“The tendency to spread the suffering beyond ourselves. If through excessive weakness we can neither call forth pity nor do harm to others, we attack what the universe itself represents for us. Then every good or beautiful thing is like an insult.”

—Simone Weil, from “Void and Compensation” section of Gravity and Grace

The great Prussian writer, Heinrich von Kleist, on the verge of losing his patronage, given to clenching his fists in awkwardness, is coming on to his cousin, Marie, at a tea party. “Would you care to die with me?” he asks her by way of a pick-up line. Marie (Sandra Hüller) rebuffs him, with a scrunched-up smile and touch of his arm, as if she were responding to a boyishly imprudent method of flirtation. But when Heinrich (Christian Friedel) meets the girlish and guarded Henriette (Birte Schnoink), her admiration of Kleist’s work and the recent diagnosis of a grave illness make her a prime candidate for his star-crossed suicide pact. Jessica Hausner’s fourth feature, Amour Fou, plays all this as a kind of domestic horror film, her characters like bureaucratic functionaries in their own lives. Their whims and fears alike seem not much more than the dejected byproduct of a social order as neurotic as it is inflexible.

This mordantly funny gloss on early-19th-century mores encompasses Henriette’s husband, Friedrich (Stephan Grossmann), a good-natured doofus and tax collector defined his by a Germanic ability to “sensibly” and programmatically weigh any and every matter with considerable detachment. But as Geoffrey O’Brien once wrote of Kleist, “He is the least quotable of great writers,” and this film is similarly resistant to encapsulation or toe-tagging. This is in large part due to Hausner’s career-long preoccupation—as in Hotel (04) and Lourdes (09)—with irreducible and invisible forces, supernatural even, the repressed and unseemly hidden away in the attics of our lives. They’re those things we keep trapped in secret compartments for fear they will one day overwhelm us—with emotion, with the inexorable pull of that which is so great and horrifying it is beyond purpose or reason, and as such some kind of beautiful.

Hausner’s subtle, intricate sound design in Amour Fou embodies this feeling, the muffled creaking of furniture, softly clinking cups, and distant animal sounds giving a sense of some ghostly, far off Presence, more reminiscent of the spaceship claustrophobia of sci-fi than other period pieces. Weil’s understanding of the ways in which bereavement takes shape for someone and contributes to their understanding of who they are, how we take up residence inside pain as it takes residence within us, corresponds with Hausner’s productively obscure mysticism; and Hausner’s sense of “the unknowable,” which settles over her work like a faint mist, is tantalizingly Weilian.

Amour Fou transforms this idea/worldview into an aesthetic mission statement, the foundation of and best explanation for its sensationally peculiar tone, the varied and manifold effects it has on the viewer. FILM COMMENT spoke with Hausner about the film—which is currently having its theatrical run at Film Forum—when she was in town in January as part of First Look at the Museum of the Moving Image.

Amour Fou

At one point Henriette speaks a line that seems to go through everything in the film: “A figment of imagination which is as real as reality.” It seems to inform the look of the movie, and the actors’ performances, and I was wondering how you were thinking of this line while you were making the film.

I agree that this is probably one of the central lines in the film. I remember that when I was constructing the script, I was reading a book by Slavoj Žižek. I think he’s a very interesting philosopher, and he also talks a lot about cinema, but this book that I was reading was about the French philosopher Lacan. Žižek describes the idea that if you are close to someone or if you love someone, you see yourself very much in that other person, and I think that as soon as you think this way, every sort of reality becomes very subjective. And this interested me very much. I think that in Amour Fou, this is really the question. What is really happening, what are the feelings between those persons, and what is it that they only imagined? The male character, Heinrich, has a very strong vision of what he thinks love should be like, and he tries to adapt reality to his vision actually. For Henriette, on the other hand, this difference is not very clear. She lives a little bit in an illusion and she seems to not be able to act in a really willful way.

All the characters, some of them tacitly, but definitely Heinrich in a very aggressive way—quiet but aggressive—are imposing an idea they have of somebody else on that person. There is a clash, it seems, between each person’s self-conception and the other person’s idea of themselves.

Yes, that is what made me think about what love can be after all. As we said before, everyone has their own reality. It’s a very subjective question of perception, and as soon as you understand this, it’s really the question of whether love can exist at all if you’re not even able to see another person the way the other person really is. I think that is not possible. You’re so submerged in your own thoughts and have your own way of thinking and feeling that you will always somehow misinterpret the other person.

The look of the film represents this too, because it almost feels like you’re inside their conflicting emotions. There’s so much talk of souls, and the rooms are so large in relation to their bodies. Many of your compositions center the characters and there’s all this negative space around them, and you have such a feeling of the walls, how constricting and definite those walls are.

Yes, the mise en scène in this film is a bit like in a play, but a bad play. [Laughs] What I mean is that the movement of the actors is not natural. The difficult thing for me was to find actors that have a very natural way of acting. Although the dialogue seems complicated, they still have a very casual style of speaking, because on the other hand the movement and the whole composition of the frame is very constructed. It seems like the characters are somehow part of a game. They move as if they were in a chess game. The reason for this was that the whole film goes around this question of individuality or what the characteristic or inner self of a person is. Who am I at all? And the people in the film are very much bound by the rules of the society they live in, and this is also why they seem to be so unoriginal in a way, stiff, or they behave in a very polite way or the way they talk or behave is very unified. They’re not individualists. Maybe Heinrich is the most unconventional character, but the reason is really that individuals are part of the society, and this is a very modern aspect of the film, because it’s the same in our society. It may be more obvious to show it in the 19th century because you may think that in the 19th century, the rules were strict and so on. But I think that in our society the rules are just as strict, they just have different ways of being imposed on the people.

Amour Fou

There is an incredible shot of a maid putting fire into a stove while the bills are being paid in the background two rooms away. You get that sense of an entire household functioning on a daily level.

Yes. And for example, in the whole conversation about the political situation at the very end, when the two characters are dead, the husband and the others have to continue talking about what is important to them. I tried to have this sort of perspective throughout the film—as in the scene that you described with the maid—in which there are different perspectives and the maid, for example, is like a silent witness to all the scenes. Nobody would ever think: “What is she thinking about it?” But in the very end it’s her and the girl in the frame, and for me it was very important to really give that feeling that there isn’t one truth there.

There is something that I can’t get over, that I find very compelling about Heinrich espousing how he can only find fulfillment in death and then taking more tea. It represents something of the contradictory nature of suicide.

Yes, and also the banality of it. I think I was also interested in really spoiling this romantic idea, any sort of romantic idea. Even if you’re going to die, you might be hungry before you die.

In another scene, you have this beautiful, long stretch of road in the foreground and then when Henriette and Heinrich are in the carriage going to the country retreat, you only show the last bit of them going around the bend. It’s an incredibly poetic image, but traditionally you would just show the carriage in the middle of the frame going down the road. Your composition, and only showing the final leg of their voyage, suggests the end of something—there is a kind of deathly appeal to it.

Sometimes when I think about the editing, I really think about what point is the most unexpected point to cut in and out of a scene. So sometimes I really try to be very much aware of what the convention of editing and structuring a scene is, and how you might do it differently. It’s also a way of giving the spectator this feeling that the story is not going to end with an easy solution. I think the whole story that I am telling in this film is a combination of bits and pieces and different aspects, and I’m really trying to give a kaleidoscope of different people’s emotions or actions, but it’s surely not going to lead you to some security in the end. There is no way of really explaining it after all.

Vogel in the end says something like: “It was out of love after all.” I like that very much because I thought, when I was writing the script, the film is okay if he is right and wrong in the end. It shouldn’t be that you think “No, he’s wrong” but also not “he’s right.” There has to be a sort of “Hmmm, I don’t know if he is right.” You cannot make a line and say this is the sum of it all. It’s not possible. And this example with the carriage on the street in the woods is just an instance of this. I selected that very moment to give you the feeling that, oh, maybe I missed something, that the carriage is nearly gone. It’s not that you get everything on the silver tablet and you just have to consume it. It’s more like: “Oh what was it actually?”

Amour Fou

Could you talk about the repetition of the music in the film?

The repetition of the music is also part of the idea to create a rhythm within the film that is not smooth but that has strange interruptions. It’s also a way to give the spectator the feeling that 1 and 1 maybe doesn’t equal 2 but some other number. It’s about confusion and also about space, to give you the feeling that it’s more like watching a painting: you see one point of the painting and it’s your decision to look over there or look over here. You have some time to make your way through the image, and those songs from the beginning to the end belong to the same concept. Some of them break the rhythm of the love story, and I think it hurts a bit and you can say it’s too long but on the other hand, I think it’s right for the film to have a feeling of real time—this is the time it took to sing that song. It’s also a break.

I’ve never seen anything like that in a period film or really any film I can think of, where such deep feelings of longing and anxiety and also just basic private details—like Henriette’s autopsy—are revealed in a public setting and it’s not a source of controversy.

I think it’s got a lot to do with the humor. I was looking for this sort of black humor. Sometimes I have the feeling that when I’m making a film, on the one hand, I try to focus on very existential or brutal or homicidal topics, but on the other hand, I need this sort of lightheaded and slightly distant point-of-view, and I think humor is the sort of glasses that I like to put on. Otherwise, for me it would not be bearable, and I love Luis Buñuel very much—he has this sort of humor that inspires me a lot, and it’s a lot about absurdity. And this idea that you were talking about—“Oh would you like to die with me in front of a group of old ladies who drink their tea?”—this is a sort of humor that comes out of absurdity, because if you put the rules of society upside down, like Buñuel very often does, then automatically you feel uneasy as a spectator. You have to laugh while he’s saying it in front of everyone.

There’s something so strange about the placid nature of the movie. It’s like a still body of water but underneath there are all these things, all this roiling, fish eating other fish… That tone, and also these night scenes that are only lit by lamps, in connection with your material, it creates a ghost story atmosphere.

Yes. This reminds me also of my other films. It’s very often the case that I show the surface of something, and as soon as you have this feeling that it’s only the surface, you immediately ask yourself what is behind the surface, and I think my films are very much about this question of what is behind it all. It is a sort of supernatural question. You can call it the spirituality or the soul of the human beings, or God or whatever. It’s this question of whether there is anything behind it.

Amour Fou

When Vogel is trying to convince Henriette to go to Paris, he doesn’t say: “I can lose you.” But he says: “I will try everything to keep you.”

Yes, I like that also. It’s part of this old-fashioned language. I was reading a lot of letters and diaries from that time, and the wording is a little bit different: sometimes it’s so technical. He talks about her like she was a pet or something, and he has to keep her alive.

Having the maid constantly in the background and on the periphery makes you aware of the invisible labor that keeps a bourgeois household like that of the Vogels’ running. When you were writing the script, were you coming up with different actions for her to perform in each of those scenes or how you wanted her to interact with the family?

When I wrote the script, I was only focusing on the so-called love story between Heinrich and Henriette, and on the political conversations that Vogel has with the other men. I was writing the first draft of the script before I made a lot of research about the period, because I didn’t want to fall into the trap of making a real period picture where you try to show everything very accurately. After finishing the script, I started doing a lot of research, because I was aware of the fact that when I do the mise en scene, I do have to know what it was like. But I only tried to pick the information that was really helpful for me to tell the story, and I remember that the idea of the maid came through the research, because I suddenly understood that the way a house functioned was very different from what we know nowadays. Nowadays, you’re much more lonely, the private space is much bigger. I think that at that time, the public was much more mixed in with the private. Several people lived in one room and because there wasn’t the technology that we have today, you had to communicate much more and you had to work together much more. And so the woman of the house, Henriette, worked with the maid, washing the clothes and preparing the dinner, and all those thoughts made me develop this idea that I have so many people in the frame all the time.

I think it’s probably also because I wanted to show that somehow it’s a sort of society-portrait, and I didn’t want to focus on the individual story of two characters but to show a whole society. I remember that in the script, there were many scenes where there were only the two characters, and then in the film, these became scenes where for example the maid appears and disappears, or the girl is present, or the dog, in the background—you’re never really alone.

Throughout the movie, the sound has a kind of spaciousness to it. You get a sense of the size of the rooms, and the distance that footsteps will carry.

I remember that I was discussing this with the mixer. He proposed to have the outside noise much louder throughout the film, and then I always told him: “No, the window is closed. Don’t make it sound as if the window was open. Let’s close the window.” That was the motto of the mixing: that the noise exists outside, the horses, the voices, the footsteps. It’s like on another planet. It’s very distant and it’s of course because of that feeling of the huis clos, of the closed interior. There is no way out.

Amour Fou

The gestures of the hypnotist running his hands just a few inches above Henriette’s body and wiping them off—was that something that you found in your research?

Yes, I did a great deal of research on the whole medical aspect of the film. Also about the illness that Henriette has, and the whole part of the doctor, finding out how they made a diagnosis, what sorts of illnesses, what sorts of treatments they knew about. And at that time, the end of the 18th century, this sort of hypnosis, this mesmerism—Mesmer was actually an Austrian doctor and he used this sort of treatment for the first time. He believed in a sort of animal magnetism, that the body has magnetic lines, and if he does this, he cleans the magnetism of a body. That was very popular at the time, and it did have some effect. It’s like a predecessor of the hypnosis and psychotherapy that Freud and the others used at the end of the 19th century. It gave way to those kinds of psychological treatments also, because during these treatments, people started to talk and during the hypnosis, like in my film. At the time, they didn’t know yet that that could be interesting, but later Freud used this—he noticed that during the hypnosis, people started to say truths about themselves.

When Henriette is singing Mozart’s “Das Veilchen,” for the first time, in front of the dinner guests, she has her hands in front of her and she’s swaying a little bit. It’s childlike and it’s in direct counterpoint to the singer we see at the beginning of the film.

Henriette is a very childlike woman. That was also very important in respect to her relationship with her daughter. For me, there was always this question: how can a woman just leave her child behind, and want to die? And I think the fact that she is a child herself is the answer. They’re like two sisters saying goodbye when she leaves. She doesn’t have that motherly feeling of responsibility somehow.