"Aimee and Jaguar"and Max; German Director's Lesbian Adventures
by Emily Bobrow
(indieWIRE/ 8.15.00) -- In the new German film "Aimee & Jaguar," living in Berlin in 1943 was like dancing an endless waltz on hot coals, with everyone struggling to keep the stink of death at bay. In this true story of an unlikely love affair between two women -- a charismatic member of the Jewish underground and a Nazi-sympathizing mother of four -- German director Max Färberböck manages to capture the nightmarish nuances of this historical moment. He depicts lipstick-wearing ladies stepping around corpses en route to the symphony and Jewish women covertly drinking wine at parties after starving all day.
Based on Erica Fischer's book "Aimee & Jaguar: A Love Story"-- an account of Lilly Wust's recollections of her relationship with Felice Schragenheim -- this 1999 Golden Globe contender is Färberböck's first big screen effort. After close to 20 years of writing and directing for TV and the theater, Färberböck decided to tackle a double-taboo in German cinema: a lesbian love affair set during the Third Reich. His courage, matched by his talent, has been rewarded kindly with a wide international release and a number of festival awards (including the Silver Berlin Bear for both leading actresses, Maria Schrader and Juliane Köhler). Zeitgeist Films released the film at New York's Quad theater last Friday where it sold out shows, grossing $16,000 for the weekend. indieWIRE recently spoke with Färberböck about lesbians, adaptation and the Third Reich.
indieWIRE: What drew you to Lilly Wust's story?
Max Färberböck: It's very simple: it was offered to me. A German producer [Günter Rohrbach] gave me the book, which intrigued me. It wasn't an easy decision to make because I had already written a story about a love affair between two women, and I was of course much closer to my own story than to "Aimee & Jaguar" in the beginning. But, of course, the result is there on screen.
iW: You had already written a script on similar subject matter?
Färberböck: It was not a script, it was more of an outline of a story about two women, two mothers of Hamburg families, who go on a vacation together and one of them declares her love for the other. It was one of those stories that you are always writing -- it was already lying there for about five years. And when "Aimee & Jaguar" came, I said to myself, "No, I won't do a story about love between two women, because I wanted to do my own."
iW: What about that theme intrigued you so much?
Färberböck: I was not especially interested in it -- the first story, my own one, came from an image I saw when I was 14 or 15 years old. I was in Paris on a trip and I saw two women standing in front of a mirror in a hotel, and I thought, "What are those two women doing there? "They were looking at each other in the mirror, fully dressed, and I thought they might be lesbians -- I was a little tense about it. This image came back to me one day when I was searching for a story -- I said to myself, "Who were those women?" and I started to fantasize about them. The whole story just came out of that. The main characters [of my stories] are always women.
iW: There are very few appealing male characters in "Aimee & Jaguar, "but all the women come across as strong and sympathetic. What is it about women that make them more compelling subjects for you?
Färberböck: There are usually more things happening in women than in men. For women, life is more contradictory; there is more ambivalence, so as dramatic material I think they're richer. For me it was also very important to have those men in "Aimee & Jaguar" because they are all broken figures in a way, which had to do with the times. Lilly's German soldier husband was like a lot of men at that time -- they were fighting but they were full of fear, and when they came home they wanted to be husbands and lovers. They wanted to get everything they could during their short time away from the front. These are men who want so many things that in the end they don't get anything, except a bullet, maybe.
iW: What were some of the decisions you made in adapting Fischer's book -- what elements of the story did you emphasize?
Färberböck: I read the book when it was offered to me, and read it again when I decided to make the film, and that was it. I did a lot of reading and saw a lot of documentaries about that time in Berlin -- I read a lot of different diaries from that time -- and the film is a mixture of all that together. If you do an adaptation of a novel or a biography, you have to read. There are parts of the movie that are not in Erica Fischer's books -- points that I felt are important to the characters. The [actual] husband of Lilly was completely different. He was more of a bourgeois bank man, but I wanted him to be a German soldier for the reasons I explained before.
I sat down and wrote the script and I didn't want to meet Lilly Wust before the script was finished. I said to myself, either I have a feeling for their love and their story, or I take my hands off [the film]. When it was ready, I gave it to Lilly and to Erica Fischer.
iW: What was their reaction?
Färberböck: They both liked it, and that was very important for me because they have different opinions about what happened. There is a rumor that maybe Felice wasn't that much in love with Lilly. Felice was very cosmopolitan; she was highly bourgeois, highly educated, very playful, very charming, she was just a brilliant character. And Lilly was a German housewife. Erica Fischer has this opinion that there were some strong contradictions in Lilly's story. For me, because I was reinventing the story, I came to the point where I myself didn't know whether everything was like I had imagined. We all want to see a huge love story. So I came to a point where I thought maybe Felice just needed a place to hide, and Lilly was just a go-between for her, or another adventure. I really started to doubt the story, which was an incredibly important moment for the script. When that happened, I took an afternoon to read the love letters from Felice, and I discovered that they were the truth. So I figured if Felice loved her, then there must be something I didn't fully understand before, that there was more to Lilly. If you reinvent the characters, and you go with them through this whole emotional labyrinth, either you find your way out in the end or you don't.
iW: How did you find the women who would bring these characters to life?
Färberböck: For Felice, I needed an actress who was able to play a number of dimensions -- she is always in a state of panic and fear, but at the same time she is liberating herself from those different emotions. It is very rare to get all those levels from an actor. I knew Maria Schrader and I always wanted to work with her. I had her in mind as I was writing the script. I took her and Julian Köhler and did the most terrible thing -- I called them the day before and I gave them the most dramatic scene of the whole script. I don't know why I did this -- you cannot force actors to play the real tough parts in a casting call. They only had time to learn the text, but from the first moment they were so close to the characters that for me it was much too much.
I don't like actors to think too much about what they are doing. I [like to] go for the risk, for something that may be completely wrong, but alive. For me, it is the most adventurous thing to not prepare anything, to say, "Roll," and see it for the first time. There are many ways to get to the soul of an actor, but I think the worst way is for a director to prepare something at home and go on the set and expect to get that from the actors.
iW: How did the film do in Germany?
Färberböck: It did very well. The biggest danger for a director in Germany is to make a movie on the Third Reich -- this is clearly anti-commercial. Of course there were many people going into "Schindler's List," but that was a Spielberg film. For a German director to do a film on the Third Reich, most people don't come. Though a lot of people did come to "Aimee & Jaguar," and a lot of men came to see a love story about two women. The strangest thing for me was that young hip-hop groups would go to see the movie two or three times. It was unexpected for the movie to have this success in Germany.
iW: Is this marking a trend of self-reflexive cinema in Germany?
Färberböck: I don't know whether there will be other stories. "Aimee & Jaguar" is a biography, and of course there are others, but until now they are not made. I now have three or four offers to make films on the Third Reich. I have made one film on that time, and now I have become a specialist on the taboo theme. People were waiting to see how this film would succeed. People want to make these films, but as far as I know, they aren't being produced.
[Emily Bobrow is a regular contributor to indieWIRE. Her work has also appeared in the Village Voice, Film Journal International and The Independent Film and Video Monthly.]