That timeless fairy-tale quality

Peter Hengl on Hansel and Gretel, the need to control, and Family Dinner

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Stefan (Michael Pink), Simi (Nina Katlein), Claudia (Pia Hierzegger), and Filipp (Alexander Sladek) in Peter Hengl’s Family Dinner
Stefan (Michael Pink), Simi (Nina Katlein), Claudia (Pia Hierzegger), and Filipp (Alexander Sladek) in Peter Hengl’s Family Dinner Photo: Gabriel Krajanek

Peter Hengl’s Family Dinner, a highlight of the 21st edition of the Tribeca Film Festival, has a modern day Hansel and Gretel feel. Philipp Otto Runge’s Juniper Tree (Von dem Machandelboom), a tale that inspired the Brothers Grimm stylistically, may come to mind, or movies such as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining or Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover while watching this story of food, desire, family, customs, and control unfold on the screen.

Peter Hengl with Anne-Katrin Titze on Hansel and Gretel: “I wanted to go for a certain timelessness and make it relatable for a modern audience.”
Peter Hengl with Anne-Katrin Titze on Hansel and Gretel: “I wanted to go for a certain timelessness and make it relatable for a modern audience.”

Simi (Nina Katlein) arrives in a remote part of Austria on the farm where her aunt Claudia (Pia Hierzegger, also in Clara Stern’s Breaking the Ice) lives with her son Filipp (Alexander Sladek), a boy about Simi’s age, and her husband Stefan (Michael Pink).

It is Easter week and Simi is hoping to get some advice on how to lose weight from her aunt who is a cookbook author, renowned for the subject matter. Currently working on a new project centered on ancient rituals, Claudia simultaneously comes across as inviting and repelling to her niece, who discovers that the discomfort she feels is there for good reason. If a boy being fattened and a girl being starved, pancakes with apples, and a finger that isn’t what it seems are elements that echo from your childhood, follow those breadcrumbs into the mystery.

From the streets of New York City, due to a fire alarm alert causing the evacuation of Peter Hengl from his hotel, then back inside his room when the all clear was given, he joined me on Zoom for a conversation on Family Dinner.

Peter Hengl on Simi (Nina Katlein): “I wanted to create this feeling of arriving somewhere and immediately being struck by the strangeness of this place …”
Peter Hengl on Simi (Nina Katlein): “I wanted to create this feeling of arriving somewhere and immediately being struck by the strangeness of this place …” Photo: Gabriel Krajanek

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi, you are back!

Peter Hengl: So sorry, apparently false alarm, very loud, very scary. I just had to …

AKT: … evacuate!

PH: Yes. I went straight to the lobby and now I’m back in my room. If flames show up behind me, please let me know!

AKT: I will. That would be a great photo for me. No, happy you’re safe. Let’s talk dinner, Family Dinner. Was Hansel and Gretel one of your favourite fairy tales as a child?

PH: Probably, I guess. Must have had a lasting impression on me.

AKT: I see it everywhere in your film.

PH: Yeah, what we kind of tried to go for was a fairy-tale quality in the film. I was always attracted to fairy tales in the sense that they are very universal in how they handle certain themes and how they treat certain aspects of the human psyche. That’s something I wanted to replicate and the kind of archaic quality that fairy tales have is something I wanted to tap into. But of course in a modern setting and in a contemporary story.

Anne-Katrin’s 2022 Green Eggs Easter
Anne-Katrin’s 2022 Green Eggs Easter Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: It’s interesting how many of the details are still working very well; the fairy tales with the quality that you talk about hasn’t died out at all and is just as powerful. The very beginning made me think of The Shining.

PH: That’s a big example to live up to.

AKT: Was the drive from The Shining on your mind?

PH: Yeah, it was intentional in the way that I love The Shining. It’s one of my favourite genre films ever. But it’s also a way to draw you into this world. You’re essentially arriving with the main character, Simi, at this strange place. I wanted to create this feeling of arriving somewhere and immediately being struck by the strangeness of this place and the wildness of nature.

AKT: It’s her family, so the wildness rests within her family. Freud’s Uncanny, das Unheimliche comes to mind, homely and strange at the same time.

PH: Absolutely, absolutely! Interestingly I come from a very happy, very close family. Maybe that’s the reason why I think there can be a lot of scariness in family as well, particularly with people in your family that you are not that close with. You don’t know their secrets and the stuff that lies behind certain social masks.

Simi (Nina Katlein) with her aunt Claudia (Pia Hierzegger)
Simi (Nina Katlein) with her aunt Claudia (Pia Hierzegger) Photo: Gabriel Krajanek

AKT: Yes, that family just a little bit removed. My grandfather’s sister married an Austrian forester. Whenever I visited these relatives in the mountains as a child, there was some of that feeling.

PH: There’s an immediate awkwardness to it. Because you feel like there should be a closeness that isn’t really there. Sometimes you meet family or friends and it immediately clicks in a positive way and it feels like you’ve known them forever and sometimes you meet people in your family and there’s no chemistry, so to say. For me the awkward silence at the dinner table is something that is a core motif to me for the film and the secrets this silence can harbour.

AKT: And what the dinner table exposes. There is so much people expose by how they eat. There are lots of little folktales, thrifty bride tales, that deal with this issue. Back to Hansel and Gretel for a moment - the entire tale is about food. I noticed that the mother in Family Dinner cuts her son’s food on the plate in the first dinner scene. The theme disappears, we don’t know why. At the very end, she cuts Simi’s food.

PH: For me food can be very much about dominance and about control. And the person who controls the dinner table, controls the food, to an extent controls the people. For me it’s very much a story of control and this woman, Claudia, is trying to control people. The reason why she does that and then doesn’t do it to her son is because she’s very insecure because there’s this new person at the table and she wants to assert dominance and shows who’s in control.

Simi (Nina Katlein) at the pyre
Simi (Nina Katlein) at the pyre Photo: Gabriel Krajanek

She does this with these kind of gestures. Later on she signifies again in a very motherly way who’s in control. Love and control are two concepts that can be very close together when it comes to any kind of relationship that might be considered abusive. Same goes for food. Food is about love and about control.

AKT: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, the Peter Greenaway film, do you know it? Do you like it?

PH: Beautiful film, to be honest it’s been a while since I’ve seen it. My detail recall may be spotty but it’s a fantastic film.

AKT: The theme of control and food and another topic of your film made me think of it. Also The Juniper Tree (Von dem Machandelboom) by Philipp Otto Runge, who was a stylistic role model for the Brothers Grimm came to mind.

PH: I’m not familiar with the tale. I think what attracted me to this is that there’s an archaic quality. It has this weird truth to it, that echoes through all these different stories, parables, tales. You can find it over and over again and there’s something very powerful to this.

Family Dinner poster
Family Dinner poster

AKT: I love you so much I could eat you - that sort of saying?

PH: Yeah, exactly. There are so many sayings that play with this parallel. I was kind of surprised that it hasn’t been done more in the history of film. It’s not a hugely well-explored topic.

AKT: Claudia is writing a new food book on ancient cultures. Were you while writing the script looking at cookbooks, at books of rituals?

PH: To a degree yes. To me it’s not important what she cooks. I knew it would have to be very appealing, it has to be that you physically react to it when you see it, that you want to eat it. I always felt it’s very much about a symbolic layer. It’s not so much that she’s connecting to an actual truth, but that she finds, let’s say, an outlet to her narcissism. Nowadays on the Internet there are so many gurus and so many people who believe they have found the absolute truth.

In recent years you saw a lot of those people go completely crazy and lose it. For me it always was about this. I didn’t want to build up a mythology in the background that is actually logical or that actually works, because Family Dinner was always about her narcissism and her need to control. She’s probably someone who researches in the sense that she looks for justification to do whatever she does. I’m sure there’s some ancient culture that will say she’s absolutely right in what she’s doing. And if the details don’t match, she’ll find something else.

AKT: It’s very well played by Pia Hierzegger. She’s also in the other Austrian film that has its world premiere at Tribeca, Breaking the Ice. She plays so well that woman who thinks she knows, but what she knows doesn’t really make that much sense to us.

PH: Pia is an absolutely brilliant actress and I was very lucky to have her. To me it’s no surprise that she is in two films that are being screened at Tribeca. She has been in many brilliant Austrian films. In general with the cast I was extremely happy. Michael Pink, who plays the father, is an absolutely brilliant actor who is really committed to the role.

Tribeca Festival at Spring Studios
Tribeca Festival at Spring Studios Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: It’s not an easy part. The sleaziness and at the same time you think you could maybe reach him more than her.

PH: Absolutely, I think that describes it perfectly. He is definitely the saner one of those two. He’s much more sympathetic, even though he’s like everyone in this place kind of a monster. I was also very lucky with the two young actors, Nina Katlein and Alexander Sladek, who are actually here in Tribeca with me. It’s the first feature film for both of them and they really knocked it out of the park in my opinion. I had a very good casting director, Marion Rossmann, who helped me. Casting teenagers is always hard.

AKT: To tie this back in with how we started out, the many parallels to Hansel and Gretel - he gets all the food to be fattened up and she gets nothing to eat, on your Wednesday the mother makes pancakes with apples, the food served the kids by the witch, a finger exposing trickery. The overlay of these ancient stories with the young actors who portray them makes for an interesting juxtaposition.

PH: I think so too. I wanted to go for a certain timelessness and make it relatable for a modern audience. For instance the way we handle mobile phones, I hate it when films pretend that those things don’t exist because they do. At the same time I’m not a huge fan of tons of screens popping up. It’s there but it also has this timeless fairy-tale quality. It was important that the farm has this and of surreal, larger-than-life quality.

AKT: The forest, the pyre, also the timing that the action takes place Easter week are no coincidence.

PH: It’s the time of death and rebirth. Let’s leave it at that. That’s where I wet closest to creating an underlying mythology, so to say. The connection to the Easter myth that has this strongly Christian side but also this ancient side that comes before Christianity about spring about renewal and rebirth. That’s what they’re looking for in a way.

AKT: No flames were coming out of the background!

PH: Lucky, yes. Thank you so much.

AKT: See you around!

PH: See you around!

The remaining screenings of Family Dinner are on Saturday, June 11 at 9:45pm - Village East by Angelika: Theater 4; Wednesday, June 15 at 8:15pm - Tribeca Film Center.

The Tribeca Film Festival runs through June 19.

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