The topic of late-term abortion carries such a formidable taboo that few filmmakers have been brave enough to tackle it. German director Anne Zohra Berrached’s fearlessness was already on full display in her 2013 debut feature, “Two Mothers,” an arrestingly intimate portrait of a lesbian couple, Isabella (Karina Plachetka) and Katja (Sabine Wolf), whose bond starts to fracture when they go about searching for a sperm donor. I first discovered Berrached’s work after her stunning 2016 sophomore effort, “24 Weeks,” screened at the Chicago International Film Festival. It centers on Astrid (Julia Jentsch, star of “Downfall” and “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days”), a stand-up comedian who is eager to have a second child with her longtime boyfriend, Markus (Bjarne Mädel). Her elation evaporates when she is informed that her unborn baby will have Down syndrome as well as a life-threatening heart defect. Thus, she must decide whether or not to have an abortion. Berrached takes no moral stance on the material, presenting her characters’ agonizing dilemma with great empathy and not a single trace of sentiment.
In a recent interview conducted via Skype, Berrached spoke with me about her intuitive approach to filmmaking, her dislike of the term “mumblecore” and her belief in the importance of speaking one’s truth.
In what ways do you feel your experiences of studying social pedagogy and teaching acting have informed your approach to storytelling?
I think that everything you do in life influences you, and everything which influences me is in my films. You can find me in my films. It is really my personality, more than anything, that is influencing my work. I studied psychology straight from the ages of 18 to 22, and to be honest, I don’t remember very much about that time. That’s not to say that it doesn’t serve as an influence on my films. Right now, I’m preparing my next movie, and as I do with all my projects, I’m trying to put all my energy and personality inside the film.
When I was living in London, I worked with students in school. My approach to working with them is entirely different to how I would work with professionally trained actors. The two leads in “24 Weeks,” Julia Jentsch and Bjarne Mädel, are famous actors in Germany, but they are surrounded by non-actors cast in the roles of doctors and other characters. The experience I had teaching in London really helped me to work with people who aren’t able to act. They have a certain personality and if they forget about acting, they are simply being themselves. That is what I need for the film. I don’t need them to act. I need them to feel comfortable and secure, and as soon as they reach that point, they are free. Everyone has a certain personality, and if they forget the camera, they can be real in front of it. As a director, I need to help the non-actors forget about all the lighting and machinery, and just concentrate on the situation. I would refer to their scene as the “situation.”
What helps is that they don’t read the script. As soon as they know too much about the scene, they’ll want to deliver a performance, and that is not what I need from them. I need them to be true to whatever is spontaneously happening inside of them at that moment. You can’t plan it and you can’t repeat what they have done. This is what I’ve learned. Since I was working with veteran actors in “24 Weeks,” we needed to shoot three takes of each scene, but it was always clear to me that the first take was the best. The other two takes weren’t as good, yet I’d use them to push the actors into trying new things. Still, the freshness of that first take would make it the most interesting. With the exception of the central couple, everyone in “Two Mothers” is a non-actor. I tried to create circumstances that would make them feel comfortable, such as making sure they wouldn’t see the camera, or using cameras in order to prevent them from repeating certain actions.
I never would go up to a non-actor and tell him or her, “Do it like this.” If a non-actor’s work needs to be altered, I would go to the actor who is performing with that person, and give the actor direction instead. For example, in “24 Weeks,” we cast a doctor who I didn’t feel was empathetic enough with Julia during his scene with her. I didn’t go up to him and say, “Please be more empathetic.” Instead, I went to Julia and asked her to start crying during their scene. At first, she protested because she felt that reaction wouldn’t work for the scene, but I explained to her that her face would be off-camera, and that the viewer’s attention would be on the doctor. This technique worked exactly as I had hoped. As soon as Julia began crying, the doctor was astonished. He hadn’t expected this outburst, and his demeanor immediately softened.
How did you go about crafting a realistic intimacy between the characters of Isabella and Katja in “Two Mothers”? I understand that you researched the experiences of three female couples prior to writing the script.
There were so many similarities between those couples, as well as many things which were not the same. I mixed those three couples together in order to form the one in my film. There was basically no time for preparation or rehearsing before production on “Two Mothers” began. Sabine had already spent ten days making my short film, “E + U,” so I knew exactly how she worked. Karina was new to me, as was the process of working with actors. I wanted to take away any sense of control, so I decided not to have a script. There was only a list of about 22 scenes, and each consisted of up to three sentences of description. I wanted the actors to do everything for themselves. I didn’t want to influence them in how they went about doing it. At the end, we had over 90 scenes, since new moments would naturally spring from the ones we had planned.
I wanted to take as many risks on this film as I could because it wasn’t being financed by any outside money. In Germany, even if you shoot a film for the cinema, half of the money is always from a TV channel. The people who work at this channel expect you to make your film in a conservative way. You need to have the support of this channel before you can apply for other funds. As filmmakers, we need that money, but it’s the wrong way of doing business. The channel will influence the script from a very early stage, which makes the films less interesting than ones made in Austria or Scandinavia, for example. “Two Mothers” was an opportunity for me to take risks. I could do whatever I wanted because no one was telling me what to do. I made it while I was still in university, and I was tasked with creating a documentary short film. Instead, I made a feature-length fiction film, and after I submitted it, my professors wanted to throw me out of the university. [laughs] I essentially lied to my university. It was really crazy, but all of that subsided once I took the film to festivals like Berlinale and won many awards.
I decided to put together a list of rules—my own Dogme 95—that would dictate how I made “Two Mothers.” I felt that I had limited my own creative freedom while making my short films because I had chosen to stick to the script. I wanted to try something else. One of the craziest rules that I came up with stated that the cameraman and I were not allowed to talk to each other before the shooting or while we were shooting. We never talked about the picture—he was just running, trying to capture all the action. Another rule was that there should not be one take that is like the other. I didn’t allow myself to ask the actors to do a different take of the same moment. I saw all of this as an experiment, I never thought it would turn out to be a film afterwards. My DoP needed to edit the film while he was shooting because he only had one chance to shoot each situation. We ended up having many, many fights, and decided to take a break from each other prior to teaming up again on “24 Weeks.”
When it comes to a choice of lenses or camera, I’m simply not interested in them. This makes it all the more difficult for the crew that is working with me because I just don’t have answers to their questions. I tell them how I want a scene to look and to feel. Some directors say, “Please use this lens,” and they’ll say the name of the lens, but I’d have no idea of the name. [laughs] When I began making films, I was concentrating solely on the actors. On my next film, I’m thinking much more about pictures than I was before. In the past, I’ve been more interested in creating situations rather than pictures, and I’d let the DoP do whatever he did. This is how I shot “Two Mothers.” The “mumblecore” films in Germany began around the same time they were emerging in America, and I personally didn’t want to belong to this movement. I was sitting with my editor at the premiere of one of these films, and we looked at each other and thought, ‘This would be our rough cut.’
“Two Mothers” isn’t shot in a crazy way and it doesn’t use jump cuts. We tried to make it look normal by hiding the chaotic way in which we shot. After I finished that film, I realized that I wanted to do something different. Filmmakers like Jakob Lass have a certain style that they like to stay with, and though I also have my own style that viewers may recognize, I want to find new ways of telling stories onscreen. I always think that I could be better, and my desire is to reach the level of the films that I admire without ever copying them. You can see the difference between “Two Mothers” and “24 Weeks,” which is very filmy and has much more atmosphere. My next step is to take that approach even further, while paying more attention to the pictures.
Both your film and Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” portray how a sperm donor can drive a wedge between the couple that hire him.
I met with many of the donors that were in the film before we shot because each of them was real. I remember meeting the guy who told me that when he donates sperm, he only does so through sexual intercourse. He doesn’t put his sperm in a cup. I was sitting with him and thought, “Okay, that is really interesting. This is a scene for my film!” Each scene in the script consisted of a sentence describing how the scenario would look, and everything the sperm donors said on camera reflected who they really are. It’s a documentary during their moments onscreen, it’s not fiction anymore. The couple are characters that I created, but the world around them is real.
Florian Weber, the sperm donor that the couple chooses, could’ve been better or more charming, but I liked that he was ready to say everything in front of the camera. When we had the premiere at Berlinale, I brought him onstage and told the audience, “He has 32 children already.” Then he looked to me and said, “No no, it’s more.” I said, “Okay, he has a few more, like 35.” After all, it was only eight months after we had shot the film. And he said, “It’s 44 now.” What I found so interesting about donors like Florian is that they aren’t doing it for the money. They find pleasure in reproducing themselves, and for the women, it’s great because they need someone like him. Florian is very proud of the fact that he has so many children.
What inspired you to explore a topic as divisive and laden with risks as late-term abortion in “24 Weeks”?
People ask me why I did the film, and really it’s because I’m selfish. I needed to care about this topic for the next three to four years. I needed to read about it, speak about it, write about it, shoot it, edit it—this topic would essentially be my family for the next four years, and it needed to warrant my interest. Not only is this topic controversial, it also has no solution. I wanted to continue working with non-actors, and improve on what I had made before. Everything I needed for “24 Weeks” I had already learned from “Two Mothers,” but I was also naive going into the project. I didn’t know what kind of topic gets financed and which doesn’t. As soon as we started looking for financing, everybody said, “Who would want to watch this film in the cinema? This should be a TV film.” But the film ended up being made for the cinema, and we made it very well.
How did you go about making “24 Weeks” a more filmic, visual experience? I recall some striking images of Astrid surrounded by children at a swimming pool.
That scene is a good example of how I went about creating pictures that gave viewers a sense of the character’s interior life. I never did this before in any other film, and though I don’t think I’m very good at it yet, I’m becoming better and better. It’s more natural for me to work with actors and create good situations and dialogue for them. When I made “Two Mothers” while in university, a very famous editor/professor came and watched it. He told me, “Your film is very well-done. All the dialogue feels so real, and we all know how difficult it is to make a fiction film feel real.” If something feels real to the viewer, that means it was very difficult to make. I’m not satisfied with the pictures I created in “24 Weeks,” but I know that my next film will be better. The imagery with the children and babies is alright, but it’s also quite obvious. I’m still like a baby myself when it comes creating pictures. [laughs] There are some directors who are creating pictures all the time, rather than dialogue scenes. If you look to Cannes, for example, all their selections are very atmosphere-heavy. I am more Berlin-style, in how my films center on talking.
Your focus on the characters is so richly nuanced that even if you aren’t consciously thinking of the visuals, your approach intuitively creates great imagery nonetheless.
You don’t really think about it. Later on, all the critics will be asking about why you did this or that. I did a TV film one year ago, and it was different because someone else wrote the script. Though I became much more involved in the project than all the other directors I know who make films for television, it still wasn’t my film. If it was, I could do more intuitive things because I’ve become so familiar with the topic and what I’ve written. There have been so many things that I didn’t consciously see or didn’t plan that have resonated with audiences.
I was moved by how you allow the audience to empathize with the convictions of both Astrid and Markus regarding the abortion. She believes that any decision involving her body should be her’s alone, whereas he thinks the decision should be a joint one.
I knew this would be the most difficult scene of the film. I wanted “24 Weeks” to be a film that was in between, that doesn’t say whether the abortion is right or wrong. I only wanted to show the situation that these characters find themselves within. The ending of a film represents what the author and director ultimately want to say, and it was so difficult to find here. I shot many scenes for the film that I didn’t include in the final cut. I had so much material to work with that I ended up rewriting the script in the editing room. I have a very good editor, Denys Darahan, that I go through the footage with. It’s not unfocused but it’s a lot, and I don’t know exactly what I need until I begin the editing process. Even when I made the TV film, it was cut in a similar fashion. People from the network called me and said, “What did you shoot? It’s not in the script.” [laughs] That’s how it goes, I can’t do it in a different way.
If I see something that doesn’t work, I do it differently, and even if it already works, I’ll think, “Maybe there is something more we can find in that moment.” What I learned from “Two Mothers” is that the really good stuff happens in the moment, rather than in the script. If you don’t have a good script, it’s much more difficult to find good stuff while you are shooting. The better the script is, the cooler stuff you’ll find while you are shooting. I don’t think “24 Weeks” had a very good script and “Two Mothers” didn’t have a script at all. But for my next project, I really believe that I have a very good script. We will see what happens, but regardless, I know that it’s going to be different. The foundation is there and I can only make it better.
Going back to the ending of “24 Weeks,” I wasn’t sure what my conclusion would be about the topic. Can you imagine if I would’ve ended the film with Julia lying in the bed, totally depressed, and that’s the end? Then my film would’ve been embraced by the Catholic church for standing against late-term abortion by showing the detrimental effect it has on women. Or what if Julia turned to the camera at the end, saying, “And it was good that I killed my child!” Then some extreme women’s rights activists would’ve felt that this movie was for them. I didn’t want either of these options. I wanted something in between. I shot the final scene with Julia, where she opens up about her decision on the radio, and there was one take in which she captured the uncertainty that I was looking for. She performs the scene as if she’s going to confession, in the Catholic tradition, and her dialogue only worked if the viewer sensed that she’s crying inside while exuding all her power and strength. Julia told me that she’s nervous in interview situations, and I eventually had to sit behind the interviewer and feed Julia her lines. The last take that we shot was the one that worked.
It’s not the movie’s job to tell us what direction Astrid’s life will take after the final fade out. The important thing is that she has chosen to make her decision publicly.
I actually shot a scene of the couple splitting up, but it didn’t make the final cut. I had so many options for how to end the film, but I felt this was the strongest option, where she just says the truth. I remember my best friend read the script before production, and she called me saying, “It’s unrealistic, Anne. No comedian would go to a radio station and say, ‘I have killed my child.’ She would never have a career after this.” But I said, “I want the film to show that her career continues.” I want people to go out and say that they made this decision. If we carry on hiding the issue of abortion in Germany, it will remain a taboo. My fantasy is that Astrid’s career will be intact because she was honest. This is what she did, so why shouldn’t she say it? At one point we shot Julia saying, “I think I have the responsibility to be honest because I am a public person. I want to be a role model for people.” I love the ending, even though it was a risk to do it.
That idea of obliterating taboos by breaking your silence and living your truth is a key mission of the #MeToo movement. Countless women worried that if they spoke up about the abuse they endured, they would lose their careers.
It’s time, you know? It’s time that women say something. As a woman, it is crazy what people have said to me without realizing that they were being rude or sexual. There are so many men who treat you like a child, and I’m sure they wouldn’t talk to other men in the same way they’ve talked to me. It’s become better for me since I’ve had more success and acquired more power. Being a woman has been an advantage for me in Germany, because there are not many female German directors. Everybody knows me because I am a woman. But at the beginning, when I wasn’t as famous as I am now, it was much harder for me to get the money I needed to make a film. To be honest, the #MeToo movement has been a bit extreme, but if you look to history, movements like these need to be extreme for a while in order to create lasting change. I’m excited that it’s happening.
In order to be a successful director in Germany, you need to have your film premiere at a big film festival. Even if you want to make less ambitious TV films later on, the first film that you make needs to succeed, and in Germany, you only have a success if you do something controversial. It has to be something that not many people have done before. Many directors disappear by working in TV because it’s easier to get films made there. You can make a film every year if you want. But if you want to carry on making art house films for the cinema, you may need to wait for three, four, five, six years to direct it. I am somebody who wants to work a lot but my main goal is to make a good film. There are many good films that I want to make, but I need to wait for them and I need to be patient. I want my work to leave something lasting in the world. I want to make something that other people will remember, and “24 Weeks” has scenes that people will never forget. That’s what I want to do again.
What can you tell me about your next project?
I can only tell you a few things about it for now. It is about a very famous person who everybody knows—who you know—who has lived in the U.S. and committed a very famous crime. I am telling his story from the perspective of his wife. She is not famous herself, and I’ve been able to acquire her court transcripts, which have formed the basis of my script. This is the project that I’ll be shooting from the end of August until Christmas. We’ll be shooting the film in Germany during two different seasons, in five different places. Some scenes will also be shot in Miami and in Lebanon. It’s the biggest film I have ever done and it has the most money I’ve ever used for a film. I don’t want to have any famous faces in the picture, so I cast a non-actor from Lebanon. He has only acted in two short films before, and he’s now living in Germany to learn German solely for the film. He has been doing this now for nearly a year, and my film is paying for his flat and living expenses. I can tell you more about the film as soon as we have shot it.
“Two Mothers” is available to stream and purchase on Amazon.