This year’s Birds Eye View Festival opened with German writer-director Nicolette Krebitz’s second feature The Heart Is a Dark Forest, a daring, darkly stylish and artfully constructed marital drama centring on a woman’s emotional meltdown after she finds her illusions about bourgeois family life shattered forever. Vacillating between social realism, emotional tragedy and mysticism, Krebitz (who is best known in Germany as an actress) dissects what lies underneath the grid of social roles in contemporary society through an increasingly surreal modern-day version of Medea that is not always easy to digest, both formally and thematically.
With a mesmerising Nina Hoss and Devid Striesow in the lead roles, who last performed together in Christian Petzold’s remarkable thriller Yella, the film centres on Marie, who one morning accidentally discovers that her husband has a double life, with a second wife and little child in another suburban house just like hers. Utterly shaken and bewildered, Marie escapes into the nearby forest where she passes out. After returning to her children, strangely calm and collected, she attends a masked ball held in a friend’s country mansion in a scene reminiscent of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. There, she confronts her tragic fate and the inner demons that haunt her.
Pamela Jahn spoke to Nicolette Krebitz during the Birds Eye View Festival in March 2009.
Pamela Jahn: Your film is based on a tragedy of betrayal and focuses on a woman whose love ultimately leads to her destruction. What attracted you to this kind of subject matter?
Nicolette Krebitz: I saw Medea on stage and read the play again when I started working on a new script, so the story comes partly from Medea, and partly from some real-life cases that I discovered during my research. I found out that there were basically two different types of women, two different reactions, when they found out about the double lives of their partners. The first type just remained silent and never said a word about it, not even to their children, for fear of losing their husbands and the lives they lived. The second type of women reacted in a very extreme manner, most of them tried to kill themselves, and I was shocked by this. I started asking myself all these questions: Why would they do it? What’s the point? Are there really no more reasons to go on living? My conclusion was that it must have had a major impact on their desire for being wanted, being needed, and that it has something to do with their roles as mothers in society. They must have felt betrayed also in the way that they had given their lives and bodies to build a family, to become mothers and to raise children… It’s still a big deal, I think. And it’s this archaic feeling that caused such an extreme reaction, that I found very fascinating.
PJ: The metaphoric title perfectly matches the theme and the increasingly gloomy atmosphere you’re creating in your film. What does the image mean to you?
NK: Neither the man nor the woman in the film is to blame for what they do because of love. Most of the time, you don’t really know what it is that you love, or what you long for. Basically, you just don’t really know what you want when you love, and this for me is like a dark forest. It implies a lot of things that are hidden or invisible, but they are all part of what we call love…
PJ: In addition to the literary and cinematic references such as the masquerade scene in the castle, the film also has many theatrical elements, in particular the scenes in which Marie plays out her memories with Thomas on a sparse Brechtian stage. What was the idea behind this?
NK: To me the scenes that take place on a stage are the ones that draw the audience into the story. I think they are very necessary because they are the only moments were you see Marie and her husband Thomas, happy or not happy, but actually together. The rest of the film focuses on Marie and her point of view. To me these scenes are the soul of the film, because you see what their life as a couple has been, you witness their conversations, and thus you realise that everything that happens was mentioned before. It’s like psychoanalysis, when you reconstruct the past and look at what really has been said and done, and then you compare this to what you’ve built up in your mind.
PJ:Although we’re drawn into what happens to Marie and how she tries to cope with the situation, it seems that in a subtle way we’re also kept at a distance from her…
NK:Yeah, we change perspectives when we follow Marie. Sometimes we are inside of her, looking through her eyes, and sometimes we are spectators of the whole scenario. What I tried to do here was shifting between being part of society and being part of the person involved in this tragedy. And I think it’s important to get this distance from her, because she does something very cruel in the end.
PJ:Was it always your intention to end the film in such a surreal, nightmarish way?
NK:I don’t see it as unreal as a nightmare would be…It’s reality. Of course it is not a documentary, it’s a fiction film, and I tried to not let the audience down by being too…grey. But what fascinated me most was the fact that, if there is somebody just like you and an entire situation that mirrors your own life, you could just as well be deleted, because you are no longer of any use. This is how Marie feels, and this is because she had already given up on everything. It is possibly the most irrational decision and the darkest way to end this story, but my aim with this was to provoke a discussion in the audience.
PJ:What sort of reaction did you get from the German audience, especially women?
NK:A lot of women said they were very touched by the whole story, even the ending. Of course, they said they wouldn’t have gone that far, but they know that this is how it feels, and maybe it’s what they forbid themselves to do. But they could allow themselves to think about it through the movie…it’s a relief in a way. Because society expects all these things from a mother, and sometimes it’s just too much. And by the end of the day it’s a story about two people, a man and a woman, and too often it is down to the woman to deal with the situation.
PJ:You’ve recently contributed to a film called Germany 09: 13 Short Films about the State of the Nation, which premiered at the Berlinale in February, and your segment, ‘The Unfinished’, tells the story of a young writer who travels back in time to meet with Ulrike Meinhof and Susan Sontag in 1969. Do you feel an urge to make films about women or women’s issues in your work as a writer-director?
NK:I’m a woman and I tell stories and make films, and I think the film industry needs more women because they make different films. It’s a way of showing even to the male audience how we are, how we see things, how we feels things in order to understand it instead of treating women like objects or reduce them to being only mothers or only daughters. Yeah, so that’s my contribution but it doesn’t necessarily mean that I will also make films that deal with emancipation issues. It can be anything, but it will always be seen and told through my eyes.
Interview by Pamela Jahn