Barbara Albert Spins Out of Control with "Free Radicals"
by Anthony Kaufman
Barbara Albert's "Free Radicals" opens with a shocker. Tapping into post-9/11 anxieties, the film's unnerving prologue finds one of its characters, Manu, sitting inside an airplane as it bumps and shakes before hurling towards the earth. Rendered with a visceral sense of terror, the scene even gave the film's 34-year-old writer-director nightmares for months on end. "It has to do with sudden death," Albert confessed at "Free Radicals" Toronto International Film Festival premiere, "and this is a film about the fear of it."
Heralded by Variety as among "the forefront of younger European talent," the Vienna native first drew international acclaim with 1999's "Northern Skirts," a pop-fueled, realist peek at wayward young Austrians that won accolades at the Venice and Vienna film festivals. With "Free Radicals," Albert expands her canvas to include an ambitious collection of lonely characters spinning out of orbit and trying to find connections in a cold and chaotic universe. Distributor Kino Releasing, which opens the film on Friday at New York's Anthology Film Archives, compares Albert's interwoven mosaic to Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia," but "Free Radicals" is a far more incisive, immediate and metaphysical portrait of human relations. Children seek their lost parents; a middle-age woman strives to obtain an unrequited love; and a gothic teenage girl channels the dead.
Translated strictly from the German as "Bad Cells," the film's English title, "Free Radicals," more appropriately conveys one of Albert's inspirations for the script: chaos theory. "Suddenly, science said we can't calculate everything," recalls Albert. "And we had to accept that there is no order and there's this feeling that you're walking on ice all the time." indieWIRE contributor Anthony Kaufman spoke with Barbara Albert about emotion, fear, and a-ha's "Take On Me."
indieWIRE: You've said that audiences' reactions have made you think about your film in different ways. What sorts of ways?
Barbara Albert: I realized that how I make films is very much about moments. For me, the film has very emotional moments, and I understood that some people couldn't feel the way I feel. It's strange, because on one hand, the movie is very theoretical, and on the other hand, it should be emotional. Some people can really take the emotional side, but other people are too irritated by certain scenes -- like the sex scenes, which may be hard to take -- so it's very interesting to see that there are these two possibilities to watch the film. You can let the things come into you or you look at them from a distance.
In the New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote that I'm a filmmaker who takes a very distant view of life and the characters. But I don't identify with that distance. I feel very connected and very close to the characters and I really love them. I couldn't really take that criticism. I feel the distance is not my distance. I think he didn't like it, he didn't like the sex scene, he thought that men are pigs, and women suffer, and this is really not what I wanted to tell. It's really interesting how differently people can see the film.
iW: Can you talk about the use of music in the film? It's very nostalgic, from a-ha's "Take On Me" to the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin."
Albert: Some songs, like the disco, are taking place now, so it's also modern music. But the a-ha song was there, because I wanted to show these women were friends for a long time, so this is why they have this old song together. And for the people who are in the choir, they could be singing songs from their youth. And the "San Francisco" song, when the singer sings this song and Patricia, the young girl with the pimples, begins dancing, it is the one moment where she loses herself. Also, the song tells about a time that is so different from now, and everything this song is talking about is naïve, and when you listen to the song now, you know there are 30 years between then and now, and this whole space between. I have a very strong feeling about how our world has changed. Without judging, to connect times and places, this is one thing you can do in film and you can do it in an emotional way through music.
iW: There's a lot of dancing in the film. And I seem to remember significant dancing moments in your last film, "Northern Skirts." What is it about seeing your characters in motion?
Albert: I think people are very controlled -- this is how I see the world and this is how I work. We're very tense. We live in a world where there are rules. We must behave like this or that. And in film, especially in "Free Radicals," I wanted to put people in this frame -- they don't see more than the space they live in, especially the guy who gets the house in the end. You can see how much he can't see farther than his own little world. And this is what I wanted to say: that we are all so bound to our small words, and it's very limited, but there are some moments where you break out through music or dance. In these moments, people can feel something they're not connected to in themselves. It's the opposite of what I'm showing in the rest of the film. That's why I need it, because otherwise, people would really suffer through it.
iW: In light of the title, those people spinning out of control also makes me think of particles.
Albert: I've very happy that you have this association. I thought "Particles" would be a good title for the film.
iW: The other moment that I find very powerful is the opening with the plane crash. It's absolutely terrifying. Practically, how did you do it and make it so realistic?
Albert: Since I shot this scene, every month I've had an awful, terrible dream about dying in an airplane. Practically speaking, it was an easy thing for me to show. We knew we were limited. It's very difficult, especially after September 11, to get help from an airline. In Vienna, we couldn't shoot at the airport. So we went to Bratislava in Slovakia, and we shot in a plane that was on the ground. And we did it all with not only a handheld camera, but a special handheld construction made by the director of photography where you bind the camera with bungee cords: so it was very smooth on one hand and very uncontrolled movements on the other. I knew I couldn't shoot out the plane, so I knew everything had to work with the actress [Kathrin Resetarits]. She was really good in the scene and I think she went beyond herself. She is the only actress I know who has this intensity, whose presence could stay in the film until the end, even though she leaves so early.
iW: You have mentioned the movie is about one's fear of sudden death. Is the movie, in some way, your way of warding off your own fears?
Albert: "Northern Skirts" was autobiographical, but for me, this film is more personal. It's about this fear, of course, but I found something out during this two-year writing process. I was working with this script supervisor and he asked me one day, "Where are you in the script?" And suddenly, I realized I'm in this little blond girl who loses the mother -- not that I lost my mother. But her observing the world without understanding and her dealing with this death is something that was also in my childhood. As a kid, I was so much afraid of dying. Sometimes, I didn't want to go to school, because I thought I would die when I went there.
At the very end of the film, after trying to think of solutions or systems or how you can overcome this fear or loneliness, after all this, I can only say that I have to accept it. You live and you die. That's it. There's really nothing more than you can say. You have to deal with it and accept it. And it doesn't make me sad or angry anymore.
iW: I feel like there are very few movies that end at the right moment. But I think your film ends at the absolute perfect moment.
Albert: Usually, I make too many endings. In this film, there were some other scenes in the end and I really understood that it was too much and I cut some small things. I think it has something to do with feeling reconciled.
iW: Do you feel there is an optimism in that ending?
Albert: I think it's neutral. It's the ambivalence that I like.
iW: When did you decide to structure the film according to the seasons?
Albert: I very much like to work with structures. I need to know how the film is going to be structured. When I write, I lay out the structure of the scenes first. I have to know the beginning and the end and the rhythm that goes through the film. For this film, I knew I need something that tells time is passing. And usually, if you have spring, summer, fall, and winter, you have these beautiful landscapes, and I like that I'm telling it through the construction of this shopping mall, which is a very strong picture for the world we live in.
iW: I wonder if part of the distance that some audiences are feeling is that it's clear that the characters' priorities are messed up. We're looking at these people who the best thing they have to celebrate is this horrible mall.
Albert: It's true, but I am a part of it. Otherwise, I think it's arrogant. You can say that I feel pity for some of the characters, because they are so happy to win something that is not important. But through all of this, I go with them. I would never say, look at these poor people. There are some moments in the cinema where people laugh at the characters, or in documentaries, where you laugh at the people. What I hope for the film is that audiences think, "Maybe I'm not so different."