Features » Film


The book doesn't smell either

Dietmar Kammerer interviews director Tom Tykwer, whose film version of Patrick Süskind's bestseller "Perfume" has just hit the screens in German

Die tageszeitung: Mr. Tykwer, the filming of "Perfume" has kept you busy for almost three years, now it's hitting the screens. Are you relieved that it's all over finally? And what, in retrospect, was the most intense experience with the material: the meticulous scripting or the demands of a shoot with a 50 million budget?

(L to R) Director Tom Tykwer, Rachel Hurd-Wood and producer Bernd Eichinger. All photos © Constantin Film

Tom Tykwer
: I don't look back, I'm still in the midst of it. I don't have any retrospective feeling for this film yet. It's just finished and for me, the process is complete when I've seen it with an audience. That's an important part of the film-making process; at some point, you sit in a room with people who've come to see it out of mere curiosity, and not because they know you.

The film is on a very different scale from those you've directed so far. Be honest. How often in the course of all that time did you feel like throwing in the towel?

Never. Not once in the three years. That's got a lot to do with the feeling of certainty I had right from the start. It's an instinct you develop over the years, when you know that even with only ten percent uncertainty, you shouldn't touch a project. You need real stamina. The kind of enthusiasm you need to go through with a project like can't be drummed up, you've got to have it from the start.

The film is also very close to the heart of Bernd Eichinger. How does a director deal with a producer who is so enthused about a film? In the press material, Eichinger is quoted as saying, "The film looks exactly how I always imagined it."

Hide-and-seek in the labyrinth. Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood)

This is about the hundredth time I've had to answer this question, because obviously everyone believes there's a conflict between us. To that I can only say, you've all seen the film. I can't imagine that "Perfume" looks like the result of compromises. It's a film that I identify with one hundred percent.

"Perfume" is one hundred percent a Tom Tykwer film?

I find myself in every single shot, in very single picture. I don't feel this close to a lot of my films. Especially in the interpretation of this character, the way it came to us. I think we interpreted the book well enough, but the film is of course an interpretation. And it has a lot to do with my personal way of reading, and the proximity I feel to the central character.

Did that not frighten you a bit: feeling so close to a girl murderer?

That's the best thing about the book: that you're on Grenouille's side till the bitter end. It was clear that if we were unable to accomplish that in the film, there'd be no point in making it. Such things are easier in literature, which works in ways that can't be transferred directly onto the screen. On the screen, actions are much more concrete, whereas in a book they can be described so that the reader is given much room for interpretation. The laws of identification are different in film than in literature. Certain things were simply not possible for me without distancing myself too much from the hero.

Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) tries to prevent the mirabelle girl (Karoline Herfurth) from attracting attention with her screams

You let Grenouille be a little more human than the central character in the novel. Why didn't you want to make him a cold serial killer? That's a pretty common option in cinema.

Yes, but in what film do you find a really fascinating serial killer as the main character? None. There's always a foil, a second character who's introduced to make the less tangible character more tangible. But Süskind managed and I noticed that it wasn't through a literary trick but rather through Grenouille's motivations which are deeply human, and which we all pursue. His desperate, you could almost say fanatic drive for recognition, his desire to be recognised and loved.

That leads him down the completely wrong path, but we believe it because he's pursuing a goal we all share. We spend our lives, day in and day out, trying to project our deficient egos and notions of ourselves onto others. We think that others only see our deficiencies and that fills us with doubt. We imagine that those around us think that we're not as good-looking or as smart as we would like to be. So we dress and stylise ourselves in an attempt to influence that slightly. And with Grenouille, art does what it often does: it takes an extreme example, it takes a representative position to the max.

Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) has killed a girl to preserve her perfume

Was there ever a temptation to give out scratch and sniff cards for the film, the way John Waters did for "Polyester"?

In the 80s, when I was a film projectionist, I screened "Polyester" and I had the pleasure of collecting those tickets every evening in totally foul-smelling cinemas. That was disgusting. To be honest, I find it pretty unimaginative and boring to say that because "Pefume" is about smell, the film should somehow smell as well. The book doesn't smell either. Furthermore I wasn't at all interested in making a fantasy film, in which some kind of coloured mist wafts through the air and is supposed to be a symbol for something. Or digital olfactory atoms that flutter into Grenouille's nose. I would have found that extremely unimaginative and besides, that wasn't the point. The language of the film had to usurp the world of smells in a way, and it was the responsibility of the filmmaker to make that happen.

You've said that you find almost all historical films boring, and that you wanted to shoot a film that's faithful to the historic setting but at the same time is told in a modern cinematic language. How can you be sure that you don't end up making a costume film?

That assumes there's something to be afraid of in a costume film. Of course there's always the concern that with a costume film the result will be dusty, theatrical and potentially boring. I'm probably typical of most movie-goers when I find costume films staid, unmodern and musty because they lack a sense of reality, something that engages us and transports us into a world. There's always that peculiar, staged distance. And having a stage in the movies is always terrible, I'd rather go to the theatre because at least there I have the immediate presence of the actors.

Our measure was to make the film look as though we were simply there. Not to put something on a platter, but rather to treat everything as though it was truly there. Which turned out to be an unimaginably complicated process. Every last thing had to be made, every building decorated. We wanted to create the feeling that we'd got inside a time machine, and just happened to have a camera team with us and we could have filmed any part of the 18th century. So that the viewer has the feeling of normality. The normality of the architecture, the normality of the dirt. The historical reality.

Accused of multiple murders: Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw)

In the titles a "Dirt Surface Crew" comes up.

It sounds like the name of a rock band. That was a vital unit for the set design. Not only did they have the insane job of covering all the walls and surfaces - some of which were parts of real cities - in a layer of filth, they also had to wash it all off as soon as the shooting was over. And it generally takes a lot more time to clean something than to make it dirty. And of course the cities were very anxious that we should avoid turning their museum-like streets into a permanent inferno.

As in all your films, you composed the music yourself, together with Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil. Is this something you just like doing, or is it inseparable from your working method as a filmmaker?

It's absolutely integral for me, I'd never give that up. For me, finding music for the film is as essential as finding the images. I often find images only through the process of composing. The composition transports the atmosphere of the film. In "Perfume" we were fortunate enough to be able to do things as I like to do them, in other words to compose at the same time as writing the script. When we started filming most of the music was ready. We could play it while we were filming and the actors could react to it.

Do you know how many close-ups of noses there are in the film?

No idea. Are there so many? I think it just seems that way.


The interview originally appeared in English in Die Tageszeitung on September 14, 2006.

Dietmar Kammerer works as a freelance film critic.

Translation: nb, lp. - let's talk european