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Interview with Marian Freistühler, director of Die Geheimnisvollen Inseln [Islands in the City]
Friday 18 February 2022, by ,
Ghostly, the temporarily shut down cruise ships lie in the port of Hamburg. A young man comes into town and is stranded on the riverbank, waiting for a message. He watches couples strolling along in the sunset and gets himself some sweets. In a moment of collective pause, Islands in the City captures a fragile romance. There is a departure in the air, the destination of which no one seems to know.
Did the lockdowns and more generally the pandemic draw you to make a film that deals with the ideas of longing and loneliness?
It may sound paradoxical, but what I observed during the first contact restrictions was the opposite of loneliness. There were a few weeks in Hamburg’s spring 2020 when you were only allowed to move through the public space in pairs at most. I sat by the river almost every day, reading a book and all I saw was couples everywhere! These groups of two, which were similar but isolated from one another, did not appear depressed or nervous. They seemed to enjoy the concentration on each other, the pause from everything else. So, the picture that presented itself to me was rather ambivalent: even when the world is going to end, the sunsets are still terribly romantic. The uncertainty about where the journey was going also had a certain appeal, and the pandemic was initially somewhat adventurous. Something that we experienced together for the first time. I wanted to give shape to this ambivalent feeling. It is important to me that it is not just a sad, dreary film about longing and loneliness. But that the film has a sense of humor, that it is colorful, that it celebrates longing and projection. Almost like a pop song. And I have always loved songs that perform the saddest lyrics in a cheerful, uplifting manner.
In the scene where the main character shares a chocolate bar with a stranger, the two men obviously fail to connect to each other. Could you tell us more about what you wanted this encounter to symbolize?
It’s not so much about a symbol. Instead, it’s very concrete, very tangible: for the first time in the film, there is a dialogue. Two people stand face to face and talk to each other. At that point in the film, you might have already forgotten that something like this is even possible. That’s what I mean when I say it’s very tangible, present. A small, specific event. But of course, it is true that the two men talk past each other and that there is a second layer. That the expectations of an encounter are undermined. I love dialogues that are not about what is being said. I wanted to try that. So, when the protagonist explains the differences between the chocolate bars, there is of course something else as well, besides the question of which one is crispier and why. However, I hesitate to say that they don’t connect. It’s about sharing something. About not being alone for a moment. Even if, in the end, they part without making the next step. Sure, it’s a bit sad, but hopefully it was nice as well. And maybe even a little funny. The film as a whole is about the fact that it might sometimes even be nicer to just imagine things without actually doing them in the end.
What was it like to act and direct at the same time?
The film was made in a very spontaneous, very intimate and process-driven way. At the beginning, I was just outside with the camera a lot, all by myself, observing people and things in a rather documentary fashion. I started editing some scenes and came up with new ones that I would like to see. My desire to have a protagonist to play with, grew stronger. It felt like I needed a clear narrative structure that I could use as a path from which I could deviate at any time, taking a short detour. So I wrote a screenplay but constantly changed it on the go. I needed an actor who would always be at my disposal (without wanting to get paid for it) and, given the entire process, it felt like a very natural next step to do it myself. I am not an actor, but I love to play. It was fun, honestly. No worries though, I am not planning to do it every time from now on.
Is there a particular short film that has made a strong impression on you?
I would like to skip that question. Because there are too many and it would not feel right to pick just one. Or two or three. Even though it’s tempting. But no.
What’s your definition of a good film?
Films that are not trying to be good films. I like films that are vulnerable, full of doubts and uncertainties. That try to give form to a vague feeling, that embrace ambiguity. That are not perfect, not professional, not cool. Films that do not take themselves too seriously, but the spectators. That watch and listen closely and give the audience a chance to do so, too. I like surprising films that make strong decisions, films that do not want to be understood. Films that invite the audience to make an experience and that allow you to drift away. I like films that treat their characters tenderly. Films that have a sense of humor, because humor is the nicest way to show that there are always different perspectives on the same thing. I like films that offer an alternative to our reality. That are not pretending to re-enact reality but that are not entirely detached from it, either. Truth of illusion, not illusion of truth.