Playing in the Official Selection at the San Sebastian festival, Ina Weisse’s The Audition stars Nina Hoss in a spectacular performance as Anna, a violin teacher who pushes a young protégé to great heights, but at great cost. Cédric Succivalli sat down with both the actress and the director to talk about the character, about learning to play the violin, and about combining precision in preparation with jamming once the camera rolls.
CS: Congratulations on a powerhouse, tour-de-force performance. I was riveted and fascinated by how subtle your performance was when the part is supposed to be heavy. You managed to convey emotion just by facial expressions. What was it like reading the screenplay and how did you translate that into your performance?
NH: When I read the script, by the end I understood the conflict this character goes through, but what intrigued me was the existence of, for instance, the scene in the restaurant. But then I realized, “That’s her as well! Where does this person come from?” Knowing life and how complex people can be, there are so many different things, things you don’t allow yourself to be, or things you wish you could be but can’t and all that, and that intrigued me. Talking to Ina about it and finding that we were both looking for this subtleness, I immediately trusted her. She is my regulator, she is the one who sees this in me and I need to trust her. I felt very quickly that her eye is very precise, and what she looks for, and I know this sounds stupid, is realness. Something real has to happen, and that is what I look for too. I need to experience something in the moment, and I don’t need to consciously think I’m acting. As soon as the camera rolls, let’s see what happens. You have prepared everything, but at that moment let’s just jam, let’s see what the others do. And she managed to work with us in such a way that this jamming worked. She follows a very narrow, concentrated path, and that was for me very fruitful. I wanted you to understand Anna, the character. Her harshness, her unfairness, that you get where that comes from. I hope that as an audience you go, “I recognize that.” That’s what makes you cling to it, your surprise at the violence, the sadness, or the craziness that is in you. And to balance that, that is my work. That is what is in the film, a character is out of balance.
CS: It is of course there in the writing first and foremost, but you are giving your actress an immense range of possibilities. This is like a gift. Writing a part like this for a woman is something that’s unique in this world of today, in cinema. It is not a character that we can judge immediately because she is so multi-layered, so we have to get into it progressively. And that is a combination of talent that for me was very fascinating.
IW: But there is one thing I want to say, and that is that Nina was very precise before shooting, with everything. Then at the moment of the shoot you were so free, and you were like, “Let’s just see where this goes“. And that is so brave.
CS: As a screenwriter, how much of what you wrote did you actually see back on screen? Were you surprised by what you saw, because there is so much for them on offer for the actors to dig into.
IW: I was very surprised by these small things: subtle work of the eyes, the inflection of a voice. That just made me go “Wow!” That is something you can’t envision before, and it was like a dream. You have these actors together, and of course you hope that something happens, but when it actually does it is a big gift.
CS: Did you have to do a lot of preparation for the role, for instance learning to play the violin?
NH: I felt the pressure when Ina kept asking, “Do you think you can learn, or is it too difficult? Should we change the pieces? Will you be able to do it?” So I knew it was important. In the end we are very similar, if I take on a task I really want to master it. It’s a joy for me to get it right.
IW: It is so hard to learn the violin. I was so happy every day, because her teacher kept saying, “She is so good!”
NH: And it helped me so much to get the character. I play the piano myself, and there you see the notes in front of you. But on the violin you have to intuitively know where the notes are. You have to risk it, and then it becomes so sensual, you feel the vibrations, and you realize, “This is what Anna does every day!” Of course she can’t let go. You can’t go through all this training, and then become a teacher. I don’t mean to say everyone who is a teacher has failed, at a certain point you find more fulfillment in teaching the art than in being an actual performer, but performing really is something else. I am really in awe of that world. It’s tough, and you feel every fault. As an actor, on stage, you know your lines. But with music, you can’t make a mistake because everyone will hear it.
CS: Do you have a personal background in music?
IW: I used to play the violin, in an orchestra even, so I know that world a little bit. I did a lot of research, because you want to transcend your own experience. But yes, I did know this world.
CS: In the beginning, when Alexander played the violin, Anna was very certain. But as the film progresses she becomes more indecisive, and in the restaurant you don’t even know what man to pick. Where does that difference come from?
NH: A woman has many different sides. Sometimes we don’t even know what shoes to wear! There are so many personalities within yourself. It starts with someone who looks for a unique sound, not just perfect technique. There is something special in that moment that is very beautiful, it opens the room up and you see this wonderful teacher. But then when she doesn’t succeed she goes back to what she knows: work, practice, shunning feeling. In moments of insecurity you always go back to old patterns. She punishes herself. I found it beautiful that she starts off as someone who is looking for something other than perfection.
CS: One of the greatest strengths of the film is that as a viewer you are completely challenged by going into unexpected emotional and intellectual directions, precisely because we are not there to judge a character or a performance, but to find empathy for someone who is not necessarily an easy person. But since you never go full crazy we are always in her corner. All the intricate subtleties made me think about what it means to go on with one’s life. It’s an incredible film in terms of subjectivity.
NH: Thank you, I’m really happy you say that. You know, some books you read, you go with the character. And you don’t know where the story goes, but you feel you know and live with the character.
IW: Without explaining anything, or teaching anything, preaching down from the screen. You just have an experience with this character.
CS: Did the two of you discuss Anna’s character in detail beforehand, who she was outside the script?
NH: That is always something that is between the lines. We discuss a lot of things, but we never talk directly about the character. The character comes in the moment. But through all this talking we have grown very close this past year.
IW: We knew about each other, and obviously I knew her work as an actress, but we had never met. Through this work we really took off.
NH: And when you know you look at the world the same way, you never have to talk about it. It was like a flow, and it’s not something you experience very often.