MN At one point of the film, the fictional filmmaker – a role you play yourself – says that he's trying to make „something like a fairytale on the beauty of communist utopia“. Could this be a valid description of what you're aiming at yourself?
JR It might be presumptuous, and I have no idea if I succeeded even just a bit, but yes: I hope that despite all eccentricities, obstructions, stupidities, short-circuits and aberrations, the film might give you the feeling that “the world has long since possessed the dream of something” (Marx). Meaning that the possibility of another world is already latently present in what is given. I believe that the fundamental capability of the cinematic image is to give evidence of the equivalence of all human beings. A capability, which, in most cases, is contradicted by the stories cinema tells. My film now suggests that this has something to do with the “class- interests” of the people who invent them. Including my own class-interests, I suppose.
MN A question, to which you, as the director of the film inside the film, don't give an answer, is: Why does your critique of ideology use the means of comedy? Is the comic a better tool for denunciation? On the other hand, when you refer to “the beauty of communist utopia“, isn't there also quite some pathos involved? A pathos maybe epitomized by the figure of the saintly idiot, that is, the monk and his miraculous deeds?
JR The comic seems to be the ideal form in order to establish new sensible or non-sensical relations between conflictual ideas and notions. Without having to restrict this playful game in order to fulfill some realistic expectations of likelihood. When I write, what drives me is the pleasure of fabulating improbable stories, of playing with the means of language. Self-criticism of a bourgeois dog is also a film about the sense and non- sense of speech. Moreover, all “political” films that influenced me have this comic element: first of all, Le crime de Mr. Lange by Jean Renoir, which was crucial in the development of this film. The comic allows me to deconstruct the ideological sense, but also to construct something like an “emancipatory counter-sense”. It enables a discourse which is at the same time funny, joyful and dead serious. For behind the film's humor there's a real hope and a real fright: the attempt to believe in the possibility of different world, and the consciousness of oneself being tangled up in the forces that precisely obstruct the advent of this world. That's probably where the “pathos” of the film lies, if you want to call it that way.
MN Your self-criticism of bourgeois existence and wannabee-communism is constantly interwoven with a love story that never seems to have the slightest chance of success. Is this a mere concession to the film's entertainment value, or does it perhaps contain a deeper reflection on communism and desire, communism and drive? Or, to put it differently: Which desires, which drives first have to be satisfied, before one can even think of a society of equals?
JR I would put it in slightly different terms: The “utopian potential” of my fictional alter ego is reduced to a – totally insubstantial – romantic projection. His pursuit of happiness is completely individualized. His political consciousness tends to be a mere means of distinction in the struggle of a narcissistic competition. However, I'm not trying to make the “wish for love” ridiculous in the name of some higher political truth, but rather to question the possibility of becoming a political subject without ignoring all the “ridiculous” affective involvements of those whose political orientation is at stake. Can a middle-class subject, whose socialization was determined by the ideology of neoliberal capitalism, ever really desire an egalitarian society? Can she/he go beyond perceiving the promise of equality as a mere threat to the primacy of his narcissistic needs? Thus the question might not be “which desires have to be satisfied first?” but rather “what kind of relationship to the Other would be the necessary condition for the foundation of such a society? This is where the “self-criticism” of the film starts. The utopian dimension of Camille's character, however, lies in the fact that she actually is able to open up to a “collective desire”. And without having to become that “New (wo)man” the Soviets dreamed of. In the end, even Julian works it out somehow, even if he needs a little whip of magic.
MN The term “idiot” is quite frequently used throughout the film. There's one sentence you pronounce which might summarize the whole film: “Some idiots against the World Spirit.” One can find real jerks, those who are just way too credulous and naive, and those “poor in spirit”, who stand outside the predominant logics, and put up their revolutionary, poetic or miraculous resistance. Several literary and historic “idiots” are explicitly cited. Is this in order to say that power has to be attacked by the unpredictability of the individual, idiosyncratic? Despite all ambivalences?
JR Yes! The “idiot” is a character who doesn't understand why the world is as it is, and not different. Who is capable of imagining a different world, against all probabilities. That's the idiocy of Hong and Sancho. They represent the principle – one might say: the dignity – of fiction: the ability of creating a distance to the logic of reality. It's precisely that distance which allows us to break free from the fatal circle of the everlasting repetition of the same. So it's all about a form of “aesthetic idiocy”, of an affirmative naivety. In addition to that, there's the idiot as an ethical figure, as the figuration of pure goodness, whose “idiocy” consists in the total absence of any kind of cynical calculation: the silent monk, who was directly inspired by a character from Rossellini's Francesco, Giullare di Dio. He might epitomize something like a necessary ethical (not religious!) dimension of the economical and political utopia.
MN We should also talk about the concrete appearance, the acting or non-acting of your protagonists, their very individual “ways of being”. Also those who just have a very short appearance, for example in one fantastic scene, the general assembly on the apple orchard.
JR For me, the “acting” is the most beautiful and important element of this film! Its ensemble is very heterogenous. Most of them are non-professional actors, accompanied by some trained ones, which sums up to a very diversified range of acting-styles. That's what the film is really all about: all their different ways of speaking, moving, appearing, acting (or not acting)! We're neither looking for the fake spontaneity of naturalistic acting, nor for some brilliant theatrical performances (or, only as one color value among others). But for something much more fragile, erratic, beautiful. Again Renoir is a main reference, and especially Straub-Huillet. I also have a very personal relationship to everyone appearing on the screen, most of them being friends and family. There's no casting process, we just think which friends, or whose parents, we'd like to see in the film. The only one I didn't know personally before contacting her for the film was Deragh Campbell. And still, there was an indirect personal link to her, too, as she played in Matt Porterfield's movie, to whom some of my collaborators have close ties. For her role, it seemed crucial to me that the actress comes from a very different context. And yet, she got quickly integrated in our social microcosmos, which thereby proved its openness: For it's not about doing films within a hermetic clique, but an open community. In the end, this is the core value of my personal utopia as a filmmaker: to give some cinematic space and time to all these very different individuals. To construct an image of the world with the contingent bunch of people I have accidentally encountered in life. To let this image shine in all possible colors of human expression. I'm convinced that this results in an image of the solidarity of the individual.
MN The camerawork is very precise, very clear, the images have a certain brightness and lightness, I'd say, despite the renunciation of camera movements. The characters' gazes have the same clarity, they seem very direct. At the same time, their gazes never seem to meet, at least according to the conventions of eyeline matching. This creates an irritation, as if the actors were kind of floating, just very loosely connected through editing in the shot reverse shot sequences. Plus, being mostly filmed from a slightly low angle, they always seem to “overlook” the spectator.
JR In my last two films, the main visual interest was the relation of body and space. For Self-criticism of a bourgeois dog, my DoP Markus Koob and I wanted to balance this attention on spatial constellations with an effort to portray individual subjects: portraits we wanted to be monumental, erratic, autonomous. They don't subdue to the homogenizing rules of the continuity system, in some sequences, each portrait even has its own light, its own weather. In the color grading process, we sometimes even rather accentuated these jumps, instead of trying to harmonize them. It's thrills me to see how, despite all these formal disjunctions, the images still communicate with each other, albeit as if they were building bridges from within their autonomy. Only the framing is always similar, giving each character the same stage to appear on: equal in their difference. This is influenced by viewing experiences with Pasolini's, but also with Ozu's films. We also see the characters speaking mostly on-screen, confronting the camera's gaze as speaking beings, not as passive objects of observation.
MN And then, there's the dog, and there's the clouds...
JR The possibility of transformation, or, at least, of some speculative self-distance; and the open, becoming, meandering, which helps the imagination to take off.