When Austrian director David Wagner read in a newspaper about a punishing drill sergeant coming out as gay and announcing his relationship with a young male recruit, he probably didn’t imagine standing with both of them on the Venice Film Festival red carpet. Eismayer is the product of years of redrafting, close communication with the real couple, and a stripped-back, spontaneous production process—all of which contribute to an urgent, intense exploration of the repressed sergeant’s self-liberation.
In his feature debut, Wagner directed two commanding lead performances from Gerhard Liebmann as Charles Eismayer and Luka Dimic as his new, openly queer cadet, Mario Falak. We spoke to Wagner at the 2023 Glasgow Film Festival about the long journey the film took from conception to premiere.
This is based on a real life couple—what was the assumed knowledge of Eismayer and his situation? What did you and the actors know about him coming to the material?
I built up my relationship with the real Eismayer while researching. I had the chance to get his private number, then he invited me to his home, and we did a lot of talking or, actually, more listening. So I did a lot of research about his life—his private life, his coming out, his family, his time in the army—before I started writing the script. When I cast my actors, at some point we talked about how to approach the real people.
This was very tricky because if you decide to connect them, you cannot make it undone. So you have to decide: is it a good idea or do we want to keep it separate? But then it just felt right for all of us. We spent time together; Eismayer and Mario, the real ones, invited the actors and me to this country house in Hungaria. We hung out with them for three days. It was so funny to rehearse and read the script there with Eismayer sitting five meters behind us, smoking and observing. It helped the actors a lot, not to just copy his behavior, but to get the essence of this person.
They said, ‘We cannot make a movie about this guy, actually. You cannot give him a platform.’ For me, that was the challenge, to somehow show him as a whole person.
How well-known is this story culturally in Austria? Did you want to challenge any assumptions about this story by telling a very intimate version of what happened?
In the beginning, the assumptions people had about Eismayer were all about his cruel behavior and being this monster. And the things he told me about his private life were not the complete opposite of what I heard, but were so much more than just him being an asshole. I really wanted to hit the sweet spot, and find a way through the story to not make him only a good guy, like everything you heard about him was wrong. I also wanted to show that he’s tough, and that he also can be an asshole.
So having him as a protagonist was very challenging in the writing process, actually, because he has done pretty cruel things to people in the army, and there is no excuse for this. And there were people that wrote emails to me when they heard that the movie was going to be made. They said, “We cannot make a movie about this guy, actually. You cannot give him a platform.” For me, that was the challenge, to somehow show him as a whole person.
Is that why the film grounds us in Eismayer’s perspective, rather than Mario’s? It would be more of a challenge?
It was my wish at the beginning. And then after four months of writing, or trying to write, I wanted to give up and was like, “Okay, I’m gonna go with Mario, it’s much easier.” But when I tried this, I got bored really quickly again. So I really had to go with Eismayer. I knew him so much better. This is so much more interesting to put the audience in the perspective of the predator.
Eismayer’s such an interesting character: he’s a walking army stereotype, but also within the army, he’s criticized, pressured, and seen as outdated. How important was that conflict and isolation that he felt?
It was very important because there’s so much going on in one person. You have this old school army guy, this toxic masculinity, that he really embodies and it’s also like his prison, like he himself is his biggest antagonist. And then within the army, I thought what I’d like to see was a change between generations. Like all the younger guys, they are more open when it comes to gender, when it comes to sexual orientation. I wanted to see that he himself is like a dinosaur, and he has to fight himself actually to become what he truly is and what makes him happy.
The film has these moments of big, swelling romance and really affecting drama, but it’s not styled like a romantic movie. What was the process of realizing how the film would look and feel?
This was a very interesting process, because we had a lot of complications in the preparation. I actually had a camerawoman attached to the project who I really wanted to work with, but then she got pregnant, so she couldn’t do it. Then an old friend of mine, Serafin Spitzer, jumped in. He’s a completely different guy [in style]—you saw the camerawork, right? It’s more like this [Michael] Haneke, Austrian arthouse filmmaking. He had a very, very focused approach to the camera; it’s very still and very focused and very clean.
But this helped me focus on what’s really important in the scenes. We didn’t have storyboards or anything; we just sat there every night, discussing what we’re gonna shoot the next day, and thought about how efficient we could make it because we didn’t have time, money, anything. We just had 30 shooting days. And there’s a lot of stuff going on, so you can’t be insecure about something. We had to be really concrete.
It was very fascinating to see how this movie took its own form. I had no idea how this movie was going to turn out, if it was going to be funny, sad, or dry. When it came to the crew or the cast, I also just went with my gut. Then I was surprised like, “Oh, this is what it’s gonna look like. I like it.”
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