Berlinale 2020: Director Sandra Wollner Talks ‘The Trouble With Being Born’

Austrian director Sandra Wollner stops by on Close-up Culture to give us insight into her latest feature, The Trouble With Being Born.

The film follows Elli, an android who lives with a man she calls her father. Together they drift through the summer. During the day they swim in the pool and at night he takes her to bed. She shares his memories and anything else he programs her to recall. Memories that mean everything to him but nothing to her. Yet, one night she sets off into the woods following a fading echo… The story of a machine and the ghosts we all carry within us.

The Trouble With Being Born will have its world premiere (25 February) at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival.

Q: What are your thoughts and feelings heading into Berlinale? 

A: I am very happy that we will have our premiere in the very first edition of Encounters section at the Berlinale, especially in such good company. 

Q: Can you introduce us to this story and what audiences can expect from it?

A: It’s a film about an android that can be programmed to do anything you want, even some of the darkest things you can imagine. And yet the android doesn’t care. It just wants what it’s programmed to want. 

Q: The title of this film is dark, philosophical and inviting – it reminds me somewhat of David Benatar’s philosophy of anti-natalism. What was your starting point for this project? Was it a philosophical question?

A: Roderick Warich, with whom I also wrote the script, initially had the idea about this childlike android. What interested me was the perspective of this animate object that doesn’t judge the world in the way we humans do. Something that looks essentially like a human, but which is free of all the symbolic meanings we need to make sense of our existence – without those meanings, this object can maybe see the world as it is. See the chaos behind those meanings that are so necessary for us, and still remain completely unaffected by it.

The title itself we borrowed of Cioran’s The Trouble With Being Born, in which he describes the fact of birth as an inconvenience, as “that laughable accident.” 

Q: We’ve seen the relationship between technology and memory – particular the desire to keep hold of memories and our sense of meaning – probed in films such as Michael Almereyda’s ‘Marjorie Prime’. What did you want to explore about memory in ‘The Trouble With Being Born’? 

A: The way memories and ideas are superimposed on one another is something I was interested in already on my last film: memory as the narrative that provides meaning and identity, without which we would sink into meaningless chaos. Memory as programming, narration as the fundamental basis of human existence. Everything has a beginning and an end: the myth of self-fulfilment, which after all is also dominant in cinema.

In opposition to that is the fundamental endlessness of a machine’s existence, with its narration that can’t be immediately comprehended. I find that fascinating.

Q: What was important to you when formulating the sci-fi elements of this film – most namely Elli? Did you study AI or was technological accuracy not a priority?

It was evident to me from the very start that the film should not be located in a sci-fi setting, because the issues addressed by the film have essentially been anchored in our everyday present for a long time.

I think the term fable might be appropriate for this film. Elli is more the idea of an android than the depiction of a technical reality. In a world that is increasingly virtual, everything you can imagine will eventually be able to be experienced. That means all our inner desires, that abyss which was always there in hidden form, will become more visible. So our inner pictures infringe on our outer reality and vice versa, the borders dissolve. I wanted to explore that phenomenon

Q: Young Lena Watson plays Elli. How did you help Lena navigate this challenging role?

A: We are just so lucky to have found Lena Watson and her whole family. Without her talent and their trust and belief in the project, this film would not have been possible. We had many honest and clear conversations and her family also was present during the shoot.

And Lena just slipped into that role of this android with an incredible discipline and understanding of that role. And I mean, it is quite an exhausting job, where you always have to hide yourself behind a silicone mask. That was absolutely necessary for the story of course but it also helped to protect Lenas identity to a certain point. She was just a real professional. And it was a pleasure to work with her. 

Q: I’ve seen a few striking stills from the film which seem to speak to the isolation of Elli. Can you tell us about the visual style of the film and working with cinematographer Timm Kröger?

A: Timm Kröger is my closest person, and therefore is way more involved than maybe another cinematographer would be. He is the one who has a very strong believe in my ideas and really pushes me. So we quite often have fundamental discussions that of course influence the structure of the film. He is a director himself (Zerrumpelt Herz) and is now working on his second feature, Die Theorie von Allem. So he understands my position but still he is able to totally merge into my mindset without trying to make his film.

I think he is an outstanding cinematographer, he always goes along with what the film itself needs and only works with as much equipment as is absolutely necessary. Therefore our team was really small and we were able to run in the right direction, if, say, some early morning fog came up and we shot scenes that may have been vaguely envisioned, but were never planned. 

Q: What do you hope audiences at Berlinale take away from ‘The Trouble With Being Born’?

A: An unsettling, irritating experience that feels a little bit like an eerie dream that pulls you in. Though I am not sure whether it’s the dream of an android or a human. 

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