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BERLIN 2018 Competition

Philip Gröning • Director

“Violence is always there”

by 

- BERLIN 2018: German director Philip Gröning discusses his new film presented in the main competition, My Brother’s Name Is Robert and He Is an Idiot

Philip Gröning  • Director
(© Thomas Longo)

In Philip Gröning’s My Brother’s Name Is Robert and He Is an Idiot [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Philip Gröning
film profile
]
, screening in competition at the Berlinale, as Robert (Josef Mattes) helps his twin sister Elena (Julia Zange) prepare for an upcoming philosophy exam, she makes him a bet – if she doesn’t sleep with someone before she graduates, he will get her car. But their little game quickly spirals out of control.

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Cineuropa: Your characters keep quoting famous thinkers, but it’s something you are interested in as well. Do you remember when you first took an interest in philosophy?
Philip
Gröning: Probably when I was still a teenager. I was interested in the paradox of perception, because it means that we can basically invent the world around us, and the concept of time. If you are a fox and you get caught in a trap, you may have the feeling you are in deep trouble. But you will not regret having taken a turn to the left instead of one to the right, because only humans are capable of that.

German kids attend philosophy courses, and they are always full. It’s one of the few disciplines where you are allowed to think without having some fixed goal. Most of the time, we think on a purely operational level. We think about how to get ahead in our careers, how to travel back from Berlin or how to edit this article. It’s the equivalent of figuring out how to put one foot in front of the other, but it has nothing to do with deciding where you actually want to go. Europe used to be a continent where people actually thought. But we are not thinking any more.

You admitted that there is a bit of you in Robert. What did you mean by that?
Well, I never drank as much [laughs]. He is a typical teenager who suddenly gets this body of a half-grown person. It’s like a garment that’s too big for him – he doesn’t know what to do with it or who the hell put this body on him. Everybody has gone through that. It’s hard for me to say how girls experience puberty, but when it comes to boys, I know – which is why I worked together with Sabine Timoteo on the part of Elena. She told me that she hated it when her breasts started developing – it was a nuisance that seemed unbearably stupid to her. I would never have thought of something like that. That’s something that always happens to me: I invent a story, and then I get completely lost and desperate in trying to write it because I realise I don’t know enough. It was the same with The Policeman’s Wife [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Philip Gröning
film profile
]
. Filmmaking is all about research.

What kind of research did you do for this film? It could almost begin with a “Once upon a time…”
This story was fairy tale-like from the very beginning. You have two children entering the forest – of course, you think of Hansel and Gretel. I knew that, but at the same time, I was sitting in these classes, observing the students, trying to see how they moved, how they behaved. I remember there was this couple that made bracelets out of their own hair. I loved those little details and all these things you do when you are young. How do you scribble things in your book? What do you have in your schoolbag, and how do you talk about philosophy? At times, kids of that age are very pretentious, and then suddenly, they turn into seven-year-olds. I found that fascinating. I realised you need time to enter the world of these twins. You shouldn’t just be watching them – you should be lying with them on the grass. 

The length of the film certainly underlines that.
I wanted to make it shorter this time – but then I would have ended up with a normal dramaturgy, and I find this kind of storytelling rather strange. You get the viewer to follow the character, see him go through all these difficulties, and then resolve it. It’s an enclosed object lying there in front of the viewer. He can look at it and then throw it away. Instead, I prefer to create something that starts working within you like a virus. When you look at the majority of filmmaking, it’s all about efficiency. People seem to think it’s the greatest thing on Earth, but it’s not. 

Just like in The Policeman’s Wife, you keep exploring the darker side of human nature. Why does it fascinate you so much?
I don’t know. We are all civilised people, but the violence is still there. It has simply been stored away. We are living in a moment in history when violence is exploding all over the place. People live together for hundreds of years, and then all of a sudden, they start killing each other. It’s almost as if it had a dynamic of its own, which I find very threatening. We have people here in Berlin who suddenly beat up a person on the subway and throw him in front of the train, for no reason. Then they say: “I saw myself punch this guy in the face. I don’t know why I did that.” This is what happens to Robert and Elena. It’s something that flares up and then dies down. But the violence is always there.

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