What's an interesting banjo story

"A story in minor played in major"

Sunday, May 23rd, 2021

Conclusion / archive | Article from 02/14/2013

Love and death in the movie "The Broken Circle Breakdown"

Felix van Groeningen and Johan Heldenbergh in conversation with Holger Hettinger

Typical bluegrass: the banjo (Stock.XCHNG / Andy O'Hara)

In "The Broken Circle Breakdown" the existential questions of life are relentlessly negotiated between the tattoo artist Elise and the banjo player Didier. In an interview, the director and leading actor talk about how resilient love can be.

As playfully as the musician interprets his banjo solos, he also understands his marriage, conflicts are played away. That changes when his daughter becomes terminally ill - a burden that their relationship cannot withstand. We spoke to the director Felix van Groeningen and Didier's actor Johan Heldenbergh.

Holger Hettinger: Felix van Groeningen, her film "The Broken Circle Breakdown" is based on a successful play. Now you could say: great, everything is there, it is very easy to make a film version. Now a director once told me that that was pretty much the most difficult thing of all, since a play is dialogue-based and it is hellishly difficult to develop images, moods and narrative rhythms in such a way that it does not look disdainfully illustrated. How did you do on "The Broken Circle Breakdown"?

Felix van Groeningen: It was pretty hard, but it's always hard to make a movie. I'm not sure if it was particularly difficult now. When I read the play, I thought - this is perfect - Johann is really a genius. The piece is also perfect for the stage and there was a risk that I wouldn't be able to film it with this claim, because it's about deep feelings, about a little story that gets really big, there is the music - there is like that many elements that moved me. I started crying after 20 minutes and didn't stop for half an hour.

I wanted to depict that in the film - and it took a year and a half to find the way to turn monologues into film scenes. I needed other small elements to show the character, but in the theater the actor works through his presence - by telling his experiences - while in the film you have to tell the whole life of the person. But it was a great experience. Johann gave me all the freedom and even supported me.

Johan Heldenbergh: I knew from the start that I couldn't help Felix much because I was too close to the project, to the play. Any advice would be counterproductive. I'm in too much because I've played the piece 130 times.

Holger Hettinger: Johan Heldenbergh, you are not only the main actor, but also the co-author of the play - what did you learn about Didier's character while working on this film that you did not know before?

Johan Heldenbergh: First, I played in a play with another actress. For the film, Felix Veele Baetens asked hard to take on the role. And he rewrote the role, because in the play Alabama was very closed, shy. In the film, Elise is a rock 'n' roller. For Didier, falling in love with this woman was something completely different. It changed my role a lot. Still, it's the role that most closely matches my own life. I wrote it to overcome my own fear and anxiety, and you can feel that in the film.

Holger Hettinger: The couple Elsie and Didier draw some relationship energy from the opposites: Didier is always in a good mood, he knows that in case of doubt he takes all hurdles with his charm, he is absolutely this-sided. Elise is more polar, has sunny moments, but she also goes through phases of deep sadness, she is very religious. In normal everyday relationships, that's not tragic, the two of them joke about it. But when things get really serious and their child becomes terminally ill, you can feel how serious and insurmountable these contradictions are. I had the feeling: Elsie and Didier also stand for concepts of life. For which?

Johan Heldenbergh: Yes, that's the gist of the story. Opposites attract. When you fall in love with someone who can give you something: energy that you don't have and that you can find in the other. That's great. Once in an interview I was asked: Surely you can't share grief? But that's exactly what the movie is about. The opposites that fascinate you at the beginning start to annoy you. And it is terrible when you cannot find each other in a situation of grief.

Felix van Groeningen: In addition, Didier is more rational and Elise reacts more emotionally and spiritually. But that overlaps because he becomes irrational for all his reason. And with Elise it is the other way around. She becomes more and more sober in all her spirituality. But we go even further in the film. Didier is fire and earth. Elise is water and air.

Holger Hettinger: I was also impressed by Nell Cattrysse, who plays the 6-year-old child of the two. It was no coincidence that the great Max Reinhard once said: Children and animals have no place on stage because they are so unpredictable. How did you get Nell to exude that confidence and play those difficult death scenes?

Felix van Groeningen: I think it was the other way around: Nell just trusted us and gave us everything.

Johan Heldenbergh: We tried very hard to build a family with her. I think we all, the whole team tried to make it feel like a big family on the set and I think they felt comfortable. And she did her part. Of course she knew it was a game, but she went along with it. That is why it looks so natural: it is simply present.

Felix van Groeningen: Maybe I shouldn't say that: but she just played well, she knows what she's doing. She just plays without thinking about all the people around her. And that makes them great. It is also interesting that she was very shy at the casting. We saw maybe 200 kids aged four, five, or six. There were more lively ones. But if you ask them to do something again, they'll say no! And with her it was like: "Yes, why not?" and she learned a lot. She also appears in other films and she is really very intelligent. She chooses her films! She turned down some offers.

Johan Heldenbergh: She has already gone to the casting and said: I don't like these people! And went home. She's a little diva already. There was the scene with the dead birds. She should cry then. We thought we had to scare her, make her cry, because I was such a loving father to her, then in that scene I got really angry with her - she became puzzled and started to cry. But three weeks earlier we had agreed on a code word so that she would know that what I am saying is not true. After the scene I said the word to her. Then she answered me: Johann - I know that I only play one role here. She's just a fantastic actress.

Holger Hettinger: A lot of time is spent studying Elise's numerous tattoos. These little works of art have more than a purely decorative function, don't they?

Felix van Groeningen: The tattoos are part of the story. They existed in the play, but they play a much bigger role in the film. Johann and Micke copied this from a documentary where the leading actress says she has the names of her ex-boyfriends on her body, but when it's over she paints them over. It bears Didier's name and in the end it covers it up too. Maybe I shouldn't say that, but that's part of the story at the end of the story. As a director, you have to develop such elements.

Johan Heldenbergh: You take everything that is visual and increase the effect. But when you asked, I wanted to say: Every tattoo has symbolic power. An artist created it together with Felix and Veerle, so that every tattoo at Elise becomes a symbol, a story tells from her life with Didier. For example the tattoo on the back should say: I am a present for you. Every tattoo has a story. It's amazing when you see that now.

Felix van Groeningen: I went to a tattoo artist and there I learned that for these people every tattoo has a meaning, a story in their life. When I met Veerle, I said to her: You have to get all these tattoos for this role.

Johan Heldenbergh: She did a great job.

Holger Hettinger: The music occupies a large space in their film, Elise and Didier play in a bluegrass band. Now these bluegrass people are a very special group, if I dare to say from my musician's perspective, it's a bit like riding a recumbent bike, they're pretty freaks. What does that mean for the dramaturgy of your film?

Felix van Groeningen: In all honesty, most bluegrass folks are a little unworldly. We changed that a bit in the film. The whole band is wearing white suits and looking great. It was important to me that these guys were cool. The meaning is derived from the play: Didier dreams of an America, he has a fantasy image as it once was, but has long since ceased to be. We wanted to portray that in the film. Although we didn't want to pretend we actually shot in America.

Johan Heldenbergh: Blue Grass music is something very simple for me: every song tells a story. It's actually a minor story, but it's played in major. This ensures a special vibration and authenticity. The music is acoustic, not distorted. You hear the instruments, that's real - with integrity. When you write about parents who go through something like this, honesty, authenticity is the order of the day, otherwise it would be seen as an insult by those who really go through it. I did not want. Everything is honest, sincere in the script, the camera work and the music. No distortion.

Holger Hettinger: I found the colors of your film extremely gripping, everything is bathed in a rich honey yellow, it shimmers amber, a bit like the American South. How does the color concept contribute to the emotional message of the film?

Felix van Groeningen: For the first time - we've done several films together - we wanted real cinema, something I hated when I started filmmaking because it seemed so easy and I liked it better when the camera was moving. My first film was accordingly. This time, however, we wanted to do classic cinema - oversized.

Johan Heldenbergh: The camera is still moving, but very, very slowly. He just couldn't leave the camera still. But it's still very quiet for Felix and that gave us the opportunity to take pictures. Just great.

Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandradio does not adopt the statements of its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.

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