The thing about evil

Roberto Andò on Alfred Hitchcock, JK Rowling, Heiligendamm and The Confessions

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Roberto Andò on Connie Nielsen's character Claire: "I based her on someone like J.K. Rowling but also on others who have become hugely wealthy through their writing"
Roberto Andò on Connie Nielsen's character Claire: "I based her on someone like J.K. Rowling but also on others who have become hugely wealthy through their writing" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

At his hotel on Central Park South, director Roberto Andò discussed with me the connections to Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess and Torn Curtain in his latest film, which character was inspired by JK Rowling, the majestic location where he filmed, and how "evil serves no purpose."

The Confessions (Le Confessioni), co-written by Angelo Pasquini, shot by Maurizio Calvesi, and starring Toni Servillo (Paolo Sorrentino's Oscar-winning The Great Beauty and Andò's Viva La Libertà) has an exceptional ensemble cast including Connie Nielsen (Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman), Marie-Josée Croze (John Michael McDonagh's Calvary), Daniel Auteuil (Michael Haneke's Caché), Moritz Bleibtreu (Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run), Lambert Wilson (Jérôme Salle's L'Odyssée), Pierfrancesco Favino (Roger Michell's My Cousin Rachel), and Johan Heldenbergh (Felix van Groeningen's The Broken Circle Breakdown).

Roberto Andò: "Here we find a great coincidence of political theater with international casting."
Roberto Andò: "Here we find a great coincidence of political theater with international casting."

While characters in The Confessions ask their memories if in the classic Hitchcock movie the priest was guilty or innocent, we know that this is actually the wrong question and not the point at all - neither for Hitchcock, nor Andò, who quotes from I Confess. Religion and politics, fairy tales, a forest and a beach, a mysterious black dog named Rolf who changes sides, and a black swan math equation - they all collide in a crash so polished and refined that we might overlook the cost.

During a fictional G8 summit at Heiligendamm (a real one took place in the same hotel in 2007) that more or less decides the future of Western civilisation, a Carthusian monk (the superb Toni Servillo) is invited by the host, Daniel Roché (Daniel Auteuil) - prime mover, puller of the world's business strings, a "man who can crush nations."

Along for the ride to join the 8 are also the super-successful children's book author Claire Seth (Connie Nielsen) who is seeking redemption, and a rock star (Johan Heldenbergh). The night before an all-important vote, Roché asks the monk to join him on his balcony. He wants to confess.

Lambert Wilson as Roché's unfathomable friend Kis (he does give a coffin kiss, very much Prince Charming), holds an audience with the monk in a ballroom with creamy, extended leather couches and twinkling chandeliers - an ambiance so elegant and empty, that Ernst Lubitsch might have used it as an antechamber to the netherworld. "Evil serves no purpose," Servillo's mathematician turned monk states. A sentence that cannot be taken lightly in our present climate. When "the economy must destroy what is superfluous," questions of truth and conscience better arise.

Daniel Roché (Daniel Auteuil) would like to confess to Carthusian monk Roberto Salus (Toni Servillo)
Daniel Roché (Daniel Auteuil) would like to confess to Carthusian monk Roberto Salus (Toni Servillo)

Legend has it that Heiligendamm was saved miraculously through prayer when nature was revolting in a massive storm that destroyed the region and made large sections of the land a part of the sea. The Russian Tsar and his family used it as a vacation spot. It was the summer residence of German nobility. Poet Rainer Maria Rilke adored the place. Leni Riefenstahl met with Hitler and Goebbels there to discuss her upcoming movie. During the times of the GDR, the hotel functioned as the official party vacation spot and was called Haus Maxim Gorki.

What better place to summon the ghosts of the past, the mysteries of today, and the uncertainties of the future?

Anne-Katrin Titze: You have a children's book author and a mention of fairy tales at one point. In the context of your film it reminded me of an encounter I had with Edward Albee in New York. I asked him what his favourite fairy tale was. And Albee said to me "that we live in a democracy."

Roberto Andò: Good!

AKT: Your film made me think of that. Of course, we have to talk about Hitchcock. You have the self-referential comment about I Confess. That nobody remembers if he did or didn't do it. That's exactly the point here as well - that it doesn't matter. That's not the point.

Claire Seth (Connie Nielsen): "She, the writer, is ultimately the only ally, though, of the monk in the story."
Claire Seth (Connie Nielsen): "She, the writer, is ultimately the only ally, though, of the monk in the story."

RA: Yeah.

AKT: Also, the second Hitchcock film, also with a German connection, in regards to the math formula, I was thinking of Torn Curtain. I like the playfulness with which you use the formula.

RA: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold [directed by Martin Ritt]?

AKT: No, Torn Curtain [Il Sipario Strappato] is where Paul Newman and Julie Andrews land to spy in East Germany.

RA: Yes. I think the idea of the mathematical formula, of the black swan, as you so rightly called it, is very central to the film. Where we have the certainty of a capitalist market which in moments of unexpected developments, in unpredictable moments, will suddenly make a strike on the economy. There's a bridge really between this new faith, the faith in the economy, and the monk. Because the monk is also someone who is focused on uncertainties and improbabilities.

A very important aspect in linking the two is and underlying the film is a science of illusions. This idea that a formula that apparently works on the surface, actually has nothing at all behind it. And the bluff that the monk plays in sort of leading everyone on to think that he has this big secret, is a kind of perfect way to link him to the bluff that is being played by the markets and by the economists and the politicians of today. This formula is an algorithm of which we are prisoners and from which we must be freed.

Kis (Lambert Wilson) with the monk (Toni Servillo)
Kis (Lambert Wilson) with the monk (Toni Servillo)

AKT: Speaking of bluff, this book I showed you is from 1998, before they turned Heiligendamm back into a luxury hotel. Have you seen this?

RA: No, where is this from?

AKT: I got this because I bluffed. I was pretending to be interested in investing in the hotel. I was actually working on a screenplay about Heiligendamm.

RA: That's fascinating. So you were there before?

AKT: In 1998, before it was a hotel. It was still all run down and beautiful and full of history. And they were starting to build this thing.

RA [leafing through the book]: It's fantastic! Fantastic. Incredible.

AKT: Now it all comes full circle. You make the owner of the hotel a man with Alzheimer's, or pretend Alzheimer's.

RA: Yes, he is bluffing also.

AKT: The title of the children's book in your film is The Wise Child. What about children? Is it hopeful, after all? Or is it all downhill?

Salus (Toni Servillo) on the pier at Heiligendamm in The Confessions
Salus (Toni Servillo) on the pier at Heiligendamm in The Confessions

RA: No, it's hopeful. Yes, I wanted to preserve a certain quota of hope in the film and that is done also through this writer who is typical of a sort of successful figure who has made so much money, that now she would like to redeem herself from capitalism through humanitarian works. Much like the rock star [played by Johan Heldenbergh] who is also in the film.

AKT: Wearing a dog collar!

RA: Yeah. She, the writer [Claire Seth played by Connie Nielsen], is ultimately the only ally, though, of the monk in the story. She is a character that I would have liked to develop a little bit more. I think she's a very interesting commentary on today. And certainly I based her on someone like J.K. Rowling but also on others who have become hugely wealthy through their writing and with clients all over the world.

AKT: You have a great international cast. It fits very well because they are so different in style, also acting style.

RA: I think for a story like this you had to have an international cast. You have as characters a Russian, a Japanese, American, British minister, Italian, French, German, and Canadian. Here we find a great coincidence of political theatre with international casting. It was really a lot of fun to be working on this. They're all great actors but they were playing small roles and they did so with great enthusiasm. It was a true pleasure.

Roberto Andò leafs through my Heiligendamm hotel project book: "It's fantastic!"
Roberto Andò leafs through my Heiligendamm hotel project book: "It's fantastic!" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

During the shoot we were living in the hotel with the sense that they were always the ministers. Including Toni, who didn't really speak with the other members of the cast in that sense. We recreated the situation of the film in our everyday lives in the hotel.

AKT: Very nice doubling with the clothes. The monk mirroring the bathrobe. I know how much you like doubles from Long Live Freedom, your previous film.

RA: It's true. You know, in the scene when Toni is swimming, it's not him. Because it was so cold. I used a double.

AKT: He wouldn't go in there? The Baltic sea is cold in September. A few other tiny details I picked up. The Italian minister has the initials AV embroidered on his shirt which is short for audio-visual? The shirt as signifier?

RA: Antonio Vailati, yes.

AKT: I saw the actor, Pierfrancesco Favino in My Cousin Rachel. Also in Wonder Woman, Connie Nielsen plays the mother. She was filming that after your film?

RA: I know, yes. Wonder Woman came after my movie, yes.

AKT: "Evil serves no purpose" is my last question. Do you agree with the monk, who makes this statement?

RA: For me, it doesn't. That's really the basic question in the film, this conversation that is taking place. The extent to which the belief in the usefulness of evil has invaded all realms, all creative realms, even in fiction - there is a lot of trafficking with the idea and the appeal of evil. In the creative world today and also in history. I think we have to resist this idea. Evil serves no purpose.

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