you can then draw and complete the images, forces you to rely on your own experiences as you watch which contributes an interesting dynamic to this type of film. At least that’s how I feel as a viewer because that’s what gives me personally the greatest thrill. And moves me. Because I can fill the gap with myself. And then maybe I feel surprised, or corroborated, or irritated or fulfilled, or taken by the hand or maybe even abandoned – but the fact that all these experiences can be part of the process of watching, that’s what cinema is all about for me. And that’s what I tried to create.

– And then these experiences of violence occur in a relationship between women. Was that a conscious decision?

– I wouldn’t say there are decisions that are more or less conscious. When I start to write a screenplay, every one of the countless decisions that I make is simply a decision. And you always make decisions in the same way somehow: you just make them. Here it was mainly a decision against something; a thoroughly heteronormative model in fact. Because in my opinion, you shouldn’t have to ask this question at all, it just goes to show how unusual it still is to see an experience like that, unfortunately – which explains why people are then especially curious or even irritated, and that brings us to a sociopolitical issue.

The question of intimate partner violence is top of the agenda again, the numbers are rising and it’s actually always about the violence of men against women; in all the surveys and reportages. That’s important and it certainly deserves all the attention it gets. But there is also intimate partner violence that isn’t between a man and a woman. Not least because there are more than two genders. Intimate partner violence towards non-binary people or within queer relationships is enormously underrepresented in terms of the attention it gets.

Also violence between two women or female assumed persons, in particular, is still treated with a form of trivialisation and relativisation in public perception which I find dangerous. Because: Violence is still violence. Ultimately, it happens to be life-threatening. For people who experience domestic violence, it’s difficult enough as it is to have it “recognised”, but even more difficult if they experience additional relativisation because these situations are purely (assumed) female.

– How does a character emerge for you? Creating characters, that’s one thing but did you have actors in mind already in the beginning?

– It varies. I had an idea about some of them really early, as soon as I started putting pen to paper, and the characters grew alongside the actors. With others, I had more of a hazy figure in my mind’s eye, but I really was on the lookout while writing with the aid of my casting director Ulrike Müller, and so by the time I had nearly finished writing, it was clear to me who I was going to cast for the roles.

I think all the characters we create have something of ourselves or at least from our own milieu, whether it’s a particular passion, or a character trait. You have to take an interest in them, you have to want to watch them and listen to them, even as a writer, otherwise it would probably be difficult to embark on such a long journey with them. Regardless of whether they are protagonists or antagonists.

– What does your specific work with the actors look like? To what extent do they have any influence during the shoot?

– That’s probably a question you should ask the actors. I would say that concerning the

dialogue, I was extremely faithful to the script. Obviously, during rehearsals, certain passages emerge where a desire arises to change the words. In some cases, I went along with it but overall, I stuck very closely to the original script.

There’s a reason for every word chosen, it’s a calibration process that began with the writing and remained front and centre until the subtitles were written. In other words, it’s a very precise composition of images, colours, form, sound, script, noise level, choreography in space, the texture of skin and fabrics. I was lucky enough to work with actors who – based on the communication medium of the script and our initial talks – understood very well where I wanted to go with it and in which framework they also can feel free. That was a major slice of luck in this collaboration and a great boon for myself, the fact it was somehow clear from the outset how we were going to play it, maybe because the script was written quite precisely; temperature, speed, how the spoken word and the pauses in-between can bring other layers to the surface. There was a basic reciprocal trust in this clarity – and that is greatly also to the credit of all the actors.

– You shot on analogue film. How did this decision come about? Would you say, this is what gave your film its full body?

– That’s really nicely put, your phrase about full body because it’s so true: The tactility and haptic quality of analogue material that starts with inserting the roll of film in a dark tent, with this mechanical, even chemical process that is also prone to mistakes but also accepting of and open to mistakes – in this case we didn’t want to conceal these mistakes. The machine, the mechanical element in the process … This makes the engineered nature of a fiction visible but it can also be a shield and, where necessary, create distance.

At the same time, the haptic quality refers to the skin which is also in focus. For me, there’s a connection between the haptic element of skin and the haptic nature of analogue grain. Because no one grain is like any other, and if grain is created artificially and retrospectively superimposed on digital film, this creates repetitions or loops of grain in certain places which you don’t necessarily see but this uniqueness of every single grain in each individual image is very similar to the uniqueness of every single body, every pore. Every cell that changes its state every minute, every second, every millisecond of our existence.

I was interested in this constant flux and change in the body, also in contrast to the situational rigidity within the lives of these protagonists which feel inflexible but which are in fact constantly dissolving in the grain.

Apart from this aesthetic, tactile element, it was also about questions of concentration and the limitations imposed by working with analogue film. What I mean is that the danger of overproduction, of endless tinkering, of not having to decide beforehand – when you’ve theoretically got an unlimited number of takes – may encourage a degree of “sloppiness” in the mise-en-scène and in preparations or perhaps also a spontaneity which I don’t really find conducive to my work.

This concentration which has to do with certain restrictions, including financial constraints, requires very precise knowledge of what I have to see next. What do I need to have next, what do I want to leave out? Where do I get back in, how far do I take this shot, where do I need some slack for the edit, where do I know exactly where I’m going to cut?

It’s a magic moment when the team is waiting for the first take and everyone knows: The camera’s rolling now and we’ll wait three minutes more to make sure every department is really set. When that’s the starting point, the take is shot with collectively bated breath, a ten-minute take perhaps, a sequence shot, and then of course you let things evolve within this sequence. That’s the moment when we created spontaneity. Within the frame of planning, within your knowledge, within the process of calibrating and composing, new elements then emerge that in turn have space and in the end can help the film.