Credit: Barbara Seyr
by Ryan Coleman Feature Articles Featured Film Interviews

Ideology Without Ideas: An Interview with Jessica Hausner

March 12, 2024

Silent woman. Distant camera. Loneliness giving off a steam, slowly cooling into anger. Fantasy of retribution. Architecture so oppressive it could freeze a layer of white off your eyes. Abrasive colors. Throw-up green. Kiss-me yellow. Fantasy of sudden death. Of never having existed. The films of Jessica Hausner are snapshots of women in extremity: the concussive isolation of Hotel; the aching, thwarted hope of Lourdes; the screaming inner void of Amour Fou. The period we find the Austrian filmmaker in today is one increasingly suffocated by a mannered, florid, even parodic stylization. 2019’s Little Joe featured acres of bleeding red flowers, hot white light, sterile lab coats, and an improbably round, Cannes-winning wig. This year’s Hausner, Club Zero, pushes this style even further. Every costume, every piece of furniture, every movement of a hand or flick of a strand of hair, every push in of the camera is choreographed with unforgiving precision — to corner you, agitate you, and then to leave you to your thoughts. You decide what happened and what it means.

Club Zero is set at an orderly, airless boarding school in an unnamed European country. Its protagonist, Ms. Novak (Mia Wasikowska), is the type of character that has proven most successful at luring the wonderful, elusive actress out of her early retirement. From afar, Ms. Novak resembles Kathleen Byron in Black Narcissus, emerging from the chapel with eyes of blazing black coal, murder rushing like wind around her bone china wrists. But up close, she is sensitive, interested, and impossible to resist. Ms. Novak is hired to teach a “conscious eating” class, which quickly contorts into an “eat nothing” cult bent on self-annihilation, prompting a desperate moral searching amongst viewers which Hausner is all too happy to recuse herself from.

Club Zero premiered in Competition at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, which has launched all but one of Hausner’s films, going all the way back to her 2001 feature debut Lovely Rita. Ahead of the film’s U.S. release, I sat down with Hausner to talk about systems, driverless ideology, and the beauty of zooms.

Ryan Coleman: Watching Club Zero, it got me thinking about some of your other films: Little Joe, Hotel, one of my favorites, Lourdes. You seem to train your eye on the systems that envelop your characters as often as you do the characters themselves. Or maybe the interest is in the relationship between individuals and the systems they find themselves a part of. Can you remember what first provoked you to look at things this way?

Jessica Hausner: If I remember well, it was after my film Lourdes. That was the first time I consciously started to understand that this is what I’m interested in. To describe our society as a system, as a system of rules. To show how complicated it can be to obey those rules. Lourdes allowed me to realize this for the first time, how I look at things. The comments on my films since I started making them have always been that they are kind of distanced. The perspective on my characters is a distant one, and why don’t we feel so much empathy for them? I always thought, “Yeah, what am I doing wrong? Why is no one crying out loud?” And then suddenly I understood that it’s because I’m doing something else. I don’t invite the audience to feel the same things that the lead character is feeling; I invite them to understand the system that the lead character is living in, and what she has to do in order to be liked, to be acknowledged, just to function within it.

RC: A scene in Club Zero which speaks to that is when Ms. Novak (Wasikowska) is speaking to two of her students about how the conscious eating movement is great in part because it is helping save the environment. That excites them and they ask, “Oh, so you’re part of the agricultural protest movement?” and she says “no,” just brushes them off. It’s a really illuminating moment because at the beginning of the film she affirms all the students’ motivations for conscious eating, but they drop away one by one as the film proceeds. It becomes clear there’s either only one right reason, or no reason. She has formed an ideological group that has no ideology.

JH: I think that the actual ideology of Ms. Novak is replaceable. She promotes a very strange idea of non-eating, and claims that this non-eating will help the planet to survive, and it’s good for your mind and health, and more. But it remains very vague what it is that actually drives her. On purpose I kept it unclear, hidden, what her philosophy is. Is she really part of some club that is called Club Zero or is she making it up? We don’t find out. This group, as you say, is not based around a specific ideology that is right or wrong. That’s what is important about the film, because this is how it works. It does not matter what is promoted, it is always possible to get other people to start to believe it, many other people, quite easily. But what is it? In this case, it is nothing. That is how strong belief is. Every one of us has that need to believe in something. Even the strongest atheist believes in something.

Some people think they are without an ideology. But every moment of life contains judgements. What is good or bad, right or wrong, this all comes from ideologies, ones that we grow up with and ones that come from the society that we live in. This is something that I wanted to understand, and through Club Zero I tried to show. The students are not stupid for joining the club. It is about belief. Belief is very strong, it’s a powerful experience, and it can be manipulated and changed quite easily. Suddenly, something that feels crazy to you can be at the center of your life, and now you look crazy to other people.

RC: Cults and communes and fringe groups are such a popular subject in media right now, and a reaction you see everywhere to them is, “It would never happen to me.” “I could never be a sucker like them.” But in Club Zero you see that these kids all come from very different backgrounds. They have different levels of susceptibility, different value systems, they come from  across the class system, some of them drop out before it gets serious, some are manipulated into staying in. At every turn you refuse the audience to exempt themselves. Then you can say, “Well of course, it’s just happening to kids.” But at the end, this non-ideology has reached the adults too.

JH: Yes, and also what I found interesting is that, the normal way of making this film would be to have a scene or several scenes that remind you, of course, you cannot live without eating. But that scene is not in my film. The kids become pale, they get quite thin, we do have the feeling that they are becoming weak. But the film itself does not leave you that security, I do not afford it to the audience. There is a certain range, there is a space for those kids who think they will survive. That is something I’ve been discussing a lot with people who saw the film. That hurts. People have been upset by that. They want to be told of course this was wrong and the kids would never have gone through with it if they got weak enough. But in life that does not always happen, and it does not happen in the film.

RC: I’ve noticed in interviews many of your collaborators say the same thing. When asked what it’s like working with you they say, “Jessica knows exactly what she wants. And she knows exactly how to realize it.” You’ve built up strong collaborations over the years, and of course every film is a community effort. But the clearness you have and the control you exert over the production, it’s interesting, because I don’t think your films would be as powerful or provocative as they are without a strong element of mystery at the center of each. Could you talk about balancing precision and control with mystery and ambiguity?

JH: The way I work is that when I start to think of a script, it is almost always because an idea has gotten into my head that I cannot resolve. There is a secret or an ambiguity within that idea that nags at me. That’s the reason why I make films. In the scent of the film, there is a trace of unsolvable mystery. So I create a story around that question mark. My films are all about things that I don’t really understand, that my characters don’t really understand. I find myself again and again writing dialogue in which one character says something and the other character says the opposite, but they’re both right. This is a typical dialogue that I write. Sometimes it’s a misunderstanding, sometimes they have different information about something which leads them to different positions on the same thing. A lot of the scenes I write are about different truths within a certain incident. I say this and you say that, and each of us thinks they are right.

RC: Toward the end of Club Zero there is a scene where one of the girls has taken conscious eating so far that she’s just refusing food. She says to her parents, who are trying to get her to eat, “I could eat my throw up if I wanted to. That’s how strong my will is.” She stands on the other side of her bedroom door talking to them about all the reasons why refusing to eat is a great idea. And they all make sense!

JH: Yes, exactly. Every time I myself see the scene I think, she’s right! The film allows you to think two ways at once about what you are seeing. You are horrified for these children and what they are undergoing, but their reasons for doing it are justified, even if the justifications are coming from a bad place. I have had many audience members come to me after screenings and either say, “Is it okay to agree with them?” or “How dare you agree with them!” But I have said nothing. I don’t agree with anyone in my film; that is not my job.

RC: That feels like a contemporary phenomenon that a lot of us have experienced. You read about people perpetrating heinous acts for reasons that are totally understandable, or doing the right thing for terrible reasons.

JH: Absolutely. It’s exactly the perspective I took into the film. It astonishes me again and again that this is what life is like. If you take a slightly closer look at things right under your eyes, it becomes impossible to say one true sentence about anything. We all experience our lives and our shared reality in different ways that don’t always align. Your tongue will melt in your mouth as you try to say one thing because of the abundance of things that contradict it.

RC: I want to make sure I ask a couple questions about the formal qualities of the film and your technical process behind the camera. Particularly, if we could talk about all of the zooms? The constant zooming in and zooming out, sometimes pushing directly onto a character, sometimes off center and from a canted angle. At what point in the process did you and your DP discover that zooms would be such a pivotal formal strategy.

JH: That’s an interesting question. My cinematographer Martin Gschlacht and I, we have worked on many films together, we did a lot of tests, camera tests. I was drawing a story board, and while drawing I developed the idea of the zoom. Martin and I had used zooms on my other films as well, but this time I developed something where I told him what I need is a really wide angle shot, and then I want to be able to zoom in to a tight closeup. Very slowly, but we have to have a very long range. We tested different lenses, and it’s not so easy because some of them don’t work all the way through. They are blurred by the time they get to the close-up or they sort of shift when you’re in the wide angle shot. But we found a set of different zooms that allowed us to work within that long range. In this film, the effect can be jarring, because you don’t always realize the camera is zooming when you’re in a wide, you only realize as you’re getting close to the face of Ms. Novak or some other character.

RC: I’m also interested in the way you captured Mia Wasikowska’s character within the frame. There’s one shot where Ben is eating a big lunch. Ms. Novak quietly comes up to reprimand him for having so much food on his plate, but you only see this odd fragment of her body from her hips to her shoulders. It’s like this voice is coming from above him, outside the frame. And another where one of the girls is in the library and there’s a little bit of window in the right edge of the frame. Ms. Novak slowly walks into it, makes eye contact with her student, and beckons her outside. It’s so unsettling, the way she almost changes in size and shape within your frame.

JH: In general, I’m interested in finding framings that only show us part of a whole thing. That is part of the film language that I try to create together with Martin. The camera movement is one thing. The zooms and tracking shots, they suggest to the audience that the camera is watching. But the strange thing is that we let the camera go at its own pace. It doesn’t neatly follow actors as they move and speak. It moves on its own, somehow has its own intentions. An actor may be in the middle of delivering lines when the camera passes over them, or it hasn’t quite reached them when they start speaking. The other thing is when the camera is not moving I only show part of the action. Some actor is off frame or you see only parts of the actor. These are different strategies that have the same aim. It’s to show that the world of this film, it is not being shown to you by an omnipotent narrator. The camera says to you, “This is what I know, it’s not everything. I cannot tell you the whole truth because I don’t know it. I don’t know what every character is thinking or feeling. But I can show you Ms. Novak’s elbow, because that’s what I’ve got.”

RC: There are also a couple shots where the camera is placed at a high angle and bears down on the characters from an angle, like a surveillance camera. It has this wonderful alienating effect.

JH: Yes, you have to be quite creative with the camera, to be clever with the shots you design in a film like this. We did not want to let the audience rest, even for a moment. The camera’s limitations should worry you — “What am I not seeing?” That is where the film really is.