Lorenz Suter is a Swiss screenwriter, producer and film director. His feature film debut Strangers premiered atMadrid, Hofer, Solothurner Filmtage, and Montréal Festival des Films du Monde.
In an exclusive interview for Filmatique, Lorenz Suter discusses solitude, the beauty of film noir, shooting a Dogme-style movie in Switzerland and his next project.
FILMATIQUE: Strangerstraces the story of Tamás, a lonely and isolated male character who lives in Zurich but hardly ever interacts with other people, hasn't seemed to learn German properly and mostly keeps to himself. Of course, all this changes when he is implicated in the disappearance of a beautiful woman for whom he broke his cardinal rule: to be alone. What was your inspiration for this solitary man, and how do you believe his character informs the way we live now?
LORENZ SUTER: My first inspiration is life itself. Not necessarily my life but what it can sometimes feel like. I like to show the audience the inner truth that, in my experience, people more often than not contradict. When Strangers' lone main character says he prefers to be alone we know there's something rotten. Why else would he go after the sisters? Or maybe his attraction is subliminal, something he's not choosing but is drawn to.
It's this contradictory behavior I feel says something about what it means to be human— especially with young people's urban lifestyles. My generation likes to think of themselves as independent individuals that are aware of why they are doing what they are doing, like choosing one job, partner or lover over another. It's hard to submit yourself to the unknown, because it's a dangerous place where you have no control. The main character Tamás is for me the embodiment of that discrepancy: an individualist resisting the impulses that make him unpredictable and human.
FLMTQ: You have stated in several interviews and the film's press notes that Strangers is something of a love letter to film noir. Can you please discuss some of your favorite noir films, and how they influenced your evolution as a filmmaker?
LS: I've loved film noir ever since I discovered the shadowy world populated by characters like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, brought to life by the best filmmakers from Billy Wilder to Stanley Kubrick. But it wasn't only the hard-boiled detective and crime stories that grabbed me. Film noir isn't bound to stereotypes and trademarks like the trench-coats, icy blonds seducing men and scoundrels of the night.
Film noir is more than a genre. It's a perspective, how one looks at the world— the notion that the world is unstable, and a dangerous place to live in. Film noir is sometimes described as pessimistic, but that neglects its beauty. Noir characters might be doomed, yes, but they enjoy it while it lasts. They burn for more than they can ever get ahold of— a woman's desire, money, power. But that's okay. Because the fire that's burning in them too beautiful to miss.
FLMTQ: How did you seek to incorporate and adapt these influences and the overall atmosphere of your film— through performance, cinematography, sound, editing or otherwise?
LS: To show noir's tragic beauty wasn't easy since it's been done so gorgeously be the masters of cinema. And Strangers' very limited budget didn't allow us to film with moody light setups and carefully constructed sets. So we early on decided to achieve a more Dogme-style neo-noir look with only available light and on-location shooting.
We wanted to keep the images mysterious, obscure and give them a nostalgic feeling with muted colors reminiscent of a fading photograph. We're often in the dark and unsure what facial expressions we see in people. Emotions are characteristically and aesthetically ambivalent. This is also done in the sound design with a voice-over narration that haunts our protagonist's mind. So does the ominous music composed of old instruments that are sampled and mixed with synthesized sounds, making the bygone times and the present collide in strangely beautiful ways.
FLMTQ: Strangersis a very compelling film from an acting perspective. Can you discuss your casting process? On set, how did you work with the actors to achieve such strong performances, especially given that, for Tamás, much of his role is based in interior experiences such as doubt and ambiguity?
LS: I already knew the actors before making the movie. I knew the main actor, Nicolas Batthyany, from film school at the Zurich University of the Arts. We shot The Man Who Didn't Want Anything, a short movie in black and white that looked like a textbook film noir from the 40s. It already had the triangle love story at its core.
With Strangers I casted the same actor with two new actresses, Marina Guerrini and Jeanne Devos, playing the sisters. But this time it wasn't by the book, as a matter of fact the screenplay wasn't completed until the end of the shoot. We started out with just a couple of written scenes and went from there. We improvised and let the fatal love triangle evolve.
Writing, acting and editing was a work in progress for more than two years; nobody knew where it was going. Chaos and life itself led the way. It was all about letting the unknown in our life. This made the process fascinating artistically because the actors never knew what their characters were going to do next or if they were going to turn out as heroes or villains. Are they lying? Are they telling the truth? Do they even know they difference? I always told the actors to be in the moment and not to judge their character's actions. It took them a lot of courage to stay in the dark for so long. But that's why, I think, the three of them were able to deliver such challenging and psychologically layered performances.
FLMTQ: In your view, what have been the advantages of working within the Swiss production system? What challenges have you faced as a first-time director and how did you overcome them?
LS: The way we made this movie didn't resemble a typical Swiss movie production at all. First and foremost because we didn't have a lot of money, which is outrageous for wealthy Swiss people like us (just kidding). The low-budget aspect of the movie actually freed us from the restraints of how a movie is supposed to be made: you write a screenplay, find financing, plan and shoot the movie as logistically and pragmatically possible. In other words, movies are made like you build a house. You start at the bottom with an exact plan of how you go from there.
With Strangers we dared to see what happens when you don't stick to a plan. In partnership with my Swiss co-producer Langfilm we challenged the status-quo by shooting step by step, in chronological order, as the story evolved organically in front of our eyes. As strange and artistically beautiful as it was, it was a big challenge, especially when our life got mixed up in the process. For example, my rented apartment got canceled out of the blue. Since it was the main character's location, where we shot many scenes, we had to find a creative solution. We couldn't afford to reshoot, so the story had to be adjusted to make this accident an important part of the journey. U-turns like these shaped this movie more than a calculated roadmap. But this is what makes this a noir film of our times, I think. In the unstable world we live in, we can only expect the unexpected.
FLMTQ: Are you working on any new projects, and if so, can you tell us a bit about them?
LS: I'm working on a new project, this time with a female protagonist. She's struggling to be seen by the people who surround her, and ignore her. Our hero's journey will be an uncertain one and thus the movie will again make use of the great liberties of a low-budget production. Where the bittersweet and surreal story will lead us, nobody knows, but hopefully to a strange and curious place we haven't seen before.
Interview by Ursula Grisham Head Curator, Filmatique