Rainer Werner Fassbinder is one of his examples for the French director François Ozon. The two have it in common with their fast pace of work: they made and are making one film after another (or even several films at the same time). Although the 54-year-old Frenchman has a healthier lifestyle than Fassbinder, the enormous monarch in Neuer Deutscher Filmwho died of an overdose in 1982 at the age of 37.
‘I discovered him when I was studying film and had all sorts of questions about my own way of filming,’ says Ozon. “I was a bit lost, and then I found an answer in Fassbinder’s work. In his freedom and strength as a filmmaker, but also in his radical view of relationships and love, or of the hypocrisy of Western society and in particular Germany after the Second World War. His versatility was also inspiring. I think sometimes people are a bit shocked when I switch genres again, or don’t understand, but so did Fassbinder. He thought you could go either way. He even made a western.’
Ozon is known for his satirical and ambiguous scripts. He likes to dance between film genres, from comedies (8 women, potiche) and erotic thrillers (Swimming pool, L’Amant double) to historical drama (Franz). He once edited a play by Fassbinder, Tropfen auf heisse Steine (Gouttes d’eau sur pierres brûlantes), from 2000. And with Peter von Kant, from this week in the Dutch cinema, he gives a twist Petra von Kant’s bitter tearsFassbinder’s oppressive Bedroom game from 1972 about the power relationship between the egocentric fashion designer Petra and her young object of love, the photo model Karin.
The French director sits across from a small group of journalists in a hotel in Berlin, where Peter von Kant opened the film festival earlier this year.
“During the lockdown, I wondered, like so many directors, whether it would ever be possible to make a film again under normal circumstances. Of Petra von Kant I’ve wanted to make something for a long time, but now felt like the right time: A film that you can make in one place, with a small team.
“I didn’t want to make the same film – Fassbinder’s is perfect, so why would you? I re-read the play and watched the movie again. I decided to change the gender of the main characters. I always felt it was a self-portrait of Fassbinder, intuitively, but Juliane Lorentz, Fassbinder’s editor and widow, confirmed it when I asked. The play and the film, she said, are about his affair with the actor Günther Kaufmann. Fassbinder projected his own love story onto the character Petra von Kant. That was the key to my editing. I don’t see any difference in a director doing a new version of a play by Shakespeare, Chekhov or Molière. I chose a different perspective and played with gender.’
Karin in his film is called Amir, a young boy (played by Khalil Gharbia) who wants to be the love object, muse and actor of the dictatorial star filmmaker Peter von Kant (Denis Ménochet), the main character modeled after Fassbinder. But as soon as Amir is launched into the film world, he also quickly leaves Peter.
‘I wanted to show the power dynamics of a director, because of course you have a lot of power as a director. You can help someone become a star. What I like about Fassbinder’s work is that the balance of power shifts in the second act. Then the actor exercises power over the director. That complexity interested me, it’s not black and white.’
Would someone like Fassbinder still be accepted today? “There are stories about him that were also not acceptable in the 1970s,” says Ozon. “I mean, two of his loved ones committed suicide. He was a difficult figure. He could be sadistic in relationships. An important comment in the film comes from Peter’s girlfriend Sidonie, played by Isabelle Adjani. She says: in your films you pretend you’re on the side of the weak, but in your real life you’re on the other side.But it’s also a human thing: say one thing, do another.
‘It is a cliché that the artist must be sadistic, a monster. And for a long time people accepted that idea: the director even had to be. And of course there is something of a dictator in every director. I would also sometimes prefer to be a god who can use people – actors – as puppets. Well, then there is the reality. I believe that we have gradually learned that you can also work in a different way, based on equality. That you shouldn’t destroy people for a few good shots’.
Hanna Schygulla (78), who played the role of the young love interest in Fassbinder’s Petra von Kant’s bitter tears, appears in the new adaptation by François Ozon as the mother of the tormented protagonist Peter von Kant. Fassbinder, Schygulla told French director Ozon, died not because of drugs or hard work, but because he “didn’t believe in love.”