The Grass Is Always Greener on the Other Side
Elke and Iris are old friends who have lost track of each other somewhat over the years. Both are fast approaching fifty, but do everything they can to make sure they don’t look like it. Iris got married recently and Elke lived for a while in Portugal, but neither of the two is really happy with her life. They drive out to the country together to spend a relaxing weekend in Iris’s tastefully decorated weekend home. While reminiscing about the good old days, memories flash by of how they used to go on the prowl back in their “wild years”, and both decide to get dolled up and go to the village inn to look for some likely victims.
The way the two aging big-city vixens hang out at the dingy country bar and set their sights on their prey, an unsuspecting and much younger forester, is really worth watching. Not least because the actual duel here takes place not between the clumsy balding ersatz Romeo and his seasoned pursuers, but in reality between Iris and Elke themselves. The typical feminine battle for male attention can take on many guises and is a central theme in the films of Lola Randl.
“Friendships between women can have some incredibly nasty undertones”, says the 28-year-old. “What I find so interesting about these relationships is that so much takes place beneath the surface, i.e. between the lines of what is actually said. That’s the level that interests me most when I’m writing. The most intriguing part is not what the characters say, but how they say it. It’s the same in normal life, where the pauses in a conversation sometimes say much more than the actual words spoken.”
The director knows just how to set these pauses to the greatest effect. Already in “Nachmittagsprogramm” (Afternoon Activities), a short film she made in her third year at film school, the oppressive pauses in a halting dialogue between two bored teenagers in a rural village say much more than their awkward words.
In its best moments, “Nachmittagsprogramm” is a bit like a defused, short version of Ulrich Seidl’s “Hundstage” (Dog Days). It is an unbearably hot day in the Bavarian hinterland, and the two young protagonists feel like there is no place for them amidst the garden sprinklers and the deserted bus stop. The only way out is to break the rules – all it takes is a few cans of beer, a souped-up moped and a dip in an off-limits gravel pit that has now become a swimming hole. Fortunately, the film doesn’t try to be more than the closely observed depiction of a brief moment of rebellion. Randl makes sure not to turn the small flight from everyday life into a full-fledged story. These two bored adolescents don’t experience a once-in-a-lifetime moment, the beginning of a romantic love story or a fantastic friendship, but rather stumble their way through one of the many situations encountered in the ordinary hell of puberty – one which they will never think back on later without a shudder, because nothing turned out the way they imagined, and no emotion felt like they expected it to.
After just 20 minutes Randl takes leave of her characters just as unspectacularly as she introduced them. Following their joint escape from boredom, the film spits out the two protagonists at the very same spot where they started. “Nachmittagsprogramm”, made at Cologne’s Academy of Media Arts, was shown at various short film festivals and brought the student director her first distinctions.
For her next project, Randl, who grew up in an ecology-minded commune in the Bavarian countryside, once again chose a setting south of the “white sausage equator”. Her focus on the southernmost German state isn’t prompted by a love of her homeland, however, but more by a sure instinct that she hasn’t yet exhausted this topic to her satisfaction.
A long research phase marked the beginning of her work on her next film, which was planned as a long documentary. Once she had found a prototypical setting in Plattling, a small town between Regensburg and Passau, she began to shoot elaborate casting calls for a whole series of roles. The hub where the various characters were to meet up was a photo studio in Plattling that specializes, among other things, in erotic photography. Randl did in fact succeed after months of shooting to document a number of bizarre incidents, but after a good year she had to concede self-critically that, despite mountains of material, she still hadn’t been able to make out a sufficiently strong storyline to realize a feature-length documentary film. After nearly one-and-a-half years of work, it’s naturally a bitter moment for a filmmaker when she is forced to admit defeat, but in the end Randl decided to concentrate on the stronger episodes and to make a short film instead.
The result is titled “Verena, Verona” (2005) and portrays in just under a quarter of an hour two young girls from Plattling who travel to Italy’s Adriatic coast after peak season in search of the wild life. After the first scenes it is already evident why Randl chose to focus on these two characters. Dialogues like these could never be made up. The viewer watches, aghast, as the two girls get dressed up before the TV in their cheap hotel room and set off, veiled in clouds of hairspray and perfume, determined to do whatever it takes to pick up some guys. Of course the two graces know full well that a camera is following their every move – that’s something two young women on the make could never lose sight of. Despite this consciousness of being watched – or perhaps for that very reason – the girls’ behaviour is absolutely uninhibited (the word “natural” doesn’t really suit, what with all the wild drinking and making out) and very, very cool. It’s not easy to watch as the two carelessly skirt the depths of depravity. That the balancing act succeeds in the end is due above all to the sensitive editing, the camera lingering on a scene exactly for as long as the viewer can bear to look. Here as well, one is reminded of works by Austrian colleagues such as Ulrich Seidl or Barbara Albert, who likewise specialize in oscillating between staged scenes and documentation.
Following her draining foray into the world of documentary film, Randl decided to devote herself primarily to writing for a time. In retrospect she says that through this excursion into another genre she was able to gain a great deal of experience and at the same time to disabuse herself of the illusion that it is faster and easier to make a documentary than a fiction film. Even though she does not in principle rule out the possibility of once again working in the documentary format, she would like after this experience to concentrate for the time being on telling fictional stories. With her above-mentioned short film “Wohlfühlwochenende” (Feel-Good Weekend) Randl completed her film studies in Cologne.
She describes her own working method, tongue in cheek, as dialectic:
“I tend a little bit to always think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. If I’m in the midst of writing a screenplay, I’ll be longing for a fixed work schedule and the fast pace of a day of shooting, and if I’m shooting a film I would like nothing more than to spend a day alone in peace at my desk. Whenever I’m making a short film I yearn for the time and narrative means available in a feature-length film, and whenever I’m trying to put together financing for a feature-length film – that’s of course when I would love to just shoot a quick, spontaneous little short film.”
Despite all the dialectics, writing is very close to her heart. Up to now she has not been able to imagine putting a book by someone else on film. There’s still too much she wants to tell. She also wrote the screenplay for her feature-film debut, “Die Besucherin” (The Visitor), which premiered at the 2008 Berlinale. In parallel with her work on the subdued, theatre-like story of a very busy female scientist whose life gradually begins to fall apart at the seams, Randl began a project in 2007 that she has in the meantime expanded into a series and which has given her a certain cult status on the short film scene.
Together with Austrian actor Rainer Egger she developed the role of the lovable but latently psychotic character Karpf, who roams alone through his apartment and in his fantasy world morphs in no time from a hale and hearty man of leisure into a chronically ill invalid. “Die Leiden des Herrn Karpf – Morbus Bechterew” (The Suffering of Mr. Karpf – Morbus Bechterew”, 2007) soon became an audience hit on the short-film circuit, running at a number of festivals and winning the BMW Short Film Award at the Regensburg Short Film Week. As so often with cult films, the formula here is quite simple: a man, his apartment and a camera. Since the first film in 2007, two further episodes have been released: “Die Leiden des Herrn Karpf – Der Besuch” (The Suffering of Mr. Karpf – The Visit, 2008) and “Die Leiden des Herrn Karpf – Der Geburtstag” (The Suffering of Mr. Karpf – The Birthday, 2009), which have run at several festivals and were also broadcast on television.
Randl and Egger furnish Mr. Karpf with all the accoutrements of the postmodern hermit of classic Austrian extraction: an apparently very high degree of self-reflection, which however by no means goes hand in hand with any actual insights into his own weaknesses, a decidedly healthy level of self-confidence undeterred in the face of obvious rejection by the outside world, and the ability to conduct interminable monologues that do not seem to require a listener.
For their joint work, Randl and Egger do not use polished screenplays but rather immerse themselves in a cinematic situation in which documentary melds with fiction. A specific plot element is introduced that – at least for a misfit like Mr. Karpf – harbours a certain potential for conflict, such as awaiting a visit from a woman. Out of such harmless everyday situations, Mr. Karpf rapidly develops the stuff of existential drama.
He has managed with his exploits to acquire a veritable fan club. And Lola Randl herself also appreciates in the meantime the privilege of “always being able to return to the same character”.
She remarks: “Working with Mr. Karpf is for me a little bit like coming home. And economically as well, the sufferings of Mr. Karpf have proven to be quite a boon. Despite what many people think about short film, the relationship between creative and financial output and the income a film makes is in the case of the Karpf films in the meantime quite excellent. This is also of course due to the fact that the series is relatively inexpensive to produce, while the notice we have achieved with these works is substantial”, says the director, pleased.
Even though she is at the moment busy working on the screenplay for her next feature-length film, there is no question that Mr. Karpf will have to suffer through new dilemmas in the future. And Lola Randl is certain that she will remain loyal not only to her veteran protagonist, but also to the short film as genre, despite or perhaps precisely because of her experiences in the feature-film sector.
“Particularly for someone like me, who always wants what she doesn’t have at the moment, this working method is ideal. My experiences in the two different worlds, that is the combination of writing and directing, of short film and feature-length film, allow me to really concentrate on my work without thinking that I’m missing out on something important.”
“¢ 2001: Vom Bett aus bedacht
“¢ 2003: Geh aus mein Herz
“¢ 2004: Nachmittagsprogramm (Afternoon Activities)
“¢ 2006: Wohlfühlwochenende (Feel-Good Weekend)
“¢ 2006: Verena Verona
“¢ 2007: Die Leiden des Herrn Karpf – Morbus Bechterew (The Suffering of Mr. Karpf – Morbus Bechterew)
“¢ 2008: Die Leiden des Herrn Karpf – Der Besuch (The Suffering of Mr. Karpf – The Visit)
“¢ 2008: Die Leiden des Herrn Karpf – Der Geburtstag (The Suffering of Mr. Karpf – The Birthday)
“¢ 2008: Die Besucherin (The Visitor)