Director Michal Hogenauer on A Certain Kind of Silence, a “cult” film with a difference

Michal Hogenauer, photo: Ian Willoughby

One of the most compelling and stylish Czech films of 2019 was A Certain Kind of Silence, the feature debut from Michal Hogenauer. The largely English-language work depicts a Czech girl who becomes an au pair in an unnamed Northern European state only to discover her host family are members of a sinister sect. When we spoke, the conversation took in the challenges of shooting abroad and the ways in which directors can pander to festival programmers. But I first asked Hogenauer about the inspiration for the story in A Certain Kind of Silence.

Michal Hogenauer, photo: Ian Willoughby
“In the beginning I was curious about the theme of manipulation. I felt like we are surrounded by this theme in many layers of our lives.

“I want to, and I feel that I should somehow, reflect the world and the time that I live in, so I chose this topic.

“I was studying manipulation and how society is able to manipulate individuals and how individuals are able to manipulate society.

“And very easy you can get to sects and cults, because they are based on that.

“So I was watching lots of documentaries and reading lots of books and theses about the process of manipulation.

“I was curious about the process – the steps how to manipulate people.

“Then I read one article about a German community which lives on farms in the middle of Germany.

“They were raising their kids in a very strange way and the police came and there was an investigation.”

These are the Twelve Tribes?

“Yes. I started to read about them and I interviewed some people who had been part of the Twelve Tribes.

“I also talked with a journalist, because the reason why the case was in the news was that one German journalist sneaked into the community.

“He was able to record by glasses with a camera, and by an external camera that he put in the cellar of the farm.

“And he recorded the way they raise the kids there, which is with physical punishment.”

Severe physical punishment.

“Yes.”

“In the Czech Republic it is allowed to teach kids at home and you can also use some kind of physical punishment in raising your kids. So the German community moved to the Czech Republic.”

Is it the case that in Germany the members of this sect had their children taken away from them because they were treating them so violently?

“Yes, exactly. After the case which was in the news, the police came and took the kids away from the parents.

“They were able to break down the whole community in Germany a bit, especially because in Germany you have to send kids to public school and they are not allowed to use physical punishment.

“But in the Czech Republic it is allowed to teach kids at home and you can also use some kind of physical punishment in raising your kids.

“So the German community moved to the Czech Republic.

“They had been here before – just one small community.

“But now there are already two communities in the Czech Republic. And mainly they are the people who were in Germany.”

I guess you’re not a journalist, but do you know has anything been done with them [in the Czech Republic]? Any investigations, or anything like that?

“After they moved to the Czech Republic, there were some articles about them and I think the police even came there.

“But I haven’t read anything more about an investigation or anything like that.

“But when you know that they live in this kind of way in Germany… the way they raise their kids is not a secret. They talk about it. You can find YouTube videos where they present themselves like that.

“So of course they are also doing it here.

“Also I would like to mention – the film is inspired by them, it’s not really about them.

“The Twelve Tribes is a hippy community living on farms, getting money from ecological farming.

“They even have a stall at Jiřího z Poděbrad Square, where you can meet them.”

At the farmers’ market?

“Yes, exactly.

“So I get the philosophy from them, and of course the way they raise the kids, but we made a fictional community in our film.”

Which is more kind of middle class, normal people living in houses?

“Exactly.”

There’s much more to A Certain Kind of Silence than this weird sect, or this weird behaviour. Where did you draw inspiration for the film, either from other movies or from other art forms?

“I think there are some kind of aesthetic feelings which I have inside of me which I prefer – some colours and compositions.

“When you look at my previous work, it’s quite similar to this one. There are lots of wide shots and static shots.

“So there is this thing, which I’m continuing.

“Also there was communication and talk with the crew.

“My ambitions weren’t like, Let’s make the first film in English and break down the borders. It was a story about a Czech au pair, so you had to shoot it abroad and you had to have actors from abroad.”

“We got on well with my cinematographer and my artistic director – we felt the film in completely the same way.

“He also doesn’t like handheld camera and he also preferred those kinds of colours when he makes his own stuff.

“And then when you have your own aesthetics you have to find the aesthetics for the film.

“Because we had this cold community, it was very easy to make the film like that: very static with a very cold colour palette.

“Regarding the inspiration, we looked at lots of photos from young photographers from Germany the US.

“My cinematographer was showing me Todd Haynes’ first film, it’s called Safe. There are zooms and wide shots and lots of zooming in it.

“And I was showing him Force Majeure by Ruben Ostlund.”

The film was shot in Latvia and almost all takes place in English. It strikes me as being a particularly European film for somebody who’s a young Czech filmmaker. Was that your original intention, to get away from being stuck in this “Czech box”, so to speak?

“Not really. I had two projects and one was a completely Czech story about a children’s summer camp. And then we had this one.

“My producer and I started to develop both of them but we got the grants and funding for this English one, let’s say.

“So my ambitions weren’t like, Let’s make the first film in English and break down the borders.

“It was a story about a Czech au pair, so you had to shoot it abroad and you had to have actors from abroad, because it wouldn’t make any sense to do it differently [laughs].”

It must have been really challenging when it came to all the aspects like casting or location scouting?

“Definitely. I didn’t have any experience. I only made films under the FAMU school system.

'A Certain Kind of Silence', photo: Aerofilms
“And suddenly I was in this real business. You have to find your cinematographer abroad, you have to find your actors.

“I went to Amsterdam; we got funding from the Netherlands and from Latvia and because there were some rules connected with the financing of the film we had to use actors from the Netherlands.

“First they sent me some pictures and I selected some of them and then I went there for the castings and to read the script with them.

“I chose A-category actors from the Netherlands. I also had to choose a cinematographer.

“Also we got money from Latvia, from Riga, and we got it two and a half months before the real shooting.

“We had to spend it that year and we got it at the end of June and the shooting was in the middle of September, so that was also quite little time to find the right location, especially the house, which is quite unique in the film.

“So I think every aspect of preparation and doing the film was a challenge.”

International co-productions are very common in Europe. But is there a danger that that can overly influence the content of films? I’ve even heard the term “Euro goulash” for films produced by, like, five different countries where they’ll have a character from Denmark, for example, just because the Danes are one of the producers. Is that a danger?

“It is definitely.

“Sometimes you can even sense it in some Czech films, where suddenly there is one character coming from Germany or Slovakia. Or suddenly they move across the border [laughs], just to shoot something abroad.

“But in our case we were at the Berlinale co-production market, where you present your project to other co-producers or producers, and our project was one of the, let’s say, normal ones.

“Everyone was coming to us, because in the story you feel that you have to do it abroad.

“But in other projects it was like that. It was set in their country, with their actors, and they were just trying to find co-producers for their productions, for post-production.

“But with our story we said in the beginning that we needed it like that.”

“There are films that want to go A film festivals and they are cruel, because they know that the people in the audience, all the selectors, want something like that.”

A Certain Kind of Silence was in Karlovy Vary in the East of the West competition. Also more recently you picked up awards at festivals in Milan and Cairo. What does it mean in practical terms when a film like yours has some impact at festivals like that?

“You get attention to the film.

“You get some reviews and articles about the film so other people can read about it and maybe selectors from other festivals can select it.”

Basically it helps you climb another step on the ladder, so to speak? You’re more visible?

“Yes, exactly. And I think that’s the reason why everyone wants to be selected at A-category film festivals.

“Because suddenly there’s lots of journalists and lots of people from other, smaller festivals selecting films.”

Do you ever feel that some films are more or less created only to do well at festivals? They’re not for a general audience, they’re just for festivals.

“Definitely [laughs].

“Of course, every filmmaker would like to have full cinemas and also big festivals.

“With arthouse films it’s really difficult to get people to go to the cinema.

“Because you don’t have such famous actors and you don’t have such a big budget for public relations – for commercials and all this stuff.

“Also I think there are many levels of arthouse films.

“There are films that want to go A film festivals and they are cruel, because they know that the people in the audience, all the selectors, want something like that.”

So the films are made with the programme selectors in mind, basically?

“Some of them definitely. Yes.”

How can you tell that? You said they can be cruel, for example.

“Yeah, there are some themes…

“I remember we were at the Les Arcs Film Festival in France, where we were presenting, I think, 10 minutes from the cut.

“Also there was a film about a boy who’s trying to be a girl and there is one scene where he cuts his penis.

“There was lots of emotion during these 10 minutes and immediately I knew, and so did my producer, OK, this is a Cannes film.

'A Certain Kind of Silence', photo: Aerofilms
“And of course it was in Cannes. It’s called Girl.

“So there are some films which want to shock.

“I think there are projects which you can say in the beginning, with the theme, OK, this is a festival film which will win something.”

After A Certain Kind of Silence what’s next for you Michal?

“I think I should make a comedy [laughs].

“Sometimes during a screening of our film at a cinema there is silence the whole film and you don’t know if it works or not.

“Also the world is not that full of dramas all the time and there are lots of dramas in films.

“So I would love to make an intelligent comedy.”