Where did the idea come from?
The first idea was the story about Pauli, a young, unemployed man in Vienna but it provided too little material, and for a long time I wanted to make a film in the East. So I decided to do was bring the two together and have an East-West story.
I wrote a number of stories about people moving from East to West and from West to East but then cut it down to these two main stories. In Vienna you could find 10,000 stories of people like Olga, from the Ukraine, or Moldova, or Romania or the Balkans.
How much of the film is written in stone beforehand, and how much do you invent through while shooting?
The screenplay is there principally for the financing, for the preparation, for the casting. But when you’re actually preparing to shoot, when you’re doing the actual casting, when you’re looking for locations, you have new ideas and then others are rejected.
I didn’t know how the film would end, or rather how the two individual stories would end, but as you develop the material I then decided what would be right for Olga and what would be right for Pauli.
In the screenplay Pauli was going to end up working as an actor in porno films but it turned out that would have been entirely superfluous and unnecessary.
The film walks a fine line between documentary and fiction. Do you see much of a distinction?
Both interest me. The authentic, the documentary is very exciting but there’s also freedom in fiction, in creating things, but what I think is most exciting is to have a fictional plot but embed it in a documentary context.
The result of that is you get maximum authenticity but you also get surprises which makes the film more than the sum of its parts. At times this feels more like a documentary than fiction.
That’s part of the insecurity for the audience. But the film is so unflinching in its gaze and at times extremely difficult to watch.
You’ve said in the past you like to disturb the audience...
The idea is to disturb but not in a negative way. What I want to happen is for the audience to come out of the cinema different to how they went in. It’s a constructive path in that sense.
What was it like filming in the Ukraine?
It was unimaginable to discover in winter that thousands of people live without sufficient heating or no heating at all, where it’s almost as cold inside as it is out.
Your Ukrainian assistant director says he only saw you smile under extreme circumstances. Do you thrive on those conditions?
The case with extreme conditions is you get great scenes out of them, great images, which, of course, means I’m in a great mood when that happens.
Of course, you could interpret it the other way round, that I always laugh when other people suffer, but that’s not how I see it.
Interview by Mark Salisbury