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Cloud 9 at 70 plus

Andreas Dresen talks to Birgit Glombizta about geriatric love and sex, and his new film "Wolke 9"

taz: Herr Dresen, are things more ecstatic on "Cloud 9" than on the usual [according to German idiom] cloud 7?

All images © Andreas Dresen

Andreas Dresen
: I think so, yes. People are older, their feelings are more intense, they fly a bit higher in their passion. Perhaps they're asking themselves how often they will experience this again? On the other hand it also means they have further to fall.

The title of your film comes from John Lennon's song "Nobody loves you".

It's from one of my favourite John Lennon albums, "Walls and Bridges" which has accompanied me since my youth. That was where I first came across the expression "cloud 9". It creates a crazy image when you translate it into German. I always thought it would make a good name for a film. I just never had a film to fit it. When we were chewing over this project we had a string of idiotic working titles like "love in old age". Then I remembered "cloud 9".

Is "Cloud 9" also meant as a little educational film for all those who think that people in their 70s should be in the geriatric ward rather than having sex?

It's more of a love story, a story about folly, which can hold you in its grip, even when you're old Love is not sensible, it doesn't stick to life plans. Of course it was also important for me to show that old people don't just travel about on buses or float along in steam boats or buy electric blankets.

The current statistics for old age show that women now have a life expectancy of 93.

Unbelievable isn't it? So there's decades of good sex ahead. I recently met a couple who had just fallen in love, he was in his mid-80s, she was three or four years younger, and of course they were having sex with each another and they were happy to talk about it. I'd always assumed that all that would stop for biological reasons somewhere between 60 and 70. But now I'm hearing that sex in old age can keep getting better and better, more tender, more experienced, also because there's less pressure to perform. So it's not over yet! I think that's great.

"Cloud 9" takes 30 to 40-year-olds into their parents' bedrooms and confronts them with scenes that sons and daughters would never want to think about in too much detail. Is this supposed to be enlightening in some way?

Yes, but that's not my main concern. After all it's a film about love, not sex. But the main character has no idea about this at the beginning. She is just wandering the streets in a daze when suddenly she finds herself on the rug of a man she barely knows. Then she tries to run away from these newly awakened feelings. At some point she gives in, realises she has to live this new love somehow. Even when none of this should be happening, after 30 years of marriage. If you think of the cinema as a strange dark box from which to examine the world and the human soul, then this subject should be in there too.

Allotments by the railway, choir practice, German folk-pop. Your earlier film "Halbe Treppe" was set in similar surroundings. Why are you so set on staying with the "common people".

Most old people live like this and not upper middle class lives. We wanted to talk about normal people. Inge, Werner and Karl are not badly off, their lives are not beset by social crisis, and they are more or less contented. The fridge is full, the coffee percolator is gurgling away. Things could just go on as they are. And then catastrophe strikes, bang smack in the centre of this middle class, petty bourgeois world.

You watch as this married couple take off their clothes, as Inge sits naked by the lake with her lover Karl, as the two of them have sex. Are your concerns documentary or are you searching for a new aesthetic for bodies that have been marked by time?

Of course I'm also looking for an aesthetic for showing bodies like this on the screen. We are not used to seeing this sort of thing, ageing, or aged bodies. This is probably down to a cultural fear of death. On the other hand it was important to me that the sex scenes, in particular, feel real. And people don't always look particularly good when they're sex. Taking off their underwear while lying down, or pulling off a sock. It often looks helpless and quite silly. Films always make everything look so elegant, and then he only needs to thrust about a bit three times before she has a huge orgasm. You just look at them and think: Oh God! I don't look that good when I'm having sex! Can't I do anything right?

How should you show naked bodies in film? How do you make them look "real"?

There's no such thing as authenticity in the cinema. Of course it's all the result of careful planning. Of course it's no coincidence that the backlighting is so extreme in the first scene. We explicitly wanted sunshine, we wanted this burning effect, this strange rupture, this stepping out of the real. Which is like good sex. I wanted to avoid close-ups because they are always voyeuristic. It's like saying: Right, now we're going to show you some genitals. We kept to medium long shots and long shots to maintain a degree of discretion.

There's no actual cumshot, but you do see quite clearly what they're up to.

That's what we wanted. And if you want a specific sex scene you have to give explicit instructions. And that's easier said than done when the actors are 20, 30 years old than you are. "And now give her some oral stimulation!" is a tricky thing to say. But somehow it ended up being quite a laugh, there was plenty of fooling about. You know, to loosen things up.

You had to do everything on 1.1 million euro budget. You weren't only working as director, but as production driver, still photographer and even boom operator. Did all this multitasking lead to any critical situations?

We mostly got through by the skin of our teeth. But there were moments when it all became too much. There's one very impressive scene, the argument between Werner and Inge in the kitchen at night, both are at their wits ends and it's all very existential. I didn't even get to see this scene during filming, I was standing in the kitchen doorway, with the cameraman in front of me. I had to make sure I was getting the sound, I couldn't look at my watchman. I wasn't even aware how good this take was. I only saw it when we started watching the rushes. I was very angry afterwards, because we continued working on this scene for another day and a half.

Are there advantages to working this way?

Sure. The bigger the team, the more difficult it is to admit one's mistakes, because there's more toes to step on. It's not as easy to completely change your line of thinking in front of a team of 40 people than it is with just four. So this way of working invites makes you constantly question everything you do and to keep trying out new ways of doing things.

No dialogues had been written and the script was just 8 pages long when you started filming. Is it true that you gave the actors a free reign on how to react, like allowing the daughter to respond in whatever way she wanted to the mother's confession?

That's right, yes. But it was pretty obvious that the daughter would basically tell the mother to enjoy herself but not tell anyone. Of course we talked, though, about how the characters would react, about what makes them tick. I thought it was fascinating that the daughter sanctioned the betrayal in such a strange way. Just as it's strange that in this situation, society is much more ready to accept a woman who secretly betrays her husband, than one who is honest about the situation. It's a strange thing.

Why shouldn't she just enjoy it? Why shouldn't everyone just have a good time without the truth destroying someone's world after 30 years together?

But that attitude is purely pragmatic. Inge really does love Werner, which means that she has to tell him the truth. That is the greatest token of respect that she can give him, and she is truly treating him with respect in this moment. Of course no one is going to thank her for it. I admire her for her honesty. I don't know if I could do such a thing.

How did you manage to keep the dialogue so tight? Doesn't improvisation tend to make people start talking a lot?

You're quite right. We just kept paring everything down, until we got to a conversation that was only taking place in the subtext. Inge raves to Karl about the joys of travelling by train, but she is actually defending her entire life with Werner. It's like when people from the West came to visit and we suddenly started defending the GDR which was the opposite of what we normally did. But all of a sudden it was the most beautiful country in the world. And as soon had the guests had gone, we started badmouthing it again. Karl casts doubt on Inge's earlier life and she says: "Listen to me my friend, travelling by train can be a wonderful thing."

You recently described "The Life of Others" as Hollywood kitsch. Will you be giving material like this your own treatment?

Not this exact material, but I could certainly imagine finding a subject in this milieu. But I would probably focus on everyday betrayal, not the exception. I'm not so interested in a Stasi spy sitting alone in some flat, who gets visited by prostitutes from time to time, and who's working on ministry orders. I would be more interested in the one who lives with his family in a nice new flat, who goes on weekend trips, barbecues with the neighbours and then next morning in the office, sends people to their doom. This is the man who says something to me. Not the intrigue in the ministry, not the royal drama.


"Cloud 9" won the Heart Throb jury prize in Cannes this year.

This article orginally appeared in die tageszeitung on 3 September 2008.

Birgit Glombitza is a freelance journalist.

Translation: lp - let's talk european