Christoph Hochhäusler in an interview Telling about the Present

Christoph Hochhäusler
Christoph Hochhäusler | Photo: Holger Albrich

In his films Christoph Hochhäusler explores the power structures of the finance and media industries. In this interview the filmmaker and journalist talks about his interest in the subject, the charm of the genre film and his fascination with urban space.

Mr Hochhäusler, your film “Die Lügen der Sieger“ (The Lies of the Victors) from 2015 is often referred to by German film critics as a genre film. Do you agree with this description, and how is German genre film doing?

If I’m interested in something about genre film, it’s the collaboration of the viewer. He has, so to say, a special knowledge of the subject and you can play with these expectations and of course surprise them. Die Lügen der Sieger is often called a political thriller. This is a very malleable genre, which has no tradition in German cinema. In this respect I didn’t have the feeling that I had to satisfy certain expectations; I was very free.

For me the chatter about genre film in Germany is a bit wearying because it always whines about there not being any genre film. I think that’s the wrong question. I love good genre films, but first of all I love good films. I don’t care then whether or not a film is a genre film.

“Are we the authors of our own lives?”

You wrote the screenplay of “Die Lügen der Sieger“ in collaboration with the German writer Ulrich Peltzer. The screenplay of your film “Unter dir die Stadt“ (The City Below) from 2010 was also a collaboration. How did this come about?

We’re friends and wanted to do something together again. And we agreed that it would be great to say something about a journalist. As a film figure the journalist has got really somewhat long in the tooth, but at the same time journalism just now is undergoing big changes. We thought you could find out something interesting about how public opinion is formed today, what role the media play. I’ve spent some time as a magazine editor, at Spiegel, at the Berliner Zeitung, and am also part of the film magazine Revolver; there are all these points of contact with journalism. We met with and interviewed journalists, also lobbyists and PR experts, and out of this we built a film.

In both films you explore seemingly impenetrable power structures to which the individual is exposed. What personal interest do you have in this?

Manipulation is certainly something that interests me. Ultimately it leads back to the question of what holds a society together, or even more generally whether we are the authors of our own lives, to what extent do we or do others write our destiny, where do things collide, what illusions do we need? These are questions that interest me very much. The main character in Die Lügen der Sieger is a journalist who believes he’s smarter than the others, who overestimates himself. Especially in news journalism I’ve often experienced that people think they’re ahead of everyone else, and then find out that they’re only cogs in a machine.

The city as exo-skeleton of our existence

“Unter dir die Stadt“ takes place in Frankfurt, “Die Lügen der Sieger“ in Berlin. Do you conceive your films in terms of a particular city?

In the case of Die Lügen der Sieger Berlin was a natural choice because it’s the seat of the whole “influence industry”, political power, all the important media have correspondents there. I think the city is still pretty much unfilmed. Of course there are countless films that take place in Berlin, but only a few in which I recognize the city. But then I found it harder than expected to get the appearance of the city in film. The narrative weave is jealous and not a permeable as I intended it to be.

Was it easier with “Unter dir die Stadt“? Because Frankfurt, with its office towers and glass façades, has a very specific look?

Frankfurt is a special case for me. Although Frankfurt is actually a small town, it looks like many international big cities. The city has an authentic soul, but pulled over it is the dream of a global city. This makes it seem so placeless, which is very interesting.

The camera depends on physical objects. You can also film living things, but mainly you film objects, their locations, their coverings, and from this you have to read off what’s really going on. The city is a great organism, a kind of exo-skeleton of our existence. This fascinates me. I’d like to make a lot more films about cities.

Pursuing his passion

You studied at the Munich Academy of Television and Film and with fellow students founded the film magazine “Revolver“. What part did “Revolver“ play coining the term “Berlin School” as a name for a style of German cinema beginning in the 1990s?

I often say we founded Revolver in self-defense – self-defense, because it was simply often dreary at the university. This experience – that you can simply pursue your passion, can say “Let’s go visit Lars von Trier and interview him” – was really great and influenced me a lot.

But we didn’t coin the term “Berlin School”; that was done by journalists. We’re not journalists but filmmakers. What actually happened is that friendships based on interests soon formed in and around the magazine – interests that were in part identical with what later came to be called the “Berlin School”, that is, interest in the films of Angela Schanelec, Christian Petzold, Thomas Arslan, Valeska Grisebach and Ulrich Köhler. Still, I think it’s unfair when people say we’re a house organ of the Berlin School. Unfair because we’ve always been very open; Revolver has always presented diverse positions. It’s much more polyphonic than it’s seen to be from outside.

What’s your next project?

Here we come back to genre film because I’m writing a gangster film with Ulrich Peltzer. This then would perhaps really be a film that could be called a genre work because the gangster genre is still a bit stricter. But even here it’s less about satisfying the requirements of the gangster film than about telling about the present in the garb afforded by a gangster story, that is, with a certain hard-boiledness and grainy existential character.