Interview with Heidi Genée

by Renate Fischetti

from Jump Cut, no. 30, March 1985, pp. 64-66
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1985, 2005

Born in 1938 in Berlin, Heidi Genée was raised in the postwar city by a single mother. After secondary school, Genée entered her father's production company and was trained in all filmmaking skills, ranging from bookkeeping to camera work to directing. She eventually became a freelance editor and assistant director, first in Berlin and later in Munich, soon establishing herself as one of two top editors (the other being Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus) of the New German Cinema, working with the Schamoni brothers, Lilienthal, Brandner, Noelte, Sinkel, Brustellin, Bohm, Runge, Miehe, and Kluge.

In 1976, she made her debut as director with GRETE MINDE, earning a federal film prize but a lukewarm reception in the critical press. 1 + 1 = 3, her second feature (1978/79), was a huge success, and was awarded the Grand Prix des Ameriques in Montreal, 1979, and the 1980 Lubitsch Prize. Genée is currently working on her fifth feature, MÄDCHEN (working title). In addition to directing, Heidi writes the scripts for her films and has been awarded several federal script grants. She lives and works in Munich where she also raises her three children, Ina, Kristin and Daniel, who have all starred in one or more of her films.

A recurring theme in the films of Heidi Genée is to depict women and children as real people with feelings and thoughts of their own, important enough to be in the forefront of cinematic action. In the process, male characters tend to fade, a fact about which Genée does not feel apologetic. She says she makes films for all people and if there is a slant, it is towards the movie-going younger public. She expects these young people to appreciate her novel point of view and implied humor.


1976/77: GRETE MINDE. 102 minutes, 35mm, color. Distributor: United Artists. Not commercially distributed in the U.S., but available through the German Embassy/West Glen Films. The story of a proud and passionate young woman who has trouble adapting to 17th century Lutheran values in a small north German town and who turns rebel with a childhood companion. After the death of her mate she asks for forgiveness, is not forgiven, and seeks revenge by setting the town on fire.

1978/79: 1 + 1 = 3. 85 minutes, 35mm, color. Distributor: Filmwelt. Commercially distributed in the U.S. by Cinema 5. The story of a young actress who is determined to have her child despite the attempts of her boyfriend to have it aborted. A second boyfriend proves equally unworthy of accepting her and the child, and she sets out on a career totally her own.


1980/81: DER STACHEL IM FLEISCH. 90 minutes, 35mm, color. Distributor: Filmwelt, Munich. Not distributed in the U.S. A marriage breaks up while the family is vacationing in Sardinia. The whole process is witnessed by a young boy, who in turn suffers very much and runs away.

1981/82: DIE KRAFTPROBE. 84 minutes, 35mm, color. Distributor: Filmwelt, Munich. Not distributed in the U.S. The story of a teenage girl who is left to herself while her mother is at an institution for drinking problems. The film tries to portray the child's emotions realistically.

1983/84: MÄDCHEN (working title). In progress.

Heidi Genée: I would like to make a comedy. It's just in my head. I always do a lot of thinking and then spend relatively little time writing. It'd be about a woman around forty who lives with her two children — a little girl about seven and a big one about 17 years old. The woman tries to find out where she stands with regard to men and to her profession but finally realizes that her own daughter has long caught up to her. It's still vague. I'll start the script next month and write it in four to five weeks. I can only write evenings when the children are in bed. That's the problem.

Renate Fischetti: How do you finance your films? For instance, do you start looking for money when you finish a script, or do you begin much earlier?

Genée: STACHEL IM FLEISCH is not out yet, so I don't know how it will be received. But I am still living off the reputation of my previous film, ONE PLUS ONE. The Film Project Office (Filmörderungsanstalt) gave me DM 900,000 for this film because of its box office sales. Half of that money went to my co-producer, my divorced husband, the other half to me. So I had around DM 400,000 to begin with. And then, when I finish the script, I can send it to the Interior Ministry and apply for a script grant (Drehbuchprämie), that's another DM 250,000; I have always gotten that so far, even though it's quite competitive; only 6 out of 60 scripts get it. Then when I decide how to put my crew together and how much the whole film will cost, let's say 1.5 million Marks, then I'll approach a TV channel to co-produce it.

Fischetti: For what kind of audience do you make your films?

Genée: Actually, viewers between ages 17 and 28 constitute 90% of our audience. My films are for those who do not prefer STAR WARS, those who both want to be entertained and to discuss a film afterward. ONE PLUS ONE stirred a lot of discussion, and I myself took the film to 14 or 15 cities, traveling for nine months everywhere in Germany. Everyone had something to say about the film and at first they surprised me. They did not think about camera, directing, or actors; they just said, "I would have behaved this way in that situation, and my boyfriend would have done it that way." They looked at the film as a case study, which I came to recognize as an advantage, since the audience accepted the film just because they considered it that way. One man said he felt like was right in the middle of the film. Other men told me they heard themselves talk: "For heaven's sake, I always say that too."

It is a response I very much want to build into a film and find it also in my latest film, STACHEL IM FLEISCH. I have just shown this film to five or six people, who said it has so much that is familiar, and therefore meaningful, that people will think about it. But the film really is quite ordinary, with no unusual events; on the contrary, everyday things happen and are magnified. And if I make a film that helps people tackle difficult problems, as in STACHEL, then I am glad.

Fischetti: Do you work with a team?

Genée: Yes. It saves a lot of trouble. Let's say you are on your third film, and have, let's say, only two-thirds of your previous team, you have to spend a lot of time on interpersonal things. For example, I have resigned myself to my soundman occasionally losing his temper. We tend to overlook him, yet we get angry if the sound is not as good as it should be. He has the right to make himself heard, even if it means shouting, because I want good sound. I also know the strengths and weaknesses of the cameraman, and he also knows mine. This helps shorten the work process.

I have had different actors for each film. But I have done something special with each of the three films, which I recommend to other filmmakers. Long before the first day of shooting, I acquaint the actors with one another and I create a sort of family situation. When we were making ONE PLUS ONE, for example, my daughter once said that she had no idea we were shooting, even though the camera was there. Everyone was so familiar with one another and the costumes and the script, it was no big thing to start shooting. We created a very natural atmosphere in ONE PLUS ONE and nobody was tense.

I would plead for avoiding an impersonal atmosphere and getting everyone acquainted before the shoot. For example, when we made the last film in Sardinia, we were spread out over two hotels, but all the actors stayed with me. We knew one another, all ate together, and talked about heaven knows what, but never about the film. As I know from my experience as an assistant director long ago, when you are on a shoot and have been filming for about 10 or 11 days, suddenly a lot of aggression surfaces, and you don't quite know how to handle it. You suddenly notice that an actor who always wants a close-up sort of edges his way into the foreground. Or another person gets attention through headaches. Or yet another one wants to be the last to have makeup put on or insists on sleeping longer. All these aggressions create a handicap in a shoot. If you have such a bad atmosphere, nothing will come of it.

I try to deal with all this before we start shooting so everyone can check everyone else out and discover the weaknesses and other traits we don't normally like. You can say to yourself, I like this person more and the other one less, and by the time the shoot comes along, this gets worked out.

STACHEL IM FLEISCH was quite a strain in Sardinia with temperatures of 104°. Physically it was tough, but it was the most beautiful shoot I have ever been on. I had told everyone to bring their families so we had a job organizing everything. The producer wanted to kill me since he had to provide for grandmothers, grandchildren, dogs, and what have you. The crew brought everyone; I brought my three children, too. The producer spent all his time finding lodgings. It was crazy, yet we shot in five weeks and not in six, as is normally done. So the crew had a week of fun with their families swimming. And the film benefited.

Fischetti: ONE PLUS ONE was a great critical success, getting several awards. Was it also a box office success?

Genée: You choose to work for good reviews, awards, or big audiences. In the case of ONE PLUS ONE all three things happened, which is rare. For GRETE MINDE I also got a Federal Film Prize, but more bad than good reviews. It was my first film, an adaptation of a Fontane story, just at the time when critics were beginning to frown on historical films and campaign in all the papers for original stories. Now I think they were right, and that I was somewhat of a coward. GRETE MINDE is a period piece, which keeps you at a distance from the things that go on on the screen.

ONE PLUS ONE was different. It's actually the story of my mother, who had me against everybody's wishes. People said of GRETE MINDE, "Well, why don't you shoot the same subject in the Bavarian Forest?" Later I saw their point. Young people actually stayed away from this film, only older people went to see it, say those above 35, 10% of whom still go to movies. To make a film for this type of audience is a little too costly, especially if you spend two and a half million Marks to recreate sets of the 16th and 17th centuries. Set dressing was our magic word. We could never set up the camera and just shoot but first we would dismantle antennae and gutters, and whatever else people did not have then. At the end the whole town burns down so we built the sets to burn them down.

Then, painfully, the film had only mediocre success. If I have to choose between awards, reviews, and large audiences, I would always prefer a large audience. I'd rather communicate and have people receive my film well, as opposed to a lukewarm reaction, which means that I really did not reach people. When a critic writes that such and such is the greatest film ever, then this can be just as wrong as a devastating review. And awards are made by committees, where you have your cliques, and compromises are negotiated. The whole thing is somewhat dishonest. My only true measure is if someone pays 8 Marks at the box office and leaves saying it was worthwhile and then recommends my film to someone else.

Fischetti: German theaters show so few German films. Does that hurt your feelings, or do you just resign to the fact that that's the way things are?

Genée: It hurts a lot. But now it's slowly changing. Here in Munich, for example, my film ran in two theaters simultaneously, in one for nine weeks and in the other for eleven weeks; in Berlin it ran thirteen weeks. German cinema is getting popular again. Several years ago, I remember Alexander Kluge talking about the U.S. flooding the market and the crazy blackmailing tactics of distributors, making exhibitors show U.S. box office flops in order to get James Bond films. One example was GRUPPENBILD MIT DAME, a bad film which did poorly here. It was distributed by United Artists, who told theaters they had to show GRUPPENBILD for two weeks to get any other successful film. A distributor like Laurens Straub cannot threaten to withhold my film, ONE PLUS ONE. The theaters would say, "Forget it." We were afraid we would have to show our films only in the film museum and never get into the theaters, that German cinema would not have a chance. And then a lot of us said we should make films for audiences, and that it was wrong to make films with public funds just for personal reasons.

Fischetti: I found it remarkable that films by women are being shown now. For example, the only two German films we could see in Berlin theaters were DEUTSCHLAND, BLEICHE MUTTER and HUNGERJAFIRE. Does this mean that the women's film has become accepted, or is this just an accident? What do you think?

Genée: It has been accepted. Luckily, people have stopped asking what women's films are all about. They had thought in terms of genres — detective films, Westerns, and, also, women's films. Now it means that women's films provide unusual viewing experiences because they have mostly women as protagonists. This is what my audiences said, for example, about ONE PLUS ONE.

One youth, around 20, said naively that he had initially felt uneasy until he realized that he was used to seeing male protagonists. He realized that this film had a woman protagonist and the men were quite unheroic with all kinds of faults, and that normally it was the other way around. But in my latest film, for example, I have two male protagonists, the little guy and Helmut Griem, and Christel Buschmann's film also has a male protagonist. Margarethe Von Trotta places women in the foreground, but she would never be exclusively interested in women's topics.

We should slowly get away from the idea that women directors are interested in nothing but women. Instead we should stress that we are offering an alternative view of things and look at many things normally omitted from films by men. For example, children do not exist in films by men — either they are absent, or they are silly types that say precocious things. In Bergman's SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE children exist, but they never show up. To bring children into the film, one would have to understand children and the way they feel and think, and most men aren't prone to doing that and would find it irrelevant.

Fischetti: Wouldn't you agree that with regard to films for and about children, little has been done?

Genée: I must say that television has helped. Its offerings for children and adolescents are a lot better than its prime time programming. I often watch these programs, which deal with problems children have, mostly in a light-hearted way but sometimes seriously. Children — or better, growing people — like seeing not just petty stuff but real problems. Afternoon programs can be produced like that because they have fewer restrictions. In the evening, for example, programs must feature well-known actors, or have a positive ending, or similar rubbish. The afternoon programs offer a fresh view of things, and though technically not always perfect, they are quite enjoyable. But feature films with children, with children playing parts, are very rare, and are mostly limited to the Tatum O'Neill types. I can't stand that.

Fischetti: Was it more difficult for you to establish yourself as a filmmaker than for a man?

Genée: No. I am an exception because I came to film rather early, through my father who wanted me to learn a bit about everything. I began as an assistant editor at the age of 19. Before that, I had to learn the business aspects. Then I stuck with editing and at 21 edited my first film. To be truthful, I gained immediate recognition.

That is not always the case. If your first film is a flop, you have to wait ten years before you get a second chance and people trust you. I was one of three editors in Germany who could be very choosy and pick the films and the directors for whom I wanted to work. In the end I only worked with Peter Lilienthal (I edited three of his films), Kluge, or Hark Bohm. All of them were interesting people with good projects.

When I directed my first film, GRETE MINDE, everyone knew I had learned my trade. Also I had done a lot of assistant directing before I had the children. If a film crew notices that you got where you are because of a good friend or obtained the money for the film in some funny way, they can be quite cruel, even with male directors. They watch you for two to three days. If they notice that you cannot tell the camera lenses apart, you are finished.

With we women, of course, we have to be twice as good. That's the way it is. Now we see younger men who don't have a problem accepting women. But those our age or older only say that it's great that a woman is creative. My divorced husband expected to provide for the family, and me to stay at home. I could work, as long as I managed to do both. My husband just refused to be a partner. He always showed off with what I was doing, but he would never do the slightest thing to help me. Most men in a film crew find themselves in a similar situation. They respect you, yet they fear you.

My former husband somehow considered me a rival. He was not a director but a production manager. For an entire year, he had nothing to do because nobody was making any films. During that time, I was editing and making a lot of money. We had put some money aside, and the two girls had already been born. During this entire year he was unable to relax and to say to himself, "Why not work in the garden?" although he really liked gardening. Instead, he sat around and was miserable, pressuring himself that he had to provide for the family, that he was responsible.

Now everybody thinks it's great when I make fun of men. My producer says so too. But at home with his girlfriend, he keeps a very strict hierarchy. Somehow the two attitudes don't match. These men cannot change so easily.

Fischetti: Is it difficult for you to combine career and family?

Genée: Very difficult, indeed. Sometimes I have to be a top manager without five minutes for myself. My mother cannot always help out. She wants to have a life of her own and I think that's good. My problem, and yours too, is to strike a happy medium between not having my kids resent my work and saying working is more exciting and more important than spending time with my kids, or, on the other hand, insisting on motherhood by saying that having three children to raise is fulfilling enough. Nobody cares that you have three children and are alone with them. I may know how much work is involved. But if the film does not turn out the way it should, I cannot apologize because I had my three children with me during the shoot. You have to pretend to behave like your male colleagues. Yet when they wake up in the morning, their women bring breakfast and pay them compliments. When I wake up in the morning, I think of the new pair of pants I should buy my son Daniel or if I should not send him to a therapist after all or what's going on in school. When the kids are in bed at night, then I have time for a few thoughts of my own. But I cannot complain to anyone about that. That's the way it is. But it's not easy.

Fischetti: I always have these terrible guilt feelings …

Genée: Same here. Daniel is old enough that I can talk with him. He is a very open child; he reads a lot and does a lot of things. It's really beautiful when you can share things with your children. This way I no longer feel guilty.

Fischetti: Another "woman's" question: Do you think movies have adequately portrayed women?

Genée: Not at all. I understand women's feelings and thoughts more readily than men's. It's so much closer to home. I have only experienced men in certain relations, or I have observed them in their relations with other women  — I'll put this into a film. But we must communicate all our spontaneity and all we are not taught to repress. For example, no man cries — that's the way it is. And when a man directs a film, he will show what he is familiar with or what he has heard his friends say. So men's portrayal of women is off, even though I believe it's not intentionally so.

Fischetti: Are your male characters a little off?

Genée: Yes and no — in both films, even in GRETE MINDE. But Fontane wrote his story that way, and he was a man. You're finally relieved when Grete Minde's boyfriend dies and she's finally rid of him. But Fontane saw the boyfriend as weak.

But otherwise I can't help having a little bit of fun when I script male characters. The male actors don't fare so well. But I'm far from wanting all-women audiences. If I made films exclusively for women, word would travel fast, and the film would be a failure. I want people to see my films. It makes no sense to alienate men by saying, "Look how dumb you are and how great we women are." I have tried to avoid stereotypes.

In my films, men are funny but never artificial. Some of it I put quite mildly and not as bad as it actually happened to me because when something bad happens, I can see some of the funny sides, too. For example, the very moment when the world seems to crumble and you are quite desperate, your boyfriend hands you a bouquet of flowers wrapped in a check, which you are to use for an abortion. He does it in a very funny way, throwing off the wrappings and saying, "Look here, I got something for you."

I try to give my films this type of reality, the way I or my friends experienced it, including all the comedy. Once at the time we were splitting up, I suddenly realized my husband was wearing his shirt inside out. Things like that help you cope and not feel like giving up. That's what's in my films.

Conducted in Munich in January, 1981.