Doris Dörrie, Cherry Blossoms
Though little known outside her home country, Doris Dörrie is arguably one of the most important cultural voices in Germany, both in film and across several other cultural forms. Born in Hanover in 1955, she spent two years in the U.S. in the mid 70s studying drama, philosophy and psychology at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, and the New School in NYC. She then returned to Germany to attend the School of Television and Film in Munich, during which time she also worked as a film critic. Dörrie directed a series of shorts and worked on television prior to making her feature debut with Straight Through the Heart in 1983, which was followed a year later by her first hit, the comedy Men. In the 25 years since, Dörrie has established herself as one of the most distinctive and interesting voices in German cinema, working both in documentaries (such as 2007’s How To Cook Your Life) and fiction films. Despite having been a single mother since the sudden death of her husband, cinematographer Helge Weindler, in 1996 (while he was shooting Dörrie’s Am I Beautiful?), she has been prolific not only in film but as a director of opera and as a highly successful, award-winning author of novels, short stories and children’s books.
Dörrie’s latest film, Cherry Blossoms, was partly inspired by Yasujiro Ozu’s seminal Tokyo Story and is a profoundly poignant tale of loss and grief in which the director draws on her own experiences of bereavement. The plot centers on a retired German couple, Trudi (Hannelore Elsner) and Rudi (Elmar Wepper), whose ungrateful children have become tired of them in their old age; when Trudi suddenly dies, a shocked Rudi decides to fulfill his late wife’s dream to go to Japan. In Tokyo, he meets a young Butoh dancer, Yu (Aya Irizuki), who helps him come to terms with the loss of his wife. The film’s original title is Kirschblüten – Hanami (which mean “cherry blossoms in German and Japanese, respectively), and Dörrie skilfully utilizes doubling and dual perspectives throughout, whether it is structurally, thematically or geographically. Shot on digital, Cherry Blossoms is a strangely compelling film that engages the viewer both emotionally with its intimate feel and moving narrative, and aesthetically as a visually striking and sometimes almost experimental viewing experience.
Filmmaker spoke to Dörrie about the influence of Ozu’s masterpiece, female directors’ place in cinema’s ancestry, and playing with her daughter’s Barbie dolls after a long day on set.
Filmmaker: Did the film originally stem from Tokyo Story?
Dörrie: No, that came much later. It all began with my own very personal experiences with loss and grief, death and dying, because I lost my husband 12 years ago. He died on the set of a movie we were doing together, Am I Beautiful? You have to be really careful not to use film as your own therapy, so I didn’t really do that in film until now. (I wrote a novel that dealt with it, called The Blue Dress.) Now, 12 years later, I think I do know what it feels like when you overcome grief, when you come out of the other side of this process, so that’s why I wanted to talk about it now.
Filmmaker: And when do the Ozu influence come in?
Dörrie: I’ve been living with Ozu films for 30 years now. I first saw his films in film school and found them incredibly boring. I couldn’t be bothered, they were just too slow for me, the whole subject matter didn’t really interest me at all at the age of 21 or so. Then I saw the films again when I first had my child and was a mother and could see how his perception of the family was kind of interesting. Then I traveled to Japan maybe 15 times and I saw that a lot of what I thought was Ozu was really Japan. Then I wondered what would happen to the couple from Tokyo Monogatari if you placed them in the 21st Century in the West, which is something that Ozu did backwards, because his film is based on an American movie [Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow]. That I found interesting, because it was not so Japanese, and in the end it was something that came from the West, traveled to the East, and I took it from the East to the West – but made the main character go to the East, to Japan.
Filmmaker: The thing that I remember being most striking about Tokyo Story is Ozu’s stationary camera, but your camera is incredibly fluid and vibrant. Why did you change that aspect so much?
Dörrie: That’s a long discussion about form and content and the male relationship to form, which I have thought about a great deal. When I went to film school, there were people there like Wim Wenders who were older than me. He had already made his first film and kept saying, “I use shots by John Ford and I set up the camera exactly the same way,” and he saw himself as such a direct heir to that tradition of filmmaking. As a woman, I could never see myself in a direct ancestry; it’s something you don’t do because you don’t feel part of that heritage.
Filmmaker: Was that because there are not nearly so many women film directors to look back to?
Dörrie: It’s not even that. It’s something that just don’t do as a woman because it’s so completely out there to be making films at all that you don’t dare put yourself in this line of famous ancestors. It took me about 20 or 30 years and then I said, “OK, what is my connection to film history?” I don’t connect through style and form, I connect through content and theme. That is where it brings me very close to Ozu and his themes, his sensibility of how to talk about relationships. And I would never dare to adopt his style; I have to come up with my own style. I have to find of portraying this world through my eyes.
Filmmaker: And part of that way of seeing the film is it being shot on digital.
Dörrie: To me, one of the great developments has been digital filmmaking. I did a film about eight years back called Enlightenment Guaranteed in a monastery in Japan; I shot that with five people in the crew. It was a feature film and it turned out to be a huge hit in Germany, so I knew it was possible. That’s something that connects me to the Nouvelle Vague, to Godard, and also to Dziga Vertov, cinéma vérité: taking the camera into the street. So we shot Cherry Blossoms with only 10 people. Maybe it’s my advantage as a woman filmmaker: I’m so used to not being taken seriously that I love not being recognised as a film director on the set. I love just behaving like a tourist with a video camera and nobody pays any attention to me. That’s my sandbox to play around with.
Filmmaker: I believe that you were very loose in how you shot the film, that your lead actor Elmar Wepper was at times on the Tokyo subway and didn’t know where he was going…
Dörrie: He had to take care of his own costumes, iron and wash them. But, at the same time, I had a very fixed screenplay and the trick was to stay very close to the screenplay and simultaneously be completely open. That was something that we rehearsed, that there were no guarantees.
Filmmaker: The film feels very fluid and spontaneous, so it surprises me that you say that the script was so locked down. How did you achieve that feeling of immediacy?
Dörrie: By going with the flow and by not trying to control the sets, by not letting the story meander but by letting reality come in and serve the story. For instance, the “free hug” scene was not in the script but Elmar Wepper would always be in character from morning to night. And, of course, we didn’t have trailers, we didn’t have official lunch breaks, so we were always together, which is a great relief for a director to really have your actor be there all the time. So when we would saw the “free hug” people, and we stopped and got out the car and I asked Elmar to just walk up to them and see what happened. Because he was always in character, it turned out to be a very nice miniature scene to illustrate that a total stranger is the only person who gives him a hug, when it should be his son doing that. But we could only do this because we were so sure what we wanted to talk about and how to tell the story.
Filmmaker: The German title of the film is Kirschblüten – Hanami, which is the German and Japanese words for “cherry blossoms.” Can you explain the reason for the double title?
Dörrie: Well, I wanted to have “Hanami” in the title in Germany because it means “to watch the cherry blossoms,” which is an active way of remembering impermanence. It’s really the exact translation of “memento mori,” which means “remember dying;” it’s an activity, it’s something that you do, which in the West we don’t do much anymore. In the West, our goal is to consolidate things and make them impermanent, like plastic surgery, and not wanting anything to change. We don’t want things to change, we want them to stay the same – that’s our credo – which is very different training to the East, where they’re taught that everything is imperfect and everything changes all the time. So that’s why we have these two sides, two titles, two languages, two countries, two color gradings. It’s very different in Japan and Germany, the mountains, the sea.
Filmmaker: Talking of the mountains, I’d love to hear about the challenge of shooting at Mount Fuji, which is only visible very infrequently because it’s usually shrouded in fog.
Dörrie: Kurosawa nearly hung himself because of Mount Fuji – he waited and waited for weeks – and because of that famous story of Kurosawa who almost gave up on Mount Fuji, and because I had never been able to see it in 25 years – not once – I knew that you cannot make 100 people in the crew and then wait for Mount Fuji. No producer in the world would allow you to do that, so I knew I had to work very differently, be very flexible, and the second we saw a little sun on top of Mount Fuji on the weather forecast, we just hopped on the train and went and that was the whole style [of shooting]. We had also to catch the cherry blossoms – which are impossible to catch – and shoot zillions of other scenes, so it was a different way of approaching things. Whenever the weather was calling to us, we would shoot the scene.
Filmmaker: In addition to your work as a filmmaker, you’ve been prolific as a novelist, short story writer, opera director, etc.
Dörrie: Well, first of all, don’t be fooled and don’t be intimidated by this seemingly big body of work. I’ve been around for quite some time and because I’m a mother and, so not used to having very much time for myself and for my work (which is the same thing, really), I’m just used to being very fast. I work faster than most people because my time is so limited, but I’m also a very lazy person and I insist on being lazy, because boredom is one of the great sources of creativity. If you allow yourself to get to the point where nothing happens anymore, then things start happening. My great teacher, was my child because she taught me to be very fast because I didn’t have childcare and I was a single parent for a while and I had to just use these tiny pockets of time. So I had to sit down and write while the cake was baking in the oven and I had to use one hour in the mornings when she was still asleep and waking up any minute, and that trained me to be very disciplined and also to not stick my concepts, because the second I thought “Oh, today I will have all day to myself,” she’d come down with a cold. I think that was really important for me, to try and do what I wanted along with everything else on my plate.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Dörrie: Winnetou, based on the books by this crazy German, Karl May. He wrote stories about American Indians in the 19th Century, had never been to America, and he made it all up. Every German child knows these stories and to this day a lot of Germans travel to Indian reservations in this country and they feel very linked to the American Indians because of these stories by this crazy man, who spent most of his time in jail. My father would always go with me to see these movies and for the third part I knew that Winnetou had to die and I had written out little notes for my father when to blindfold me because I knew that I was not going to be able to survive Winnetou’s death.
Filmmaker: What’s the most embarrassing film you watched the whole of on a plane?
Dörrie: I don’t know. On planes, I don’t plug in my earphones, I watch them without sound, which I really like. A lot of films translate quite well without sounds. [laughs] But I’m never embarrassed to watch bad films. I love bad TV, I love bad movies. A lot of the time, they make me feel better. Especially when I’m about to start shooting, I try to stay away from really great films. [laughs]
Filmmaker: What’s the strangest experience you’ve had during your time in the film industry?
Dörrie: I think one of the strangest periods was when I shot a film called Happy Birthday! in Frankfurt and my daughter was a year and a half. The entire crew would go out and have a beer at the end of the day, and I had to go home and play with Barbie dolls. It was such an interesting switch that I had to do everyday, that I came from this big world of filmmaking to playing with these Barbie dolls. But I did enjoy that, and I really think it was very important to me as an artist to always have that reality check at the end of the day. If Barbie dolls are reality… I had to try and get those damn little high-heeled shoes onto Barbie’s feet!
Filmmaker: Finally, should a director always take risks?
Dörrie: Always, always – there is no other way, I think. Oh God, no, to not take a risk, hoe boring would that be?! It’s exhausting to bring yourself to get up at three in the morning to shoot sunrise – why bother if you’re not taking a risk?