A E I O U – A Quick Alphabet of Love: An interview with Nicolette Krebitz
German Competition entry A E I O U – A Quick Alphabet of Love surprised Berlinale audiences with an unlikely courtship between a pickpocket (Milan Herms) and the woman he stole from (Sophie Rois). Acting lessons, focused on his enunciation, bring the disillusioned actress Anna and the failing student Adrian together after their incisive first encounter – and provide fertile soil for love to grow.
At the 59th edition of the festival, the anthology feature Germany 09: 13 Short Films About the State of the Nation premiered, for which Nicolette Krebitz directed an episode. Her previous film Wild premiered at Sundance in 2016.
We spoke to the Berlin director about the leap from acting to directing, how the depiction of men and women is changing and characterisations that go against screenwriting archetypes.
How did this idea come about? What was the starting point of the story?
The starting point was actually my last film, which also dealt with kind of an impossible love story between a girl and a wolf. In Wild, the lead character had to turn her back on society and try something untried, something unusual. So this time I turn back around towards society and try to raise the same questions, having the same base: an obviously impossible combination, but trying to live it inside our social structures.
Do you use your own experiences in creating Anna as an actress in the film?
I mean… I am only interested in the storytelling, art or text that someone creates, which always has something to do with themselves. I am not a genre filmmaker. I wouldn’t write a horror movie or do this or that to serve a certain genre; so it’s an auteur film. Of course, it’s my opinion and what I think about life, but not necessarily having me as the protagonist – it’s not my diary or anything. I have never been in a talk show, for example, or lived a situation like this. It’s words I would love to say, that I put in her mouth, rather than what I actually said. It’s not psychologically coming back to me or my biography, but of course it has something to do with me. I am only interested in the stuff I am interested in. I am not someone else when I am writing, I’m me.
Did you write the lead character for Sophie Rois?
How did this collaboration come to fruition?
I was thinking about several women and met with them, talked about it. It’s usually the echo that is fruitful: if you have an echo that is interesting, if there is a ball playing back and forth, if the story lives on in those conversations, this is how you find your people – if there is something happening. With Sophie, obviously, many things are happening at once, because she is so full of life, so interesting and so much herself.
I sent her the book, she read the book; I think she wasn’t so sure in the beginning. Then we met, we talked about it and I invited her to make a test together with Milan to see if the combination worked. She came in, she was very open, she was curious to see what would happen – and what happens in regards to this man, what reaction he would provoke. They were both very transparent in these meetings. I was witnessing the chemistry between them – we all felt it, that there is something… let’s try to build on this! When I saw them together, I couldn’t deny it was them. I believe it, I believe that they could fall in love with each other. You see that, if you put two people together, if it works or not.
Where did her initial hesitation come from?
I don’t know – you’d have to ask her. But I think this part – although it seems so light and elegant, how she is executing it – has a lot of weight on its shoulders: to mentally get naked and ask yourself if you’re good enough. You know this is what you do when you fall in love, you get insecure and you ask yourself, “Am I even good enough for this person that I adore?”.
If you are a certain age, you stop asking yourself all the time because you tell yourself you are good enough, it’s okay. Then suddenly there is a script that tells you to have to ask yourself again. I don’t know, maybe it was this – you don’t want to open up again to all these old questions. But then she decided to – she dared to do it. I think it was wonderful to watch – to see her take off all these layers.
We live in a time where love stories with an age difference are looked at differently. Are you worried about how audiences might perceive this relationship? That they might judge it prematurely?
I don’t have a problem being judged, I am interested to hear what the thoughts are and what maybe comes to the surface turning around those genders; to see or make something visible that before was maybe not so visible. It’s a movie – it’s not a proposal for how to live your life. It’s a movie, it’s a metaphor, it’s supposed to make you think and talk and question!
I was curious about the cameo by Moritz Bleibtreu. How did this come about and what was the importance of including the talkshow in the film?
Moritz Bleibtreu is an old friend of mine and he plays a lot of parts in movies where he portrays what we now call “toxic masculinity”. I wouldn’t judge it that way – I’m a different generation – but just these old-school, masculine, in-control kind of characters. But in person he is very multifaceted; he has so many sides as a man. He is very sensitive, he is very straightforward, he is very “female” sometimes, or he can be super macho – everything.
I understand why these times that we live in now can be challenging for a lot of men because they just don’t know what is being asked of them. And if it’s very simple – like making a compliment and the woman feels offended by it – it’s really hard for them to understand, not only about the “fun” part of everything, but just “what do you want?”.
I think Moritz was the best one to portray that because he is really honest with his feelings and he is really honest in his acting. I wanted to show the other side – okay, my focus is on Anna, on my main character and what she goes through, but every small part, and every other point of view, we shouldn’t be so fast to judge. It should be heard. People should talk about it, and we shouldn’t forbid people to speak their mind or shut them down, “cancelling” them for whatever opinion they have. We will not make any progress like that. I understand that, hearing the old way over and over again, we have to break this up but still, we have to talk. So I think to listen to Moritz in this scene and see him playing this old-school kind of guy who has no clue – we had a lot of fun doing that.
Did your experience as an actress help in working with your actors?
In the beginning I thought it would help, because I know the situations, I know how to create the best working environment to make everybody feel good. But it’s also good to just be the director and say, “Well, however you create this” – that you have to cry, for example – “just do it! You’ve learned it in acting school, please just do it. And action!”.
So you know, there are so many possibilities how to direct your actors and how to help them direct themselves. I don’t think it’s easier – or harder – being an actress myself.
Why did you decide to have Anna narrate her story in the third person?
This is a thing that wasn’t planned. In the script it was just a narrator; I thought of it as it being a male voice, telling a fairy tale, kind of, “It all started like this…”.
But we had some problems when we were editing it and trying out the voices. It seemed like this is a story that is not told by a man. It’s a story that’s obviously told by a woman – maybe because of me, maybe because of Sophie. We tried several voices, and we tried Sophie’s voice and it was the best choice. It was something that happened during the process of working, that we decided to make her the narrator and that it should be her to tell her story – which is probably also something we wouldn’t have been so sensitive about, if the times weren’t what the times are right now. We tell our own stories. It feels more delicate than maybe it would have felt ten years ago.
In your films there is always a mystery around the female characters – around the women and the story in itself. Are you conscious of that mystery when you are creating?
I don’t plan mystery. It’s not that I have it on my bucket list – “be mysterious!”or “let the main character be mysterious!”. I think what might be the point here is that in lots of films we see men and women – but mostly women – that are robbed the mystery of life. They are trying to portray men and women not as ambivalent as they are, to make them more understandable and easy to comprehend, they have “the hero”, they have “the wife”, all these clichéd roles for people, so the audience can read the movie easier. This is what they teach you when you write films. And when you pitch your film in front of producers, it’s “but who is she?”, “who is he?”, “what does she want?”, “what does he want?” – it’s not that easy, you don’t always know what you want. You think you know what you want, but then you do something completely different…
“Yeah, but that’s complicated. No one understands, how should we pitch this?”
Working in such a small part of the industry – like, I am not making very expensive movies, I am not shooting this big $20 million thing, where people have to be understandable for lots of people so the money comes back in. I can allow myself to be as complicated as life is to me. So this mystery is probably just a very normal thing to each and every one of us.
Was it challenging to finance the film because it has these complications?
I was lucky finding the financiers. The production company is very well-known and they were interested in the script. The funding from Germany was all people I have worked with before, who knew my last film, Wild, and so they trusted me in taking it seriously and making something out of it. If this had been my first film, it would have been more difficult.
Is making financially manageable productions a way of staying in control and keeping creative freedom, or would you like to go on to bigger budgets?
I ask myself that, because it’s hard to do a movie for 2.5 million. It’s the same money as 1.5 million was five years ago… things get more and more expensive but you get less manpower, etc for the same kind of money. It changes, it’s becoming more and more difficult. You have to ask a lot of favours from people you work with. I don’t think I would do it forever because it’s a hard job – it’s hard on you and everybody else. At the moment I’m not even sure if I ever will make another movie again, to be honest. The thing I am writing about at the moment might as well be an anime movie, so I would like to try something new in terms of how to direct and tell the story, because I don’t know if I am interested in searching in the ways I did before. I’m not sure. In the next two years I am definitely not going to make another movie for 2 million and drain everyone around me.
What made you try directing in the first place? Is it something that comes naturally to you?
It came very naturally – it just happened. It had to happen: people tell me I said from a young age that I wanted to become a director – I can’t remember, but they are not lying, so obviously I did.
I think maybe when you get older, you want to have things more and more the way you want them. You know, like, no compromises: I want my apartment to be like this, I want my partner like that and my friends to exactly… it’s not like you have all these people around you when you’re young and you’re like, “Yeah, whatever, everybody’s different” – you kind of focus more and more and more. It’s harder to accept things you don’t want when you get older. So maybe making movies is not the medium for getting old. Because you have to accept so many things that you maybe don’t want to do…
Were there a lot of compromises in this film?
No. But not compromising on things makes it really hard. You have to fight for everything that you want to have. And nothing is for free and just happens. We were shooting in France, for example, and in France, being a director is an elevated job – people respect you for being a director. Just being a director, people listen to what you say. If you come to set and you tell everyone what is happening, everyone is listening, they are quiet and then they do what you want.
I was like, “Is this for real? People just do what I say. That’s amazing!”
And they were like, “Why? What is like in Germany?”
No one is doing what you’re saying. You have to argue and you have to explain – I don’t know if it is because I am a woman or what it is, but in France it is different.
I think it’s the arts, being a director, a “metteur-en-scène” in France is a highly respected job. Here, you’re the annoying director who always wants stuff, who is getting on everyone’s nerves. There you are the person who creates content and gives a stage for a lot of other people to do their work. It’s a different understanding. They also treat actors differently – they treasure and celebrate their actors a lot more. It’s a different experience.
Photo: Jens Koch
A E I O U – A Quick Alphabet of Love does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2022 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.