Their core strength

Clara Stern on Pia Hierzegger, Michael Haneke, Jules Et Jim and Breaking The Ice

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Clara Stern on Paul (Tobias Samuel Resch) on the bridge chasing after Theresa (Judith Altenberger) and Mira (Alina Schaller) in Breaking the Ice recalling François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim: “I noticed it while editing that we did that.”
Clara Stern on Paul (Tobias Samuel Resch) on the bridge chasing after Theresa (Judith Altenberger) and Mira (Alina Schaller) in Breaking the Ice recalling François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim: “I noticed it while editing that we did that.” Photo: Johannes Hoss

Clara Stern’s Breaking The Ice, shot by Johannes Hoss with a score by Benedikt Palier and edited by Matthias Writze, stars Judith Altenberger Alina Schaller Tobias Samuel Resch, Pia Hierzegger (Peter Hengl’s Family Dinner), and Wolfgang Böck. It will be screened later this month in OutfestLA. The director discussed why she has a “big fascination with professional athletes,” her work with the composer and cinematographer, seeing in the editing a resemblance to a scene in François Truffaut’s Jules Et Jim, her Vienna Film Academy connection to Michael Haneke, Barbara Albert, Jessica Hausner, and Marie Kreutzer, where the Dragons come from, and a phone call to her grandmother.

Clara Stern with Anne-Katrin Titze on Michael Haneke: “I had a lot of classes with him and he taught a lot about how to work with actors.”
Clara Stern with Anne-Katrin Titze on Michael Haneke: “I had a lot of classes with him and he taught a lot about how to work with actors.”

From the very first shots in Breaking the Ice we are seized under the fast-moving spell of the Dragons, a Viennese women’s ice hockey team. Mira (Alina Schaller), the protagonist whose journey the film follows most closely, is the captain. Her family owns a vineyard where she works together with her mother (Pia Hierzegger) and grandfather (Wolfgang Böck), whose dementia begins to creep into the fibre of everything.

Stern takes her time letting us discover what really concerns her characters, their hard shells and vulnerable cores. The armour-like uniforms of the sport when shed in the locker room reveal an array of very different women. One of them, Theresa (Judith Altenberger), newly joined the team and from the start it is clear that not-yet-definable sparks are flying between her and Mira.

Dynamics shift when one day Mira’s brother Paul (Tobias Samuel Resch) returns home. Paul is a shapeshifter who introduces himself under different names, wears a variety of disguises, and has a bag filled with made-up biographies for himself. He also seems to think that Mira and Theresa might be good for each other and for himself as they embark on some Jules et Jim adventures in the Viennese nights.

From New York City, Clara Stern joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Breaking the Ice, a highlight of the 21st edition of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Women’s ice hockey is not the most common setting for a film. Do you play hockey? What’s your connection to it?

Clara Stern: My connection to professional sports is that I myself am very un-sporty, but I have this big fascination with professional athletes because they have this strong self-discipline. My main character is not very good at articulating her feelings or her needs, so it came up quite quickly in developing the story that I wanted her to be a professional athlete. Because it’s also about her ties with society, family, her views within society, I wanted it to be a team sport.

Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) with Jim (Henri Serre) and Jules (Oskar Werner) in François Truffaut’s Jules Et Jim
Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) with Jim (Henri Serre) and Jules (Oskar Werner) in François Truffaut’s Jules Et Jim

There are a lot of sports, especially women’s sports, which are packed with clichés. So I was searching for something that was not as explored in movies, and I came upon women’s ice hockey and I loved it because it’s such a fast and powerful sport.

AKT: It is very cinematic, from the first shots; the way they are moving.

CS: There was also a big part with the cinematographer Johannes Hoss how to develop the whole style within, the pace, because it’s such a quick sport. But what I really loved is that it’s not a sport where women can be objectified sexually while doing the sport, because you don’t see a lot of skin while they’re on the ice.

AKT: No, you don’t see a lot of shape of anything. It is the opposite of, let’s say, beach volleyball.

CS: Yeah, or gymnasts. During the last Summer Olympics it was a big topic what women wear performing their sports. And what I loved about this sport is that it is really about their core strength. Then I loved the metaphor of this armour they wear, entering like knights. Then when you go into the changing room, the locker room, they take off this armour and very different women come out of this shell.

Clara Stern: “What I loved about this sport is that it is really about their core strength.”
Clara Stern: “What I loved about this sport is that it is really about their core strength.” Photo: Johannes Hoss

I love this shell metaphor for my main character because she puts up a lot of protection around herself. She needs to break free from this ice shell and also this armor of the sport. And I love that women just crash into each other and they don’t apologize. It’s so physical and with the exception of the two main actresses we only have professional ice hockey players in the film. We have like half of the Austrian women’s national hockey team as the players. They brought a lot of physicality to the movie.

AKT: You can feel that this is real and I love your explanation. The vulnerability that is suddenly exposed in the locker room and the change that happens is beautifully explored. Did you make up the team name Dragons?

CS: Yes, we completely made that up. The main actress came up with it, because it’s usually an animal and then she came up with Dragons and I loved it because it’s a fantasy animal and it’s often associated with female power and all of that.

AKT: There’s an Australian film in Tribeca called Blaze. Simon Baker, whom you might know from The Mentalist, plays the father, I spoke with him yesterday. It’s a very powerful film and a dragon is central to it.

Mira (Alina Schaller) with her grandfather (Wolfgang Böck) in the family vineyard
Mira (Alina Schaller) with her grandfather (Wolfgang Böck) in the family vineyard Photo: Johannes Hoss

CS: I will watch it!

AKT: Another Tribeca overlap, the actress who plays the mother, Pia Hierzegger, she is also in the other Austrian film that has its world premiere, Peter Hengl’s Family Dinner.

CS: Yes, we studied together, so we know each other well.

AKT: And you cast the same actress.

CS: That was a bit of a coincidence. My cast was locked in about a year and a half before shooting and I think in his movie there was a change. Pia Hierzegger, she’s quite famous in Austria but for a very different type of roles, very strict and always sarcastic. The whole movie centres for me around this soft and hard balance. People trying to show a strong surface and they are so vulnerable inside. I think this will continue forever in my main themes because this way you try to perform to protect others but on the other side you’re hurting them.

AKT: During the playacting we see between Theresa and Mira and Paul, there was one moment on the bridge when the three of them are running, I thought of François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. Is that a quote?

CS: I noticed it while editing that we did that. It’s one of the movies that I watched studying at the [Vienna] Film Academy where Haneke also teaches, or taught. He retired now. All of those movies have to be the base of your education, so I think something resonated. I always had this breaking free thing with the three of them, this energy. And then the cinematographer found this bridge in Vienna. I love the subtle metaphors, like a bridge for transitioning. But there’s also something dangerous underneath, the trains. I loved this location so much; it matched the energy of the scene.

Clara Stern on ice hockey: “It’s such a fast and powerful sport.”
Clara Stern on ice hockey: “It’s such a fast and powerful sport.” Photo: Johannes Hoss

AKT: It didn’t feel as though you were stealing. It felt organic. You mention Michael Haneke - did you take courses with him?

CS: We had two directing professors, he was one of them. I wasn’t in the one-on-one education with him but I had a lot of classes with him and he taught a lot about how to work with actors. Like always prepare a subtext. Where are they coming from? Where are they going? I think this is the base of what he’s teaching on how to work with actors. We also had classes with Barbara Albert and Jessica Hausner and I think the whole Austrian auteur cinema is like a big influence. Marie Kreutzer started her first movie when I started studying.

AKT: Is there one particular Haneke moment in your film where you thought of what he taught you or is it more general if at all?

CS: I think it’s how to respect actors and how they are really the core. For me it’s the same core but I want to be more flexible around it. Teamwork is really important to me. I want to have the opinion of the cinematographer whom I worked with for years, who is also a writer.

My editor [Matthias Writze] is also a writer. I don’t like that very strict hierarchical system. I try not to scream on set and I had a team that made it possible to have a really open way of working. This is really where I differ from his teaching but I think this core in making the actors and actresses the centrepiece and having everything evolve around them was something that was impressing for me.

Mira (Alina Schaller) with her brother Paul (Tobias Samuel Resch) and Theresa (Judith Altenberger)
Mira (Alina Schaller) with her brother Paul (Tobias Samuel Resch) and Theresa (Judith Altenberger) Photo: Johannes Hoss

AKT: I noticed two things in the end credits. One that you thank your grandmother and two that you wrote some of the songs.

CS: Only the lyrics. My grandmother is going to turn 97 in summer and she is not, of course very physically fit, but she’s completely fit in her head. She was the last person I called yesterday at the airport, we’re really close. She would never call herself a feminist but I got taught from her to never be financially dependent on a man, and you have to have a career.

She always was a strong independent woman. Right before we started shooting, when we had the financing, she became quite ill. So in the first weeks of preparation, I took care of her at night and worked through the day on preparing the movie. She was 95 at the time and she’s still there and she’s so proud.

AKT: What is her name?

CS: Gertrude Silter. She survived the Holocaust and everything and I feel a lot of connection to her.

AKT: It’s so nice to read that in the credits. And the song lyrics?

Breaking The Ice poster
Breaking The Ice poster

CS: I worked really closely with the composer Benedikt Palier and when we did the editing we sat down for more than a month. I really sat next to him while he composed and I was always watching the pictures while he made the music. We decided with some songs we have to have lyrics and he said, “ yes, but I’m not a writer; you have to write!”

And then I said okay and it matched really fine. We sang together the layouts and then we got professional singers in. I had a lot of fun writing the lyrics because it’s like I can put this extra thing in the movie. Perhaps you don’t listen to them with full concentration and you don’t get every word, but it’s the sentiment that works with the pictures and the editing.

AKT: It’s like Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand! You are at a hotel in New York right now?

CS: Yes, we arrived a bit earlier and we’re going to move to another hotel from the festival.

AKT: I am asking because Peter Hengl yesterday had a fire alarm during our conversation and he had to evacuate from the hotel room. He was still on Zoom, all there. He kept saying if flames show behind me, let me know!

CS: But it’s perfect, no? It’s almost like a PR gag for a horror thriller movie!

Breaking The Ice screens at OutfestLA on July 22 at 9:30pm (PDT) - Directors Guild of America, Theater 2

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