Timing, they say, is everything. Stefan Ruzowitzky’s couldn’t have been worse. The Austrian director, best known for the 2007 Oscar-winning Holocaust drama The Counterfeiters, saw his new film, Narcissus & Goldmund, released in Germany on Thursday, March 12, a wide bow from Sony Pictures.
By Friday, March 13, every theater in Germany, and Austria, was shut down due to coronavirus. “It was a disaster!” he groans, shaking his head in disbelief, via video from his home in Vienna. “It was the worst-possible result for the movie.”
Sony was counting on major box office for the period epic, which Ruzowitzky adapted from the literary classic by German writer Hermann Hesse. Instead, Narcissus & Goldmund will have to try its luck with international audiences. Beta Cinema is screening the film for buyers at the virtual Cannes Film Market this week.
The initial response has been strong. Beta closed multiple deals for Narcissus & Goldmund out of Cannes, including with Vertigo Films for Spain, A2 Distribuidora in Brazil and JinJin Pictures in South Korea, with a North American deal in negotiations.
The story of two very different friends — Narcissus, a Medieval monk who lives a cloistered life surrounded by books and ideas, and Goldmund, a randy artist and vagabond — Hesse’s novel has been a cult favorite since it published back in 1930. The book was rediscovered by the 1960s generation who saw a proto-hippie in the wanderlust-y free-loving Goldmund. But the book’s complicated structure — which includes long philosophical discussions between the two men about science, philosophy and the meaning of life — made it resistant to adaptation.
Ruzowitzky spoke to THR about the challenges of making a 90-year-old story relevant, why all writers resemble Narcissus and all directors are Goldmund, and the surprising benefits of life under lockdown.
First, how are you doing, stuck at home like all of us these days?
Actually I’m doing fine. I’m happy I have a garden and that I don’t have kids that need to be home schooled. Those are my two giant assets. I was already planning to take this time to take some time off and think about things, do some writing. The lockdown didn’t completely turn my working plans upside down. Except for the theatrical flop of Narcissus & Goldmund, I’m doing relatively well.
Sony released the film in Germany and Austria just before the country’s shut down all the cinemas because of coronavirus.
On our very first weekend! It was the worst-possible timing. Sony put put up a big marketing campaign targeting that release date — TV ads, all of it — and that’s all gone, poof! Maybe some people will go to see it as cinemas start to re-open, but for a big, mainstream start, which is what it was planned as, its a catastrophe. I also suspect, coming out of this crisis, that this kind of film, a literary adaptation, which tend to be something for an older audience, will have it harder. I expect older viewers will be the group that will be the most cautious about going back to cinemas. So we’re putting our hopes on selling the film internationally. [editors’ note: Narcissus & Goldmund returned to the top ten —number 1 in Austria and number 2 in Germany —on the first weekend cinemas reopened, though capacity restrictions meant box office was limited.]
What are your expectations on that front?
Well, we always hoped for a global audience. [Hermann] Hesse is a global brand. There are Hesse fans around the world, specifically Narcissus & Goldmund fans. It’s not 50 Shades of Grey but people around the world, particularly young people, still read and love Hesse. It’s a brand. We hope we can take advantage of that.
The book is from 1930 and has never been out of print since. Why did it take so long to make a Narcissus and Goldmund film?
Hesse himself was very skeptical about film and his publisher and the Hermann Hesse foundation are quite strict about anyone adapting his material. But the book itself is also challenging for a director. It’s very philosophical. At its core is a discussion about the meaning of life. It isn’t just plot driven. I tried to translate that philosophical core in a way that, while the movie is about plot and action, the ideas in there didn’t get lost.
What was the biggest challenge in adapting this 90-year-old book?
Well, the biggest technical challenge is that this is a book about a great friendship and one of the friends — Narcissus — only appears at the very beginning and at the very end of the book. The whole middle section is all about Goldmund’s travels. That’s why I used a framing device in the film to go back and forth, to make sure Narcissus is part of the film throughout. The other challenge was to find the right balance between the plot, that is in the book, but that isn’t in the foreground of the novel, and to still remain true to the political, ideological aspects of the book.
I’ve found that Hesse fans who like the book, really like the film too. People who find Hesse too kitschy, aren’t too fond of the movie. But that’s just the way it is. The film isn’t hugely provocative or controversial because the book isn’t either. I felt bound to be true to the source.
How did you first encounter the book, in school?
Not at school but around that time, when I was 15-16. And I loved it. What I found so interesting, then and now, is the friendship between Narcissus and Goldmund. That’s a universal theme. This idea that you have what in Austria we call a “Lebensmenschen”: a friend for life. You can go down completely different paths, live completely different lives. Have completely different political ideologies. You might spend 20 years without seeing each other, but when you meet again it’s as if it was yesterday. The friendship, the relationship, comes rushing back.
Is that the secret of Hesse’s enduring appeal, particularly with younger audiences?
I think so. Hesse, enjoyed a boom in popularity in the 1960s, with the Hippies and the free love generation. But that’s pretty much over now. People can still have free love if they want to and nobody really gets to upset. And we’ve learned that free love has to be free love for women as well as men. But I don’t think its a real topic these days. I think friendship is a stronger, more current topic. Particularly male friendship. In Germany, or German-speaking Europe, there’s been a huge change. Having male friendships that can be more emotional, gentler. 20 years ago, you would not have seen two German or two Austrian men hugging, not unless they were very, very close friends. It just wasn’t accepted. Male friendships were rougher, macho. This bro culture is still very new and I think that’s more interesting to explore than the old Cherchez La Femme [look at the women] approach. Male friendship is more a topic right now.
The friendship between Narcissus and Goldmund, both in book and in your film, also has a homoerotic component.
That’s definitely there in the book. It’s pretty obvious that one of the Bros — Narcissus — would like to be more than just friends and that the other, Goldmund, only has eyes for women. I made that a stronger, more emotional character element for Narcissus, that he suffers, in addition because he is such an intellectual, spiritual type, who sees himself as a man of the church who wants to ban his every emotion, all his own sexuality, because everything should belong to God. And then he falls in love with his best friend, which is just terrible for him. I emphasized that aspect of his character but it is very clearly there in the book, I didn’t make it up.
Religion, particularly the Catholic Church, is a dominant force in the book and your film. What’s your personal relationship to the church and has it had an influence on your work as a director?
I’m actually one of that tiny minority of Austrian Protestants but it’s funny: I read in a review that, stylistically, you can divide Austrian directors into Catholic and Protestant styles, with [Michael] Haneke, with the very rigid worldview of his films and strictly controlled images, as the typical Protestant director. Stylistically, my films are much more baroque, quite Catholic really. But, maybe because I was raised in a very tolerant, almost indifferent, religion, I don’t have any problem with the church. I’m not a religious man but I have a fairly neutral attitude.
For this film, I think it is more about the duality between physical life and the life of the mind. And in the Middle Ages, the church was where you found these reflective, intellectual people. But the conflicts that Narcissus has, trying to use logic and ignore or repress his emotions, those are the same conflicts that any present-day atheist intellectual would have.
Do you see a similar conflict — between the Narcissus vs Goldmund worldview — in your own career? You’ve jumped back and forth between intellectual, historic films, like The Counterfeiters and The Inheritors, and horror films like Anatomy and Patient Zero.
In my work as a director, I’m definitely much more emotional, more Goldmund. I write great emotional conflicts into my characters. But personally, at home, I’m more Narcissus. I’m more comfortable in the intellectual sphere, where things are carefully organized. I’m not overwrought or emotional. Quite the opposite.
Narcissus at home and Goldmund on set.
Exactly. Being a screenplay writer is a classic Narcissus existence: everything happens in your head. You don’t get your hands dirty. The work of a director is a Goldmund life. You have to be in contact with people, your adrenaline is pumping around the clock. There are big emotions, big drama. Euphoria and desperation: I love it and wouldn’t want to miss it. I wouldn’t want to be just a writer.
Slowly, production is starting up again. How do you think making movies will change post-COVID-19?
In the near-future, I think we’re going to see a big change. In Austria we have a mountain of new rules about how we have to behave during Corona and we’ll have to see if it makes sense to start shooting under these conditions or to wait till things are safer. I’m glad that, at the moment, I don’t have a project ready to shoot because making a movie right now is going to be a lot more complicated. Social distancing isn’t what you really want on a film set. It’s all about coming together to create something. After a night shoot, in the early morning hours, you want to be able to hug your actors and your crews. It would be sad, and bitter, if all that would fall away.
So your not a fan of directing via Zoom?
No! Some see this crisis as a chance to direct in a different way. I don’t, because all the things we are giving up right now are things we want in our lives. We want to be able to visit our grandparents, we want to go out with friends, we want to to dance at the clubs all night, we want to travel. Those things were great! And on a shoot, you want to get close to one another to create. It’s not about keeping your distance.
Narcissus & Goldmund is screening at the virtual Cannes market. What is the roll out plan after that?
Normally it would have gone to festivals and then got theatrical releases internationally. We’ll have to see what happens. The festival circuit is uncertain, especially with the fears of a second wave [of infections]. I’m determined not to get depressed about it. The [German] theatrical release is what it is. Let’s see what happens now on the international side.
What are you working on now?
I’m doing post-production on Hinterland, a project that we finished shooting last year. We shot it completely on blue screen, so there’s a lot of post. Every backdrop has to be created in the computer. It looks amazing. I’ve never done something like this before. It’s set after World War I. It’s sort of an attempt to do a Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [the German silent film classic from 1920] with digital tools.
The background, the digital set, will reflect and express the distortion and twisted nature of our character’s inner world and also that of the entire culture. Because that’s how people felt after WWI, they had the feeling that nothing is as it should be, nothing is straightforward or right. The culture shock after WWI was actually much greater than that after WW2. After WW2, there was the feeling of putting a lid on it, of trying to forget. We won’t talk about it, we don’t want to hear about it and everything will be clear and tidy. So you get Doris Day. After WWI you get Dadaism, all these artistic movements. You get new political movements that look at the world in a completely new way, from communism to nazism. That all comes out of WWI.
Do have a new project you’re working on?
There are a bunch of projects — both series and films, both German and English-language — but of course everything has come to a standstill during corona. We’ll see which ones are still alive when we come out of this. But for the first time, since I started in this business, I’m writing something on spec. A novel. I’d never managed that before. But this cloistered lifestyle, this Narcissus existence, has inspired me to try it. It’s a real luxury. I’m trying to see if I can write both the novel and the screenplay adaptation at the same time. It’s been fun to create something from the ground up. That’s what’s obsessing me right now. But it’s too early to say anything more about it yet.