Maria Dragus on “Graduation” and “The White Ribbon”

Maria+Dragus

When Cristian Mungiu wrote the script for his Cannes prize-winner, “Graduation,” he had only one person in mind for the film. It was Maria Dragus, an actress he had first seen in Michael Haneke’s 2009 masterpiece, “The White Ribbon,” where she played Klara, a young girl who may or may not be responsible for the malicious events occurring in her small German village. Her entrancing pokerface was downright chilling, and Dragus’ performance earned her a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress prize at the German Film Awards. During my interview with Mungiu at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I asked the director about his leading lady. Mungiu told me that Dragus’ father was Romanian and had immigrated to Germany during the last ten years of Communism, where he met his wife. “Graduation” was the first Romanian film for Dragus, and once again, her understated performance is a marvel of authenticity. She plays Eliza, a high school student who is preparing for a crucial exam when she is suddenly assaulted. Her father, Romeo (Adrian Titieni), believes this exam will enable Eliza to leave their troubled country and build a prosperous future for herself. With Eliza’s chances of acing the test increasingly jeopardized, Romeo must decide whether to break the rules of a corrupt system in order to give his daughter the life he believes she needs.

“Graduation” was one of the best films I saw last year, and it recently completed its theatrical run in Chicago. My conversation with Mungiu made me eager to interview Dragus, and last week, she graciously agreed to Skype with me from Bucharest. We spoke about the timeliness of “Graduation” and “The White Ribbon,” the advantages of learning multiple languages and the feminist statement made by her new film, “Tiger Girl.”

How did you first become interested in the arts?

I’ve been connected to the arts all my life. My father is a musician and my mother used to be a dancer, so in a way, I grew up onstage. Ever since I was small, I enjoyed watching operas and listening to music. After my mom had me, she started painting, so I was always surrounded by different kinds of art. Though I initially wanted to become a singer, I decided to go to ballet school because I thought it would be interesting to move my body without saying anything. I did that for seven years full-time. When I was 12 years old, I met a girl who was acting, and she told me about her agent in Berlin. I begged my mom for a bit and eventually auditioned for the agency. They signed me and that’s how it all started.

When I interviewed Cristian Mungiu, he told me about your interest in your Romanian roots. What sparked that interest?

You’re the first interviewer to know that, which is pretty exciting for me. There was never a question of whether or not I was Romanian, at least to me. I grew up in a Romanian community and my mom grew up without knowing who her father was. A couple months ago, she started researching about him, and found out that he was actually Russian. This new information made a lot of sense to me because I’ve always felt that I’m not German and that I don’t belong here. I have always felt strongly pulled towards Romania and towards that culture. My heart just belongs there because it’s my mentality and my kind of people. It used to seem so weird to me that I never felt German at all, though I have never primarily defined myself by my nationality. It’s very fluid to me, and sometimes it depends from day to day how I feel. There are days I feel French. I’ve gone to the United States a couple times, and every time I’m there, I feel very European, as opposed to feeling specifically Romanian or German.

The Romanian cinema is very interesting and I wanted to work with Cristian because I’ve loved his work for so long. He’s such a strong artist and has such an amazing way of telling stories. I wanted to be a part of that, and I was lucky enough that he chose me to do so. Cristian told me, “I feel this role is for you, and I trust in your ability to master it.” At times I felt so insecure and was like, “How am I going to do this scene tomorrow?” But that small spark of insecurity that remains helps you to go further than you thought you could go, and that’s all thanks to Cristian. There’s no real secret to our collaboration. There’s just a lot of trust and love for the work and mutual respect among artists. If we hadn’t worked together, I still would’ve wanted Cristian to be my friend. I respect him so much, and my experience of making “Graduation” was ultimately the starting point for why I wanted to make movies here.

I must mention that your English is flawless. How do you approach learning so many languages, and how does this knowledge deepen your understanding of other cultures?

That’s a very interesting question. I think I am generally a very open person. I love talking to people like yourself and finding out what you’re all about, what your culture is all about and why you do the things that you do, such as your traditions. As an actor, I love performing languages, and every language has different kinds of small details that I act out when I learn them. I learned French because I knew that “Graduation” would be released in France, and while learning the language, I also looked deeper into the French culture, which is so much fun for me. It’s great to have that opportunity to get to know people in their own language because there will otherwise be a barrier between you and them. My job has a lot to do with psychology. Acting out a language is very much about psychology and it requires a whole different way of moving. It’s all very complex, and my background in dancing helps me with that aspect of it. I really like the complexity of languages and cultures and all the differences between them. I’m just a big child, in a way, and language is my toy. [laughs]

You were still a child when you made “The White Ribbon,” and Cristian mentioned that your siblings were in the film.

Oh my god, that’s such a hilarious story! I have a sister and a brother, and when we were little, we lived two hours from Berlin and would always go into the city in order to audition for stuff. We always had to wake up really early, and casting calls for children were always on the weekends, so it was like a whole family trip. For “The White Ribbon,” we arrived really early for the first round of auditions, and that’s how I ended up being the first kid to audition for the film. I had number A1. Then the casting director looked at my siblings and she was like, “Why don’t you audition as well?” So they did, and eventually, over 7,000 other kids auditioned for the film too, which was crazy. The whole process took about eight months, and after that, my sister was cast first, then me and then my brother. He had long hair at the time, and they wanted it to be cut but he refused, so he was unfortunately not in the movie. But my brother was onset all the time, and it was like a big family camp. Everyone had their families there, so it was really nice.

What makes your performance so mesmerizing in the film is how it never overtly suggests your character’s malevolent intentions, causing the audience to second-guess what’s going on in your head. 

I was a big fan of Ulrich Mühe at that time, who has unfortunately passed away, and I acted with his widow, Susanne Lothar, in the film. The first time I came onset, I performed my first scene with her, which was a big honor. Ulrich Mühe said something that I took to heart: “Acting is actually not about doing anything, but doing nothing.” I thought that was very true for my character and in general. If you enter a room as a character who wants to do something, you don’t immediately act out your thoughts, you think them first, and the audience doesn’t always see what is going on inside of you. Mr. Haneke really liked that sort of introverted, subtle performance, and that’s what I did. It’s really amazing to work with a person like Haneke because he’s so precise in everything he does. He’s always concerned with how you do something or move something, and it’s all very technical.

He gives you the key points—what you have to do in the scene—and then everything else, including the emotion, is up to you to put in there. That’s an amazing opportunity for an actor because you have that safety net of a director who knows exactly what you have to do, and you have the freedom to charge it up with emotion. It was such a gift to have that film be one of my very first because I felt so relaxed. I could just let go and be the character, which was an amazing experience to have as an actor. There was a version of the script that I read that actually revealed who committed all the crimes. Having that back information gave me the option of playing each scene differently. Our acting coach, Markus Schleinzer, helped us a lot. He learned the lines with us, and helped us rehearse for the film. Haneke is not a big rehearser, but it was important for me and the other kids to have a bit of training, because we were only beginners.

The film’s theme of repression spawning monsters appears to be more relevant than ever, considering the repressive forces taking over various governments around the world. Do you feel the film speaks to our present moment?

Oh yes, very much, though I haven’t seen the movie in a long time. It is ultimately about education, which is funny because “Graduation” is also about education and how the generation that you bring up may or may not influence the future. “The White Ribbon” was a great film, but it’s also set in a different time where there wasn’t the degree of media that we have now. There are people who have the power to create change through the media because information is more widely spread, and you have the ability to reach people in the smallest places on Earth. It’s easier now to get at the root of a problem. The film is relevant in how it illustrates the importance of talking to your children, but these days, repression seems to be happening more on a political level than on the personal level of one’s family. Everything that is happening with Trump is just crazy, but on the other hand, you see how people in France mobilized and got enough people out to vote in order to prevent their country from moving in a right-wing direction. People have a voice now, and they just need to use it.

Whereas I felt a pit in my stomach while watching Klara, I sensed that Eliza in “Graduation” was mature and level-headed, causing me to believe that she would ultimately make the right decision for herself, though it is never fully spelled out. What was your collaboration like with Adrian? 

We had a lot of rehearsals in Bucharest. I was cast before Adrian was, and it was amazing to have the opportunity to help cast the father for the film. We saw all these wonderful actors pass through, and their auditions made it possible for me to feel my character more deeply. I had a different feeling with every actor that I played with, and if Cristian had chosen a different actor, it would’ve been a different story entirely. When Adrian came in, he had this very paternal energy, and it was clear that he would be the one. As I said, I’m a big child and I enjoy playing, so Adrian and I played around with various emotions and eventually found the right emotion for each scene. Adrian made it very easy for me because he has such an amazing presence. He is so humble and pure and protective onset. We actually lived together in the same house for the time we shot the movie, and it was just a great experience to have that kind of connection with your partner. Sometimes we did 50 or 60 takes for one scene, so we had a lot of time to get where Cristian wanted the scene to be in the end. We tried out a lot of different approaches, and I was impressed when I saw the film in Cannes for the first time. We had performed many takes that were super-loud and outgoing, but Cristian chose all of the takes that were calm and low-key. I thought it was extraordinary. It was really the choice of an artist.

Cristian felt that more Romanian parents should encourage their children to remain in the country rather than move abroad in order to create change at home. His words resonated with me, since many Americans are currently debating whether to move to Canada.

It’s very easy to leave and say, “F—k it, I don’t care what’s going to happen with you as long as I am well.” It’s a big sacrifice to stay if it isn’t good for you. I see everyone in Romania, including my friends, out there hustling a lot, and it’s not so easy. It takes so much time to change things, especially if it’s a whole country, and I personally can’t say if I would stay or not because I am always on the move. There isn’t really a place that I can call home and that speaks to me in a way where I would want to change it. I know that Germany is a really privileged place to be living because it’s secure and the politics are fairly stable. I guess it really depends on your family and friends. If you have people around you who matter to you and who you want to be with and who give you a sense of security and a feeling of home, then you’d probably want to stay. What’s great is how the borders have become so loose and you can go pretty much anywhere these days. In Europe especially, we don’t have borders anymore. How amazing is that? Europe feels like one big country, and it gives people an opportunity to move around as they please. A lot of my friends found Bucharest to be a very interesting city, so they moved here. I have a friend from Austria who just moved to Bucharest because he’s marrying a Romanian girl.

So you can’t really generalize the decision of whether or not to move. It’s not about saying to your child, “You should stay,” or, “You should go.” It’s about looking at the bigger picture of how our countries can work together. We have a lot of refugees coming over, and instead of being restrictive and saying, “You have to stay out, you don’t belong here,” we’re like, “No, no, no. F—k it! Come in.” It’s about integrating, not about pushing away everything that is new. It’s never going to be like it was before, so why don’t we create something beautiful and build upon everything that was shattered? In Romania now, they have a president who is German-Romanian, and everybody’s always complaining about how bad the situation is. It was amazing to see people finally start working together by taking to the streets and protesting in January. Your recent election in the United States was bad, to be honest—it was very bad—but it has caused people to protest as well. It’s also made people think and begin to talk to each other. We all have different political beliefs, and it’s important to talk to each other about them. We must acknowledge our differing views and then figure out how we can meet in the middle instead of building walls.

At Berlinale in February, Jakob Lass premiered his latest film, “Tiger Girl,” in which you star opposite Ella Rumpf from “Raw” and Enno Trebs from “The White Ribbon.” Having only seen the trailer, I was struck by how the film—like “Raw”—appears to make subversive use of the female gaze.  

“Tiger Girl” is a film based in improvisation. We had 60 days to make that movie, and we had no idea what was going to happen. We had no storyline, we just met up with Jakob and he said, “Okay, I want to film with a lot of stunts and I want to have you girls fighting people.” Then we rehearsed five or six scenes with our stunt team, and we kind of knew what direction he wanted the characters to go in. I had only one day between finishing “Graduation” and starting production on “Tiger Girl.” I came back to film it in Berlin, and it was a completely different experience. What we didn’t really think about at the time was that our characters were doing things that are often enacted by men onscreen. We were just having fun walking around wearing those security uniforms, which gave us a feeling of power, but I never thought that it could be perceived as a feminist statement while we were shooting it.

Then when we premiered at Berlinale, everyone was seeing female power all over the screen, and the men felt very intimidated by it most of the time. All the girls that came up and talked to us were like, “Oh my god, now I want to go out and do combat!” [laughs] Actresses are getting more and more of a voice nowadays, while women are having more opportunities in terms of storytelling, which is really great. At the same time, we shouldn’t forget that there should be a balance between male and female energy. Right now, it’s shifting so much towards the female—everyone is so excited about female rights and “free the nipple”—that we kind of forget about the male. I meet a lot of guys of my generation who occasionally have difficulty finding their position within this new wave of feminism. Of course, we’re not in the 60s anymore. James Bond is over, kind of, so why not get a female James Bond going?

For more information on Maria Dragus, visit her official site.

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