In this luscious, award-winning period piece, a young man meets the great love of his life in a country hotel outside Leipzig. He soon finds that the hotel is a brothel in disguise and his beloved serves as courtesan to the local count. With the grand tragedy of opera and the great sweep of a Russian novel, Dutch director Jos Stelling paints gorgeous images of passion, greed, and revenge. •Thanks to Brian Geldin for arranging this interview.•
DT: You got your film education in a very unique way.
JS: When I was young, there was no film school at all in Holland; you had to try it out by yourself. I went to a Roman Catholic boys’ school, where I was taught by French-speaking priests. That meant we had a lot of film education, because they couldn’t understand Dutch literature. In the beginning of the ’50s I saw all the old French and Italian movies, and that was my starting point more or less.
DT: Your films win many awards in Europe, but they’re outside mainstream American cinema. How do you think The Girl and Death will play in the States?
JS: In the United States, storytelling is very important, while it’s less important in European films. I think that characters, for instance, are not interesting at all in film. For me, the situation is much more important than the characters, which are more or less archetypes in the film business. And that’s perhaps the difference between Europe and the United States. But I was in the U.S. a number of times, and there are always people coming up to me to tell me they like my film very much. That’s the nice thing about the United States—there are so many different kinds of tastes. But I’m afraid it’s not a mainstream film.
DT: In addition to being a filmmaker, you established the Netherlands Film Festival and run an art house film theater. How do these activities support you as a filmmaker?
JS: Film is my life. I started thinking and working in film when I was young. Thirty or forty years ago, we had a little cinema in our house where we showed films. For me, filmmaking is not a personal thing. It’s a family thing. I’ve been working with the same crew for more than thirty years. I also believe that filmmaking gives you the possibility of doing more than what you can do by yourself. I’m surrounded by all kinds of people who are better than me—the cameraman is better than me, the art director, the actors—and my job is to keep the whole thing together, to make something above my head. That’s what I do, and that’s my reason for making films.
DT: Can you talk about your working relationship with Goert Giltay, your director of photography?
JS: We’ve been friends for more than thirty years, and we think the same way. Images in film are very, very important. Nowadays, these little digital cameras are a bit dangerous, in my opinion. People make all kinds of ego documents very quickly. Film is basically a visual art. In that sense, to make The Girl and Death, which has a lot of details and beautiful light, is a sort of statement at this time.
DT: In The Girl and Death, your characters recite one of Pushkin’s poems to each other. Did you use a Pushkin text as the basis for your screenplay?
JS: I used Pushkin as a sort of metaphor for poetry in general; that’s why I chose one of his most famous poems. I’m not Russian, and I can’t read the poems well—only bad translations in English or Dutch—so I can only use Pushkin as a symbol. You can’t translate that kind of thing. In the film, Pushkin’s book is also a metaphor for poetry, which connects the characters in the story.
DT: You have a great affinity for Russia.
JS: I love the Russians very much.
JS: Russians are very visually oriented. Even the music is visual, like the ballet music of Tchaikovsky or Mussorgsky. The public is greedy: They look very carefully to images, and that’s the basis of my relationship with Russia. I am much more popular in Russia than in Holland.
DT: Can you talk about working with Leonid Bichevin, who plays the young Nicolai?
JS: He always plays very macho roles—gangsters, Mafia people. I’d already worked with my leading actress, Sylvia Hoeks, and the first time I saw Leonid entering the office I knew immediately that he was the guy. He’s such a nice guy, and like all the Russians, he’s a very good actor. They are very disciplined. They know everything. They can sing, they can dance. The education for actors in Russia is very, very, very good. They concentrate so hard. For instance, I asked Leonid to do the fancy card play in the poker game by himself, but I told him it was also possible to have a stand-in for the hands shuffling the cards. He wanted to do it by himself, and he rehearsed this for more than half a year, even doing it on the set. The whole day he was doing the cards, the cards, always the cards. That kind of detail. They work so hard, they’re so disciplined. They are fantastic. It’s an amazing advantage to work with Russian actors.
DT: His discipline allowed you to get that wide shot of him shuffling the cards at the poker game. You would have had to use an insert otherwise.
JS: I didn’t need inserts because he did it himself. The competition in Russia, like in England, is very tough. Acting in Russia is based on theater acting. They always start in theater. When you start to be famous in theater, then you can go to the film business, not the other way around. In Holland it’s totally opposite. You start in film and then you go to theater. And the Russians are also very, very poetic. They help you give extra all the time.
DT: What do you want people to understand about your cinema?
JS: I’d like to say something about the power the audience has. I’ll tell you a little story. Twenty years ago, I made a film about Rembrandt’s last painting. The painting is in London, in The National Gallery. I took a special trip one weekend from Amsterdam to London just to see the painting. It was sort of a religious act. After checking into my hotel on Friday night I walked outside The National Gallery. The next day I was walking inside The National Gallery, but I promised myself to look at the Rembrandt only at four o’clock on Sunday afternoon. So on Saturday I saw all the other beautiful paintings—Caravaggio, and all the other Rembrandts—but I had to pass the one painting I’d come to see without looking at it. Then on Sunday morning, during breakfast at my hotel, I was nervous about seeing the painting at four o’clock. I went there at half past three, and there was an old lady sitting there in my place, in front of the painting. I had to wait a little bit, three-quarters of an hour, and then I was sitting in front of the painting, and I saw the most beautiful painting I’d ever seen. It was not the painting that was doing it; it was me. It was my choice to do it like that. What I’d like to say is that people have a lot of possibilities to enjoy something for their own reasons, in their own way. It’s about being amazed and surprised and full of wonder. That’s the power that every individual has, and I hope that when you go to my film, that kind of thing starts to work. But we have to do it together. Film is half the product, and the other half is the public. We have to do it together.
DT: Do you think it takes a certain amount of education on the part of the public, not in a formal sense but in the sense of watching good films? You have to know how to watch a film.
JS: But you have to trust yourself in the first place. Education is also helpful, of course, to know something, but The Girl and Death is a love story, and a love story has nothing to do with education. It’s a story where people want to have each other. In my opinion, the feeling of the world of art is always in between something. For instance, it’s between a man and a woman. Or between the past and the future. Between day and night. Everything is in between, like the whole world is between the North Pole and the South Pole. And that thing in between…that’s about hope, love, desire, hate, revenge, and that’s the subject of film in general. It’s not about the polars but about the space in between. The way you have the lights is also something in between the negative and the positive. Do you know the hands in the Sistine Chapel?
DT: The hand of God.
JS: The space in between. It’s a big painting, but the space between the hands is only five centimeters. When the hands are touching each other, it’s nothing. The space in between is fire, it’s life, it’s everything, it’s the world of music, the world of film, and that space in between, that’s the space of the public. Not the characters, not the hands, but the space in between. And in that way that’s what I show in this very simple film. It’s about desire, hate, and revenge. That’s the subject of my film. But everything is in between; that’s what I want to say about my cinema. It’s not about the man or the woman but the attraction between them. That’s the world of art, and I don’t know if it has something to do with education or the way in which you look at the world. In my opinion, women matter in watching that kind of thing more than men. Men are more pop driven, women are more between the things. When a man and a woman watch a car passing in a film, the man watches the car, while the woman sits inside the car. At my movie theater, for instance, the public who goes to the better films is mostly 70 percent women. They also read more literature.
DT: What’s your next project?
JS: A Russian producer invited me to make a film about Moscow. It’s a little bit funny, but it’s also about what Moscow is like these days. I’m building a love story, and I have a couple of good ideas.
Copyright © Director Talk 2014