“It Is Always Difficult to Live with the Fact that There Is Not Just One Answer” An interview with Jonas Rothlaender

The Nordic countries are often perceived as forerunners of gender equality and politics. Yet, their heterogeneity within the issue is frequently overlooked, especially abroad. For a change of perspective, Cinema Scandinavia sat down with German director Jonas Rothlaender, based in both Finland and Germany, to talk about his movies, gender dynamics in general and his area of expertise: the filmic exploration of masculinity.


For starters, I’d like to hear about how you first became interested in the filmic exploration of masculinity. Was it something that connected to personal experiences?

Personal experiences are often a starting point for me. I make films in order to understand things better: that can be connected to myself but also to people around me or even to society in general. When I started making Fado, I was not really aware of how central role masculinity and identity play in it. Actually, it was the dramatic advisor who at some point made me aware of it. It was a bit like I had been working on this topic unconsciously. Of course, masculinity concerns me on a personal level as well. I grew up in a rather bourgeois environment where it was common to put a lid on your emotions by only talking about them in a rational way. When I made my documentary feature Familiar Circles (2015), I finally understood that the consequences of World War II play a huge role in my generation as well. It was then that I made the connection to questions of masculinity and gender relations.

It seemed to me that during the emotional climax of Fado the film became a sort of prologue to stalker films or psychological thrillers. Do you agree with that observation?

Absolutely. Yet, it really is the case that while making a movie, a lot of things happen unconsciously; they come intuitively or emotionally. In terms of genre, I usually describe Fado as a drama that turns into a psychological thriller. But this turn happens only towards the end when we see Fabian (Golo Euler) descend down that path of madness. In this way, the genre does play a role but not very consciously. To be honest, I do not really know about the specific conventions of a psychological thriller, I would have to read up on that.

Fado features Finnish actress Pirjo Lonka. Is there a special reason that her character is from a Nordic country?

For quite some time, Pirjo Lonka’s character Anita was supposed to be Swedish. But due to pragmatic reasons, the character became Finnish. My wife is Finnish and a lot of my contacts and friends live there. For the film, it was important to me to have a character that is from a completely different part of Europe: Portugal in the South and Sweden/Finland in the North. Emotional expression is valued and performed very differently in these countries.

Does Anita as a Finnish/Swedish character have a different relation to gender dynamics?

The Finnish character entered the film via the language school and because I feel drawn towards the Nordics. Also, Anita is slightly older than the main character Fabian, she has seen and experienced more. She is emotionally more mature and also more modern in her views. But first and foremost, her character was supposed to bring a different emotional approach into the film.

Living partly in Finland, you are well acquainted with the Nordics in general. Do you share the view that these countries are “more advanced” when it comes to gender equality?

Yes and no. In this case, I think it is very important to differentiate between Finland and Sweden. If we take a step back and look at both countries from a historical perspective, we see that Sweden, as opposed to Finland and Germany, was not actively involved in World War II. I think this has important implications for the countries’ respective gender dynamics. In Germany, as well as in Finland, I see that even our generation is grappling with the consequences of the war. In both countries especially men but also women grow up with this notion that they have to be strong and that showing emotions is a weakness. Of course, I have not lived in Sweden, so I can only talk about my impression of it. But I feel that because they did not actively take part in the war, the Swedish society today is a bit freer when it comes to gender dynamics. With that, I mean that women and men can express themselves differently.

Your next project is a documentary feature about male sexuality that is based on interviews with different men. Where do your participants come from?

Originally, this project was supposed to map the three geographical centres my life revolves around, namely Germany, Finland and Sweden. I’m from Germany and my wife is a Swedish-speaking Finn, and we live in Finland but there are a number of connections to Sweden of course. Now, I narrowed down the topic to the question of male sexuality and its dark underbelly so to say. I might be wrong but at the moment it seems like the final film will deal more with men in general than with men from Germany, Finland and Sweden.

You’ve mentioned Finland, Sweden and Germany as the three geographical centres of your life…

I do lead most of my private life in Finland and work in Germany, mainly because the majority of my professional contacts are there. Unfortunately, the Finnish film industry is rather small and as far as I can see it, revolves mostly around its own market, which is fascinating because it is one of the few countries where local films are extremely successful. Yet, for the movies I am interested in making, it’s quite challenging to secure financing. Because of that, Germany is likely to stay my professional home, even if I would like to also make movies in Finland.

Do you think directing German-Finnish co-productions are a possibility?

Maybe. Currently, I am working on two new feature films. The first one takes place in Germany and, similarly to my earlier documentary, is going to explore the question of how family conflicts are passed down from generation to generation. The second feature takes place in Finland and is based on the observation that our generation tries to create romantic relationships that are equal; that is we strive to eliminate all kinds of power imbalances. Yet, how can complete equality be achieved if every sex position, for instance, is essentially also a position of power? The film is going to connect these questions to the exploration of cultural differences between Germany and Finland. In that way, we are trying to make that film a German-Finnish co-production. However, for me it is not only about making films in Finland, I am interested in the Nordic countries in general. So, I’m working as a producer for Stick Up, the production company that produced Fado and my focus there is on the Nordic countries. Currently, I’m securing financing for a TV series by a Danish writer that will play out in Berlin and deal with a community of Scandinavian expatriates.

All of these topics, just like masculinity and gender dynamics in general are of social relevance today. Is the social significance of movies or the idea of changing our society through films important to you?

Absolutely. Yet, for me, making movies is not so much about changing the world. Like any other art form, film-making is itself something rather narcissistic, that is I as an artist do something about which I’m certain that it will be of interest to other people. For me, this is often a process of wanting to understand and express something, but, at the same time, I’m interested in the dialogue with the audience, be it by either provoking them or asking questions. To me, film-making is not so much about having all the answers as it is about posing a question. For example, I was not aware how much Fado polarises people and even makes them angry. The screenplay almost didn’t get any funding because people said that they did not want to watch a movie like that. They didn’t want to see male characters like Fabian. I think reactions like that are very interesting.

Do you think German film funding sees no need for films that deal with masculinity?

I think some people didn’t really understand what this film was about when they read the screenplay. I feel that now with regard to my new project where the aspect of masculinity is more pronounced people are more open and express a desire and interest to talk about the topic. Yet, it was very interesting to see whom the film provoked: generally, men and older women were taken aback. When it came to men, I was not surprised: they were provoked because they did not really want to acknowledge the topic. When it came to older women, I suspect they had this history of fighting men in their professional environment. So they sometimes were like ‘Well, laddie why do I have to listen to you now when there’re more important things happening, aren’t we beyond that?’ I completely understand this position but I think this is exactly why we have to talk about it. The same split was true for the reception of Fado when it was screened at film festivals. It was quite interesting how provoked people were by two scenes in which Fabian cries after having sex. Apparently, those moments were quite difficult to accept.

What exactly was the critique?

Men are not supposed to do that. And also: ‘What is wrong with him?!’ I think it is fascinating how things like that can scare people; they fear that by showing something, a film tells a universal truth – that all men cry after sex. I feel that this shows just how narrow-minded people can be or more precisely, how narrow and small the requirements directed towards men and women are. I am time and again surprised and shocked by this.

There is this idea developed by Australian sociologist R.W. Connell that hegemonic masculinity suppresses women but, at the same time, also men who do not conform to this ideal. I feel that this is true for movies as well: we do not see men crying after sex and if we do it is a tool to question their masculinity. Due to that people’s viewing habits are skewed. On a different level, this is maybe why a lot of boys and young men, when they do not conform to their gender expectations, feel displaced.

I think that’s absolutely true. When I was growing up, I felt that there is only one image, only one box that we have to fit into, men as well as women. It’s fascinating that when you look at Greek mythology for example, you see that they already had a great variety of images. Sure, it is a patriarchal system in a way with Zeus at the top but still there are gods, men as well as women, who are different. Artemis or Athena, for instance, are goddesses with typically male attributes. At the same time, you have gods with more female attributes, like Poseidon who is very emotional or Hephaestus. With ancient Greece being a foundation of European culture, I’m often surprised that we lost this diversity I really hope that we’re now on the way of returning to it.

I sometimes feel like we talk a lot more openly now but when I look at mainstream films they still adhere to the same binary ideas of gender. Do you then think that we will be able to actually live in a diverse society?

I feel like we take one step forward and two steps back. If we look at the political situation in Europe and around the world, we see a return of more nationalistic and conservative views and it feels like we are taking a step back. It sometimes seems like there are these two forces that constantly fight each other: something new and rebellious versus something old and conservative that is afraid of the new. And, in a way, I can understand that because the new can be frightening. Just like men that cry after sex are strange and scary because this behaviour does not fit our image of men. Of course, the reaction to the unknown is often negative but I really hope that progress in the form of more diversity, more equality and more openness will prevail. But, at the same time, both men and women are confused by this because they don’t know how they are supposed to behave. I feel like this process is a search or journey where we hope that it will turn out well exactly because it is such a difficult process. It is always difficult to live with the fact that there is not just one answer, that there is not just black or white.

Do you feel like you sometimes get upset while seeing the same types of men, for example, over and over again or are you able to draw a line between your artistic expression and your film experience?

When I watch a movie for the first time, I am a more emotional and sometimes even uncritical viewer. No matter if it’s a play, a painting or a film, there is this wish to fall in love, to have this life-changing experience, this almost naïve desire to be swept away. And in this ‘emotional viewing’ I might, of course, dislike things. Quite often I feel like I am unable to recognise myself on screen, especially in male characters. When I was younger, I often identified with female characters instead. And, of course, I sometimes think ‘Come on, what the heck? Don’t you have anything new to show?’ This can be directed at all sorts of things, like the portrayal of emotions, the way men have sex in movies, the way they dance, or quite simply how they are.

So, when you make movies, what is important to you with regard to the representation of masculinity: is it the character and the screenplay, or maybe the mise en scène?

In the end, it is the interplay of these aspects but before that it is particularly important to me what happens on the level of the mise en scène, the orchestrating and staging of events. Working with the actors is key here, I am interested in the actor’s emotionality; that is something precious and at the same time fragile. I love this moment when they help me understand my own work better. For example, a part of the screenplay that, having written it myself, I see differently because of the way the actors speak and embody it. They bring a completely different kind of intelligence to the film.