What Doesn’t Kill Us (Was uns nicht umbringt): An interview with Sandra Nettelbeck and August Zirner
What Doesn’t Kill Us is the latest feature film from German director Sandra Nettelbeck. It is being shown in competition at this year’s Locarno Film Festival. The movie stars August Zirner as Max, a psychotherapist whose compassion can’t help but encroach on his professional obligations. The film is a mosaic of different lives, bound together by loneliness, ageing and desire.
We interviewed August and Sandra the day after the screening of What Doesn’t Kill Us in the Piazza Grande. We spoke to the pair about their newest film, psychotherapy, and the nature of comedy and tragedy.
August, you play a psychotherapist. Have you undergone psychotherapy yourself? How did you prepare for the role?
AZ: Preparing for this role has a lot to do with my long relationship to Sandra Nettelbeck and the fact that she’s cast me as a therapist before [in Mostly Martha] and she promised to put the therapist in a central position. I’m very grateful she kept her promise. Preparing for a part is one of the secrets of an actor; every actor has a different method. I want to find out who my character is and what he’s lacking. I experienced a small amount of therapy myself and I understand the experience of knowing that you’re able to help someone. As a psychotherapist that is extremely important. As an actor, I’ve desperately avoided learning to listen. Listening is such an important part of life. Max suffers under one thing as a therapist and as a man and as a human being: he is too compassionate. This is funny. When I spoke with therapists before, I realised they have to keep out of it, keep themselves in an objective state of mind. I realise that that’s not the character Sandra wrote for me. The comedy is that he can’t not get involved. I have deep sympathy for this. Sandra and I are each other’s therapists in real life. Through the ageing process it’s very nice to have friends to share one’s incapability with. Preparing for the part of Max was like finding myself – I’m still looking.
Sandra, what fascinates you about psychotherapy?
SN: Behavioural therapy is central to the film. I hate it when someone asks how I feel. I think, fuck you. I want you to tell me what to do now. I don’t relate to that kind of therapy at all. But if someone says, “Don’t call your mother”, then I’m like, “Great, I won’t”. I love the clarity and immediacy. I think I’m a pretty aware person but I just need help navigating things, someone who lets me be bitter. I had my mother’s suicide last year and it was a really hard experience. My hands were shaking for a bit afterwards and I felt like it was a good time to talk to someone. I know a professor who I check in with and thought maybe this would be a good moment after this amazing, horrifying experience. He said you know that’s great you managed to go through that trauma with your mother and it’s a wonderful accomplishment to come out of it. It was so great to hear that.
Would you like Max as your therapist?
AZ: Definitely not. I don’t need sympathy. I need something critical. I need a brick wall that listens.
SN: Max was always fiction. Things happen that are totally unorthodox and weird and for the sake of the art that’s totally allowed. I would probably end up being Max’s therapist because he’s totally overwhelmed by his patients, by his empathy, by his love for people and his general cluelessness. Sometimes he does the right thing, like going for walks with the dog and Ben [one of his patients]. It’s a really smart idea. That turned into reality after filming when I got a dog and my therapist and I went on walks together. It’s life imitating art in the best way.
August, what do you think of your character’s almost namesake R D Laing? Did you do any reading on Freud, Laing or any foundational psychoanalysts?
AZ: I didn’t, but I have read Laing and Freud previously. The things I know about, the therapeutic measures – I was very into systemic explanations for a while – have helped me in my understanding of Max. He’s a human being I’ve come to know. He’s not a bad psychotherapist. It’s not a problem if you’re compassionate; it’s a problem if you’re too compassionate. In Mostly Martha, my role as a therapist was a bit part. I’ve been the psychotic, which is very funny because I’m a very hysterical psychotic. Max is not quite free of psychotic problems.
SN: No, I just look at the men in my life. And when I meet one like that, I write them. I would like it if men would show up more. It would do you a favour. I think showing up is a big part of love.
Does this film encourage the idea of a soul mate or of polyamory?
AZ: I think that hopeful and wishful aspect of the film, not just the therapeutic core, is important. This is an ensemble film and all these lonely hearts must find something close to a soul mate. It’s not about polyamory. Maybe it’s more about meaning – being with someone who questions you, someone who loves you: a real mate, a real partner, a deep friend.
Does this film speak to the political moment, to #MeToo?
SN: If it does, it’s after the fact. There’s nothing novel about the way the characters relate to one another. I love the way Max relates to his ex-wife because they’re friends and that’s great. There’s a lot of wishful thinking in my writing. I never write bad people; I write people who make mistakes and how they handle their mistakes. It’s not about being evil, or mean, or creepy. It’s just people who try to get through life in one piece.
Wishes and hopes are central to the film. There’s perhaps an interesting semantic difference between the two ideas. How does wish fulfilment speak to human desire?
AZ: it keeps us moving. If we’re not moving, we’re dead. At least, we’re spiritually dead. Wishful thinking can be very distracting and unproductive, but if you have hope, which is enhanced through wishing, you might do a step in a new direction. It depends on where you step.
How does comedy modify tragedy in the film?
SN: I completely love that Charlie Chaplin line: Comedy is tragedy plus time. These tragic moments are in all comedies. I hope people would see the humour in it. I think this film is much lighter. There’s humour and people laugh a lot. People just get freaked out by death so they don’t see the process. We might have some fun while we’re still there. I’ve seen death a lot and the only thing that matters is having no regrets. I want to see a giraffe in the wild.
How did the music come together?
SN: I’ve never been blessed with such a great soundtrack. My first composer quit when my mother died. Hans Zimmer composed my last film. I was back in the real world. I heard 30 seconds of Volker Bertelmann and I knew he was the guy.
You use a mosaic structure. What attracts you to this form?
SN: Nothing. I think it’s horrible. It’s very hard to do: there’s no map. It’s infuriating. Anything goes. We cut so many versions of this film. After my mother’s death I brought a friend in to finish the film. What works on paper doesn’t work in the edit. We watched a version in the cinema and we couldn’t see the structure anymore. And if you can see the structure then there’s no structure. With this, you just have to stop. If you forget about the structure, it’s the best thing that can happen.
Photo: Pier Marco Tacca / Getty Images
What Doesn’t Kill Us (Was uns nicht umbringt) does not have a UK release date yet. Read our review here.
Read more reviews from our Locarno Film Festival 2018 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Locarno Film Festival website here.