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Locarno: Director Jan Speckenbach on International Competition Player ‘Freedom’

The German filmmaker talks about the stare if the family in Western society, pushing back the boundaries of storytelling, the quest for freedom

LOCARNO, Switzerland — In “Freedom,” which world premieres in International Competition at the Locarno Festival this week, Nora (Johanna Wokalek) walks out on her lawyer husband (Philip Hans-Jochen Wagner) and their two children in Berlin, and hitch-hikes to Bratislava. With Nora missing, Philip loses his quiet swagger, gives up on shaving, and struggles to cope with looking after the kids and their devastation at Nora’s abandonment. Maybe most of all, he battles agonizing uncertainty as to whether Nora will ever return.

Why Nora leaves is another matter. In “Freedom,” which is sold by Pluto Film and produced by One Two Films in co-production with BFilm and Zak Film Productions, German director Jan Speckenbach only hints at explanation until a strategically-placed flashback which comes late in proceedings.

“Freedom” focuses more on its titular concept as Nora experiments with sex, allowing herself to be picked up at a supermarket and befriending a stripper, and explores social class, abandoning her Berlinese bourgeois status to work as a chambermaid at a hotel.

One things seems certain. The docile, put-upon hausfrau which Nora came to be in marriage is a call from the far more freewheeling woman on a journey of self discovery. Speckenbach fielded questions from Variety in the run-up to Locarno.

Your feature film debut, “Reported Missing,” suggests that a 16-year-old daughter may abandon her mother. In your second film, “Freedom,” a mother abandons her family. Why this interest in people going, in family terms, AWOL, and what do the two films suggest about the state of modern families?

The vanishing allows me to talk about a void that many people suffer from, a void of meaning, of sense, of perspective in life. I feel there is something generally applicable there, that can tell something about life in the Western society. It gives me as well the possibility to examine individual identity. Where does it start, where does it end? Vanishing, though, is something very active, scarily active. In “Reported Missing”, I was interested in the generation gap. In “Freedom”, apart from gender questions, it’s more about the quest of freedom at large. Do we have it? Do we need it? Do we want it? The family serves as a micro-society here. And, in that sense, no, it’s not in a very good shape right now…

You make a large structural decision to place a sustained flashback of the family at their flat – which gives some sort of explanation to Nora’s flight – very near the end the film. Why insert the scene there?

It’s the strategy: answers first, questions later, I suppose. I wanted to go with the characters of Nora and Philip without giving too much information about their past, to encounter them without prejudices, so to say. The question is rather: “how?” than “why?”: How is Nora going her way? And only then, in a second movement, trying to understand. The shock of the anachronistic ending opens the view for details. That very same scene would have felt different at the beginning. At the end, you already know these characters, so you understand much better where they came from and why they changed in whatsoever direction. And you can feel that Nora’s leaving had an impact on everybody, not just her – maybe not only in a bad sense.

Nora’s flight is a journey of self discovery, phrased in transformation and experimentation. The film suggests self-discovery is more of a journey than an act of total achievement, however. I wonder if you could comment.

The question is: Can you reinvent yourself? For a certain degree we all hope, that we could if we tried, because we want to be autonomous. But it’s the paradox of that test arrangement, that interests me. Because if you can reinvent yourself you’d be somebody different afterwards. Therefore you wouldn’t be yourself anymore. So actually you’d have lost yourself. Isn’t the past what makes a person who she is? In that way, it’s a journey much more than an achievement. But nevertheless I’d like to seduce you, at least as a spectator, to accompany Nora on her way. Because the way is the destination…
How did you direct such esteemed actors as the film’s two leads?

By talking to them… With this project, I wanted to have the opportunity to have another freedom even in the way of working. We could question any scene if we wanted, there were no interdictions of thoughts or whatsoever. I wanted the actors to be real, not realistic! I wanted them to join my search as we all joined Nora’s quest and Philip’s suffering. I wanted them to get involved, not to have a You-Do-This-You-Do-That-Situation. And so we did. We searched, we suffered, we discovered together.

And what were your guiding principles when it came to directing “Freedom”?

To be close to the actors, to be spontaneous, to have a very flexible camera work, hand held, impulsive. I wanted a very reduced team, documentary-like, I wanted colored lightning, so that we could transform the reality if we wished. I wanted to experiment with narration for a certain degree, to use elements, that you rarely see in fiction films, like the projections on people, to push back a little the boundaries of story-telling, to find some freedom there, too. I felt that there is no objective reality for Nora and Philip, but rather two worlds they each live in with little, but decisive connection. The truth would only be each character’s individual perception of it. But the bond between the two, nevertheless, is even stronger after Nora’s disappearing, since Philip’s chain is the freedom Nora is looking for.

Do you feel that you belong to any young generation of German filmmakers?

I can’t say, it’s something you can see much better from the outside. I pretty much work on my own, without many connections to other filmmakers. But there are films that try to question story-telling and form in a way I feel sympathetic about, like “Victoria” by Sebastian Schipper or “Toni Erdmann” by Maren Ade. These films prove that you can do something different – even risky – and yet reach an audience. And that’s a spirit I like a lot.

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