We’re on the 24th floor of Parkview Square at the Austrian Embassy, halfway through an interview with Mirjam Unger and Sandra Bohle, director and screenwriter of the opening film of the 2018 European Union Film Festival Maikäfer flieg (Fly Away Home), when Mirjam becomes distracted and gazes out the window at a cumulonimbus of dark clouds and the impending thunderstorm. Compelled by its savage beauty, she excuses herself and walks over to snap a photo of the natural phenomenon. It’s a small, but powerful moment that makes us believe in Mirjam’s keen eye for the cinematic.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a very intuitive person,” Mirjam says. “In particular, I’ve always been interested in what happened in the past, and I’d ask my parents, my grandparents and relatives about their lives.”
Set in wartime Vienna in 1945, Maikäfer flieg is based off a popular, autobiographical novel of the same name by Austrian author Christine Nöstlinger. Seen from the eyes of nine-year old protagonist Christine (Zita Gaier), we’re given a very different view of war as her family navigates their new, relocated home, and deals with the sudden influx of Russian soldiers. On the decision to adapt the novel, Mirjam explains: “I thought Christine Nöstlinger showed a unique perspective on living through war – it wasn’t just tragic, but as a child, the wartime gave her a very unique form of freedom, and it was the biggest adventure of her life.”
She elaborates more on the film’s origins: “I used to read Christine Nöstlinger’s works as a child, and there was this play in Vienna I watched based off her poems. Interestingly enough, even though Maikäfer flieg is a very famous book in Austria which many people had read in school, I picked it up for the first time only after watching that play, and fell in love with it. I could picture the entire film unfolding before my eyes, and when we found out people had tried and failed to film it, we were determined to see it through and bring it to life.”
As an autobiographical work, it was important to both Mirjam and Sandra that they captured the essence of the story just right, and personally consulted Christine Nöstlinger for research and clarification. Says Mirjam: “There were so many fans of the book, and there’s this responsibility to do a film that they will like. I have friends who are fans and they gave me the thumbs up after watching it, and it gave me a lot of relief.”
Their hard work has paid off – both women proudly recount the strong reception it received so far in countries like Portugal, Italy, Germany, and of course, their home country of Austria. The film’s screening on 10th May will mark the film’s Asian premiere, and open the entire EUFF 2018, which runs till 20th May at the National Gallery Singapore.
On the casting process, Mirjam reveals that to pay homage to her inspiration, she cast both Ursula Strauss and Gerald Votava in her film, who had both acted in the play that set her on the journey in the first place. Says Mirjam: “We also wanted to cast real Russians, and we were recommended to try getting Konstantin Khabensky, who is like the Brad Pitt of Russia and absolutely beautiful. We said we’ll never get a hold of him, and were so surprised and excited when we asked his agent, and he came to Vienna and said yes! Interestingly enough, his role is meant to be a fat and ugly person, so we ended up having to give him prosthetics to make him ugly, though of course, he refused to gain weight.”
In a sense, the team behind Maikäfer flieg are pioneers – it’s received one of the biggest budgets for a historical film led by a mostly female team, from camerawoman all the way to set decorator, producer and director. Filmmaking remains a relatively male dominated industry, and Sandra elaborates on the situation in Austria, saying: “There is a lack of good role models, both in front and behind the camera and a lot of girls don’t have enough confidence that they can go to film school and join the industry. Most of the film productions are headed by men, who are interested in telling stories about other men. But thankfully, this is slowly changing, with women all around the world forming teams and filming stories they want to tell, and beyond gender, it’s really an issue of seeing more diversity both onscreen and off.”
Even with her many female fronted films though, Mirjam did not initially think of herself as a feminist filmmaker. She says: “I never had that feeling, and only realised it might come across that way after journalists started asking me about it. For me, it’s the quality of the filmmaking that comes first, beyond the gender. As a child, I watched all these old films on television – the classics with Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, and some old Austrian films. I told myself I wanted to be there, doing something like this. As a teenager, when everyone else had posters of young stars, I instead has this poster of a fat old man – Once Upon A Time In The West director Sergio Leone!“
She continues: “Although I started out working in media, with programmes on radio and a youth programme on TV, at 23 I had a dilemma and suddenly felt like I was missing something. I realised I wanted to join the film industry, so I went to school and studied film directing, and suddenly, I had joined the profession. I still continued to do radio until I was 40 because music is very important to me, but if I ever wanted to make big movies, I’d have to leave. It was difficult at the time, but on hindsight, it really was a good decision and I’m very happy where I am today.”
Speaking of music, we discuss the soundtrack and songs featured on the film. Says Mirjam: “I did a film called Oh Yeah, She Performs about female Austrian musicians, and I asked Gustav frontwoman Eva Jantschitsch to compose the score. It’s interesting because Gustav was the name she went by for a few years as a child, as her father wanted a boy, and it’s so rare to have a female composer for a film. I also asked Christine Nöstlinger what kind of music she heard at the time, and she said there was this one song that goes like ‘heart goes boom boom’. We found it on YouTube, and incorporated it into the film! We also found out how Christine’s father loved jazz, and once the war was over, he’d always drink with the Russians and listen to jazz music from the BBC, and incorporated that into the film.”
Mirjam ends off: “You know, my own father used to show me all the old Star Trek TV series, and I’ve always loved the idea that diverse men and women of all cultures and backgrounds could come together on a single spaceship. Perhaps in future, there’ll be more of that both onscreen and offscreen, as we all work together and better understand each other despite our differences.”
And on whether she’ll ever be like childhood idol Sergio Leone and make an Austrian Western? “You never know, we actually have this famous German Western film called Winnetou which they shot in Croatia, and you can’t actually tell where it is. I like the Western, so it could be a possibility in future!”
Maikäfer flieg plays at the National Gallery on 10th May (Invite only) and 18th May, tickets available here. The 28th European Union Film Festival takes place from 10th – 20th May at the National Gallery. Tickets available from SISTIC