Marie Kreutzer has had a hand in many Austrian film productions. Her first feature film, “The Fatherless”(“Die Vaterlosen”) (2011), has been shown and awarded at numerous festivals, including the Berlinale Panorama Special. In addition, the film was nominated for the Thomas Pluch Screenplay Award and the Austrian Film Award. It was followed by the feature films “Gruber Is Leaving” (“Gruber Geht”) (2015), “We Used to Be Cool” (“Was Hat Uns Bloß So Ruiniert”) (2016), and the TV film “Die Notlüge” (2017), which were also shown and awarded at festivals. In addition to her work as a director, Kreutzer has worked as a lecturer at the Vienna Film Academy and as a screenwriter and dramaturge.
“Corsage” is screening at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which is running from September 8-18.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
MK: “Corsage” is a film about Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who is one of the main tourist attractions in Austria. She has become a myth, not only because of her own story but also because of how the famous film “Sissi,” starring Romy Schneider, played with that myth. “Corsage” is a very different take on Empress Elisabeth, a film about her darker side, her rebellion against the role she was supposed to play, which included staying young and beautiful forever. The story of a woman who has to please in order to be loved is universal and timeless.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
MK: When reading the biographies, letters, diaries, and so on, of Elisabeth, I sensed that her silent rebellion is a recurrent theme in her life. Everything we know or think we know about her relates to that. She was a smoker when smoking was regarded as bad behavior for a woman, did not touch any food when forced to sit at official dinners, traveled the world whenever she could flea Vienna, built her own sports equipment, and went on extensive hikes or horse rides when being sporty or fit was not modern or important for anyone. She certainly lived in a golden cage and tried to expand her position’s boundaries as far as she could.
I was drawn to her complex character. Every painting of her looks different. She played with her role, and I am continuing that, for her.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?
MK: I never make a film to bring people to a certain conclusion. I do not think about the audience and what they will think at all, not because I don’t care, but because that would lead to assumptions. I cannot control the audience and I would not want to. I feel very privileged that people decide to invest two hours of their life diving into my imagination. I want to give them joy, emotion, inspiration, I want to fill them with images and sound, and I want them to feel absolutely free to leave the theater with whatever resonates with them. That can be very different things, as I know by now. If I can make them take away a tiny thing for themselves, I will be happy.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
MK: The co-production, because [that process] was new to me. It was my fifth feature film, but the budget was 2.5 times as high as the budget for the films before. The scale was new. There were so many people involved, with many of them new to me. Dealing with all their thoughts, suggestions, expectations, was the biggest challenge for me, personally.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
MK: It is a European co-production which was funded by various public institutions in Austria, Luxembourg, Germany, and France, as well as overall European institutions and TV networks.
I’ve not made one film where there was “enough” money. It always feels like too little. Budgets are a significant component of filmmaking — “How can we do this for less?” I could talk about this for hours. I always say, negotiating might be the biggest part of my work. I feel like I am negotiating most of the time — “I really need this, so I might be willing to give up that,” etc.
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
MK: That moment when you sit down in a big room with people you don’t know, the lights going down, only that big screen and you experiencing something together, and never knowing where it is going to take you — in your imagination, your thoughts, your emotions. It still gets me, every time.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
MK: The best was from my professor at film school, before my first short film: “You have to make fast decisions. If you don’t know already, decide anyway, because the crew has to trust that you know where you’re going.” I still think about that. I am very good at fast decisions now. It is all about practice! What it really says is that you can’t wait until you feel ready before you start. You never feel fully prepared, the script never seems perfectly finished, and in the edit you could go on forever. But there is no “right” way; it’s not mathematics. You must trust your gut.
The worst advice was the opposite: a lot of people telling me that the script for my first feature film was too “big” for a first feature film. “Shouldn’t you do something smaller first?” No. You always have to work on what you feel drawn to, not what seems reasonable or better strategically. At least that’s what I think. You need a little megalomania in this job, or you won’t get anywhere.
W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?
MK: You have to deal with the labels they give you. Some men still have trouble having a female boss, and they will find a label to put on you that might hurt you. You want to be liked and taken seriously at the same time, but honestly, you can’t have that from all the boys. In the long run, you have to find men to work with who don’t have those issues, but it’s difficult to know in advance. There will always be a man to tell you what you cannot have or what he thinks he knows better. They are everywhere and it doesn’t matter if you are a 25-year-old making your first short film or a pro who is 56.
Only a few months ago, in post-production on “Corsage,” I leaned over to my DOP, who has done about 100 great movies, and said to her, “Do you think he’d talk to us like that if we were two guys?” We laughed because the answer was a very clear “no.” The guy was younger than both of us, so you don’t only get it from older men.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
MK: I think that’s “Lost in Translation” by Sofia Coppola. To me, it is her best film. There is a German word that doesn’t exist in English, “sehnsucht,” a mixture of longing, melancholy, and the need for something you cannot name, and all my favorite films have a lot to do with “sehnsucht.” “Lost in Translation” is an elegant, melancholic, yet funny film, and done with a great lightness, as if everything came to the director’s mind spontaneously. I adore that.
W&H: What, if any, responsibilities do you think storytellers have to confront the tumult in the world, from the pandemic to the loss of abortion rights and systemic violence?
MK: To me, an artist doesn’t have any responsibilities aside from being a good person. But, of course, I appreciate it when a story touches on subjects we are confronted with in real life. I prefer it to be done in a subtle way, and I don’t think you necessarily have to make a film about a specific war or pandemic to say something about our world, about humankind, and how we live together on this planet.
W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color on-screen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?
MK: I am for quotas, not because they are perfect, but because nothing else works or changes anything. Filmmakers reproduce stereotypes all the time, mostly because it’s the easiest way, not necessarily because it is what they believe in. The audience is used to stereotypes and knows how to read them, while they are still taken aback if, for example, a female main character is not a perfect mother or a 58-year-old with grey hair. We must educate and challenge our own perceptions first in order to teach the audience and to change these simplified images we all have in our heads.