Gerhard Liebmann and Luka Dimic in Eismayer Photo: courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival
David Wagner’s Eismayer, which had its première in Venice and is screening as part of the Glasgow Film Festival, tells the kind of story which is hard to take seriously until one discovers that it’s true. It’s built around a compelling character who might at first seem an unlikely choice of protagonist, but whose courage in changing his life after getting into an almost impossible position makes this a gripping piece of work. When David and I met to discuss the film, he told me how the two of them first came into contact.
“I first heard of Eismayer when I was serving at the Austin army, when I was 18. I heard all kinds of cool stories about this Eismayer guy but I never met him. So for me it was just stories and I didn't really believe that this guy existed. But this changed when I read a newspaper article about him. I think it was 14 years later, in 2014. In this newspaper article, they were saying that Eismayer just married another man in the barracks. The photo in the film is really a photo of the moment of the marriage.
“Then I realised two things. The first one was that Eismayer is real, this person exists. And also that the things I heard about him were, obviously, just the tip of the iceberg, and there's much more to this person. And so I got really interested. I managed to get his private phone number from a friend who's working at the military, and I contacted him and asked him if I could do some interviews, because eventually, I would maybe do a movie about him.
Eismayer Photo: Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
“He said ‘Well, okay, I will invite you to dinner and then we can talk about everything.’ And that's how I got started, that dinner when I first talked to him and listened to him, actually, for a couple of hours. And then I found out that there's so much to tell in his life story, and I got really, really fascinated by everything he has been going through, and also by his character. And we decided to make a movie.
“A lot of detail in the movie is really about my experience, or stuff I heard in the research phase. It has been a long time since I was in the military but when I started to write about it, I realised that I have it in my mind still very vividly, because it was a very intense time. Also, if you're young, and you had a trouble free life, you know, when you come to the military, it's really tough. A lot of stuff that I experienced there was still inside my brain very clearly. This was a good opportunity to pick up all the emotions and fears and experiences made in the military sector.”
We see quite a few military films about the experience of new recruits. And, you know, the film's like Full Metal Jacket is the obvious one, but in a few films there’s a character like that, who terrifies the new recruits. Going with that character, instead of staying with the recruits, is a bold decision.
He nods. “I could have told the story about moving to the army, which would have been the more obvious choice, but since I did so much research on Eismayer himself, and his development, I kind of owed it to him to be the protagonist in this film. Also I find it much more interesting if I, as the audience, can watch a movie where the protagonist is somebody who I would rather not identify with in the first place, but then can be surprised by the depth of human beings and that not everything is always black and white. The hero is not always just a pure hero. Because I think we all have darker parts in ourselves, and it's just a matter of which perspective we take.
“I like movies that play with this ambiguity between the good guys and the bad guys and being morally correct or not. I think for me, what made me fall in love with this character was actually that he was able to change and that he was courageous enough to face his public death so he can become his true self. That’s something I really admire about Eismayer and his his struggle. He's struggling so much to protect this image of the tough guy, the soldier, and then seeing how he, at some point, cannot defend this image anymore, and has to find a new way of being alive. This is something that interests me a lot.”
The two main characters are coming from very different places, I note.
“I thought it was really interesting. It's almost like you have two people from different generations, and for me, Eismayer stands for the kind of conservative, you could say Boomer generation, which is sometimes not so open towards sexualities, and gender identities and stuff like that. And Mario, as one from the newer generation, was standing for a person who already had the freedom to decide who he wanted to be, and he wasn't afraid anymore of being called gay or stuff like that. For me, Mario was so interesting, because he's such an idol for me, and he's not afraid of Eismayer, he’s not afraid of standing for his sexuality. I needed a character like Mario to hold on to something that I thought was an idealised picture of what I want the world to be.
“I want the world to be free and open minded and loving. And Eismayer was the exact opposite at the beginning. So for me, the clash between Mario and Eismayer was very beautiful because you could feel that on one side, they really clashed – Eismayer hates that guy and Mario also hates that guy. But at the same time, you can already feel a connection, and you can already feel something's going on between them. And it's also like in reality, still, they're always fighting a little bit, but they love each other very much. This was something that I found very charming.
“I think that's also why I tried to portray this, just the differences between them. And on the other hand, when Eismayer gets sick, and he's really weakened, he's at a really low point, I also wanted Mario to use the tools of Eismayer against him – or actually to help him – because this is the language that Eismayer speaks, you know? He's a really traditional military guy, so he is used to taking orders and giving orders and following the chain of command. For some reason, he just loves it. And I found it very interesting because I don't like this, but there are people who are structured in a way that they can blossom in a system like this, and they really can become a better version of themselves. So he needed another instructor, like Mario, to help him out of this depression and out of his inactivity, because inactivity would be death for him.”
Eismayer still has health problems, he reveals, but at present it looks as if he should be able to live a long life if he looks after himself, and he’s still involved with the military.
“We were really struggling to get the cooperation of the Austin army, because 80% of the film takes place in a military environment. Finally we got the green light for shooting in the barracks. It was very important for me and the producers to have the original location, because if you make a movie about Eismayer in Austria, everybody who was in the Army knows him. We have to set it up in an accurate environment. And the movie would have been so much more expensive if we would have staged all that and renovated old school yards or whatever. It would have just been too much. So we really depended on the Austrian army.
“Everything was shot in the original location. Actually, Eismayer is still working at the barracks where we were shooting, while we were shooting, so he was there every morning when we came in. We found a truck and he was standing there smoking already and being like, ‘Okay, motor off there.’ So, yeah. It was great working with the military actually.”
There’s one location in the film which really interested me: a narrow space with tall brick walls and a bare-branched tree growing in its centre. Over the course of the film we keep returning to it, the camera getting slightly higher each time.
“Actually, this is the same location we use at the end,” he says, referencing an important declaration which should not be spoiiled here. “So it's kind of a hint, you know, to where it's going. But on the other side, I needed some pictures in the in the movie that gave us a break when we’re watching it, in order to reflect. I didn't really know exactly what I wanted, but then I got one more shooting day, and we drove out to this location in winter. And we were just filming stuff, and while I was filming it, I had this feeling like, ‘Oh, yeah, I know what I want. I want this kind of old structure, those brick walls that are in rectangular and straight forms, and I want to see how those structures are crumbling and are falling apart.’ And we see more and more of nature, which, for me, tells me a lot about Eismayer’s process, and how the façade of his of his life, his heteronormative and masculine understanding of being, falls apart. Nature, for me, always finds a way to look towards life, and grows out of this. And so I have this shot where I have brick walls, and I gradually, gradually move out of them. And finally, we move out completely and dive into the forests. This was it for me.”
The casting process actually bagan with suggestions he received in a script development group, he reveals.
“One and a half years later, when we started pre production, I had two names on my list. Of course, I googled them, and then I watched all the suggestions that came from my casting director. But I found out that Gerhard Liebmann and Luka Dimic really, by far, were the ones that fit most in my imagination. And so I did a constellation casting with them. Because if I if I tell a love story, the most important thing is that there is the love between those two is real, because you know, sometimes there is this kind of magic and sometimes there isn't, and you cannot really tell by just seeing them separately. You have to have those people in a room together. And I invited both to the casting and Gerhard Liebmann was here first and we could talk to them. And then when Luka Dimic entered the room, within seconds I knew that okay, those two guys are really working well together. That's how I found those two guys. Once I had those two they were the centre of the movie, and then around them I could always find new new people.”
Preparing for the shoot was still somewhat hectic, he reveals.
“We were preparing and then we were still waiting for the go-ahead from the army. And so until we knew that we were supported by the army, we had to think plan A and plan B. Plan A was okay, we shoot in the army and we have all applications there. Plan B was we have to build and find everything. and I have to cut the scenes with the 100 soldiers, I have to rewrite the script. That was really my worst case scenario. But then six weeks before we really had to start shooting, the military gave us the go-ahead. And then it was very stressful, because then within the six weeks, we had to scout all the locations in the army, we had to make contact with all the officers and all the people in the military who we were working with, because there was a lot of stuff from the military. So when we started shooting, I was really, really wasted already.
“It took me some days to get into the shooting process. And then somehow it started to roll and work and then actually, I also had fun. The collaboration with the army while shooting the movie was amazing, because they are used to getting orders and just fulfilling them quickly. It’s perfect for shooting. If you tell them ‘Okay, we need three cars now, there, and 100 people over there,’ it takes them like five minutes. So for my my assistant director, it was like a dream, and this was actually a really, really nice experience.
“This was my first feature film, so I'd never shot 30 days in a row. We had a winter block and a summer block, so it was 20 days and 10 days, but still, it was a lot more than I was used to. It's really hard to perform at 100% all the time, over such a long time. And, I mean, there's so many people on set, so you really have to be present if you are shooting a film like this. We had days when there were 200 people on set, and it draws a lot of energy. So I managed it and I was really happy, but really the end was that I had a complete complete breakdown one week. I could do nothing, just lying around.”
I point out that despite that, he’s going to do it to himself again at some point.
“I know. I know,” he says. “Yeah, I know that next time I will be more experienced and calmer, but, you know, it probably will be stressful.”
So how does he feel about the festival attention that the film has received? There's a lot of excitement about it already.
“Yeah. This is amazing. It's always difficult to talk about how it feels because, you know, it's so much bigger than life. You're in Venice and there are photographers and the red carpet and the stars and then suddenly, you're also part of this, and it feels surreal. What I can say is that it was an amazing journey. After Venice it continued and I have been to several countries already, and met so many cool people, and now I really feel like I got to the next level of filmmaking because people are listening now to what I have to tell and are asking me if I would like to do another movie and what would it be like.
“As a filmmaker, you have to struggle a long time to get that kind of attention, and when it's finally there, it's hard to believe that it's really there. It's a little bit like a dream. It's hard to describe, but it's been very, very adventurous and very tiring. And right now I'm really looking forward so much to shooting my next film because I need something new. Something my brain can chew on again.
“My next film will be a television film, not a feature film, and It will be in the crime genre. This is something completely new for me. I've never done crime. I'm looking forward to doing it because it's something I can train on. And also make money, which is important too. And then I have two ideas that I would love to work on. I just have to find the time.”
“With Eismayer, I had the experience that the less people know about the movie, the better it is. So I think people who are interested in what comes out of Austria, and people who are into films that are based on true events, should go in and see what happened.”