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BERLIN 2019 Competition

Marie Kreutzer • Director of The Ground beneath My Feet

“Something is wrong, but I don’t want you to know what it is”

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- BERLIN 2019: Cineuropa chatted to Austrian director Marie Kreutzer about her striking competition title The Ground beneath My Feet

Marie Kreutzer  • Director of The Ground beneath My Feet
(© Wolf Silveri)

Premiering in the 69th Berlinale’s main competition, Austrian director Marie Kreutzer’s The Ground beneath My Feet [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Marie Kreutzer
film profile
]
 tells the tale of two sisters: corporate high-flyer Lola (Valerie Pachner) and the mentally unstable Conny (Pia Hierzegger). After yet another suicide attempt, Conny is forced back into Lola’s life. But her delusions quickly start rubbing off on her ambitious sibling, and Lola’s perfect exterior starts showing the first signs of cracking. 

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Cineuropa: It’s easy to make a corporate environment look scary. But Lola’s issues seem to run way deeper than the struggles revolving around keeping her job as a management consultant.
Marie Kreutzer:
 I never really considered her having another job. My stepsister did it for a few years. We were the same age, and yet so far apart: I was an art student, and she was already making real money, travelling and working all the time. It was one of the origins of the film. I like the fact that in the end, it’s mostly about how most of us live and work today – everything needs to be perfect. Her actions may seem extreme, but I was telling my actors that these people are convinced that what they are doing is good and important. You can only be good at what you do if you believe that. I didn’t want to make fun of them. 

Lola and her colleagues brought to mind Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca – this group of perfectly engineered human beings. She is almost robot-like, but women are still afraid to show their emotions in the workplace. You probably wouldn’t let yourself cry on set either.
But I do! I had a burnout in 2015 while I was shooting a film. I had to finish the movie because otherwise, they would have brought in another director, and I wasn’t going to leave it to someone else. I went back, and it was fine for a day – then I cried again. But in the end, it was good for me. It changed things, and I hope it will never happen again. Now, when I work, I can feel when it’s getting too hard and I need a day off. It’s important to have this time for myself, or a room where I can be alone sometimes. Even now, when I get angry, I still cry on set.

But you are right – in Lola’s world, it’s not possible to show feelings. What she experiences, especially after what happens to her sister, is more of a breakdown than a real change. She gets up right away, and you just know she is not going to change anything. For me, that’s the real tragedy.

Her conversations with her older sister are interesting because they are extreme opposites. It’s like watching somebody’s ego and id talking to each other.
My aunt was schizophrenic, and most of the scenes with Conny are really autobiographical – we had very similar conversations when I would visit her in hospital, for example. My aunt was convinced that people on television were talking to her. She thought it was real – that’s what was so scary about it. She was always direct and honest; it was almost too much for me to take. I decided that Pia should play that role because she understood that she was playing a woman who was right – at least in her own eyes. Sometimes, I would make her say things that weren’t even in the script so that Valerie [Pachner] would get really irritated, not quite knowing what to say next. I had worked with her several times already, and although it may not look like it, it was great fun because Conny can just say everything she wants and doesn’t care how she looks.

As for Lola, she already seems so perfect – at least at the beginning – making it so much harder to warm to her. Did you talk about the possibility of losing viewers over it?
There were a lot of discussions during the writing process and the casting – even in the editing. That was everybody’s biggest fear: will people like her? Will they identify with her? There was a biography of the two sisters that I wrote for the crew and for the actors, so that we would know them. I love my crew because before any decision, we would always go: “What would Lola do?” She doesn’t want to remember her life – there aren’t any good memories of her childhood home. I am always more interested in characters like that. It was hard for Valerie sometimes, because very often, she would say: “I don’t like her.” She was insecure because of that, but I always tried to bring her back to being able to understand Lola in a way. Perhaps there was a way for her to realise that she had problems that Valerie might have experienced as well. It’s not visible in the film, but sometimes she would have problems slipping into her. She is such a warm, down-to-earth person that I was sure people would see it, and that this contrast would make Lola more believable in the end.

It is surprising how the film progresses. At the beginning, it seems almost like a thriller, but you decided against this path - which, presumably, would probably have been much easier to follow?
For sure, and we were tempted by it again and again. We thought about making it more dramatic, but I resisted, and I made my entire crew resist it as well. These scenes help you to understand that something is wrong. But I don’t want you to know what it is.

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