KVIFF 2019: Jan-Ole Gerster on Lara

Talented German filmmaker Jan-Ole Gerster follows-up his arthouse hit Oh Boy with the tragicomic Lara, one of the big winners at this year's Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 12 Jul 2019
  • Lara

Sitting in a booth of the cafe at Grandhotel Pupp in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic, Jan-Ole Gerster is looking a bit worn out. He was out late the night before toasting the world premiere of his sophomore feature, Lara, which is playing in competition at the spa town's annual film festival. We can forgive the 41-year-old German filmmaker for overindulging. After all, seven long years have passed since his celebrated debut film, Oh Boy (aka A Coffee in Berlin), made its bow at the same festival in 2012. Why the long wait?

“If you put it that way, it’s a really horrible amount of time,” says Gerster. It’s not as if he was twiddling his thumbs in the intervening seven years, though, as he explains. “I was developing another very complicated project, but I have to say, the whole journey with Oh Boy almost kept me busy for two years. And of course I was a bit overwhelmed by the amount of opportunity that came out of it – I was reading tonnes of scripts, meeting hundreds of people. I spent lots of time figuring out what step would be right. It was an interesting time, but it was also a little bit of a waste of time, to be honest. It took me a while to really refocus on the stories I'd like to tell.” 

One of those stories was Lara. The film centres on the eponymous Berlin woman (played by Corinna Harfouch) and follows her over the course of her 60th birthday, which happens to coincide with the opening night performance of her pianist son’s debut composition. Frank Griebe’s camera tracks her as she first buys up every remaining ticket at her son’s concert, and then around the city as she goes about inviting various people in her life to the performance that night. Through these increasingly awkward and acrimonious interactions, we slowly start to realise what makes this complicated woman tick.

Berlin, Oh Boy, and Lara

Superficially, Lara is very different from Oh Boy. The earlier hangout comedy’s focus was a feckless 20-something hipster bro while the more dramatic Lara concerns a much older female. There are plenty of similarities though if you look beyond the protagonists.

For one, both films take place over 24 hours, following their characters on a journey around Berlin. “In Oh Boy there were lots of images that showed the cityscape and it was obvious that the city is some kind of second main character," explains Gerster. "In Lara, it wasn't important to me to make the city a character but still I wanted to show which parts of the city Lara moves and lives in.

"I wanted to just focus on one district more or less, which in my mind is still this old West Berlin where people go to museums and the theatre and you have all these old buildings and nice old cafes and restaurants." Gerster would also get the chance to explore this part of the city himself. "I don't spend much time in that part of the city. Oh Boy was all shot in Kreuzberg, and for me, Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg and Charlottenburg already felt like a different city. So it was an inspiration to find new landscapes on my doorstep."

What makes these similarities all the more surprising is that Gerster himself didn’t generate the script. Credit for that goes to Slovenian writer Blaz Kutin. “It's strange because when I read the script for the first time, I had the feeling that I would have loved to have written it,” recalls Gerster. “It felt like something I'd really like to do.” The pair met through a common friend and were initially writing together on a different project, but Kutin kept mentioning Lara. “[He] would tell me about this script that he wrote ten years ago and it had even won awards in some script labs on the festivals circuit, but it never made it to the screen. It was like this unfinished masterpiece just sitting on his desk.”

When Gerster eventually got his hands on it, he was bowled over: “I immediately fell in love, and even though the character couldn't be any further away from me personally, I somehow felt for and identified with her. This is something that interests me very much anyway, to somehow explore and examine why some stories move you and others don't. I was very curious to find out why this woman seems so familiar to me.”

We suggest it could be Lara’s creative streak he identifies with. During her peripatetic journey around West Berlin, we discover Lara was, like her son, an extremely talented and ambitious pianist, although it transpires that she gave up on her dream when her piano teacher suggested she didn’t have what it takes to be truly great. We ask Gerster if he’s experienced similar doubts to his character. “Absolutely I've had worries,” he says without missing a beat.

“Actually, in film school, my dilemma was like Lara's; I had like one or two professors who weren't really convinced that I'm a director and they told me so." He also recalls some self-destructive inner doubts. "I was so passionate about cinema that I somehow feared that if I make a movie and I fail with it, that cinema would turn from the thing I love and to a very bad experience. I even considered not making a film so that I could keep some weird, twisted kind of integrity towards the thing that I love. But thank God I came to my senses and gave it a try. I think there's a big tragedy in the fact that Lara didn't do this; she decided not to do it and now her son is showing her what could have been if she would have tried.”

On Corinna Harfouch's central role

Holding the film together is Corinna Harfouch, who’s extraordinary in the title role. Gerster, of course, knew Harfouch through films like Downfall and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, but it was while she was treading the boards in Berlin that he realised he had to work with her. “I was sitting in the third row and she really blew me away. It was like I realised we have our own Isabelle Huppert here in Germany, she's right in front of us and I need to find some way of working with her. This was like one or two years before I'd read the script for Lara, and when I eventually read it, before I’d got to the second page, I was like, 'this is it, this is the perfect role for Corinna.'”

The reference to Huppert here is key. Lara is a spiky, hard to love protagonist, the kind of character this legendary French actor has made a career out of playing. When Lara isn't picking fights with her family members, she's insulting total strangers and generally making people uncomfortable. At one point she tells a 13-year-old piano student that he’ll be a disappointment to his parents and should probably take up the trumpet instead – and he isn’t even her student. Somehow, though, Harfouch manages to keep you onside.

“This is actually what I look for I think in good scripts,” says Gerster. “You look behind the surface of characters. You start watching Lara, and you see a woman that seems to be nasty and manipulative and is treating her son not very well, and her employees and everybody she meets. But by the end, she unfolds a little bit more. And you start to understand where all this behaviour comes from.

"I think this is what I loved about the script – that you end up really liking her and feeling for her and wishing her all the best, hoping that she will somehow find peace because she seems to be a very troubled person, with a big tragedy to her life. This is something I also liked about Corinna's performance: she really identified with Lara and defended her and stood up for her.”

A few days after our chat with Gerster, Harfouch won the festival's best actress award while Lara overall received the special jury prize, so clearly, the jury at Karlovy Vary agreed. 

Lara had its world premiere at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival; read our review here