Born in Vienna, Austria in 1982, Katharina Mückstein studied philosophy and gender studies, followed by directing at Filmakademie Wien, Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst. She is co-founder of the La Banda Film production company which has produced multi-award-winning documentaries such as “Holz Erde Fleisch” by Sigmund Steiner and “Tiere und andere Menschen” by Flavio Marchetti. She worked on both these films as dramatic consultant and co-writer respectively. In 2013, she wrote, produced and directed her first feature, “Talea.”
Ahead of the European Film Promotion and Sydney Film Festival’s initiative “Europe! Voices of Women in Film,” Tara Karajica talks to Katharina Mückstein about women in today’s film industry and her second feature, “L’Animale,” that is screening at the festival and tackling the contradictory forces that guide our lives: desire, passion, and reason.
How did L’Animale come about?
Katharina Mückstein: I made my first feature film, Talea, with Sophie Stockinger when she was fourteen. I was really amazed by how she acted and she was very natural and interesting as a person too. So I decided to make another film with her and I started writing a script for her. What I knew was that I was going to make a feminist film and I was going to make a film that deals with sexual identity and gender roles. I knew that there was going to be this adolescent girl at the center of the film and I also knew that I wanted to write a character that is rather different to Sophie as a private person because I really looked for a challenge for her and for myself in order to achieve a real transformational acting work. I think these were the basic elements to start working on the script and then we decided to co-produce the film NGF Geyrhalter Film – one of the major art-house production companies in Austria – and our young production company, La Banda Film. The producers of Geyrhalter Film and I worked very closely on the development of the script for two years before finally shooting it.
The film tackles emancipation, gender roles, growing up, finding one’s own way as well as the conflicts between who we are, how we want to be perceived, and how to free ourselves from social conventions, but what is L’Animale according to you?
K.M.: My whole life I’ve struggled with matters of discrimination and emancipation, not only as a woman but on a general, political level. I studied Philosophy before I studied Film, so I’ve been always interested in telling stories that are poetic and emotional on the one hand, but also intellectual and political on the other. What I tried with this film is to really find a good story and a good plot for everything that I have understood so far about how our society works, how we suffer from the pressure that society puts on us when it comes to who we are supposed to be, not only looking on gender, but also on categories of success and the capitalistic categories that push us to be our better self all the time. At the same time, I always try not to talk about the characters in the film, but kind of live through them whatever I have experienced, either myself or the people I like, the people I knew or things I read.
Your film is a tougher, more realistic coming of age story where you don’t sugarcoat anything and everything is said upfront. Why did you opt for this particular way of storytelling?
K.M.: Well, I knew that because I had Sophie as the young actor in the middle of the story, it was going to be perceived as a coming of age film even though I am not really interested in the genre of coming of age. I would actually like to have a genre for my films that is called “coming of awareness” and that’s why I decided for the characters of the parents to be so dominant in the film. I also really didn’t want to say that issues of identity are only issues of growing up; I think that they are issues of the entirety of our lives. Generally, as a filmmaker, I am not interested in sugarcoating things, so I try to talk about reality as I see it. I think we still live in a world where not everybody can be free and freedom is something that is kept for people who have money and live in certain very tiny areas in this world. So why should I tell things in a nicer way than it really is? And in terms of cinematic language, I like to mix hard realism with the creation of something artificial, so that’s why I choose very clean locations and I try to create together with my DOP pictures that are sometimes a little bit over-realistic. In some shots of the film, you may think that this could also be a fairytale or a genre film, like when she comes out of the house and stares into the black forest. There is a lot of symbolism in the film as well. And then, of course, with the final sequence and the song, it does become surreal…
How would you describe your heroine?
K.M.: I like to write about people and I think the way she is is like people who feel inside of them that they can’t really give into what society asks of them. So there’s a certain resistence that they bear within them and this feeling has to come out. They have to transform though they’d rather stay where they are. I really don’t like the all-American heroine who is somehow brave all the time. I rather think that it’s OK not to be brave all the time and I like my heroes to be very ambivalent; they are scared and they shiver and, at the same time, they feel that they have to do something.
I think, also, from the point of view of survival of Cinema, we should really work on opening this thing up to minorities and women and getting some diversity into our business.
How is the film feminist according to you?
K.M.: The film deals with the question of how we, men or women or whatever gender we have in this society, suffer from the stereotypes and expectations that come with gender and the bias that our society puts. Mati, the main character, is a girl who is growing up in a group of people dominated by males and I think the questions like: “How can you grow up in this society as a girl who doesn’t really want to fit into classical female stereotypes?” and “How can you actually enter stones of our society that are kept to men” are feminist issues in themselves. While writing the story of Mati, I saw a lot of parallels with my own working in the film business, as a female director who is working in a business that historically and culturally has always been owned by men. And I think we are told a lot that to work in a male dominated industry we are kind of supposed to adapt to male behavior and that is what Mati does; she really tries to copy male behavior. At the same time, she makes herself guilty because she kind of gets violent towards other women and she doesn’t succeed in becoming one of the men because that’s how it works – you’re never going to be one of the men. The story of the father is also a feminist story, because it critically deals with masculinity and homophobia and how being a man in our society means that you always have to be very heterosexual, very strong and successful and you’re supposed to be the head of your family, you’re supposed to have everything under control and he really doesn’t. I tried to create a set of characters that really give something to everyone. I didn’t want to make a film only about women or only about men. I actually just wanted to say: “Aren’t we all human and don’t we all suffer from this kind of narrow-mindedness of our societies? Couldn’t it be better?”
Can you talk about the title, the final sequence and the song by Franco Battiato?
K.M.: “L’animale” is Italian for “the animal” or also “the beast” and the title derives from Franco Battiato’s song “L’animale” from 1983. I have loved Battiato’s work for a long time. I think he’s a wonderful musician, poet and philosopher. When I was working on the script, I already had, from the very beginning, a lot of animal references in the film. Then, I re-listened to the song after quite some time, and while listening to the lyrics, I thought that what Battiato is singing about could be the voices of all my characters. And really, what the song is about is the animal within us, and that is something that everybody has. It’s the authenticity within yourself and it is like a force that disturbs you when you try to adapt and when you try to control yourself. He sings about this animal that he carries within himself in a rather ironic way, but kind of from a loving perspective. And I thought I should give it a try and use the song in the film and try and have my actors sing it. Of course, there were a lot of discussions about this with my producers because the rights for a song like this are very expensive and when you take a risk like this it has to work, because otherwise it’s going to ruin the film. But then I thought: “I am a young filmmaker; who knows if I’m ever going to make another film,” so I just really wanted to do what my passion for filmmaking told me. Also, when I go to the movies myself, I really love moments in films when I stop understanding with my brain and I kind of start understanding with my heart and I really wanted to create a moment like this. So when everything points to that moment and you’re very close with the characters and the film becomes very emotional and then you hear this song. There are no subtitles to it. I did that on purpose, because I thought that you really don’t have to understand the words, you know what is happening to these people and that’s what the song is about. So we decided not to put any subtitles to the song and leave it kind of like a mystery.
What is your opinion of the situation of women in today’s film industry? What is it like in Austria?
K.M.: In Austria, only about 20-25% of the national funding is given to women. I am part of the women’s network, FC GLORIA, that is made up of over a hundred professional female filmmakers. We also do political work, try to improve the situation for female filmmakers in Austria and we have been campaigning this issue for seven years now. Even though the institutions and politics have started showing some awareness for the matter, during these seven years nothing has really changed. So I feel like we are just at the very beginning of change. I think that filmmaking and the film industry are not an island. Filmmaking does not happen separately from the society we are part of. We live in a sexist society and all over the world you can see that women get paid less. We have a lot of trouble separating family responsibility from being women, so why should that be different in the film industry? It’s not. It’s even worse because it’s an industry with the history of men being behind the camera and women being objects in front of the camera. At the same time, looking, for example, at the United States and the streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon, there’s a lot of change going on and there’s a lot of diversity and that gives me hope. I also feel like the art-house film industry, especially in Europe, is very conservative when you compare it to the U.S. and especially the streaming platforms, in terms of the content of the films. It kind of concerns me because I think that if we, as an industry, are not at least as progressive as the society we make films for, we should rather be more progressive than society itself and if we are more conservative than the society we are making films for, then I think it’s going to kill us and it’s going to make everything we do irrelevant. So I think, also, from the point of view of survival of Cinema, we should really work on opening this thing up to minorities and women and getting some diversity into our business.
How do you think the European Film Promotion and Sydney Film Festival’s initiative “Europe! Voices of Women in Film” will impact your career, your visibility and the promotion of European female film talent in Australia?
K.M.: I think it sounds like a great initiative and I am very excited to go there and network with other female filmmakers. I think that these alliances between female filmmakers and producers are very, very important and I really hope to get distribution for my film in Australia through this initiative. I am looking forward to it!
Who is your favorite female filmmaker? And your favorite film by a female filmmaker? It doesn’t have to be by the same person…
K.M.: It’s by the same person! My favorite filmmaker – not only my favorite female filmmaker, but my favorite filmmaker of all time – is Claire Denis and my favorite film by Claire Denis is Beau travail.
What are your next projects?
K.M.: I have just started writing a new fiction script and I’ve also been working on a documentary for quite a while. The working title is Feminism WTF and it’s going to be a film about feminism, gender politics and identity politics and why there’s still so much controversy around these issues.
This interview was conducted in partnership with: