I encountered Alison Kuhn’s powerful documentary The Case You in 2021 during the 15th edition of German Currents, co-produced by the American Cinematheque and Goethe-Institut in Los Angeles. Six women (Isabelle Bertges, Gabriela Burkhardt, Aileen Lakatos, Lisa Marie Stojcev, Milena Straube, and the filmmaker) testify about the abuse they experienced in auditions.
Alison Kuhn with Anne-Katrin Titze on The Case You and Fluffy Tales: “This structural problem that we’re aiming at, is not one of gender, but it’s one of power positions.”
Alison’s narrative short Fluffy Tales, starring Alexandra Sagurna with Hyun Wanner, Nadine Dubois, Lorenz Krieger, and Anne Thoemmes, produced by Sarah Dreyer and Laura Zeuch, for Filmuniversität Babelsberg Konrad Wolf explores the same misuse of power.
During a commercial photo shoot for dog food, the client (Nadine Dubois) and the photographer (Hyun Wanner) are unhappy with the dog that was cast. They decide to have the model, Ella (Alexandra Sagurna), who is wearing high heels, a rust-coloured blouse and no pants or skirt, fulfil the actions that were originally planned for the dog.
Little tasteful snacks are arranged on a side table in the large loft. The actual set contains a cello and artworks you would find in middlebrow “designer” hotels. Neither can hide the barbarous feel of what is unfolding in cold, cruel, matter-of-fact steps towards mounting stages of humiliation.
What does it mean to be professional when those in control are anything but? How normal has the degradation of others become? With sharp observation and strategically placed boundary crossing, Alison Kuhn’s Fluffy Tales presents an unforgettable snapshot of humanity right here, right now.
The Next Generation Short Tiger program (selected by Matthias Luthardt, Katrin Küchler and Christian Bräuer) of German short films (including Fluffy Tales) will premiere at the 34th Filmfest Dresden inside the Schauburg cinema on Saturday, April 9 at 4:00pm and will be screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Alison Kuhn on Ella (Alexandra Sagurna): “A woman without any pants but with a cello, it’s so random but so typical for a commercial shoot.” Photo: Antonia Pepita Giesler
From Berlin, Alison Kuhn joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Fluffy Tales.
Anne-Katrin Titze: Alison, your short is very impressive. I was mesmerized by what I was seeing. What was the first spark that brought it about? How did Fluffy Tales begin?
Alison Kuhn: Well actually it was an accident. We were planning on shooting another movie, another topic, it didn’t have anything to do with this one. And the shoot was planned for March 2020. As you can imagine, we were just three days before shooting when the pandemic hit us and all the productions were stopped immediately. So we had to cancel our project, which was our Second Year Project at Film University in Babelsberg. Then we waited for some months for shooting to be allowed again.
It happened in Summer 2020 but it was very clear that we were not allowed to do the project we had planned, because we had too much touching that didn’t make it Covid-safe. We wanted to keep our shooting time slot because of the study situation of all the team members. So we had three, four weeks to develop a whole other film - to write a script, to cast, everything. I had this topic in mind, because my last film was a documentary; it’s called The Case You. And it’s about a case of abuse in the film industry.
AKT: I’ve actually seen The Case You.
AK: Oh, you’ve seen it!
AKT: In the program of Goethe-Institut, Los Angeles.
The Client’s (Nadine Dubois) icy stare - Photo: Antonia Pepita Giesler
AK: Yes! That makes me happy!
AKT: I saw it last fall.
AK: And that’s the reason why I shot Fluffy Tales, because I’ve been working on the topic of abuse and boundary crossing for some years now. I didn’t have the time to do another research. So I took the research I already had and put it into a fictional short.
AKT: It works so well because of all the details that are so accurately observed. That goes for lines we overhear, such as “Did you know I went to school with Claudia?” We never know who Claudia is, it never returns, but it immediately distances the woman in the centre, Ella [Alexandra Sagurna], from what is going on. I also have to compliment you on the choices for the set. The meat paintings, the small food setup with sushi and champagne. Talk a bit about the set and working with details!
AK: It was great fun. Lucia Eifler was our production designer. We had this vision to have a broad space with a little colourful island inside. We were looking for places that we could afford and that were cinematic. We wanted a production design that was a little bit abstract but not as abstract that it would seem like a Wes Anderson movie or something that was so stylised that you wouldn’t believe what you see. Believable but still like a metaphor.
Photographer (Hyun Wanner) with Magnus (Lorenz Krieger) Photo: Antonia Pepita Giesler
AKT: Matthias Luthardt, who was on the jury for the Next Generation Short Tiger program of German short films, he is a cellist. When you’re going to go to Dresden for the premiere, say hello from me and talk about the cello. He told me he was a serious cellist growing up. And there is the cello prominently in your film.
AK: Oh wow, I will tell him, that’s cool. I love those details. A cello, it’s sophisticated but it’s just being put there without any sense to it, to paint this picture of a woman without any pants but with a cello, it’s so random but so typical for a commercial shoot.
AKT: The iciness, the complete lack of emotion of this shoot gives it an extra dimension. There’s a moment that could be simply absurd and funny. When the client [Nadine Dubois] asks Ella, who hesitates to eat the dog food, “Are you vegetarian?”, thinking back on it, you laugh. At the moment you don’t because it is so completely in character with this ice world she is confronted with. And that includes the woman she encounters outside smoking. Tell me about your work on the mood, also with the actors!
AK: With the mood, I think it’s also based on a lot of phrases or situations that I had myself. Initially I’m trained as an actress and I also did some commercials. There was this one commercial, I’m not even sure what it was for, but I was playing a woman who was hitchhiking. And an elderly couple takes her in their car.
Magnus (Lorenz Krieger) powdering Ella’s (Alexandra Sagurna) knees Photo: Antonia Pepita Giesler
She gets in and the elderly couple is supposed to start making out and I’m sitting in the back and the slogan is something like “Better choose what your transportation is.” And we were playing this scene in the audition with the very cute elderly couple and suddenly the production assistant came in and said “I’m so sorry but the production decided that the elderly woman is being replaced by a bulldog.”
It was funny, but also so sad because the elderly actress, she just kept collecting her things together and then walked out. And then the elderly man and I had to play the scene with an imaginary bulldog. In this situation I thought, maybe someday I will make a film about situations like this. Of course it wasn’t as abusive as the one I describe in my film, but it was inspirational.
AKT: Did that commercial ever air? Did you ever see it with bulldog?
AK: No, I didn’t see it.
AKT: Your film talks about the replaceability. We don’t know what happens to the dog, in the end Jessie [Anne Thoemmes] comes in, another actress in the same blouse. Good choice of names, by the way. Ella standing for all “Elles,” all females. And Magnus [Lorenz Krieger], the intern, who has to do the dirty work. But I do want to talk about the actress who plays Ella.
AK: She’s so great.
AKT: She is and she really has a tough job.
2022 Next Generation Short Tiger
AK: She does! First of all it was very hard to find our Ella because we needed an actress who was physically believable as a model. So we had to find an actress who is very tall and slim just to make it believable for a commercial shoot. On the other hand, an actress who is as good in her job to portray this range of emotions.
It only came down to Alexandra Sagurna who is very great. I did not cast any other actresses, only her. We met for coffee before auditioning, because it was very important for me to get to know her as a person first and for her to get to know me, because it’s a very sensitive project.
It’s also about nudity and being very fragile. The chemistry clicked and then I asked her for a casting audition where we played some scenes, of course not the nude scenes, but we experimented a little with this range of Ella. Immediately she hit me and I cast her and there was a great connection between us on set. I think for the nudity parts I was more nervous than her. She was very cool with it, also with the voice acting with the barking. We also experimented with the sound.
AKT: She’s terrific. There are so many emotions her performance triggers in the audience. Any woman [or man] who has ever been in a situation remotely like that can relate. What is this demand of humiliation coming at me? I don’t even know exactly who the woman there is, possibly an art director or a client…
Fluffy Tales poster
AK: She’s supposed to be a client.
AKT: She does not for one second connect with Ella. She says “I always wanted freckles,” but the tone in which she says it makes any connection impossible. Were there emotional points that you took from your work with the actresses in The Case You?
AK: I think a lot of it. This feeling of being overwhelmed. The feeling of not being sure where the borders are. This feeling of being pulled into something and you don’t even know where it started to go that wrong. Suddenly you find yourself at this point where you don’t know how you got there and also how to get out of there. I think this mechanism is very similar to what happened in The Case You.
AKT: That makes perfect sense.
AK: Also what you just mentioned is very important. In The Case You we see it and in Fluffy Tales too, that this structural problem that we’re aiming at, is not one of gender, but it’s one of power positions. That’s why it was also very important to me to have a female client and a male photographer [Hyun Wanner] to say it’s not that easy, not that black and white.
AKT: No, it’s complicated and it continues. You have one sentence after Ella comes back in, when they talk about primary school being like Soho House. Just the fact that these people have children! There are the seeds for the continuation. I wish you the best for Dresden and then also Cannes. Are you planning on going?
AK: Yes. Thank you so much, it was so cool that you understood all those little details. Nobody else ever saw it that well. That’s cool!
Filmfest Dresden runs through April 10.