2016 Berlinale Interview – Jan Gassmann (Europe, She Loves)

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Europe, She Loves is a documentary that follows four couples living in Spain, Greece, Estonia and Ireland. 

We see them taking showers, fighting, making love and facing their individual challenges. The film is an intimate reflection of their present situation in Europe. Between searching, wanting to change, longing to stay but also the question what more is there the movie takes us on an audiovisual journey that portrays the young generation’s attitudes towards life.

After his previous films Off Beat (2011) and Chrigu (2007) that were selected by the Berlinale in the past year’s, the Swiss Director Jan Gassmann returns with his new documentary that is screening at the 2016 Berlinale‘s Panorama Documents section.

We spoke with Jan Gassmann about the intimate filming process and Europe as a creative source for showing relations between the private and the political.

What inspired you to make this film and how long did you work on the idea?
Among the things that inspired me was my very personal behavior in relationships. I thought about the question, how to be happy in a relationship? What are the moments and ways we find and treat each other? I think our behavior varies a lot from one relationship to the other. At the same time a lot is being said and written about our generation and its challenges within the personal and European community recently. Most of these articles are similar and they only present cliches. I really wanted to take a closer look, travel to these places myself and examine how couples act on a personal level.

It was a very intuitive project. I came up with the idea while I was taking a shower. I thought about it, wrote my ideas down and after I got the Research Fond it went pretty fast. We started shooting six, seven months after.

The protagonists are four couples in Thessaloniki, Sevilla, Dublin and Tallinn. How did you get in contact?
I didn’t know the protagonists before. At some point I chose the cities, which were new to me as well. I traveled there with one or two contact numbers. While talking about the project and my idea I met people who knew couples that might be interested. Besides that we put out ads, searched on Facebook and talked about it on local radio shows. I spent one week in each city and the interest grew constantly. At the beginning I thought: Fuck, I might find one couple in the week, but when we left we could have cast another full week. In the end, we interviewed about twenty couples per city. We had a lot of talks about relationships, which was an important research for us to get even deeper into the subject.

In the credits, another team in Zagreb is listed. Did you shoot there as well?
Yes, we had another couple in Zagreb that didn’t make it into the movie. It was actually our first location. I had to prepone this shooting because I wanted to portray the couple during the time Croatia joined the European Union. The couple I found there is great and I still love them. In fact, the shootings with them were very important for us to learn how to create intimacy and get the right feeling. Based on these experiences we continued and improved our filming. While editing the movie, we realized the differences. Since the film was also too long we tried it without the scenes from Zagreb and it worked better. But the protagonists from Zagreb accompanied us to Berlin as well. We still have a close and familiar connection.

The film’s level of intimacy is very impressive, with some explicit scenes. We see the protagonists taking showers, fighting, making love, taking drugs and we get to know their personal challenges. Did you spend some time to know them first without the camera?
We were driving through Europe and had a really tight schedule with fixed arrival and departure dates. Per couple we had approximately 9 days. The first day we arrived we got the keys and went to the apartment. On the second day, we already started shooting. We had very long days and nights of filming and captured also very casual things of the day to day life. Normally when you work on a documentary you know this is the protagonist’s job and you are going to film his day. But in our case, you have to see if tooth brushing is more relevant than making porridge. You do not really know that before. It becomes clear when you begin to understand the relationship and how they communicate. So we filmed a lot of material to choose from. At some point, they forgot that there were two more people. We had a really good vibe in the team and with the couples.

The couples deal with different subjects like patchwork families or drug addiction. Did you talk about these things before? Was it clear that these were the stories to tell?
There were stories before but the ones that actually developed are different. In Dublin for example, we knew that her fridge was broken for a few weeks and it smelled. So I thought this will be a bigger aspect to focus on the week of filming. In the end, all that we were shooting concerning that was cut out in the end. We had some things that I wanted to tell, like what they do for their living and a bit from their background. But the stories in the film actually changed a lot from the initial expectation. For example, you mentioned the patchwork family, we did not expect that the estranged daughter from his previous relationship would contact him. So on one hand we were prepared but on the other hand, we were surprised about the developments in their lives that were definitely enriching for the movie.

Europe and its political sphere is present through news reports on radio or television, sometimes even live in the living room. But there are no interviews about it with the protagonists. Can you tell us more about the concept behind it?
I made movies that were more explicitly political. With Europe, She Loves we wanted to make an observing movie. This decision is linked to the different levels of reflection about the subject. In the moment somebody elaborates his stands on the political situation in Europe, via person to camera, the viewer rather gets to judge the person and compares it with his own opinions. My idea was that the discussion opens up through the emotional capacity. In the editing process, we had versions in which my stands came out more obvious but we decided to cut it out. It is a tricky concept with the full spectrum of people that want more political insights and for some it is enough to think about. For me, the political reflects a lot on the private sphere. It is in personal interactions when we communicate as a partner or a consumer for example.

There is a certain aspect to Europe and the community but in the end, the smallest group for me is the couple. They have to make compromises, wave options, evaluate the costs and create something together. These are similar processes in bigger spheres like politics. Every politician is bound to these needs and obligations. That’s an aspect we wanted to transmit in the film.

The protagonists speak different languages, how was it for you to not being able to understand what most of them talk about while filming? Did you work with translators directly on the set?
On one hand it was a gift, but on the other hand, it was also a challenge. I always had an assistant director, mainly for the shoots outside or among a larger group of people. They gave me written key notes so that I could peak on them while filming to get the direction of the conversation. But especially during the intimate moments, where we did not know where they were heading you get the feeling something intense or problematic happened. When you listen to that later at night with the assistant director, it turns out that they just talked about which bread to buy. And I thought, hey, that is going to be my great scene! But after some time, it became easier for the cameraman and me to sense the conversation and it was nice to focus on the gestures, facial expressions, and the rhythm.

The narrative flow and the visual style make the movie almost seem like a fictional film. Was it part of the concept?
I was actually surprised at the film’s reception that the authenticity of a documentary seems to rise with the fragmentation or quality of the images. In preparation we watched a lot of movies, many that were shot on analog film material, to see which images worked in these examples. Especially direct cinema from the 70ies which is highly aesthetical. It was important to me that we make a movie that talks through the images and the visual style. It was already in the concept. We gave the cities different colors for example to have a visual orientation. We made fiction films before, now a documentary, but a strict classification is not really important to me.

Talking about images, the film captures plenty of sceneries and landscapes. You also pass by very symbolical places like Auschwitz. How did you choose these places? Did you get inspired along the travel?
It was a mixture of places we wanted to include and researched with the team before and places we saw on the road while reaching the next city. On top of that, we checked google images along our route to find interesting places that we would not have passed otherwise. We collected a lot of material. I also filmed twenty Soviet memorials that did not make it into the film in the end. What was important for us was the travel spirit in the production and the movie itself. The camera was fixed in the bus, so when we saw something we just opened the door and started filming. We wanted to capture the changes in the landscapes, the colors, the light and the mood.

Are you still in contact with the protagonists and do you have plans to follow them in the future?
I am in good contact with all of them and they came to Berlin for the premiere. I learned a lot from them and the project. It was really fun to work that close with the team and the protagonists. At the moment, I have no plans to repeat the project. I think it was a movie that essentially developed from the moment and the present situation. It was more like a one time journey. Although we kept on joking to do Asia, She loves, Africa, She loves.. But maybe there has to be somebody else to do that.

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