In 2009, Antonin Svoboda made a TV documentary about the Austrian-American psychiatrist and experimental scientist Wilhelm Reich. He has now returned to the subject with a feature biopic that focuses in particular on the second half of Reich’s life and work in American exile. Drawing on the depth of knowledge that Svoboda has acquired working on the project over many years, the film stars Klaus Maria Brandauer as Reich, who lends a compelling presence and dignity to his character.
Reich, who devoted himself to searching for the fundamentals of life, arrived in America in 1939, after fleeing Nazi Germany. His story is related with the help of flashbacks to his earlier career and the research that led him to a theory postulating the existence of a bioelectric life-force energy called ‘orgone’, which, according to Reich, flows through all living beings. Blocking up this force with social taboos and ideological nonsense could only lead to harm – for the individual and for society. However, his radical dream of liberating human individuality made Reich an increasingly dangerous opponent to the American system and, in 1956, Reich found himself on trial, charged with fraud and sentenced to two years in prison, while six tons of his publications were burned by order of the court. Intriguingly shot, yet not free of dramatic flaws, the film manages to be both understated and epic, leading up to Reich’s death in jail, reportedly of heart failure, only days before he was due to apply for parole.
Pamela Jahn talked to Klaus Maria Brandauer at the 50th Viennale in October 2012, where the film had its world premiere. It opens for a theatrical run in Austria this month.
Pamela Jahn: What attracted you to the character of Wilhelm Reich?
Klaus Maria Brandauer: I read the script and thought the theme was very fascinating. As an actor, you don’t necessarily play a part simply because of the character, but because of the story and the environment associated with this character. And in the case of Wilhelm Reich, I found that environment very intriguing. The story offers so much scope to express yourself because it describes not only a moment in time, but the 20 years Reich spent as an immigrant in America after leaving Germany in the late 1930s to escape the Nazis. And sometimes this relates back even to his earlier life – which you gradually learn from selected flashbacks – and the difficulties he’d experienced when he was young. Both his parents died very early, the mother committed suicide after having an affair with his tutor, soon after the father died of tuberculosis; then the Russians invaded and Reich and his brothers flew to Austria where he joined the Austro-Hungarian Army during the First World War. After the war, he went to Vienna where he studied medicine and became a student of Sigmund Freud, because he was also very interested in psychology and the social environment of human beings and their relationships with each other. But then he became somewhat disillusioned with Freud’s psychoanalytic method, and unlike most analysts, Reich was not content to keep silent, so he took his own path. But I think what is crucial to understand in his case is that he was not only a doctor or psychoanalyst, but a sociologist who did a lot of research on the situation of women in the 1920s in Austria, for example, because he was convinced that everything is related to everything else in this world and beyond. To some extent he was also a visionary, because he was convinced that one day somebody would prove that everything that we think, see and feel, as well as what we dream and what we imagine, that all this is ‘true’ and part of our human identity.
But instead of the freedom he hoped to find in the US, he was crushed by the American legal system.
Yes, because he was a very strong opponent of the war, of any kind of conflicts really, but most importantly of nuclear power. Although he had some conversations with Einstein about his discovery of ‘orgone’, he didn’t support the invention of special nuclear material or atomic energy, simply because it was first and foremost invented to kill people. And that’s where our film starts, in the moment that he believes himself living in a free country – an exemplary democracy, as it where – and all of a sudden he’s no longer allowed to carry out any research because he’s against nuclear weapons and also against any methods of manipulating the human psyche. So the Americans chase him, he is maligned and later even put into jail based on faked witness statements, and there he dies.
But to get back to your earlier question, Reich is only one example of many, and still there is something special about him as a man and as a scientist in the way he fought against the oppression of others, and of their thoughts. And in terms of his own work, he just wanted to carry out his research, independently and without getting on anyone’s back. That’s what fascinated me about Reich.
Talking about your work, you’ve had a remarkable career both on stage and on screen, but you always seem to remain truly faithful to theatre.
Because for me film is not more exciting than theatre, that’s nonsense. Today, as an actor, you work in television and if you have the time, you play in theatre. But when I first started, it was the other way around. When someone offered me a part in a film, back then I said, ’No thanks, I do theatre!’ But in a way it doesn’t really matter. There are people who work more in film and television, and then there are others who do more theatre – everyone has their own priorities. And of course it’s easy to think that film work is better paid, which it is, and that’s why people go for it. But if you’re a true actor, you just love doing theatre, so I don’t really have a preference.
Would you like to direct again as well?
Of course, but the two films I have done so far [Georg Elser – Einer aus Deutschland (Seven Minutes, 1989) and Mario und der Zauberer (Mario and the Magician, 1994)], I was really dying to do, and even when I watch them today, I think, ‘Thank God that you’ve done this!’ But to direct another film, I would first of all need a lot of time, like Antonin, who spent more than eight years developing The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich. Or, take Sidney Pollack’s Out of Africa (1985), it took years and many drafts to get the screenplay right and still no one wanted to finance it. And before Pollack, it was John Frankenheimer who tried to make that film. It was only because they were friends, and Pollack had worked as an assistant for him in the past, that Frankenheimer said, ‘Look, why don’t you give it a try? You’ve just had a major success with Tootsie, maybe you can do it’. And Pollack did. All I’m trying to say is that there is always an awful lot to do before, eventually, you can see a film on the big screen, especially in Europe, and in smaller countries like ours, it’s a nightmare to even just get it financed in the first instance.
Did you see parallels between Antonin Svoboda’s work on The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich and your first film, which was also shot in the English language, about Georg Elser, the man who attempted to assassinate Hitler in 1939?
It’s difficult for me to say, because Antonin is a professional filmmaker who went to film school and, originally, I was only meant to play Georg Elser in the film and John Frankenheimer was supposed to direct it. But when John came to Europe the dollar hit rock bottom, which was terrible for the production because the entire budget deflated within seconds, and then John said, ‘It’s not going to work like that, let’s just leave it’. One or two years later the producer of the film, John Daly, called me up and asked, ‘Klaus, do you still want to do that film about Elser?’ I said, ‘Of course, it’s a great project, but who’s going to direct it? Is John back onboard?’ And he said, ‘No, not John, you!’ Two weeks later I was sitting in LA trying to plan how I could make this work. So I called my friend Lajos Koltai, the Hungarian cinematographer, and said, ‘Listen, we always wanted to make a film where there is hardly any dialogue’. Because what has always annoyed me, even when I was younger, was that there is too much talking in film, as if it was literature. Film is a visual medium and is meant to express with images in the first instance, not with words. And Koltai said yes, and we made the film together in the end. But again, I am not a filmmaker, I didn’t show up on the set and said, ‘OK, focus at 45 please’. I learned all that from Koltai. I really wanted to make this film because of the story and Georg Elser as a character, which fascinated me in a similar way that Wilhelm Reich does now, partly because they were both outsiders. The difference is that one of them knew he was going to die and the other one didn’t stand a chance.
What do you feel an actor has to have these days?
I have been doing this job for 50 years now and I still don’t really know. I just found a way to do it, like others did before me, more or less, with different premises. I am artistically minded, I need literature, I need music and so on and so forth, and I can try to express other people’s words and stories in many different ways and different formats: in an audio play, a TV production, on stage or on the big screen, it doesn’t matter. The most important thing is that you’re not trying to act, but to explore something, to delve into the character. Nobody likes actors who act, not in theatre and even less in film. Anyone can recite a text or a dialogue, but it’s my responsibility to bring this person to life – that’s my duty. But in order to succeed, it has to be the deepest passion of your mind and heart to be human. And I mean you as a person! In other words: you have to know for yourself whether you call the tune on a Stradivarius or you’re just scraping a fiddle. Of course you can develop through practice, but if you don’t care about it at all, sooner or later others will. Most importantly though, and this is the real problem: art makes no sense at all. But that’s why it is so fascinating.
Are you driven by self-doubt or disapproval, either as an artist or personally?
A devout human being, who believes in God, but who doesn’t sometimes doubt, will never find that God and is a complete idiot.
Interview by Pamela Jahn