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Jan-Ole Gerster on ‘Lara,’ Starring Corinna Harfouch, Tom Schilling

German filmmaker Jan-Ole Gerster made a major splash with his critically acclaimed and award-heavy 2012 debut feature “Oh Boy” (“A Coffee in Berlin”), starring Tom Schilling (“Never Look Away”). In Gerster’s latest film, “Lara,” Corinna Harfouch portrays a woman, who, on her 60th birthday, plans to attend the premiere of piano concerto performed by her estranged son, played by Schilling.

Gerster spoke to Variety about the origins of the project, why Harfouch’s involvement was essential, re-teaming with Schilling, and the significant role of music in the film.

While currently focused on the launch of his new film at home and abroad, Gerster is pursuing as a possible next project an adaptation of Christan Kracht’s best-selling novel “Imperium.” Inspired by a true story, the book follows passionate German nudist August Engelhardt as he travels to German New Guinea in 1902 to set up a coconut farm and commune on a remote South Seas island.

“Lara” premieres in competition at Karlovy Vary Film Festival.

What led to your collaboration with writer Blaz Kutin on this project?
I met Blaz Kutin in 2016 while I was looking for a co-writer for a project of mine. We were both taking part in the Torino Film Lab – a fellow dramaturge working for the lab introduced us to each other and we hit it off from the start. Blaz is a very smart and experienced author. I really appreciate his style of writing and his narrative instinct. In the course of our collaboration, he kept mentioning one of his screenplays, which had already won prizes and yet remained unfilmed. At some point I became curious and asked him to give me this script to read. It was relatively clear to me after reading it that I definitely wanted to film this material. My first film was very autobiographical. With “Lara” it was very different and yet the character seemed strangely familiar to me. I wanted to find out why this story touched me so much and learn more about this peculiar woman. It was a great adventure to approach this character. Behind all the supposedly vile actions, there is a lonely, injured and misunderstood fighter struggling to find meaning in her life.

What made Corinna Harfouch ideal for this film?
Whether I made “Lara” or not really depended on Corinna Harfouch’s participation. I could not imagine anyone else in the role. She managed to give all the contradictions of the figure a great plausibility and uniformity. In addition, she succeeded with loving humor in providing glimpses of the character in the right moments in order to also protect her. Corinna played the role as if she wanted to stand up for Lara, who has been misunderstood and rejected by many. Working with her was one of the most beautiful and creative collaborations I’ve ever had.

How did Tom Schilling’s involvement come about?
Tom and I have been very close friends for many years. Yet as soon as I see him on the screen, I forget that we know each other. I still admire him as an actor very much and am always amazed how he succeeds with just a few brushstrokes in embodying large and multi-faceted figures. It is this special, quiet radiance that makes him unique. Apart from his love of music, Tom is a person who knows doubt and overcoming his own fears very well. He is also very ambitious. To prepare for the film, he took piano lessons until he could actually play Chopin’s “Revolutionary Étude.” Even the professional musicians involved in our project were thrilled. I only know this kind of devotion from Tom. All these aspects inevitably indicated that he was ideal for the role of Viktor and I am very happy that he portrayed the character.

How would you describe the role of music in the film and how did you end up working with composer Arash Safaian and pianist Alice Sara Ott?
Finding a composer for the film was in fact not that easy. The piano concerto, which Tom’s character debuts on the evening of his mother’s 60th birthday, was an especially great challenge. It’s always a tricky matter to portray other arts in film – it usually doesn’t work that well. In the case of “Lara,” the piece is also discussed very ambiguously in the course of the film. Most important for me, however, is that this piece is about Viktor and his mother’s relationship. I finally became aware of Arash Safaian through our music supervisor and it quickly became clear that I had found the right composer. Arash himself was a pianist before devoting himself to composition.

We discussed the piece with Tom for a long time before Arash composed a first version, and it remained the one. When it came to finding a pianist for the recordings, each one of us created a wish list in which everyone, independently of each other, wrote down Alice Sara Ott at number one. Fortunately we were able to win her for the project. In the still very male-dominated world of piano, she is a very special and unique artist.

Do you see parallels between “Lara” and “Oh Boy”?
It’s true, there are certainly some vague parallels between the two films. In addition to being similar in tonality, both are about misunderstood characters who cannot or do not want to express how they feel. Their idiosyncratic view of the world makes them – to a certain extent – lonely, isolated people. I think both films are about characters who long for a fulfilling life and falter in achieving that wish.

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