Directing the 2020 Netflix miniseries Unorthodox won Maria Schrader a Primetime Emmy. The star actress is back behind the camera for Ich bin dein Mensch (I’m Your Man), which premiered in Competition at this year’s Berlinale. It’s screening at this year’s Berlinale Summer Special and gets a theatrical release on July 1 in newly reopened cinemas.
Starring Maren Eggert and Dan Stevens, it’s a fantastic, high-concept romcom that transcends the genre’s usual tropes by wrestling with themes of longing and individuality in relationships. Eggert was awarded the first gender-neutral acting award for Leading Performance and it stands as one of our top picks of this year’s Berlinale Summer Special.
We talked to Maria Schrader about her new film, portraying Berlin on screen and how she balances acting and directing.
In I’m Your Man, you tell the story of a woman who embarks on an experiment: a relationship with a lifelike android. What drew you to this story?
It was actually the simple pitch of my agent: “Woman meets robot”. This is perhaps nothing new, but I immediately thought of a love story, but a strange one, an encounter of the third kind. I liked that it’s such a simple situation: a woman meets a man, but he’s not a man, he’s a machine. What kind of encounter can that be? What can love look like in the future? We wanted to tell this in a comedic way and at the same time raise questions that often go unanswered or that we don’t have the answers to yet.
You’ve been very busy lately, with your Golden Globe-nominated and Emmy Award-winning miniseries Unorthodox and the digital Berlinale in March. When did work on I’m Your Man begin?
We were very lucky to shoot it in August and September 2020. We wrote the first draft before Unorthodox, which was in 2018. I’m Your Man was originally conceived of as a TV movie and was supposed to happen very quickly. But it soon became clear that it could be a film for the cinema and that we would need more time. In parallel, there were meetings for Unorthodox. You often don’t know exactly what can be filmed and what will be released first. A project always has to be strong enough to commit to it indefinitely. Netflix agreed on Unorthodox at the end of 2018, and a year later the series was ready! Then it came out in March 2020, during the first Corona lockdown. It’s always quite a hectic and unpredictable process.
The main character in I’m Your Man, Alma, is played by Maren Eggert, who is best known to German audiences from the series Tatort, as well as her work with actor/director Angela Schanelec. What made her the right choice for the part?
Alma is perhaps a kind of alter ego. She’s a woman about my age who lives in Berlin, who is very busy with her work. When I was writing, I had no idea who should play her. We did a casting and I was simply enchanted by the way Maren Eggert approached the character of Alma. She was funny yet vulnerable, and she can quickly switch from funny to severe, from chaos to discipline. Sometimes also coldness, which I found exciting. She reminded me of Katharine Hepburn in that way. In the end, however, there is always a little mystery when it comes to casting, a magic that’s kind of like falling in love.
Alma seems as if she’s done with love when we first meet her, and she never falls into romcom stereotypes of a person desperately seeking “the one”.
She has a relationship behind her and she lives alone. But this is not an active retreat. She is lucky enough to find fulfilment in different areas of her life. This is the life of many women around me, and many people tend to jump to conclusions and project: if they live alone, they are either disappointed in love or desperate for it. No man who is single in a film is asked about his second half, who is either missing or cheating on him. You don’t even get to do that, because he is usually entrusted with big tasks like saving the world.
She’s crucially not defined by her relationship status and values her autonomy…
That’s true. She has a job that makes her happy, but also knows longing and loneliness, like we all do. I just object to people judging women in films by the presence or absence of a man. I often hear that Alma is a modern female figure – I think she is normally contradictory and complex, but perhaps film characters have yet to catch up to our reality, so with that in mind, she is indeed a modern character.
The Berlin in which Alma lives is also modern. What did you have in mind when approaching the way the city looks on screen?
Similar to Unorthodox, it was a nice creative task to tackle: What portrait of Berlin are we telling? We were very lucky that the Futurium and the Pergamon Museum opened their doors to us as the first team to film inside. And there’s a contrast between these buildings and the ones in Alma’s private life, which are rather modest and somewhat undefined. It’s not a bourgeois old building with stucco and high ceilings, but instead a prefabricated building that still has an urban romanticism because of the great view.
I have been living in Berlin since before the fall of the Wall. During this time, I have always been disturbed by architectural decisions, such as Potsdamer Platz. You can find 100 different faces of this city, especially when you consider streaming content, when you see ‘criminalised streets’ in Dogs of Berlin. We wanted to paint a different and inviting picture of Berlin, which is then sent around the world by Netflix. It was a conscious departure from the usual architecture towards Hans Scharoun, who wanted to create a communicative and democratic cultural centre around the Philharmonie in the 1960s.
You’re best known to international audiences for playing the role of Lenora Rauch in Deutschland 83/86/89, the first German-language series broadcast on US television, and I’m Your Man is your fifth film behind the camera. How have you found juggling both your acting and directing hats?
At first, I only wanted to be an actress. I decided that when I was 14, after my first encounter with theatre. But recently it came back to me that I was already reading plays for the theatre club to make suggestions to the teachers. Even then I was interested in what a stage set could look like – I made drawings and probably had a more far-reaching creative interest earlier than I thought. To this day I sometimes ask myself what I’d rather do, act or direct. During the shooting of Unorthodox, I was still playing performances of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in Hamburg, and during the editing I was shooting Deutschland 89. Sometimes I thought that it might be too much, but in truth it gave me strength and I don’t want to do without one or the other. I haven’t acted for over a year for the first time and I miss it.
There’s currently more care and attention given to gender roles in art. How have you experienced this development in the theatre and film world, as both a performer and director?
I have definitely experienced the theatre and the film world as male dominated and have had countless experiences that I don’t think men share. I have encountered mistrust in taking the step to direct, in taking on a position of control. I would say that this was also gender-based mistrust. I also realised that I had internalised these social attributions, more than I thought. The difficulties were also within myself, and that brings us to a fundamental issue. Women grow up differently to this day. The self-confidence that the world is waiting for with our voices is not something we are born with, at least not my generation. I’m in favour of quotas, because in the world of work, new realities must first be structurally installed so that they can be tested and become a matter of course.
I’m Your Man screened in Competition at this year’s Berlinale, and is showing on the following dates at the Berlinale Summer Special: 12/06 – 21.45 Friedrichshain / 14/06 – 18.45 Museumsinsel / 15/06 – 21.45 Biesdorf. It is released in cinemas on July 1.