I see that your short, Kleingeld, was inspired by a play called The Philanthropist, by Christopher Hampton . How did you come to know that play?
It was performed in Berlin by a student theater group. I just happened to see the play and got the inspiration to make the film.
Did you change the story at all?
Yes, a character in the play tells a story about something that happened to him. And that is basically like a plot-outline for Kleingeld. But in the film, it's a different character, it's a different setting. And I had to flesh out the story because it was very spare in the play.
Can you tell me anything about the way your Hoffmann character differs from the character in the play?
I thought a lot about my father, who is a very typical German office man. And I wanted a character who has difficulty with showing emotions, with dealing with emotions, and who is more comfortable when he expresses himself by giving some money, for example.
Your short is exceptionally well thought through, visually. I was wondering whether every shot was storyboarded and carefully planned.
It was planned, of course, and we spent a lot of time scouting for the locations and the settings that enabled us to make those shots. And I had a very gifted cinematographer, who had a lot of suggestions that made it to the screen. For example, the first shot which was not planned in the screenplay it was just something that we thought of when we were preparing the shot during shooting. It was her suggestion, and I said, "Oh, that's wonderful. Let's do it!"
I wanted to ask about one camera movement that struck me. There's a point where Hoffmann is in the parking lot and you elevate the camera from a low to a high angle shot as he's thinking.
That's one of the shots I don't really like now. The idea was to have a camera movement illustrate that an idea is emerging in his mind that of driving the car back and forth through the mud puddle. If I were to do it again today, I think I would do it differently. It was a little too obvious and it was something that never appeared elsewhere in the film.
The car and glass seem to be closely associated with Hoffmann. Cold, hard surfaces and cool colors. And I noticed that even his aquarium has no plants in it. A sterile, controlled world. Was that all deliberately planned that even the aquarium should be very sterile?
Yes. This was a suggestion by the production designer. I wanted to have a plant, just one green point. But he preferred an aquarium because it's a very obvious comparison: the fish in the aquarium and Hoffmann in this glass building. I liked the idea. Of course, it's not very realistic but that is not the point. It was just a metaphor to get the atmosphere of a very cold space.
Your actors play their roles very well. I don't know much about the German film scene. Are they well known actors? And can you tell me something about the casting you did?
No, they're not very well known. The main actor is from the former East Germany. He played a lot in television in East Germany. Then he became a theater director, and has not appeared for a very long time in any film. He was not my first choice. I had other actors in mind that I could not get. And then I thought of him, and thought that he could make it work, and in fact, it worked very well. And maybe it's better now to have an actor who is not so well known in this role
And the other guy, the homeless man, was easy to cast because he was in fact a formerly homeless man, who had lived on the streets of Berlin for ten years. And then he became an actor. Now he is married, he has a home, he has work. And it was important that he was not homeless when we were shooting the film. That meant he could have some distance and could play with the role.
Your use of some of the minor characters is also very interesting. Hoffmann's relationship to his secretary, for example. There's a point where he's looking out the window, and she comes over to see what he's looking at. And he says to her something like: "Anything else?" Then she walks away, rolling her eyes. There's also a point later on where once she leaves the office, she lets her hair down. How do you see these moments with the secretary?
Of course the idea behind that is: he wished he had a relationship with her. In the beginning, there is a brief moment when he looks at her as she walks out of his office and this is a typical man's look at an attractive woman. But he is not able to communicate this. And of course at the end, he can see that she has a boyfriend, and that makes Hoffmann feel even more lonely. And this was important for me because I wanted to show that she has a private life besides work. That's why she lets her hair down, because now she becomes not the official person, who works in the office, but the private person who goes out and has a friend, and maybe has some fun in the Berlin night life. We never see Hoffmann at home, but we can imagine that he has nothing to do, that he just sits there in his apartment, watching television.
I also wanted to ask about the scene in which a man comes to apply for a loan and Hoffmann turns him down. How do you see the role of that scene in the story?
For me, it shows that he is used to dealing with big money and that he is in charge of a lot of money. He can make the decision to give someone 40,000 marks or not. I wanted to have this as a contrast to the 1 mark that he gives to the beggar.
Your film never lapses into pathos. And it never becomes a didactic political message. I was wondering whether you were aware of these risks and were deliberately protecting your film from them.
Yes I was aware of that, because a lot of people pointed out in the screenplay that it might be very sentimental and moralizing at the end. It wouldn't bother me if it's moralizing because if it has a moral, I like this. But of course you don't want to tell people how to live. I just wanted to tell the story.
And at the end, we worked very carefully with the music. I tend to the pathetic, but I'm lucky to have a composer who knows that and who understood that it was important to tone down the music at the end. If an ending is strong, then you don't need to strengthen it with music. Then it can just stand by itself. So I tried this at the end and I'm very glad that we did this. And I'm very happy that you said what you did when you asked this question.
Were any other short films an inspiration for you?
I've seen a lot of short films, of course, at many festivals. And I discovered that the shorts I liked the best were the ones that were little stories. Not too big. There was one from Poland that I especially liked, made about three or four years ago. It's about a girl and a dog, and the girl falls in a love with a priest. It was also very successful. This short, which I liked very much, influenced me to turn away from just funny shorts and to prefer shorts that tell a story from normal life.
21 November 2000
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1 Christopher Hampton, who was born in the Azores in 1946, wrote The Philanthropist in 1970. Though he began as a dramatist, he turned to screenwriting and eventually to directing. His screenwriting credits include Dangerous Liaisons (1988, directed by Stephen Frears), Total Eclipse (1995, directed by Agnieszka Holland), Carrington (1995, which he also directed), The Secret Agent (1996, directed as well as written by Hampton), and Mary Reilly (1996, directed by Stephen Frears). 2 The Polish short film referred to here is Pancia, directed by Iwona Siekierzynska in 1996.
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