Berlin: Francois Ozon on “Betraying Fassbinder” in Fest Opener ‘Peter von Kant’

François Ozon must be experiencing a sense of Berlin deja vu.

Back in 2000, the then 32-year-old Ozon brought Water Drops on Burning Rocks to Berlin. The film is a French adaptation of a play by Ozon’s idol, the legendary German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It won Berlin’s Teddy Award for best LGBTQ feature and was the start of a long love affair between the French director and the Berlinale.

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Ozon’s 2002 murder mystery musical farce 8 Women took the Berlin Silver Bear for its all-star ensemble, which included Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardant and Catherine Deneuve. His intimate drama By the Grace of God, about three men all abused as children by the same priest, won the Grand Jury prize in 2019.

This year, Ozon returns to Berlin, and to Fassbinder, with Peter von Kant, which opens the 2022 Berlinale on Feb. 10. Like Water Drops on Burning Rocks, the film is based on a Fassbinder play, one the German director himself adapted onscreen as the 1972 classic The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.

For his version, which features Denis Ménochet, Isabelle Adjani and Fassbinder muse (and Petra von Kant star) Hanna Schygulla, Ozon switched the leads from female to male and the story’s setting, from the world of fashion in Fassbinder’s original, to that of cinema.

Ahead of the film’s world premiere, Ozon spoke, via email, with The Hollywood Reporter about his Fassbinder obsession, his decision to gender-swap Petra von Kant and why, 40 years after Fassbinder’s death in 1982, the auteur continues to inspire.

Peter von Kant is your second Fassbinder adaptation. What is it about his work that so captivates you? What role has his work had on your development as a director?

Fassbinder is a filmmaker whose work, ideas and vision of the world have always haunted me. As for his incredible creative energy, it fascinates me, and it remains an example for me to follow in my own approach to work. I had been thinking about an adaptation of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant for a long time, but it was daunting to tackle such a cult film. My desire to dare to adapt [the original] text, which has become a classic of contemporary theater, was reinforced by the work of modern theater directors, such as Thomas Ostermeier and Krzysztof Warlikowski, who have adapted classic texts with great freedom, by reinventing them, desacralizing them, reinjecting them with modernity and their own personal vision.

What is it about the play and film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant that fascinated you and made you want to make your own adaptation?

Basically, I wanted to make a version of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant with which I could more directly identify. That’s why I [changed the setting from] the world of fashion to the world of cinema, and why I decided to make the three main characters male. My understanding of the play is that it is, in fact, a self-portrait of Fassbinder and one of his own passionate love stories. Juliane Lorenz, Fassbinder’s last companion, whom I have known since my adaptation of Water Drops on Burning Rocks, confirmed my intuition: In The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Fassbinder transformed his own, unhappy love affair with Günther Kaufmann, one of his favorite actors, into a lesbian love story between a fashion designer and her model.

From that starting point, it was clear how I should revisit the text: I would change the character of Petra into a man, Peter von Kant, and make him a director. This lets me talk about Fassbinder but also, in a mirroring effect, about myself. I “betrayed” Fassbinder in order to better find him and to find myself in this universal story of amorous passion, which is more topical than ever and explores questions of power, influence and submission in the creative process and in the muse-Pygmalion relationship.

How did you come to cast Denis Ménochet in the lead?

Denis, whom I admire and know well after [working with him on] In the House (2012) and By the Grace of God (2018), was the perfect actor to embody this demigod with feet of clay, this ogre who was at once tender and brutal. The important thing for me was to make his character beautiful and touching, like Fassbinder was as an actor in his early films, particularly in Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox and His Friends, 1975).

Some directors, as they get older, start to repeat themselves, but with your recent work you appear to be constantly breaking new ground: By the Grace of God surprised many critics by its straightforward, sincere approach. Frantz was, both in setting and style, very different from the films you are best known for. Is this a way for you to keep challenging yourself as a director?

Much like Fassbinder, I have an appetite for cinema in all its diversity. As long as I can try new things and find new challenges, I’ll be happy.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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