An Interview with Film Director Jos Stelling

An Interview with Film Director Jos Stelling

There are few directors that have the ability to create genuinely piercing films, the kind that leave you in complete and utter shock by the end, only able to weep a bitter mixture of grief and an appreciation for the beauty you just witnessed. One such person who can do this however, is Dutch director, writer, and producer, Jos Stelling.

Hailing from Utrecht, Netherlands, Stelling has made an array of films with a cult like following: Duska, The Illusionist, The Girl and Death, and Rembrandt just to name a few. Despite not being particularly popular in his homeland, he and his work is always welcome at any of the world’s best film festivals.

In an exclusive interview, the film director discusses where he gets his inspiration from, and what life values he possesses. 

Your first movie, Mariken of Nijmeigen, is based on a folk story about how the devil, looking as a respectable youth, seduced an innocent girl. How did folk tales help you create a true film masterpiece?

I made my first film 45 years ago. To show the story of the deal with the devil, I chose the genre of Christian parable. I recreated the laws of Medieval life as accurately as possible, so that the European spectator could plunge into the atmosphere of those days that are gone and will never return. Basically, I was shooting Westerns, although I usually do not use the techniques accepted in American cinema. I also needed serious historical preparation. I had to understand the religious and mythological literature, because I touched on the topic of how the devil got the unspoiled soul of a young girl and ruined the life of an honest heroine. I wished to demonstrate the conflict between true beauty and the filth that, at first glance, takes on a dignified appearance in our world attracting inexperienced souls.

Did the first film you make change your idea of ​​cinematography?

Of course. Since the film Mariken from Nijmeigen was my first work, I understood that its quality influenced whether I would be able to get promoted in the world of cinema. As a plot, I chose the confrontation between good and evil. This is what interested me in my youth and now, and no viewer could remain indifferent to this problem.

Before filming started, I was an amateur, but in the process so much happened, and the experience I gained was truly unforgettable, that it gave me the moral right to call myself a professional. We shot the film for six years, and over the years, the whole crew has become dear to me, as if we were one family! So we took care of each other… Yes, I have the warmest memories of these shootings.

Since then, you rarely use folklore in your films. What inspires you to create films?

Although I started my career as a director with a film based on historical motives, I am intrigued by completely different things. To be honest, only a strong conflict can really touch me. I reflect on the struggle between good and evil, or how the human soul is torn apart by sensitivity and sensibility. This is how a story is born in my fantasy. In addition, the time when I made a film about the Middle Ages is in the past. Today, I prefer movies that tell about the present – or, as they say, will be relevant at all times. Of course, I turn to history when the plot requires, but more often I concentrate on the eternal problems.

Why are you interested in existential topics of love and hatred, faith and betrayal, life and death?

When I think about conflict in a plot, I consider two opposites. Day turns to night. The past is no longer perceived as before, and the future is hidden from us. Without knowing the dark side of life, we will not know how to appreciate the light. Only by entering into confrontation do the opposites fully manifest themselves and form the plot. This is how history is born. I prefer to start from abstract things. For example, both North and South are equally important, each side of the world helps to maintain balance in the world. Giving an everyday example, we can talk about the conflict between a man and a woman, about the difference between them – and about the space where they touch, thereby creating a unique beauty. In relationships, we are always talking about love and hatred, about those abstractions that arise between different people. I really like to talk about it.

The confrontation between light and shadow is also present in the camera work in your films. Is this intentional?

Of course, because in life many emotional things are born somewhere in between. The personality of the hero can be reflected by directing the spotlights to that abstract space that appears as a result of the interaction of two opposites. I aspire that the motion picture with its halftones reflects my philosophy of life. Let me give you an example. Michelangelo has a painting called The Creation of Adam. Two hands are crossed on it – one belongs, in fact, to Adam, the other to God. There is space between their fingers. It seems that they are about to intersect, but the best part is that this touch will not happen. This is the essence of our life. Everything we feel is born in the space between the twoworlds. Art, poetry, music, literature talk about it. All strong emotions – love, hate, heroism, sinfulness – are also born when opposites, experiencing gravitation, still remain in their places. It’s a kind of contact between light and darkness.

What, in your opinion, should be a win-win plot in a movie?

If you choose a love story as a plot, it is not enough to talk only about mutual infatuation. According to the laws of scriptwriting, within each scene, “plus” must change to “minus”. If we show the viewer the original data, at the end of a short episode, the emotional component should change. For example, you started with a scene that convinces us of the mutual sympathy of the characters, which means that the logical conclusion of the episode will be a seditious fact, which will suddenly become clear, or an overdue conflict will “shoot”. The film must reflect the problems, and the root of all disasters is that no people are the same, we are all different and will never be able tounderstand each other. It is my deep conviction that hatred appears just a certain distance that always exists between the two sexes, no matter how much the heroes are in love. And this is not only about love.

For example, in the film Duska I bring up the story of the so-called “soul brothers”. According to the plot, a Western film director, having visited a Russian festival, in a fit of emotion, invited a Russian eccentric fan to his place. But the Russian really arrives – and behaves like an annoying guest. He explains his actions by the fact that the filmmaker is rather lonely, and, in fact, the purpose of “Duska” is to make him feel that someone needs him. The main characters are absolutely different from each other. This is the confrontation between Western individualism and Eastern collectivism. The right to be alone against the desire to help at any cost. Again, we can perceive this plot not in the literal sense – but as a conflict of opposites in the human soul.

I noticed some similarities between Mariken from Nijmeigen and Duska, despite the tangible difference in plots. In both films, the heroes in the finale take to the high road, and their further fate remains in question. Do you put some kind of symbolic subtext into this image?

Of course, I mean in this case that the best ending for the hero is to return to nature, to that state of unity with the world that we leave in childhood. Speaking directly about the film Duska, the main character-eccentric is a type of person living in the present. At the same time, his “twin brother” filmmaker embodies an ambitious personality, one of those that we have so many in the West. The director lives for the future, makes plans – and, frankly, does not know what to do with today. But the way our life flows today is sometimes much more important than what will happen tomorrow. But in the West they are used to looking for something unattainable, which, perhaps, will appear in our future. So people have lost the value of life “in the present”. And nature – and the people who come into contact with it every day – usually value “today.” The conflict in Duska is born out of the confrontation between the “business” West and the spiritual, “farming” East.

The film Duska has an open ending. And yet I would like to ask the creator of this movie: who was driving the truck, did the filmmaker meet Dushka when he arrived on his land?

The open ending is created so that everyone could see what is closer to him. It’s not clear to me also whether the director eventually found his Russian friend, whom he had brutally chased out of the house before, or whether another person was driving the car. One thing is certain: life is cyclical, and when something ends, something else begins. Fate leads us in circles over and over. You may have noticed that in many of my films, the action begins in the morning. This is where cyclicality is manifested. So it happens with our life – one day comes maturity (“day”), but someday we will be overtaken by “evening” and “night”. I really enjoy playing with the seasons. To correlate “winter” with “night” in the fate of the hero. But, unfortunately, it is not always possible to translate this idea into a film. After all, then the movie must be shot throughout the year, and this is quite expensive. However, in every film I try to maintain a cyclical structure – I start and end on the same note. I know that the idea of ​​the meaninglessness of life is now popular. I disagree with that. Each event has its beginning and end, the energy comes and then decreases. The path to the meaning of one’s existence is, figuratively speaking, the “search for Duska” in the film of the same name.

When I watched your film The Girl and Death, I noticed some allusions to Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot. I saw information that you love Russian classics…

Yes, I read the works of Dostoevsky and Chekhov. I like the complexity of their literary quest. But I do not consider myself entitled to be equal to these great creators. At the same time, I am impressed by how deeply and lovingly they reflect the human soul. They take psychology so seriously that I personally would like to learn. I’m a humourist by nature. And while making films, I constantly remind myself: “Stop looking ironically at events, this episode must look serious.” When in my reflections I came to such a philosophy of life, I just had the idea to make the film The Girl and Death. In it, the main character participates in the most significant battle – the battle with her own death.

The main character in Girl and Death (and also Duska) are somewhat reminiscent of Prince Myshkin from the novel The Idiot – did you deliberately endow the characters with such features?

Thank you, I am very flattered if there is indeed a connection with the work of Dostoevsky in my films, since I would never pretend to imitate a genius writer. I can only admire him. But if my love for Dostoevsky’s literature is discerned in the cinema that I create, I am very happy.

In Russian literature there is another famous work written by Lermontov: A Hero of Our Time. While the character has a little heroic character, vicious traits dominate. Please tell me how would you describe the hero of the time in which we live?

I don’t believe in heroes. Rather, I am convinced that this is the era of antiheroes. In art, I am interested in the question of how a person can survive in a world where the real intersects with the artificial. Of course, a hero could be a person who sacrificed himself to make other people happy. But looking back at real life, I can say that this is a utopia. Only in movies there is a division into positive and negative. In life, our actions are governed by deep subconscious mechanisms – archetypes. This is how the archetypes of the Hero and the Antihero, already known to us, appear in the cinema, endowed with their characteristic qualities. I believe that an antihero appears where there is a barrier between good and evil. In fact, a character created on the basis of a certain archetype is intended only to emphasize the line between black and white, when the hero has the opportunity to “choose a side”. At the same time, this choice is somewhat illusory. Life involves us in a series of events, characters use each other for their own purposes – and this whole complex system explains why we do one way or another.

For example, do you know what Alfred Hitchcock said? “When a woman enters a room and sits down slowly, I have exactly two seconds to understand who this lady is. I judge by simple things – hairstyle, clothes, manners”. This is how the film should begin. You are looking at the hero in the frame, and what will happen next is still unknown. If he starts talking, he is most likely lying. Or it will behave like a programmed doll. It will not add to your knowledge of the character’s life. It turns out this situation: you are watching a movie – and the director does not have time to explain.

It happens quite differently in literature. A writer can explain the reasons and background for behaviour, but this is unacceptable in cinema.

What is your criterion for a good actor?

Here you can draw a parallel with the Italian comedy of the Middle Ages – dell’arte, where the heroes were puppets – Arlecchino, Piero. The dolls had a typical set of characteristics (funny, unhappy, cocky), and their personality was not too interested in the public. But the situations in which the puppets fell, demonstrated curious things – their value in the fact that everyone could recognize themselves in this story.

So, in my opinion, a persuasive actor is one who perfectly masters the skill of immersing the audience in a situation. The good actor is interested in the message of the film as a whole, while the bad actor only pays attention to his role.

By showing people situations, does cinema have the power to change the world for the better? What do you think?

I’m a negativist. I do not believe that you can change the world – and the human essence with the help of cinema. But, of course, it is in our power to draw public attention to problematic phenomena. I am sure that only education that develops the ability to think critically in a person can change our essence. Democracy begins with education. And cinema, in my mind, is a way to escape from the cruel reality, to find inspiration, but a film, even the best one, cannot save from the horrors of modern life.

What projects are you working on now?

I plan to release [a] film this year. It is about the love of an artist from Holland and a ballerina from Eastern Europe. The woman will turn out to be more experienced than her chosen one, and this applies not only to the love sphere, but also to most of the vicissitudes of life in which the heroes will fall. This is the source of the conflict in my film. In fact, this is my last film, I want to make this film – and put an end to it. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you more about the idea and plot details, because now I am working on this project. But I would really like to come to your country for the premiere! And now I wish success and goodness to all wonderful people!

Written by Anastasiia Shkuro.

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