A figure of indeterminate sex in a pink flamingo costume poses for tourists before St. Mark’s Square in Venice. A pair of courting finches jump back and forth between the two perches of their cage. A young man in a nightclub talks of missing his uterus. A prostitute reaches orgasm under hypnosis. And John Malkovich gives an interview in a theater dressing room, still dressed as Casanova. These are just a few of the coolly seductive scenes to convey the multi-faceted nature of desire in Luise Donschen’s wonderfully slippery Casanova Gene, whose free-floating approach to documentary and fiction is perfectly suited to this most elusive of subjects.

As if aware that no one argument or structure is ever going to be sufficient to describe the complex interplay between attraction, lust, looking, and the body, the German director’s first feature-length work merely assembles a set of wildly differing, often oblique takes on matters of the flesh and lets their overlapping visual motifs and themes seep into one another at will. Where most essays eventually converge on one particular insight or finding, perhaps the only sure conclusion drawn by Casanova Gene is that there’s nothing as decentered as desire, an entirely apt assertion that inspires the form of the film in turn, its different images bouncing off one another like so many thoughts darting through the mind, unburdened by either words or the need for rote interpretation. All these richly suggestive images are shot on sensual 16mm by cinematographer Helena Wittmann, another emerging talent from Germany whose own first feature Drift recently showed at New Directors / New Films.

This interview took place in Berlin on the eve of the film’s North American premiere in Art of the Real at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, alongside other intriguing documentary-fiction hybrids such as Baronesa, Infinite Football, and Once Upon a Time in Brasilia.

Casanova Gene

The film’s overarching theme is ultimately desire, a concept as vast as it is intangible. What was your original entry point to such an inherently diffuse theme? And where did the figure of Casanova come in?

The starting point for the film was a newspaper article I read about the sexual behavior of finches and the way it talked about female desire, which was very conservative but was expressed in a modern way, in terms of genetics. I was drawn to the idea of female infidelity being merely an unintended byproduct of male infidelity, which they claim has some evolutionary use. While this implicit disadvantaging of the female sex obviously reveals a way of thinking I don’t approve of, what I did like is the idea of female infidelity being pointless, that it resists having any sort of economic parameters applied to it. And that was the starting point, a way of talking about desire, a form of discourse I found modern precisely because it actually isn’t modern at all. And that original article already contained the term “Casanova gene.”

The film talks about desire and the body from many different perspectives, including biology, literature, art, evolution, religion, gender or music, and you also chose very specific cultural references to couch these ideas in, ranging all the way from Kate Bush to Annette von Droste-Hülshoff or Rachel Ruysch. How did you proceed with your research and how did you go about selecting what to include and what to leave out?

The first step involved visiting the institute that had conducted the research on finches and seeing everything that was there, which gradually made me move away from the idea of grasping these ideas via thinking and speaking in favor of just watching and listening. This was the approach I then took in relation to everything else, whereby I initially concentrated on the concept of the Casanova gene and used it as a point of departure when researching the different fields that appear in the film. It was during this research phase that I then came across John Malkovich, who was playing Casanova in an opera at the time, and I immediately had the idea of doing the scene in the dressing room. So the concept of the Casanova gene set a sort of movement in motion, which I also left behind at some point to explore areas, and there too my interest was theoretical at first, but I only became truly convinced by what I saw and heard.

Casanova Gene is so singular in its structure that it’s very hard to categorize. Let’s maybe start by talking about the individual parts that make up the film: there are staged scenes, such as those in the nightclub, documentary ones of different kinds, such as the interview with the finch researcher, and others that lie seemingly somewhere in between. What was the idea behind the constant shifts in mode?

From the outset, it was clear that the film was going to shift back and forth between the staged and the documentary and I also planned the shooting period with this in mind. I shot the scenes with the prostitute relatively late on, for example, because I figured I could work with her much like I could with an actress. I watched a large number of her sessions with clients and in the end we constructed something together that I found interesting and was able to connect to other strands in the film; standing up and sitting back down, for instance, plays a role here, just like it does in the scene with John Malkovich. Staging was thus a possible way of connecting things.

You can obviously say that the scenes with the monk are more purely documentary, for example, although what he does in his everyday life is already so staged, as it were, that no additional staging is required, as he as a person disappears behind the role he’s always playing anyway, that of the monk or priest. And it’s very important to me when working with documentary protagonists that they don’t necessarily have to reveal anything of themselves, that they don’t have divest themselves of anything, and that’s why adding a degree of staging is equally about creating a safe space for them. I didn’t necessary need to protect the monk as there are certain things I didn’t ask him in the first place, but with the trans man, say, everything that interested me about him was so personal that I had to build several layers of staging around him so that he could even appear in the first place in a way that felt suitably protected from my point of view. The staging means that it’s impossible to know if it’s really him or not, whether it’s documentary or fiction.

 Casanova Gene

Rather than a voiceover or other external ordering device connecting them, the scenes are simply edited together with such instinct and finesse that they almost feel like they’re flowing into another by the end of the film. And at a level of content, the film also doesn’t so much construct a single line of argumentation as place numerous interrelated ideas alongside another and allow them to interact, much like the light reflecting off the mirrored ball in the nightclub scene. What was your guiding principle in combining different scenes and was it clear from the start or did it emerge during the editing process?  

It was very important for me to get the all different protagonists into the film without creating forced connections between them, that was the biggest challenge actually. I never wanted to work metaphorically or generate situations so that one story could move into the next. I wanted each protagonist to have their own space without the viewer getting lost in the process and the idea of combining them based on different motifs, such as the action of dressing/undressing that connects the prostitute with John Malkovich, seemed like both the least overt and most concise way to do so.

At the start of the shooting process, I worked with a script, which I’m sure was entirely different from the final result, but it already contained certain points of intersection, albeit ones far more finely intermeshed than is now the case. As it is, there are still various blocks in the film and it doesn’t jump back and forth all that much between them. The idea of bringing together all the different elements was there from the beginning, together with the question of how much space each of them needs to remain an independent unit and what might happen at the boundaries between them, where two different units meet, as it were. I worked in different ways here—there were periods when I worked purely in blocks and edited each section independently of the others. It was only once I had all the material that I was able to liberate myself from everything I’d been thinking about during the shoot and edit in non-linear fashion, taking little “islands” of content as a starting point. The only guiding principle was that I wanted to reconstruct the same trajectory that I myself had followed, that movement from thinking about something to feeling it, seeing it, hearing it. I still have very strong relationships to each of the individual parts, some very rational, others very emotional.

Why did you decide to shoot the film on 16mm?

The very first thing we shot was the scene with John Malkovich and that was what led to the decision to shoot on 16mm, as it seemed the most economical solution in the setting, which sounds like a bit of contradiction at first. I’d already persuaded him to do the scene with us and I structured it economically from the start, we’d told him we would shoot one eleven-minute shot, i.e., the length of one 16mm film roll, and that would be it, it couldn’t be longer even if we wanted. The idea was that he would come directly from the stage to the dressing room and then leave once those eleven minutes were up. We already knew we’d have to shoot on Super16, so that the frame would be wide enough for the first image, where he and I appear standing next to each other, it wouldn’t have worked in 4:3. So we decided to shoot that particular scene on film and at that point we were still very optimistic about getting production funding. When that didn’t happen, the question was obviously whether we could keep shooting on 16mm and I asked my team if it was ok to spend the little money I was still hoping to receive that I would then use to pay them, on the material instead. But when asking that, I also emphasized that I felt we would be working far more economically as a result because we’d have to plan out everything in advance, so it would be economical in terms of both time and material. So everything was indeed very precisely prepared, even with respect to individual shots, we didn’t have a storyboard, but the close-ups, the wide shots, the sequences of shots, that was all set out beforehand.

How did you get to work with John Malkovich in the first place and why did you decide to “act” opposite him?  

I’d read about the opera he was acting in, The Giacomo Variations, and he plays an aging Casanova in it. I saw the opera in Prague and spoke to him afterwards and proposed to him the exact situation I had in mind, that it would be relatively straightforward, that we’d record the conversation in his dressing room, that I’d give him the questions beforehand but that he would be free to do whatever he wanted with the situation. And he agreed, but also told me that he’d be performing the opera for the last time just three weeks later, so everything had to be prepared very quickly. And working with him was linked to the idea of playing a role, which obviously comes from Being John Malkovich, which is probably one of his most well-known films in Europe, and it was clear that the conversation would revolve around his shifting between being John Malkovich and playing the role of Casanova.

And as for my own role in the scene, there simply wasn’t any other option. There was so little time, I had to write everything, we had to fly to Toronto, which was expensive, and I could only afford to take Helena with me, and everything else had to be done there and there was never even a moment to think about who else could appear in the scene. It’s still a bit scary for me to see just how much I’m actually in it, although it’s logical when you think about it. We didn’t use the first take because he never actually stood up and left the frame like he was supposed to. And his being off-screen for a large part of the scene was to do with the space itself but also about my wanting to exploit his superstar “capital,” as it were, in such a way that you actually don’t see him so much. And as I’m so prominent in the scene, the question kept coming up later on about whether I should appear in the film again. And then there ended up being a reason for me to do so, in the scene with the monk, which was very important to me.

Casanova Gene

For me, the Malkovich scene functions like a key to unlock the rest of the film; if one and the same scene can switch between the staged and the documentary to such an extent that they’re impossible to tell apart, it becomes increasingly hard to tell what the film as a whole is doing. In that sense, it’s a scene or even a film in the spirit of Casanova: it seduces you into believing something without ever making clear if that’s actually the case.

To start with, those shifts between documentary and fiction were important to me in formal terms, so I could actually make a film out of everything and set out into those in-between spaces. But these shifts also contain a certain potential for pleasure or desire, which is already what I was interested in, not least because film itself is heavily linked to the question of entering and exiting the stage, as it were, putting yourself in the limelight and performing, and all the various negotiations that revolve around desire in society. And this aspect of desire can be portrayed very well by working between documentary and fiction. In relationship to the individual protagonists, I was always just looking for what interested me, what enthused me. The assumption upon which the entire film rested for me was that everything would come together in the end. For a long time, I was scared that it perhaps wouldn’t, but I always tried to prevent myself from making too many connections, to trust in the idea that everything that made me feel something would ultimately overlap. And that process is very much linked to desire, even if the film itself maybe doesn’t appear so free in its form, which is fairly rigorous actually.

When you describe it like that, it makes perfect sense that you yourself appear in the film, as a person who simply desires to find something out and follows that feeling.

Yes, that’s the point. My own experience did indeed play a role, the experience I had in each case, even if it totally fades into the background with certain protagonists. And that’s the whole thing with John Malkovich, there were various reasons why I ended up in front of the camera, but it was an experience nonetheless and not an easy one either, to be suddenly acting out something and having it recorded on 16mm. But the question of experience and the feeling linked to it, that’s what carried me through the film.

The last couple of years have seen a lot of German films receiving international attention, many of them by women, whether Toni Erdmann by Maren Ade, Western by Valeska Grisebach, The Dreamed Path by Angela Schanelec, or Helena Wittmann’s Drift. How easy is it to make such films which don’t fit standard categories in Germany right now and where do you see yourself within the filmmaking community there?

It certainly wasn’t easy to make this film, and it’s still too early to see what it will be like in the future. I think what’s difficult is that the right production conditions form the basis for everything and I try to put them in place in such a way that I and everyone else working on the film can do so as well as possible. But that doesn’t necessarily correspond to the format of a conventional film production and that’s something relatively difficult to convey. And whether you receive funding or not is another question anyway. I obviously hope it will be easier with the next film. I was only able to make this one in the first place both because I received funding for a short film and because I had a well-paid job at a university and was able to use their equipment and so on and fund certain things from my salary.

In terms of belonging to a community, what I find so great about film is how international it is. It’s an art form capable of working relatively far from language and that really interests me, its ability to bring people from different nations together. And that’s why it’s hard for me to see myself just within a German context, as I love films from all over the world and I love that you can come into contact with a film in a cinema space and be completely unable to talk about it afterwards despite having shared the experience with others there. And that’s what I’d like to hold on to—that film is something that isn’t determined by nationality.

Casanova Gene screens May 3 in Art of the Real at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

James Lattimer is a festival programmer, critic, and filmmaker based in Berlin.